rock and roll

Stagecoach to Somewhere – Such A Night – Memphis Recording Service

Memphis Recording ServiceIf 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

Elvis arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii

Elvis arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii

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.  He was a singer and nothing more, they argue.   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 uncompromised.   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 quite similar.

But, in 1961, his exceptional powers gave him an edge.  The early shows were rehearsed and perhaps prepared with the same calculation.  Elvis did not deviate from the song list that he 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’.

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

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 if it often unnerves those with the actual talent.




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If you want to listen to the CD, Such a Night, click here.


Elvis Presley Challenge No. 55 – Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington


Somewhere and at some time, jazz has to be mentioned.   Surely there cannot be a jazz musician more important than Duke Ellington.  He wrote a thousand compositions and that word is used because the term songs is inadequate.   His efforts include concertos and extended pieces.  The music flowed out of his brain, almost without interruption.   If that was not enough, he knew how to lead a band.  His soloists, people like Johnny Hodges, were as adored as some of the other band leaders.   Ellington also had the ability to compose for his soloists.   This helped them stay loyal.

The truth is that Duke Ellington makes a poor comparison for Elvis.  Ellington was cool and sophisticated but also disciplined.   The nearest equivalent to Ellington in rock music is probably Bob Dylan whose catalogue is so extensive that at times it appears to exhaust even him.  Dylan appears in public and the frail figure now looks drained by his achievements.  Ellington was different.  He was calm and charming, a man blessed with good looks and social authority.  Dylan has become haunted like Ezra Pound.

Duke Ellington and James StewartWhen James Stewart in the classic movie, ‘Anatomy Of Murder’, sits on the piano next to Ellington the scene makes this viewer uncomfortable.   It is not that it is barely credible that an amateur pianist will share a piano with Ellington.   As Hitchcock used to say, ‘It is only a movie’.  The scene disturbs in a way which is almost gothic, almost horror.   Something is wrong and like a bad dream it needs to be over soon.  His musical genius is entitled to personal space which should be left intact and not invaded by silliness and wrongheaded error.  Those sympathetic to the talent of Elvis watch his 29 movies with the same squeamishness.  Why is he being molested in this way?  We all know why, of course.  Money is important which is why so many of these challenges have drifted into politics.

But few jazz aficionados have sympathy for Elvis.  Compared to their giants, he was crude and unmusical.   He insisted Louis and Bingon immediate gratification and relief.   All the genres of American music have strengths and weaknesses.  Jazz is in hock to the saxophone and rock has the same obsession with the guitar.   In the film, ‘High Society’, Louis Armstrong teams with Bing Crosby on ‘And Now You Has Jazz.’  This fabulous record has a good tune and great performances, but in the final verse, when the song needs to swing at a higher level, it unashamedly quotes rock and roll.   The two genres exist because our nature requires both.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

The music critic, Henry Pleasants , does find a figure in jazz comparable to Elvis but it is not Duke Ellington.  His choice is Louis Armstrong.   He describes the two as exceptional talents whose instincts and intuition led American music to previously unimagined glories.   Pleasants argues that as great as both were neither required a long a career to achieve their possibilities.  Elvis sang and Louis blew and that was all we needed to hear.  Ellington like Dylan had a talent that produced song after song.  These were artists whose lives were essential for the realisation of their talent.   For Elvis and Armstrong their lives are almost irrelevant.   Louis covered the Edith Piaf song ’La Vie En Rose’ and Elvis warbled ‘Santa Lucia’.   Neither appears to have had any interest in the cultures that produced these songs.  When Ellington extended his range beyond his roots we assumed that he was expressing an aspect of a complex character.

Unfortunately, it is easy to confuse focus and purpose with destiny.  The outcomes for these performers were not solely determined by the nature of the talent.   A songwriter, especially one who is prolific, will have an autonomy that enables continued realisation.  Yet there are too many songwriters who have failed at longevity for us to assert that it Elvisis a talent that always enables continual discovery.   We can understand why Pleasants and many others have assumed that Elvis could only sing brilliantly for so long without repeating himself.  But Elvis had to endure self-inflicted physical decline and a team that encouraged him not to be creative.  Even with these restrictions his music took different directions.   He has endured.   Both Armstrong and Elvis could reinvent songs and make them special.  They also inspired the musicians around them.  Such attributes ensure longevity.  Indeed, both musicians made music all their lives.  The deterioration in quality that the critics detect was caused by their inability to overcome commercial compromises and retain integrity.  This is the gift that Dylan and Ellington had and which has inspired many other musicians to imitate their approach.  Without the talent of Dylan and Ellington these musicians have sometimes exposed themselves badly.    Pedestals especially when self-built can topple easily.

Duke Ellington is an exceptional figure.  He combines curiosity and authenticity and his music has roots that can reduce subsequent innovation by others to inconsequential affectation.  His brilliant version of ‘Fings Ain’t What They Duke EllingtonUsed To Be’ not only anticipates later jazz minimalism but also echoes with the blues.  It exists as a warning against future pretenders.  Plenty of jazz enthusiasts will claim that after Duke Ellington no one needs Elvis.

But, as Bing realised on ‘And Now You Has Jazz’, rock and roll has always had a carefree potential beyond jazz.  It is a special talent that can combine the two and it is worth suggesting that it is a talent rooted in instinct and exuberance rather than cerebral invention.   This is why Bing needed Louis Armstrong on ‘Now You Has Jazz’ and why Elvis was unable to sidestep his potential in this area.  Those who doubt that Elvis could not have combined jazz with rock and roll need to listen to his version of ‘Such A Night’ especially the last verse and the cool Mel Torme impression.

Fans will argue not unreasonably that jazz has more scope for improvisation.   Although true, Elvis pioneered repeating songs in the studio until he found the right groove.   He rarely sings a song the same way twice.   Some years ago, a book of photographs appeared that had been taken in a French nightclub.  Elvis appears posing alongside women who could well be prostitutes although some have teeth that suggest limited earning potential.   One of the women was later interviewed for the book.  She claims she told Elvis that she did not like his music and that she preferred jazz.  Elvis ignored the insult.  ‘It’s not that different to rock and roll really.’  And he is right; much is similar, especially jazz that has strong roots in the blues.   Of course, we have to be careful with what Elvis says.  When not in nightclubs he has told people that he does not understand jazz.   And yet he is one of the few rock and roll singers who, when carried away with a song, will scat his way through the tune, jazz style.  He actually does it on his very first record, ‘That’s All Right’.  Since his death, the record collection of Elvis has been revealed.  Gospel and rhythm and blues dominate.  Included is a Duke Ellington album, not the big band but the quartet.   It may even be the one that includes ‘Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be.’  No wonder we wonder.


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