Know Your Place: Elvis Presley and the New York Times

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The New York Times is something of a strange old bird, with very clear ideas of what it likes, what it doesn’t like, and what it approves and does not approve of.   For the most part, Elvis Presley falls into the latter.  Even on the day after Presley’s death, the newspaper seemed to struggle to say something positive about the singer.  In a lengthy piece, Molly Ivans concentrated not on Presley’s singing or his long list of hit records, but his movies and live appearances.  She portrays him as a has-been who “was once the object of” adulation.  She says he made 28 films (an incorrect figure), “nearly all of them second-rate” and says that  Love Me Tender opened to “unanimous jeers from the critics”.[i]  There is a concentration on his lifestyle, his weight and his diet , with those pesky peanut butter and banana sandwiches getting their almost obligatory mention.

But what exactly was it that the newspaper didn’t like about Presley?  Well, the basic reason appears to be that it saw Elvis as a charlatan, as someone who tried very hard to be something he was not.  I co-wrote an article (with Mark Jancovich) last year on the newspaper’s treatment of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and the conclusion of that article fits the paper’s view of Presley very well:  “The problem was not films or stars (such as Karloff) that knew they place but rather those (such as Lugosi) with [pretentions of] the middlebrow”.[ii]  I should explain this further by saying that Karloff was viewed by the paper as knowing his place and not taking either himself or his films particularly seriously.  Meanwhile Lugosi was viewed as someone who took himself much too seriously and was therefore derided for trying to be something he wasn’t.  And it is a similar stance that the paper takes with Presley.

Let’s take this examination back to (nearly) the beginning, and the now famous article by Jack Gould reviewing Presley’s notorious appearance on The Milton Berle Show in 1956.  Already there are references to Presley’s perceived pretension.  Gould writes that Presley was “attired in the familiar oversize jacket and open shirt which are almost the uniform of the contemporary youth who fancies himself as terribly sharp”. [iii]  Already we can see that the stance is being taken that the singer is a nobody attempting to be a somebody (“fancies himself as terribly sharp”).  In fact, Gould believes that Presley is only good at the “hootchy-kootchy” but then adds that is “hardly any reason why he should be billed as a vocalist”.

A similar theme is continued by Bosley Crowther in his review of Love Me Tender.  Iwans has already told us the film was jeered at by critics and, in the case of Crowther, she isn’t lying.  Crowther, always one for an impressive turn of phrase, writes that “the picture itself is a slight case of horse opera with the heaves, and Mr Presley’s dramatic contribution is not a great deal more impressive than that of the slavering nags”.[iv]  How’s that for a put-down?   Loving You, from the following year, is hardly welcomed with open arms either.   “Does Elvis sing?” the writer asks. “More of less” is his answer.[v]  There is a tendency in these film reviews to poke fun at Presley’s mannerisms and country-boy persona:  “’Uh need somebody,’ he informs the smitten young Dolores Hart, squinting over her shoulder (probably towards the nearest exit).”

Bearing this in mind it seems rather ironic that it is in Presley’s most ambitious film (king Creole) that he receives a good review for his performance.  Presumably it was rather a surprise for reviewer Howard Thompson as well, as he starts his review with the words “As the lad himself might say, cut my legs off and call me Shorty!  Elvis Presley can act”.[vi]  To be fair, it is Presley’s director and co-stars who gets most of Thompson’s adoration, but at least he is afforded with a compliment of doing a “good, convincing walk-through” of his part.

This isn’t the only positive article on Presley in the NYT in the 1950s, either.  John S Wilson wrote a lengthy article in January 1957 praising Presley’s first two albums, and states that they show he has “an impressive, if sometimes distorted, talent.”[vii]  He gives particular praise to Long Tall Sally, So Glad You’re Mine and Anyplace Is Paradise.   Despite this, a later article by the same writer refers to Presley’s singing as a “piercing yawp.”[viii]  I don’t know what a “yawp” is, but it sounds painful and might require medical treatment.

The New York Times had a similar view of Presley during the 1970s, and again often insinuates that Presley was trying to be something he wasn’t.   There is also a recurrent theme of Presley as a money-making machine.  The review of the Legendary Performer album from 1974 accuses the album of being just another compilation “tricked out” with the booklet and a “listing of his barefoot-boy-made-good career”.[ix]  Note once again the seeming animosity at the country boy not knowing his place in the world, and trying to “make good”.

There is also a scathing review of Elvis on Tour in which the writer suggests that the directors were “inhibited by the magnitude of their latest subject, Elvis Presley.  Or perhaps – dare I say? – his minitude.”[x]  Once again, there are assertions that Presley is simply surrounding himself in paraphernalia in order to look better than he actually is.  He is “fancily” photographed.  There are “split-screen frills”.  Elvis wears a “rhinestone-studded Batman costume” and is deemed not worthy of the 2001 opening.   Likewise, the arrangements of the On Stage album are considered in a review to be more “appropriate to a Las Vegas production of the Old Testament”. [xi]  Just as unflattering is the review of Elvis Now, in which Elvis is accused of singing “continuously out of tune” on Hey Jude (I wouldn’t actually disagree with that!), and that “he doesn’t really understand the phrasing it requires”. [xii]  In other words, he is attempting to sing something he really isn’t capable of.

Once again, there are a few decent comments scattered about amongst the pages of the NYT in the 1970s (other than the famous review of the Madison Square Garden concert).  A review of a Nassau Coliseum  concert from 1975 finds the singer’s youthful sexuality gone, but “in its place there is a wonderfully relaxed, ironic affection that can be almost as nice”.[xiii]  The writer also finds him in better form than two years earlier at the same venue, where he was “fat, lazy and ineffectual”.

The idea that the newspaper is most critical of people trying to rise above their station, or attempting to be something they are not, is verified in the reviews of the 1960s movies.  In his review of G I Blues, Bosley Crowther is pleased to see that Presley has turned into “such a fine young man”.[xiv]  Crowther likes the film because it is unpretentious, and it is pretention that troubles the NYT and its writers so much.   The somewhat more pretentious Wild in the Country, for example, is classed by the same writer as a “sentimental lot of nonsense”. [xv]  However, the straightforward musicals that many of us now condemn were often given favourable comments.  Kid Galahad is rather ridiculed, but “for a film about a singing prize-fighter (which is silly enough) it will do”.[xvi]  Howard Thompson tells us of Roustabout that there are “worse things than an Elvis Presley movie – far worse.”[xvii]  The same author comments that “coming on a balmy day, with no pretensions of art, ‘Viva Las Vegas’, the new Elvis Presley vehicle, is about as pleasant and unimportant as a banana split.”[xviii]

So, the treatment of Presley by the New York Times is not all that different from other stars that it saw as style (or ambition) over substance.  When these stars tried to be taken seriously (and we can assume that Presley’s grandiose entrances and lavish costumes of the 1970s fit into that category – at least according to the NYT), then they would be looked down upon as not knowing their place and of being pretentious.  But, when Presley was making his series of cheap and cheerful, unassuming movies in the 1960s he was (maybe a little grudgingly) welcomed, and by the time of the mid-1960s these films were treated like old friends – familiarity really didn’t breed contempt in this instance.  The NYT was happy – Presley was just a likeable, unassuming young guy with relatively little talent (in their opinion) who had found his place in a string of banal but pleasurable films – films with no pretention of high art whatsoever.


[i] Iwans, Molly.  “Elvis Presley Dies; Rock Singer was 42”.  NYT.  August 17, 1977, p. 43

[ii] Jancovich, Mark and Brown, Shane.  “’The Screen’s Number One and Number Two Bogeymen’: The Critical Reception of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in the 1930s and 1940s”.  In Kate Egan and Sarah Thomas (Eds) Cult Film Stardom:  Offbeat Attractions and Processes of Cultification.  London: Palgrave MacMillan (2012).

[iii] Gould, Jack.  “TV:  New Phenomenon” NYT.  June 6, 1956, p. 67

[iv] Crowther, Bosley.  “The Screen:  Culture Takes a Holiday”.  NYT.  November 16, 1956, p. 22

[v] H.H.T.  “Elvis Presley Meets Success in ‘Loving You’” NYT.  July 18, 1957, p?

[vi] Thompson, Howard.  “Actor with Guitar”.  NYT.  July 4, 1958, p. 15

[vii] Wilson, John S.  “Elvis Presley:  Rocking Blues Shouter”.  NYT.  January 13, 1957, p. X16.

[viii] Wilson, John S. “What Makes ‘Pop’ Music Popular?”  NYT.  December 8, 1957, p. SM13.

[ix] Dove, Ian.  “Elvis Presley ‘Legend’ Presented Anew”.  NYT.  January 16, 1974.

[x] Canby, Vincent.  “Screen:  Elvis on Tour”.  NYT.  June 7, 1973.

[xi] Heckman, Don.  “Presley’s Back, The Nice are Leaving”.  NYT.  August 30, 1970.

[xii] Heckman, Don.  “Presley – Has the Rocker Become a Crooner” NYT.  March 12, 1972.

[xiii] Rockwell, John.  “Presley Treats Fans to His Best”.  NYT.  July 21, 1975.

[xiv] Crowther, Bosley.  “Screen: Elvis – A Reformed Wriggler”.  NYT.  November 20, 1960.

[xv] Crowther, Bosley.  “Screen: Presley is a Problem Again”.  NYT.  June 10, 1961

[xvi] Crowther, Bosley. “Screen: A Ferocious Elvis Presley”. NYT.  March 7, 1963.

[xvii] Thompson, Howard.  “Elvis Presley stars in ‘Roustabout’”. NYT.  November 11, 1964.

[xviii] Thompson, Howard. “Elvis Presley Teams with Ann-Margret”.  NYT.  May 21, 1964.

Johnny Cash 1970-86: A Re-evaluation

Prior to 2012, just a handful of the many albums recorded and released by Johnny Cash during the final decade and a half of his tenure with Columbia records had made it to CD.  Despite this, Cash had entered the 1970s with his popularity at an all-time high following the success of the two prison live albums and his TV series.  What’s more, Cash was as prolific during the period 1970 to 1986 as he had ever been, releasing over 30 albums.  So, why is the second half of Cash’s years at Columbia so neglected?

One of the answers might lie in Cash alienating some of his listeners, particularly during the early 1970s.  Ever since the move from Sun to Columbia, Cash had recorded a vast amount of gospel and sacred music, most of which would have been palatable even to non-believers.  However, starting around 1970 there were a few years when the religious material took on a new fervor that is often hard to swallow.  The Man In Black album opens with The Preacher Said “Jesus Said”.  Not only does the song have a rather awkward title, it’s like tuning in to the audio equivalent of the God cable TV channel. This isn’t Cash singing hymns or gospel music, this is Cash literally preaching to his audience – and he even brought in Billy Graham to help him.

The same album is even concluded with I Talk to Jesus Every Day, which is slightly less in-your-face, but is still enough to make many reach for the stop button before the album has concluded naturally.   A similar, preacher-like number, Here Was A Man was included at the end of the Johnny Cash Show album, which featured performances from the TV series.   Worse was to follow in the self-indulgent double-LP soundtrack to Cash’s The Gospel Road documentary.

Perhaps these types of numbers would have been easier to swallow had they not so often been coupled with tracks that found cash not just in sentimental, but saccharine mode.   Is there anything more vomit-enducing than, The Greatest Love Affair, the final track of The Baron LP?  Or the well-meaning-but-awful No Charge from Look at them Beans.  Cash had always had a penchant for these types of songs, but prior to the 1970s he had always managed to tread a thin line between putting over a sweet sentiment and making the listener want to hurl.

But what of the rest of Cash’s vast amount of recordings from this era?  Is it worthy of re-evaluation?  The answer is a resounding “yes”.  The road from 1970 to 1986 was a rocky one, and Cash fell over a few times along the way, but there is some really great music here amongst the saccharine and the mundane.

Look at them Beans (was there ever a worse title for an album?) opens with one of Cash’s greatest studio recordings, for example.  That opening track, Texas-1947, fits the singer like a glove.  Cash was a natural storyteller, and here he gets to do that with spoken verses and a wonderful, exciting chorus with Cash in total command, sounding like he’s having a ball.   Likewise, The Ballad of Barbara on The Last Gunfighter Ballad is a wonderful, catchy original that is well-produced and again finds Cash telling a story as only he can.  The title song of The Baron only works because of the great performance – the story of the song is predictable and manipulative, but Cash makes it work so well that it was the inspiration of a TV movie a few years later.   Cash also made mistakes – My Old Kentucky Home from John R Cash might have had acceptable lyrics in 1975, but in 2013 a song in which wife-beating is almost celebrated leaves something of a bitter aftertaste.

Despite his declining popularity during these years, Cash’s enthusiasm for what he did never seemed to wane, and he had a knack for finding great songs and making them his own.  There is a wonderful clip of him on The Late Show with David Letterman in which he enthuses about Here Comes That Rainbow Again, a song by Kris Kristofferson he had just recorded, before going on to sing it.   Seven years earlier he had successfully turned the Jagger and Richards song No Expectations into a Cash special on the lovely Gone Girl album.  His recording of the country standard Song for the Life from the same album remains the best version of the song and is still intensely moving.  He even took Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman and gave it the gravitas that Springsteen’s own recording lacked.

While some of the albums of the period are workmanlike, they are not dull and Cash always seems to be engaged.  He was also willing to take chances.  His album The Rambler  is almost a stage monologue interrupted by songs.  It fails as an album, but it is still a fascinating record and includes a couple of a very good songs, including Calilou.   Even each of the live albums of the period were memorable.  The 1972 prison album recorded in Sweden contains one of Cash’s very best performances in the intensely moving Jacob Green about a young man who kills himself after being arrested and thrown into jail for possession.  The 1975 live album Strawberry Cake is a much more relaxed affair, and even includes the theatre being evacuated due to a bomb scare.  And The Survivors finds Cash introducing Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins as surprise guests – and both are on superb form.

If there is a problem with Cash’s 1970-86 recordings, it is that there are too many of them.  Had some of the more mundane tracks been put to one side, and the albums been put together with the view of quality over quantity, we would be discussing some really classic albums.  One could even make the comparison with Elvis Presley – there is some great material on his 70s albums, but there is also some dross that was included in order to make more product.  But there is a significant difference – Elvis was recording that much because his contract made him, whereas Cash seemingly recorded because he got enjoyment from it, as is shown by the fact that he left behind numerous recordings from the period that were never even released at the time.   Cash himself sang “some were for the money, and some were for myself”, and that is something which comes through on these recordings – recordings that don’t deserve the neglect they have suffered for thirty years.

Reconsider Baby: Elvis Presley and the Dangers of the Posthumous Album

 

 

Elvis-Presley-Elvis-In-Concert

 

In June, 1977, just a couple of months before his death at the age of 42, Elvis Presley released his last non-posthumous album.  Moody Blue was a strange mish-mash of songs that had been recorded in various locations over the last three and a quarter years.  The six studio cuts had been recorded at Graceland in February and October 1976 and, with it proving impossible to get Presley back into the studio to complete the album, producer Felton Jarvis took a four-track recorder on tour, hoping to capture on tape decent performances of songs that Elvis had not recorded before.  He knew this was unlikely to happen (Presley’s live performances had become erratic and often lifeless by this stage) and Jarvis would “discard virtually every recording he had out of fear that releasing performances this poor could only be detrimental to Elvis’s career” (Jorgensen, 1998: 407-8),  but still managed to record three “new” Elvis songs.  The album was completed by transposing a recording already issued in 1974 onto the new record.  Moody Blue was ultimately a strangely compelling record and while Presley is clearly heard to be an artist in decline, he comes across over the ten tracks as a man who was down but not yet out.  Two months after the release of Moody Blue, Presley was dead and, later that year, the seemingly never-ending stream of posthumous records would begin.  However, if Felton Jarvis, his record producer, had struggled to release material of good enough quality during Presley’s lifetime, how would the world’s view of the artist be changed in the decades to come as literally hundreds of hours of unreleased outtakes, private recordings and live concerts made their way into the market place, and would Presley’s name and legacy be damaged or changed as a result?

The first posthumous album was also, arguably, the most damaging.  During Presley’s last tour in June 1977, he was filmed for a CBS TV Special.  That special, Elvis in Concert (Dwight Hemion), would air in America in October 1977 and was accompanied by a double album of material from the two shows that were edited together to make up the TV special, including material which was deemed unfit for broadcast.  Presley’s biographer, Peter Guralnick, describes the footage from the first of the two recorded shows as “almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror” (Guralnick, 1999: 638).  The album itself is poor, with Presley clearly struggling both for breath and for vocal tone, but it is the television special that has lived long in public memory, showing as it does an overweight, struggling, often seemingly-disoriented Elvis.  It’s worth noting that the album release (pictured at the top of this post) used no pictures from the special, but images of a healthy looking Elvis from a few years before.  The special has never been repeated or issued officially on home video, although small sections have found their way into documentaries.  Even so, those images have never been forgotten.  Photographs from it have appeared in books to represent Elvis in his last years, the show has been bootlegged many times, and it is available in complete form on Youtube.

Other posthumous releases of “new” material followed over the next two decades, all of them more flattering than Elvis In Concert and mostly made up of live material, alternate takes, private recordings (often in poor sound), rehearsals and, occasionally, forgotten master takes of songs that had never been released before.  In the late 1990s, a new label was set up specifically for collectors.  It was called Follow That Dream (FTD), named after a Presley film of 1962.  Since its inception, the label has issued over a hundred releases (some of them double CDs) and nearly all containing a large percentage of officially unreleased material.

Many of these releases have been in the “Classic Album” series.  These are double disc sets, featuring the original album in its original running order, followed by bonus material, mostly made up of alternate takes.  To class many of the albums released in this series as “classic” seems something of a misnomer.  For example, Love Letters From Elvis, released in 1971, was arguably his weakest non-soundtrack album to date, is made-up of leftovers from a mammoth recording session the year before which had already yielded two albums, and is memorable less for Presley’s singing than for the peculiar overdubs which makes the album sound as much like elevator music as an album by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Despite these shortcomings, the album has been treated to the “classic album” format in which a number of the songs are heard in five or six different alternate takes each.  A minor album in Presley’s legacy is therefore being elevated to “classic” status within this series – but does this in turn skew our view of Presley’s really classic work?  While a reissue such as this is clearly intended for fans and only sold through selected outlets, these CDs still make their way into the mainstream through second-hand items being sold on websites such as Ebay or Amazon Marketplace or even through illegal downloads such as torrents.  What is intended solely for the fan domain does not necessarily stay there.

If the treatment of the studio albums complicates our view of Presley’s legacy, then FTD’s endless stream of live recordings from the 1970s does so even more.  Ernst Jorgensen, the man primarily responsible for the label’s releases has stated: “We will eventually release a show from every Vegas or Tahoe season, and most tours – of course limited by the fact that there’s a lot that we don’t have”.[1]  This has resulted in a number of concerts being released that find Elvis in less than stellar form.  An example of this was the 2003 release of Dragonheart, a soundboard recording of a concert from October 1, 1974.  One fan wrote of the release: “one of the weakest concerts of 1974… I was surprised how flat his singing was, listen to Bridge over troubled water, he heardly [sic] can hold a note, it seems he is running out of air”.[2]  Another fan writes that “the songs on this CD show Elvis’ erratic behaviour he’s trying too hard a lot of the time and it’s not working, his voice is all over the place [sic].”  This is not to say that all fans felt the same way, and a number were quite defensive, with one writing:  “I love the new Dragonheart release, and if you don’t… fair enough, but keep your crappy comments to yourself.”

But Dragonheart was the tip of the iceberg.  Since then a number of other concerts showing Elvis in even worse form have seen the light of day officially.  New Haven ’76 comes from what one reviewer calls a “dreadful” tour and features a moment where “Assesing [sic] his own poor state Elvis says he’ll do a medley of his records next, but whether he can or not is a different matter” (McDonnell, 2009).  Similarly, a fan says of the 2011 release of Amarillo ’77 that “Elvis should have been in a hospital … In other words: Elvis should not have stepped on stage in 1977. Then we would not have had this album and, that to say it mildly, that would not be such a great loss”.[3]

FTD is in a no-win situation.  The vast majority of the concerts that it has access to were recorded during Presley’s final few years and so those years are going to be over-represented.  On one hand, many fans will continue to lap up every second of new Elvis material but, on the other, how are these releases affecting the way we and future generations will view Elvis and his recorded legacy?  While the FTD releases are aimed solely at the collector and even the poor performances can be seen as filling in part of the Presley story, with today’s technology these recordings are not staying solely within the fan domain.  Many have found their way onto Youtube, for example, and remain there in complete form.  Just because fans are clamouring for every second of Elvis that survives on tape (and the record company in turn is clamouring for their money), does that mean that his every utterance, every flat note and every dreadful on stage performance should be at their disposal? The effects that these releases will have on how Presley will be viewed in the future is something we are unable to gauge at this stage, but we can start debating the rights and wrongs of them.  The Elvis Presley story is a tragedy, but are these releases slowly but surely robbing him of his dignity?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Guralnick P (1999) Careless Love.  The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.  London:  Abacus.

Jorgensen E (1998) Elvis Presley:  A Life in Music.  The Complete Recording Sessions.  New York:  St Martin’s Press.

McDonnell G (2009) Review – Elvis: New Haven ’76 FTD CD.  In: Elvis Australia. Available at:  http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/reviews/review_elvis_new_haven_1976.shtml


[1] From an interview for the For Elvis CD Collectors website, date unknown.  http://www.elvis-collectors.com/askernst4.html

[2] These comments come from the very active For Elvis CD Collectors forums:  http://www.elvis-collectors.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2135&hilit=dragonheart