Just published is the 2nd edition of my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide. It is available through Amazon in both paperback and kindle editions.
The new version is significantly revised and expanded, with around 65% extra text, most of which examines how Elvis and his work was discussed in the press during the 1950s through the 1970s. A detailed interview with yours truly about the new content can be found at the following link:
Over 500 articles are referenced and quoted from within the text, and a number of them force us to question what we thought we knew about Elvis and how his music was viewed when it was released. For example, albums such as From Elvis in Memphis, and a TV show such as that for NBC in 1968, received far more mixed reviews than we have been led to believe, and were not viewed as instant classics. Elsewhere, the text delves deeply into the backlash Elvis received following his 2nd appearance on The Milton Berle Show, and discovers that the instigator of that backlash, Jack Gould, had a long-running vendetta against Berle himself that dated back to 1951 and which may well have triggered his comments against Elvis. A number of the myths regarding the reception of the 1957 Christmas album are also dispelled.
Below is a short excerpt from the book (pp.236-240), beginning with the final paragraph about the Live a Little, Love a Little sessions and continuing through an examination of a surprising set of articles that appeared in 1968, which suggest that there was a considerable amount of renewed interest in Elvis not just before the TV special was screened, but before it was even made.
Live a Little, Love a Little was another attempt at changing the direction of Elvis’s film career. Army Archerd wrote that producer Doug Laurence described Speedway “as an ‘Elvis Presley picture,’ Stay Away Joe as ‘a picture starring Elvis Presley,’ and the current film as ‘halfway between them both.” The film attracted some solid reviews in the main. In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote that the film is “a pleasant Elvis Presley picture that’s rather more sophisticated than the durable singing star’s 27 prior efforts.” There were also positive comments when the film was reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin – in 1978! Due to poor box office in America, the movie was not given a theatrical release in the UK. As with the Los Angeles Times review from a decade earlier, the reviewer notes the “attempts to create a more eccentric, sophisticated setting for Presley than hitherto.” Not all reviews viewed the film in the same way, however. Variety considered the film “one of [Elvis’s] dimmest vehicles…Nothing can buck that writing. Songs are dull, physical values are standard, and mediocrity prevails.” Sometimes, though, Elvis must have felt that everything and everyone was working against him. Even Rudy Vallee, who starred in the film alongside Elvis, told Hy Gardner a couple of years later: “Elvis Presley? I worked in a picture with him recently and still can’t understand his popularity.”
Just under four months after the recording of the Live a Little, Love a Little soundtrack, Elvis would start work on his TV special for NBC, a show that would go down in history as the performance that resurrected Elvis’s career and which would become known as the “comeback special.” However, things are not quite that simple. As has already been noted in this chapter, Elvis had been recording some fine material outside of the soundtrack sessions, and some of those songs would find themselves being used for the TV special, most notably Guitar Man and Big Boss Man, as well as Let Yourself Go from Speedway. This in itself suggests that Elvis and those around him knew that he was doing some worthwhile work in the studio during these “pre-comeback” years.
What is most notable, however, is that interest in Elvis had increased even before the TV special aired – before it was even filmed, in fact. Over the previous few years, he had been the subject of very few magazine and newspaper articles indeed, with the exception of a small flurry surrounding his thirtieth birthday in 1965 and his wedding in 1967, and in the case of the latter, the emphasis was on his private life and not his career. But all of that changed in 1968.
In February, an extended article by C. Robert Jennings in the Los Angeles Times’ Westmagazine (and reprinted in numerous regional newspapers a couple of months later) featured an interview with Elvis and those who worked with him. In it, Elvis talks about the changes to the sounds of records and how they are made, in a way that is remarkably similar to his monologue on the same subject during the TV special later in the year:
“Sure, recordings and arrangements have improved. They’ve learned to put strings and flutes and the softer instruments in the supporting music and trick things up some with choruses and electronic gimmicks, but the beat is still there, it’s still the thing, and it’s still what I call rock ‘n’ roll. Just look at the charts and listen to the top records. A little refined, maybe, but basically the same.”
Later in the same article Elvis says that in Speedway he plays a “singin’ millionaire-playboy-race-driver.” He is asked if he had played that kind of role before, and replies “only about 25 times, Sir.”
What is fascinating about the article is that it was the first in a number of years (probably since the trio based on interviews from the set of It Happened at the World’s Fair) that takes Elvis seriously both as a man and an artist. The author interviews Elvis, Parker, director Norman Taurog, and Nancy Sinatra, and for once it appears that Parker doesn’t appear to have influenced the lengthy finished article, with the writer less than complimentary at times, describing Elvis as sounding “like a displaced Ink Spot” on How Great Thou Art. Elvis discusses God, loneliness, and music – but mostly music, and he sounds more serious about it than for some time, telling the interviewer that when he was younger he “loved the records of Sister Rosetta Thorpe, all the cowboy singers, and Johnny (sic) Ray’s Cry I liked a lot.”
This article alone would be noteworthy given the lack of commercial success for Elvis at the time and lack of interest in him generally, but it was not the only one in the year preceding the broadcast of the TV show. Some of this renewed interest in Elvis may have come about through the different types of movies he was now making. “He no longer makes ‘Elvis Presley Pictures,’” Army Archerd told readers in June 1968. Here, Elvis was asked why he had never attended an Academy Award ceremony. Had he not been invited? “Yes, they invited me…but I’ve never gone. I’ll go when I get a nomination.” It is worth noting that Elvis was nominated for Grammy awards (and won three) but nonetheless never attended.
Perhaps most intriguing here is the news that “Elvis has…been invited [to the Academy Awards] not only to attend…but also has been invited to perform some of the nominated tunes. (None of his, by the way). However, he’ll not perform on the show – and for the obvious commercial reason: he’s turned down as much as a million dollars to appear on television in a show other than an old movie.” If this is indeed true, then one has to question Parker’s methods. The publicity from an Academy Award ceremony appearance would, no doubt, have given Elvis’s career a much-needed shot in the arm in the mid-1960s.
Another flurry of articles appeared in the summer of 1968, one of which tackles the enigma of Elvis. “Although he’s been around and among ’em for a dozen years or more, the one top personality Hollywood folks have never been able to fathom – let alone meet with – is Elvis Presley,” Harold Hefferman writes. “He often seems more the mythical result of a press agent’s dream than the typical millionaire star next door. It becomes increasingly difficult to believe that this young man is real.”
There is a sense of frustration in the Hefferman article, as he gains access to the set of Speedway and yet finds he cannot get close to Elvis, let alone have an interview. However, not all reporters were shunned in the same way. Vernon Scott wrote around the same time that, back in 1956, Elvis “had the brashness of the very young, compensating for what he lacked in confidence. In the intervening years he has never denied the UPI an interview. Big deal? Not when you consider Presley as something less than a head of state. But when you know his attitude towards the press, then, yes.”
Scott didn’t just write one article on Elvis in the summer of 1968, but three. What is clear is that he found Elvis at a crossroads in his life, and that he had changed over the years, becoming more comfortable in his own skin. When he met Elvis on the set of Charro, he found “an entirely different Elvis from the slick, black-haired youth of the past, strikingly dressed and poutingly pretty. The self-conscious slouch was gone too.” He goes on: “For a dozen years, Elvis unfailingly greeted me: ‘Hello, Mr Scott,’ even after a score of interviews. This time I beat him to the punch: ‘Hello, Mr Presley.’” The 33-year-old star broke into a confident grin. ‘Hello, Vernon.’”
The last of Scott’s articles was important in that it gave the public their biggest signal yet that Elvis was changing, and was no longer happy just to sit back and make mediocre movies and have the money roll in. Something had changed. “Before too long I’m going to make some personal appearance tours,” he told Scott. “I’ll probably start out here in this country and after that play some concerts abroad, starting in Europe. I want to see some places I’ve never seen before. I miss the personal contact with audiences.” While Elvis never toured Europe, of course, he was at least being truthful when he said he was planning a return to live performances.
While Elvis might have made that decision following the taping of the 1968 TV special a couple of months earlier, that taping did not account for the spate of interviews and articles prior to it being shown in December, and dating back as far as the beginning of the year.
What is hard to ascertain is why those articles were written. Was is because eyebrows were raised that Elvis had started to make different types of films? This is a possibility, but it is worth noting that the articles by C. Robert Jennings and Harold Hefferman saw the authors visiting Elvis on the set of Speedway and not Stay Away, Joe or Live a Little, Love a Little. And, by this point, one has to question whether or not a change in direction of Elvis’s movie career was really that newsworthy, as it wasn’t as if he was now going to star in a major big-budget film. Given the timing of the first of these interviews, a renewed interest in Elvis may well have come from the release of better quality singles such as Big Boss Man, Guitar Man, and U. S. Male, but even this does not stack up given the relative failure of those records in the American singles charts. That said, when Elvis was revelling in the success of his engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in August 1969, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times wrote that “the musical rebirth of Presley can be traced back to his recording over a year ago of two Jerry Reed songs, Guitar Man and U. S. Male. The beat was from Nashville and Memphis rather than from Hollywood. Elvis seemed interested again. Something was happening.”
This leaves a few more options, none of which make for compelling arguments. The first of these is that there was renewed interest in Elvis following his nomination (and subsequent) win of a Grammy for How Great Thou Art, but then none of the articles concentrate on this, and most don’t even mention it at all. There is also the option that the Parker publicity machine had started whirring back into operation at the beginning of 1968, and the journalists in question were invited to see Elvis on the set of his films and interview him – but then, if this was the case, why was it that Hefferman never even got to speak to Elvis when he visited the set of Speedway?
That leaves the alternative that it was simply time for a renewed interest in Elvis and his music thanks to that unpredictable, and yet ever-present, pendulum of popularity that seems to control the highs and lows of showbiz careers. If that was the case, the timing of the TV special was remarkably good fortune in that it was able to take that slight swing in Elvis’s favour and help to turn Elvis’s career around. What is clear is that Elvis was a big draw on television during this time. A study made of movies shown on television between 1961 and 1969 showed that Elvis had seven of the highest-rated movies, three more than any other actor. This included the 1968-69 season where Elvis again was top, with five of the highest-rated films, one more than Doris Day.
 Army Archerd, “Just for Variety,” Variety, April 9, 1968, 2.
 Kevin Thomas, “Live a Little Is No. 28 for Presley, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1968, Part IV, 28.
 “Live a Little, Love a Little,” Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1978, 161.
 Murf, “Live a Little,Love a Little,” Variety, October 9, 1968, 27.
 Hy Gardner, “Glad You Asked That,” Pasadena Star News, March 13, 1971, 13.
 C. Robert Jennings, “Elvis Lives!” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1968, West Magazine section, 29.
 Ibid, 31.
 Army Archerd, “Presley Image Takes on Adult Shape,” Naugatuck Daily News, June 29, 1968, 6.
 Harold Hefferman, “25 Films Later, Elvis Baffles Hollywood,” Philadelphia Daily News, August 8, 1967, 38.
 Vernon Scott, “Elvis Presley, Adam in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Book of Genesis, Revised Music World,” Lansing State Journal, September 30, 1968, E5.
 Vernon Scott, “No More Spangles for Elvis,” Long Beach Independent, September 26, 1968, A33.
 Vernon Scott, “Singer Plans Overseas Tour,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 30, 1968, 13.
 Robert Hilburn, “Elvis’ Musical Rebirth Shows Top Pop Impact,” Des Moines Register, August 26, 1969, 7.
 “Elvis Presley is Part of Formula That Assures Movie High Ratings,” Pottsdown Mercury, May 7, 1970, 29.