Elvis Presley and the triumph and tragedy of his record albums.



Never give a revisionist encouragement should be written on posters on the walls of history departments.   If the saying exists, it is being ignored by Sony and BMG.  This is the company responsible for the recorded catalogue of Elvis Presley.  ‘Elvis At Stax’ is the almost new box set that attempts to persuade us that in 1973, four years before his death, Elvis was a performer not only with his powers intact but an artist with a bold vision.  If only, it suggests, the music had been presented properly.

No doubt, RCA botched the release of Presley material in the 70s and for much of his career, although when Elvis was at his peak in the 50s, early 60s and 1969 their sabotage had little effect on what was in those particular years an irresistible conqueror.   Elvis changed and because of ill health and personal weaknesses declined as a performer.  The music of the 70s cannot be ignored but to make impossible claims for an artist and sensitive soul losing his fight against real demons can only dismiss the real achievements in his career.   It also sidesteps the tragedy and excuses the culpable.  This does not mean that ‘Elvis At Stax’ is not essential listening.  We are talking about Elvis and the real Elvis, not the trilby Scouse phoney who exists as unnecessary blight on ‘Treme’ the TV series about New Orleans and Katrina.   Elvis was in pain in 1973 or, if you are being uncharitable, trouble.   If that means we hear a musician in the outtakes who is far from strong and energetic, it also means we have the desolation of ‘Loving Arms’ and ‘There’s A Honky Tonk Angel’.   Both records make a powerful statement. Loss, failure, disillusionment and self-destruction may be universal but widespread existence does nothing to mitigate the mystery and consequence.

It is doubtful that ‘Elvis At Stax’ would persuade anyone not previously convinced to become an Elvis fan.  But we sometimes begin obsessions in the oddest places.   My affection for country music only truly began after hearing Marty Robbins sing ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’.  Now, I prefer country singers with a tougher edge.   The oddest records sometimes make a connection.   ‘It’s Midnight’ has a string arrangement that makes me cringe but there will be people who will be inspired by the no holds barred chorus, and that may be their beginning.  In the 60s, older hip fans were dismayed by the sanitised Elvis in ‘GI Blues’.  Younger listeners not yet old enough to worry about being hip or cool were seduced.   ‘My Boy’ is terrible tosh but no one can deny the power of the vocal and the ambition of the performer.  It also hints at his unrivalled ability to combine opposites. Elvis is prepared to fake his efforts on some of the songs. This is particularly evident on the unsuccessful first sessions in July and even in December when he recorded a lacklustre vocal for what could have been a great record, ‘If You Talk In Your Sleep’.    But there are also examples of effort that, in a performer weakened by ill health, almost constitutes heroism.  It is there in the chorus of ‘My Boy’ but also exists in the gospel rocker, ‘I Got A Feeling In My Body’, and the urgent ‘Promised Land’.  These records confirm that Elvis is not at his best but they only merit criticism if we insist on comparing the performances to when Elvis was young and supreme.

Unusually, the box set begins with the outtakes, which should make it clear to anyone that the package is aimed at fans and collectors.   The charming Elvis that existed in 1970 in the documentary ‘That’s The Way It Is’ has disappeared.   Most of the time, he is clearly affected by drugs.  Revealingly, he is more at ease singing than talking.  If on record, Elvis sounds damaged, in conversation he sounds a wreck.  I am not a fan of Felton Jarvis the producer.  He was not tough enough with either RCA or Elvis and had flawed taste.  This should not, though, deflect from the work that was done to produce a finished result.  In the circumstances, working with an indulged depressive who had physically weakened, Jarvis could have easily abandoned the project.  Jarvis stayed until the tragic end, and that is worth something even if Jarvis was part of the tragedy.

Because the more successful December sessions are contained on the final CD it is tempting to ignore the July Masters.  True, they contain stinkers like ‘Girl Of Mine’ and ‘Raised On Rock’ but the two Tony Joe White songs, ‘For Ol’ Times Sake’ and ‘I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby’ have appeal, and the former definitely benefits from the weakened state of Elvis.  The voice is ragged but so is the performer and it makes him a suitable narrator.  ‘Sweet Angeline’ is more tosh but the verse is exceptionally beautiful and is a reminder of what Elvis achieves when he is on form.  These brief sublime moments demonstrate that his 1970s music, though interesting, is a failure when compared to Elvis at his best. 

We should be wary, though, of making the comparison.  Music does not have to be the best to be valid.   In the December sessions Elvis was noticeably more focused which presumably means a hell of a lot less irritating.  The liner notes are accurate. Elvis was looking to broaden his palette and reach.  ‘Love Song Of The Year’ is especially resistible but when we hear the light girl chorus we do have a sense of an artist determined to add music not previously attempted.  This also happens with the simple country song ‘You Asked Me To’ with its roots in the American South West and the much more complicated ‘Thinking About You’ that features a weird bass line.

And yet, for all the fraying in his personality and the unsatisfied curiosity, there is something that remains firm in his identity.  The 18 songs that were recorded in December link to the 19 songs that emerged from the ‘Elvis Is Back’ sessions in 1960.  Both sets mix American roots music and pop.  The difference is that his voice is not as strong and that the pop elements have changed because of the times.  Also, his affection for the blues appears to have faded.   Why this happened is difficult to know.  We know he lost his ability to perform rock and roll because he admitted it. ‘I can’t do that stuff anymore.  I don’t know why.’  The same thing may have happened with the blues or maybe he despaired at the response to his live versions of ‘Reconsider Baby’.  The pop elements do weaken the December sessions.  ‘Your Love’s Been Long Time Coming’ and ‘Love Song Of The Year’ are both overblown and redundant.  Neither suggests the loss and bitter experience of ‘Loving Arms’.   But the first 12 songs he recorded in December, if released on an album in the sequence he recorded them, would have formed an album that, although flawed, would have been welcomed by fans and critics. Tracks 13 and 14, ‘Talk About The Good Times’ and ‘She Wears My Ring’, could have followed as a decent single.

Would that have altered the fate of Elvis?   We have to doubt.  Elvis went to his grave a great man that changed history but in 1973 he was on his way out.  He performed regularly and stubbornly for another four years before his heart attack.  The uneven but still essential music contained in this box set and the odd subsequent resistance means that even the critical can remain loyal.

Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here. 

Howard Jackson is on holiday. This is a reprise of an earlier blog. He will return with a new series of blogs next week.


BONUS 1 – SUCH A NIGHT – March 25 1961

If I am right, the Memphis Recording Service is a record label based in Europe.   During the last decade, when ‘Elvis The Concert’ has visited UK stadia, its publicity leaflets have appeared on the seats.   I hope it is European because it would make sense.    Everything about the label proclaims an obsessive desire for resolution, an insistence upon the ultimate truth.  Such obsessions usually take root at a remote distance.   For my generation, Elvis was the ultimate musical mystery, a performer of incomprehensible contradictions.  He was someone who not only used his talent to anoint himself with glory but a man who was reduced by a cynical abuse of his powers.  Elvis was somehow a sweet altar boy and a callous vampire.    And if that is not mystery enough, nobody can really say which came first or which finally prevailed, the pasty blood sucker or the pious innocent.   Perhaps it is always the same consequence for self-destruction, the path travelled leads to nowhere for the self.

‘Such A Night’ is a CD that recalls the benefit show that Elvis performed in March 1961 in Honolulu.  Included is a 100 page booklet which tells us everything we need to know about the context in which Elvis had to perform.  The extra material does not dwarf the concert on the CD but only because Elvis is fabulous.  He was not always so brilliant.  In some years he declined or relaxed or did both.  This package with its press clippings, the preview radio broadcast and photographs that even include the bombing of Pearl Harbour confirms how others were always ready to redefine Elvis whenever he slipped.  The preview radio broadcast constitutes 7 bonus tracks on the CD.  They are tracks taken from his gospel recordings and are all fine records.   But the context is everything, and the radio show reveals the crass vision of Parker and his determination to create the American conformist acceptable to everyone.  The music that announces this preview radio show is a self-important treacly mix of Mantovani and military patriotism.  It has nothing in common with the heartfelt humility of Elvis’ gospel music.  The announcer without any hint of credibility tells the audience that Parker has paid for the broadcast.  The cynical conservative version is understandable.  What baffles is how Parker thought it was appropriate for Elvis.  Surely he would have been embarrassed when Elvis appeared on stage in the gold lamé jacket to contradict the carefully planned apple pie publicity.

Apart from the carnage of Pearl Harbour, the 100 page booklet has plenty of decent photographs of Elvis.  One shows Elvis sitting on the side of the stage with Parker at the side watching.   Elvis looks like a free spirit let loose, someone who will be impossible to restrict.  Of course, it is merely a photograph of a man in a triumphant moment.  Parker is sinister and a man with designs but he is not impressive because he appears unable to comprehend.   And yet Parker prevailed, not Elvis.

Some argue that Elvis was neither great nor complex.  It is tempting because it dissipates the troubling mystery.  It has been claimed he was a singer and nothing more.   But this is nonsense.  We only have to look at a couple of photographs that show Elvis holding the microphone with one hand and pointing at the sky with the other.   I am not sure what Elvis means but the image has existential consequence.  This is only a photograph.   The real revelation is the CD and the concert.   In 1961, Elvis had the voice that seduced so many of us.  Later, in Vegas, he had a talent that persuaded many, including me, to stay loyal.    If both are admirable in different ways, it is the former that truly conquers.   The difference is evident on his performance of ‘All Shook Up’.   In Vegas, the song is a light rocker that might just persuade us to tap our toes.  This earlier version cracks like a whip, especially in the chorus when he sings the words ‘a love so fine’.   The Parker designed context may reduce his consequence and tarnish his image but here the talent of Elvis is not compromised.   In an odd way it is not difficult to compare this powerful Elvis with the later Vegas performer.  Both shows mix rockers and blues with ballads and gospel numbers.    He also combines his music and aggression with teasing and showmanship which he probably always did.  So, in his defence, the later shows do not represent the betrayal of his integrity that many claim.  The same man is still up there on stage making judgements that are similar.

But in 1961 his exceptional powers gave him an edge.  The early shows were rehearsed and perhaps prepared with the same calculation as those that followed in the early 1970s.  Elvis did not deviate from the song list that he had planned.    And yet there is a voice that is intimidated by nothing and this puts him and us in a special place.  It is elevating.  It would be wrong to say that in the later shows this never occurs but, when it occurs, it feels accidental.  When he is on form and when he is confident about the nature of his triumph his transcendence feels natural and inevitable.  There is the promise of permanence.  Elvis is uninhibited and intimate with his audience in a way that he rarely achieved in Las Vegas.  He not only sings ‘Reconsider Baby’ but begins it with a roar of approval that makes his passions clear to everyone.   He could simply be more enthusiastic but the listener is persuaded that his confidence is leading him to where he can exist at his triumphant best, his real but denied destiny, the audacious exaltation so many of us found irresistible.

Elvis has been criticised for stealing black music.  The critics argue that this makes him second rate but here his versions of the blues numbers make comparisons with the originals irrelevant.  What we have is personal experience being redefined by a fearless revolutionary.  Admittedly, it calms down before the end of the show and the wild creature rests and is settled by the sweet lyricism of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ and ‘It’s Now Or Never’ but the wildness will be the insistent memory.  In case anybody forgets, Elvis finishes with a very tough ‘Hound Dog’.

Orson Welles was asked to explain why he never matched the brilliance of his cinematic masterpiece, ‘Citizen Kane’.   He said it was difficult because, after such a triumph, you were obliged to only compete with yourself.  After the show in 1961, Elvis did not appear on stage for another 8 years.   The Elvis that emerged from retreat was often self-mocking and remote, sometimes insulated by drugs.  Many of those curious about why he was subsequently defensive failed to understand the fears that that made the older man inhibited.   The best explanation is found within Elvis and his own earlier brilliance.  ‘Such A Night’ reminds us again of why he once frightened so many people.  We should not be surprised how often it unnerves so many people.

Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.

Howard Jackson is on holiday. This is a reprise of an earlier blog. He will return with a new series of blogs the week after next.