Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide (2nd edition)

reconsider baby cover

 

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:
http://www.elvisinfonet.com/interview_Shane_Brown_Elvis-Presley-Reconsider-Baby-A-Listeners-Guide-Vol2.html

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.

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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.”[1]  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.”[2]  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.”[3]  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.”[4]  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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.[8]  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.[9]  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.”[10]

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.”[11]

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.”[12]  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.”[13]  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 ManGuitar 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.”[14]

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.[15]  This included the 1968-69 season where Elvis again was top, with five of the highest-rated films, one more than Doris Day.

[1] Army Archerd, “Just for Variety,” Variety, April 9, 1968, 2.

[2] Kevin Thomas, “Live a Little Is No. 28 for Presley, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1968, Part IV, 28.

[3] “Live a Little, Love a Little,” Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1978, 161.

[4] Murf, “Live a Little,Love a Little,” Variety, October 9, 1968, 27.

[5] Hy Gardner, “Glad You Asked That,” Pasadena Star News,  March 13, 1971, 13.

[6] C. Robert Jennings, “Elvis Lives!” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1968, West Magazine section, 29.

[7] Ibid, 31.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Army Archerd, “Presley Image Takes on Adult Shape,” Naugatuck Daily News, June 29, 1968, 6.

[10] Harold Hefferman, “25 Films Later, Elvis Baffles Hollywood,” Philadelphia Daily News, August 8, 1967, 38.

[11] Vernon Scott, “Elvis Presley, Adam in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Book of Genesis, Revised Music World,”  Lansing State Journal, September 30, 1968, E5.

[12] Vernon Scott, “No More Spangles for Elvis,” Long Beach Independent, September 26, 1968, A33.

[13] Vernon Scott, “Singer Plans Overseas Tour,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 30, 1968, 13.

[14] Robert Hilburn, “Elvis’ Musical Rebirth Shows Top Pop Impact,” Des Moines Register, August 26, 1969, 7.

[15] “Elvis Presley is Part of Formula That Assures Movie High Ratings,” Pottsdown Mercury, May 7, 1970, 29.

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The “Elvis Presley 100”

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The following is taken from the appendix of the forthcoming book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide,”  2nd edition:  revised and expanded.  440 pages.  The book takes the reader session by session through Elvis’s career, commenting on all of the 700+ masters, and (new to the 2nd edition) it also simultaneously examines how Elvis and his music and films were  discussed in the press during his lifetime, drawing on over 550 articles and reviews .  Released in September 2017.  

Please follow the blog to be kept informed of the book’s release!

The best place to start any Elvis collection is with the three “decades” boxes covering the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s respectively.  Released in the 1990s and re-released recently in a smaller, cheaper format, they are essential for any newcomer investigating the Elvis catalogue, providing the complete 1950s studio recordings as well as presenting the “essential” 1960s and 1970s recordings in an attractive, logical way.  But where should someone go beyond those sets?  The following pages present “The Elvis 100” – short reviews and comments on all of the LPs released during Elvis’s lifetime, as well as a selection of recommended posthumous releases outside of the decades boxes for those looking to investigate the Elvis legacy beyond the seven hundred or so master recordings.  All except one of the posthumous albums to make this list contain at least some previously unreleased material.  Each album is from Elvis’s main label (RCA/BMG/Sony), unless otherwise stated.

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  1. Elvis Presley (1956)

Elvis’s first album is also often hailed as his finest.  The striking cover art, with its black and white photograph with green and pink lettering has become iconic.  However, the first album is great not necessarily because of the music it contained, but for what it stood for.  The music itself ranges from the sublime (Blue Suede Shoes, Money Honey) to the bland (I Love You Because) and, being a mish-mash of new recordings and leftovers, was the first indication of how Elvis’s legacy would be tainted by albums put together with little regard for artistic integrity or coherence. 8/10.

  1. Elvis (1956)

While Elvis’s second album contained nothing that reached the dizzy heights of the first (with perhaps So Glad You’re Mine coming close), it was at least a more coherent package, with all but one track having been recorded at a single set of sessions.  This creates a more consistent record, and if the upbeat numbers such as Rip It Up and Long Tall Sally don’t have the sheer energy of the rock ‘n’ roll tracks recorded at other sessions in 1956, then the improvement in the ballad performances more than makes up for it.  8/10.

  1. Loving You (1957)

The first of Elvis’s soundtrack albums contained the seven songs featured in his second film, together with a handful of tracks recorded during the same period.  There are some classic performances amongst the soundtrack songs, even if a couple are ludicrously short.  The second side is, according to the liner notes, made up of well-known love songs even though Don’t Leave Me Now was a new song, so hardly well-known – but such contradictions were common on Elvis albums.  Blueberry Hill and Have I Told You Lately That I Love You are among the most disappointing recordings Elvis made during the 1950s, but fans lapped them up, and the album reached the top spot in the charts.  7/10.

  1. Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)

Elvis’s fourth album was his first seasonal offering, combining eight Christmas songs and carols with the four tracks released earlier in 1957 on the Peace in the Valley EP.  Elvis’ Christmas Album might have caused some controversy on release (although not as much as we have been led to believe), but it has since become one of the best-loved of all Christmas LPs.  There are no weak tracks here, with the material ranging from the dirty blues of Santa Claus is Back in Town to the beautiful rendition of O Little Town of Bethlehem – and the gatefold packaging of the original LP was stunning.   10/10.

  1. Elvis’ Golden Records (1958)

Elvis had been a national star for approximately two years at the time of the release of Elvis’ Golden Records, which brought together fourteen of his biggest hits and B-sides – a remarkably generous package considering there would be occasions within just a few short years when Elvis’s albums barely reached twenty minutes running time.  Despite the dozens of greatest hits albums that have been released over the years, this remains a must have and a brilliant encapsulation of Elvis’s first two years at the top.  10/10.

  1. King Creole (1958)

Elvis’s greatest soundtrack album was the wonderful King Creole from 1958, in which rock ‘n’ roll became merged with the sounds and instruments of Dixieland jazz.  The title song, Hard Headed Woman and Trouble are some of the best performances in the Elvis catalogue, and Crawfish is wonderfully evocative of the film’s New Orleans setting.  True, there is the disposable Lover Doll and the superfluous Steadfast, Loyal and True, but they don’t distract from the rest of the work here.  9/10.

  1. For LP Fans Only (1959)

There was a concerted effort to keep Elvis in the public eye while he was over in Germany.  Enough single sides had been recorded in advance to keep him in the charts, and three compilation albums appeared during 1959.  Each one of those albums contained just ten tracks, and hardly provided value for money for the fans that bought them.  For LP Fans Only (an ironic title given this was anything but a long-play album) brought together a disparate group of Sun single sides, RCA B-sides and EP tracks.  The album is most notable for making That’s all Right and Mystery Train available on LP for the first time, but it was the first Elvis LP not to reach #3 or higher in the charts, instead peaking at the relatively low #19 spot.  Hardly a carefully compiled album to begin with, and all the music is available elsewhere, and so it’s hardly surprising that it is not currently available on CD from Sony other than in a giant 60 disc set.  6/10.

  1. A Date with Elvis (1959)

A Date with Elvis might have been what many girls (and 5% of males) wanted in 1959, but perhaps not this type.  This second compilation of single and EP sides in 1959 was a more deluxe offering than its predecessor, being housed in a nice gatefold sleeve with a 1960 calendar on the back (hence the title).  Four of the ten tracks were from the Jailhouse Rock EP, which no doubt fans already owned, making this hardly value for money, nice packaging notwithstanding.  Fans agreed and, despite some great tracks, it would be the lowest charting Elvis album until Double Trouble nearly eight years later. 6/10.

  1. Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2(aka: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong) (1959)

Along with Elvis’s first album back in 1956, this collection of ten single sides from the previous year and a half is as famous for its cover art as for the musical contents – in this case, the much-copied repeated image of Elvis in a gold lame suit.  Musically speaking, it is a superior album to the other two 1959 compilations, containing hits such as One Night, Don’t, and A Fool Such as I, but it must have been striking to fans at the time that this second volume of gold records was four songs shorter than its predecessor, clocking in at just twenty-two minutes, and, despite its iconic status, it failed to break the top thirty.  7/10.

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  1. Elvis is Back (1960)

With Elvis out of the army, no time was wasted in recording some new single sides and an album that turned out to be possibly the best of his career.  Elvis is Back covered virtually all of the genres that influenced Elvis’s music, concluding with two sensational blues numbers.  There was no gospel here as such, but the beautiful The Thrill of Your Love gave something of an indication of the sound that Elvis would utilise in his first full-length gospel album later in the same year.  Elvis’s voice had deepened and matured while he was away, and fans now got to hear that voice in stereo for the first time.  10/10.

  1. G. I. Blues (1960)

1960 saw a strategy of trying to widen Elvis’s appeal beyond that of his loyal teenage following.   G. I. Blues, a traditional Hollywood musical, helped to achieve that goal.  The Grammy-nominated album was certainly not Elvis’s greatest artistic success, but it was a worthy souvenir for those who saw the film and outsold Elvis is Back by a considerable margin.  As with almost all of the soundtracks to Elvis’s 1960s musicals, the highlight was a tender ballad, the beautiful Doin’ the Best I Can, but there is plenty to enjoy here if you are not expecting a rock ‘n’ roll album.  6/10.

  1. His Hand in Mine(1960)

Elvis’s third album of 1960 was his first full-length LP of gospel songs.  Presley clearly relished the chance to sing some of the songs that had meant so much to him growing up, and he excels throughout, whether on the blues-tinged ballad Milky White Way or the spirituals Joshua Fit the Battle and Swing Down Sweet Chariot (which he would re-record in 1968 for the film The Trouble with Girls).  Crying in the Chapel was recorded at the same session, but withheld for release until 1965, when it became Elvis’s last top ten hit for four years.  8/10.

  1. Something for Everybody (1961)

Something for Everybody was the sequel to Elvis is Back, but little of this effort had the fire or substance of the earlier album.  There are some great moments, most notably There’s Always Me, one of Elvis’s greatest ballad performances, but Elvis’s singing is far more polite and mannered that previously, and the material itself just that little bit blander.  There were still hints of the 1950s sound with Give Me the Right and I Want You With Me, but in the main this was the first sign that Elvis was losing his musical direction – and it had nothing to do with the soundtracks.  7/10.

  1. Blue Hawaii (1961)

Blue Hawaii was the archetypal Elvis movie of the 1960s, and the first of the formula films in that this was built entirely around Elvis.  Unlike G. I. Blues, no other musical performer or dancer got the chance to shine; it was all Elvis from the very beginning of the film to the end.  The soundtrack album was a phenomenal success, and it’s probably true to say that Elvis never sang more beautifully than he does on the ballads here.  Sure, there are a couple of trivial items such as Ito Eats and Moonlight Swim, but the album sounds great from start to finish, and Can’t Help Falling in Love remains one of the great Elvis performances.  8/10.

  1. Pot Luck (1962)

If Something for Everybody showed a softening of Elvis’s singing style and a head towards lighter material, then Pot Luck cemented that direction.  Elvis sings beautifully throughout the album, but there is little denying just how weak or bland many of these songs are.  Still, there are some fine tracks, most notably That’s Someone You Never Forget, a haunting ballad, as well as the seductive Easy Question and the rockers Night Rider and Gonna Get Back Home Somehow.  However, the rest of the album is largely forgettable, although the over-rated Suspicion inexplicably became a hit in the UK fifteen years after its release here.  6/10.

  1. Girls! Girls!  Girls!  (1962)

By this point there was little differentiating the regular studio albums and the soundtracks, and there are some tracks here that surpass the work on Pot LuckReturn to Sender became a classic, and Elvis croons his way through a series of rather pleasant ballads.  Elsewhere, Thanks to the Rolling Sea is an effective sea shanty-type number, and Song of the Shrimp sees Elvis tackling calypso in a song which is a morality tale about the evils of the big city, and remains one of the most divisive songs in Elvis’s legacy amongst fans.  6/10.

  1. It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)

At just ten tracks and a running time of around twenty minutes, It Happened at the World’s Fair was the most disappointing Elvis album up until that point.  Elvis was still singing well, but the material was mostly second-rate, save for the lovely They Remind Me Too Much of You.  Many of the other songs had a second-hand feel, though, most noticeably Relax, which might as well have been entitled Fever II.   Two of the ten songs were aimed at children, including the tedious How Would You Like to Be, but Cotton Candy Land is beautifully sung, even if it is the creepiest lullaby you ever heard.  4/10.

  1. Elvis’ Golden Records, Volume 3. (1963)

It seems that nobody could make up their mind whether this series was “gold” or “golden,” and the front cover art suggested that nobody probably cared.  Luckily, though, this collection of singles from the post-army period effectively demonstrated that Elvis was still a force to be reckoned with when he put his mind to it, whether crooning the 1927 song Are You Lonesome Tonight or attacking the bluesy I Feel So Bad.  Musically more diverse and impressive than volume 2, this still works even today as a great compilation of the period.  8/10.

  1. Fun in Acapulco (1963)

Fun in Acapulco was one of the best of the formula films, and the soundtrack doesn’t disappoint.  This remains one of Elvis’s most upbeat records and he sounds fully committed to the recording of a full-length album centred around the Latin rhythms he had utilised occasionally on Pot Luck and elsewhere.  There are no ballads here (at least, not outside of the bonus tracks), and I am told that Elvis’s Spanish pronunciation is appalling, but even nonsense such as the much-maligned There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car seems to have a natural home on what might well be Elvis most fun album.  7/10.

  1. Kissin’ Cousins (1964)

Kissin’ Cousins saw a huge drop in the quality of Elvis’s film work, and the soundtrack reflects this, and it is an album with almost nothing to recommend it.  Tender Feeling is probably the best of the soundtrack songs, but even that is marred by the strange instrumentation.  Elsewhere, you get to hear Elvis sing such drivel as Smokey Mountain Boy and Barefoot Ballad.  Only the surprisingly dark bonus song Long Lonely Highway stops this from being a complete waste of time.  2/10.

  1. Roustabout (1964)

Roustabout was a significant improvement on the previous film, and so was the soundtrack, although it is hardly a highlight of Elvis’s recording career.  There are a surprising number of rock-lite numbers here, but it’s just a shame that they are nearly all under-developed.  However, Elvis is in good voice, and seems to be having fun with the kooky Little Egypt and the snarky Poison Ivy League.  The first album released after Viva Las Vegas hit the cinemas, it was Elvis’s last #1 LP for nearly ten years. 6/10.

  1. Girl Happy (1965)

The Girl Happy soundtrack is probably most often remembered for the truly awful Do the Clam (which seems to go on forever), although Wolf Call and Startin’ Tonight are little better, but they are at least shorter.  The ballad Puppet on a String is pleasant enough, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that a song with the title Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce will have you humming its tune for days.  The most significant track here, though, is the three-year-old You’ll Be Gone, Elvis’s only genuine writing credit and another example of his love for Latin rhythms.  5/10.

  1. Elvis for Everyone (1965)

Originally intended as an album to celebrate Elvis’s tenth anniversary with RCA, Elvis For Everyone ended up being something far less ambitious.  With a front and back cover that celebrated Elvis’s sales record rather than his artistic worth, the album featured a dozen tracks recorded between 1954 and 1964, most of which were unreleased.  It could have worked as an anniversary album with a couple of extra tracks to give it a more respectable running time, and some liner notes to inform listeners of the history of the recordings, but sadly no-one seemed to care enough.  Instead, consumers got a pleasant enough twenty-five minute opus with a track-listing with no rhyme or reason.  6/10.

  1. Harum Scarum (1965)

Harum Scarum is arguably Elvis’s worst film, and it is also in the running for worst album too.  The sound quality is particularly awful for the most part, and the LP kicks off with Elvis singing horribly out of tune at the start of the opening Harem Holiday.  Things get little better over the next half an hour, with Elvis only really sounding awake on a couple of tracks, most notably the kitsch Animal Instinct and the ballad So Close Yet So Far.  2/10.

  1. Frankie and Johnnie (1966)

With the film being set on an 1890s riverboat, the Frankie and Johnnie soundtrack contains songs far removed from the type of material Elvis was normally associated with.  Some songs, such as Petunia the Gardener’s Daughter and Look Out Broadway, work fine in the film but struggle to have a life off the screen.  Of the other tracks, Elvis sounds surprisingly disengaged in the limp medley of Down by the Riverside and When the Saints Go Marching In, and the title number never really comes to life in the way it should, although the spunkier early take on the Out in Hollywood release suggests that Elvis might have lost interest halfway through the recording process.  However, Elvis does at least get the chance to sing a semi-decent blues number in Hard Luck, which deserves to be better known.  4/10.

  1. Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966)

Paradise, yes – but only if you listen with the volume set at zero.  The film was a clear attempt to try to recreate the success of Blue Hawaii on a budget, but it failed miserably, and the soundtrack LP is appalling.  Queenie Wahine’s Papaya finds him singing a tongue-twister, while Datin’ and A Dog’s Life are among the most stupid songs ever to be found in an Elvis film (and that’s quite an achievement), although the outtakes on the 1980 Elvis Aron Presley boxed set are a hoot.  Sand Castles is about the only track worth listening to – and even that only sounds more worthwhile due to the company it keeps.  2/10.

  1. Spinout (1966)

Spinout does at least find Elvis in better voice than the previous few albums, and the songs from the film are a better bunch too – and considering one is called Smorgasbord and another has Elvis singing “dum-de-dum-de-dum, yeah yeah yeah”, you can tell just how bad the last few records had been.   Spinout is made particularly worthwhile thanks to the three bonus tracks that had been recorded at the How Great Thou Art sessions.  I’ll Remember You is a beautiful Hawaiian ballad, while Down in the Alley is a wonderfully dirty take on The Clovers’ r&b hit.  Best of all though is the five-minute rendition of Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time.  These were hints that Elvis was finally on the comeback trail.  6/10.

  1. How Great Thou Art (1967)

Elvis’s first Grammy award was for this, his second album of gospel music.  The album is, rather like Something for Everybody, split into a ballad side and an upbeat side – possibly the only mistake here as it doesn’t give enough variety.  The ballads are heavier and darker in nature than those on His Hand in Mine, but the upbeat songs are generally more joyous.  Standout tracks include the title song, Stand by Me, and Where Could I Go But to the Lord.  The album only reached #18 in the charts, but has since been certified as selling over 3 million copies in the USA alone.  8/10.

  1. Double Trouble (1967)

Elvis hadn’t failed to reach the top thirty with an album release since 1959, but the soundtrack to Double Trouble managed just #47, and it’s hardly surprising.  Even the most die-hard fans must have seen Old McDonald amongst the tracks and despaired.  However, that song aside, much of the music here is no better or worse than the Spinout disc, although the bonus songs are not of the same quality.  From the film, City By Night is an interesting attempt at a kind of sleazy jazz club ballad, while Never Ending (one of the bonus tracks) is a beautiful, if slight, attempt to channel Sam Cooke.  4/10.

  1. Clambake (1967)

The Clambake disc is almost schizophrenic as it lurches from the great to the galling.  This is the only time when an Elvis soundtrack would open with one of the bonus songs, but it’s the bonus songs that are worth having here – most notably Guitar Man and Big Boss Man.  Of the film songs themselves, The Girl I Never Loved and You Don’t Know Me are pretty, but Confidence and Who Needs Money rank amongst the most awful things Elvis recorded.  4/10 (mostly for the bonus songs).

  1. Elvis Gold Records, Volume 4 (1968)

This is a nice collection of single sides recorded between 1958 and 1966, but it is clear that it was a tough job to put together an album such as this in early 1968, and Devil in Disguise is really the only big hit on the entire LP.  That said, the record does serve as a home to some of the songs that had got lost as B-sides or poor-selling singles, and the likes of It Hurts Me, Indescribably Blue, and Lonely Man all deserve to be much better known than they are.  6/10.

  1. Speedway(1968)

Speedway was the last of the soundtrack albums, and is rather a limp effort.  While the film had considerably more zest than the rest of the formula films over the previous few years, very few of the songs had a life outside of the film, and Nancy Sinatra chipping in a few lines here and there doesn’t help proceedings – although her solo number is, ironically, one of the best on the whole record.  Let Yourself Go is probably worth the price of admission, and Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby is cute enough, but the rest is very mediocre.  4/10.

  1. Singer Presents Elvis Singing Flaming Starand Others (1968)

Catchy title, don’t you think?  Originally only sold through Singer sewing machine shops before being reissued on the budget Camden label, this little effort is almost an Elvis For Everyone Part 2, with the tracks stretching back ten years and all knew to LP in America.  This is all very pleasant for the first side of the album, but standards fall considerably during the first three songs of side two with the dregs from the Viva Las Vegas and Easy Come Easy Go sessions.  Rather bizarrely, this was the first time that fans got to hear anything recorded for the NBC TV Special thanks to the inclusion of Tiger Man as the final track.  4/10.

  1. Elvis (1968)

This, the soundtrack to the 1968 TV special, contains some great music but is, alas, a sonic disaster.  What was exciting on television doesn’t translate as well to record – especially in chopped up, fragmented form.  Things are hardly helped by the sound quality during the live segments, with one medley having a flaw that sounds like someone vacuuming in the background.   This great music is best heard in the 4CD boxed set released some forty years later, where the sound quality is much better and hearing the tracks in their proper context makes much more sense.  6/10.

  1. From Elvis in Memphis (1969)

Elvis’s set of recordings made in January and February 1969 are now legendary, and spawned four hit singles, including In the Ghetto, which is included here.  This is Elvis at his very best, without a weak track on the entire album.  It is hard to pick out highlights, but it is not an exaggeration to say that Long Black Limousine, Only the Strong Survive, and I’ll Hold You in My Heart are among the best things that Elvis ever recorded and, finally, Elvis was being presented as a singer of adult material – a far cry from his previous proper non-soundtrack album, Pot Luck, which seems very, very flimsy in comparison to the grit and substance here.  10/10.

  1. From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis(1969)

For no logical reason, it was decided to pair a live album from Las Vegas with a second album drawn from the Memphis recordings.  Both albums are extremely good, but the pairing must have seemed an uneasy one from the start, and they were issued separately just a year later.  Elvis in Person as the first album is now known is a good condensation of Elvis’s return to live performances in 1969, and includes a staggering seven-minute Suspicious Minds as its climax.  Back in Memphis is also very strong, even if it takes a number of listens to realise just how good it is, as the songs are not necessarily ones that stick in the memory particularly easily.   8/10.

  1. Let’s Be Friends(1970)

This budget album mostly contains songs from Elvis’s non-formula films at the end of the 1960s, along with some lesser tracks from Memphis and, oddly, a song from Girls! Girls! Girls! It’s a pleasant enough, if unsubstantial, affair, with the slight but beautiful Almost from The Trouble with Girls being one of the highlights.  It is also nice to hear Elvis crooning his way through Bobby Darin’s I’ll Be There in an effortless performance.  The CD issue inexplicably contains a shortened version of Mama – rather unfortunate given how short the LP was to start with.  5/10.

  1. On Stage – February 1970(1970)

On Stage was an attempt at a different type of live album.  This time around the focus was on pop and rock standards that Elvis had never recorded before.  Despite the title, two of the songs were actually recorded in August 1969, and one of those, Yesterday, is the weakest of the tracks here.  The Wonder of You became an international hit, and tracks such as Polk Salad Annie and Walk a Mile in My Shoes became as much associated with Elvis as with the original artists.  On Stage remains one of Elvis’s best 1970s albums.  8/10

  1. Worldwide 50 Gold Award Hits, Vol. 1(1970)

This 4LP set was essentially a greatest hits package released to capitalise on Elvis’s return to form and the charts.  Only released briefly on CD, all of the tracks here are available elsewhere and, forty-seven years and dozens of greatest hits compilations later, this set is now largely redundant, although the track listing is as good a summary of Elvis’s first fourteen years at RCA as one could expect to find.  8/10.

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  1. Almost in Love(1970)

Almost in Love, as with Let’s Be Friends, was a compilation of songs from the late 1960s films and a handful of single sides.  Without doubt, this was the best of Elvis’s budget releases, sounding surprisingly contemporary and hanging together rather well as an album as well.  The UK edition also boasts a rather striking cover art, too, especially when compared to the generic nature of the Stateside release.  A good starting place for anyone wanting to discover the best material from Elvis’s much maligned 1967-1968 recordings.  7/10.

  1. Elvis’ Christmas Album(1970)

RCA were playing a game in 1970 to see how many Elvis albums could be released in the course of a calendar year.  They managed six different titles – plus the individual releases of the 2LP that made up the From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis set from the year before.  None sold as well as this repackaging of the eight 1957 Christmas songs, put together with 1966’s If Every Day Was Like Christmas and the 1969 recording of Mama Liked the Roses, (supposedly by popular demand).  For so many of us, this budget release was the incarnation of Elvis’s Christmas songs that we grew up with, and the seasonal material shines even more here than when paired with the Peace in the Valley EP songs.  10/10.

  1. That’s the Way It Is(1970)

This, Elvis’s best album of easy listening material, was not an official soundtrack to the MGM concert film of the same title.  Instead it pairs together recordings from the August 1970 Las Vegas season with songs from a mammoth session that had taken place in June 1970.  As with On Stage, this is 1970s Elvis at his very best, and featuring stunning versions of I Just Can’t Help Believin’, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, and Just Pretend.  Only the live versions of I’ve Lost You and Patch It Up let the side down a little, with neither being as good as their studio counterparts.  8/10.

  1. Elvis Country(1971)

Another contender for Elvis’s best album.  Compiled from material recorded in June and September 1970, this fine album contains Elvis’s interpretations of country songs old and new.  Generally referred to as Elvis’s “concept album” due to the strange device of using snippets of I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago in between each song, but it’s pushing the idea of what a concept album is to the limits, not least because the use of those snippets is one of the few unsuccessful things about Elvis Country.  There are some great performances here, most notably Tomorrow Never Comes, Funny How Time Slips Away and a reworking of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On that has little to do with either country music or Jerry Lee Lewis’s original.  10/10.

  1. You’ll Never Walk Alone(1971)

This Camden release is a mopping up exercise of some of Elvis’s gospel material.  The four songs from the Peace in the Valley EP are included, alongside soundtrack songs Sing You Children and Let Us Pray, both sides of the You’ll Never Walk Alone single, and Who Am I, recorded in Memphis in 1969 and getting its first release here.  The UK release also reprised Swing Down Sweet Chariot from His Hand in Mine.  Not an essential collection, but pleasant enough. 6/10.

  1. Love Letters from Elvis(1971)

This was the first real sign that the artistic heights of the comeback were effectively over.  Basically a collection of mostly weak tracks from the June 1970 sessions, and overdubbed in such a way with woodwind and horns to make the whole thing sound like elevator music.  It’s not even an album of love songs, with Got My Mojo Working and Cindy Cindy being rockers, Only Believe a religious song, and Life  being about…evolution.  4/10.

  1. C’mon Everybody(1971)

The first of two budget albums that were mostly a pulling together of the tracks from the Kid Galahad, Follow That Dream, Viva Las Vegas, and Easy Come Easy Go EPs.  An example of the strange release policy of the time, but this is still a surprisingly enjoyable concoction.  5/10.

  1. The Other Sides – Elvis Worldwide Gold Award Hits, Volume 2(1971)

This is a 4LP collection of B-sides and EP tracks which had nearly all been issued on album before, but still makes an interesting compilation of mostly non-hits up to and including 1970.  For a long time, this was the only place to find the studio versions of I’ve Lost You and Patch It Up other than on the original singles, but today, with over a hundred compilations in the Elvis catalogue, this is a redundant release.  7/10.

  1. I Got Lucky(1971)

This carries on where C’mon Everybody left off, completing the mopping up exercise of the soundtracks originally released on EP in the 1960s, with the added bonus of Fools Fall in Love.  This is the weaker of the two entries, in no small part due to the inclusion of Yoga is as Yoga Does, although the wonderful I Need Somebody to Lean On almost makes up for it.  4/10.

  1. Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas(1971)

The first album to be released from the May 1971 sessions is one of the most depressing seasonal albums ever recorded, and is a very disappointing follow-up to Elvis’s 1957 effort.  For the most part, Elvis sounds very uninterested, and, saddled with a bunch of morose new songs, one can hardly blame him.  He wakes up for the glorious On a Snowy Christmas Night and O Come All Ye Faithful, and manages to give us a classic recording in Merry Christmas Baby, but otherwise this is hard work. 5/10.

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  1. Elvis Now(1972)

Given the amount of recordings Elvis had made during the 1971 studio sessions, one can only wonder why the powers that be were putting together an album containing leftovers and cast-offs, dating back to 1969’s horrible Hey Jude at this juncture.  As with all Elvis albums from the 1970s, there are a couple of songs that are worth the effort, most notably Early Morning Rain and I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago, but given what was in the vaults, this should (and could) have been so much better.  5/10.

  1. He Touched Me(1972)

This gospel album gave Elvis his second Grammy, although it is not as good as How Great Thou Art, which got him his first.  Elvis mixes it up here, presenting traditional gospel sounds with more modern Christian rock, but it doesn’t gel particularly as a cohesive album.  Highlights include the title track, An Evening Prayer, and Reach Out to Jesus, but at the same time we are lumbered with There Is No God But God and He is My Everything, both of which are bland in the extreme.  6/10.

  1. Elvis Sings Hits from His Movies, Volume 1(1972)

So this is an album of songs such as Can’t Help Falling in Love, Return to Sender, Bossa Nova Baby and Jailhouse Rock, right?  Errr…no.  This is an album of “hits” like Confidence, How Would You Like To Be, and Old MacDonald.  Completely and utterly pointless.  1/10.

  1. Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden(1972)

Elvis gives an energised performance at Madison Square Garden.  For years it was assumed that the recording was slightly speeded up in order to fit it all on one record.  The truth is that he was simply in a hurry.  Elvis is in fine voice, however, but the highlights are his versions of other people’s songs such as Proud Mary, Never Been to Spain and The Impossible Dream.  Sadly, the original mix left a lot to be desired, making the record sound remarkably dry, although recent remasters have improved on that.  The 2012 Prince from Another Planet release includes this concert as well as the afternoon performance in remixed and remastered sound, and also includes a DVD containing interviews and some amateur footage of the event, and is the best way to obtain this material. 7/10.

  1. Burning Love and Hits from His Movies(1972)

Here we go again, but this time there’s two twists.  Firstly, both sides of Elvis’s current single release was included on the album.  And, secondly, the “hits” from the movies this time all had a connection – they are all songs based on folk songs or pieces of classical music.  If being generous, you could almost class it as a concept album!  4/10.

  1. Separate Ways(1972)

The sixth(!) album release of 1972 was another that saw a hit single used as the headliner on a budget album.  This time, around, the LP was fleshed out with three songs from Wild in the Country, a few early 1960s recordings, and a couple of 1950s tracks.  It’s a pleasant, if low-key, way to spend twenty minutes, but there were better ways to utilise Elvis’s hit singles.  However, whoever thought of the cover image of a giant Elvis straddling a motorway in a jumpsuit has a lot to explaining to do.5/10

  1. Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite(1973)

This double LP was Elvis’s last #1 album in America during his lifetime, propelled up the charts thanks to the historic TV broadcast associated with it.  But this finds Elvis in less than stellar form.  His voice often has a nasally quality here, and the performance is surprisingly laid back given what was riding on it.  Still, songs such as I’m Lonesome I Could Cry, What Now My Love, My Way, and I’ll Remember You show that Elvis was able to deliver when fully engaged.  Overall, though, this is the weakest of the live albums released during his Elvis’s lifetime.  The Legacy Edition release of this album also contains the so-called “rehearsal” show from a couple of days earlier (first released in 1988) and the intimate songs recorded after the main performance, and is the recommended issue of this title. 6/10.

  1. Elvis (The “Fool” Album)(1973)

Just when Elvis needed an album to capitalise on the success of Aloha from Hawaii, RCA released this, one of the most low-key albums of his career.  That’s not to say the album is without merit, most notably through the inclusion of the piano songs from 1971, the folkish For Lovin’ Me and an edit of the Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright  jam, but the other tracks are mediocre at best, and nothing here really make an impact.  Running under twenty-five minutes, one has to wonder how and why the Dylan jam was cut to just under three minutes.  5/10.

  1. Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake (1973)

Largely made up of songs from Elvis’s July 1973 sessions at Stax studios, this album promises much but delivers relatively little.  On the plus side, the collection contains more upbeat numbers than any other Elvis studio LP during the 1970s, but Elvis often sounds tired.  The title song makes little sense being sung by the guy that started it all, and Three Corn Patches is one of the worst numbers Leiber and Stoller ever wrote (and that’s without taking into account the title sounds like a song about a foot complaint).  On the plus side, the remaining upbeat numbers see Elvis heading into soul and funk territory, and the ballads are much more quiet and reflective efforts than most of those Elvis was recording during this period.  5/10.

  1. Elvis: A Legendary Performer Vol. 1(late 1973 or 1974)

After Elvis sold the rights to his back catalogue to RCA in 1973, the label took little time in putting this package together of master recordings and unreleased live performances and outtakes.  Highlights included three songs from the sit down shows for the 1968 TV special.  While redundant now, the album charted higher than any full-price studio album since Love Letters from Elvis, and the success not only led to three further Elvis volumes, but also to albums in the series dedicated to other artists from Caruso to Glenn Miller.  5/10

  1. Good Times(1974)

Elvis had returned to Stax in December 1973, and this was the first of two LPs culled from the results.  It is also the weakest.  The album comes to life occasionally with the funky I Got a Feeling In My Body and Talk About the Good Times, and there are a few decent ballads for good measure, but the remaining five tracks are very lacklustre, with Take Good Care of Her (recorded in the July sessions) possibly the weakest opening song on an Elvis album since Harum Scarum nearly a decade earlier. 5/10.

  1. Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis(1974)

The last live album to be released during Elvis’s lifetime is also one of the best.  Recorded in March 1974, Elvis is in superb form on this edited version of the concert.  The emphasis here is on rock ‘n’ roll and, more importantly, having a good time.  While some of the audience reaction might have been overdubbed, it still adds to the atmosphere, and Elvis gives spirited renditions of Trying to Get to You, My Baby Left Me, Lawdy Miss Clawdy, I Got a Woman and How Great Thou Art, with the latter earning him his third Grammy award.  Great fun.  The Legacy Edition of this album contains the complete unedited concert (both a blessing and a curse) as well as a concert from Richmond a couple of days earlier. However, the complete show does not have the impact of the edited version. 8/10.

  1. Having Fun with Elvis on Stage(1974)

From the sublime to the ridiculous.  This is Elvis talking.  Well, sometimes not even talking but, instead, singing “weeellll” a lot and laughing intermittently.  There are no songs at all here.  Completely pointless.  0/10.

  1. Promised Land(1975)

This second album of songs from the December 1973 sessions is superior to the first, helped by a rocking version of the title track and some fine country performances in There’s a Honky Tonk Angel, Help Me, and You Asked Me To.  Not particularly well-received when released but, in hindsight, marked the beginning of a brief improvement in Elvis’s studio albums.  6/10.

  1. Pure Gold(1975)

Another example of RCA cashing in on the 1973 sale of Elvis’s back catalogue, but they could have done better than this rag-bag assortment of ten songs mixing hits and album tracks recorded between 1956 and 1972.  It sold by the bucket load (helped by it being a mid-price album), but the tombola-like track listing seems utterly pointless. 6/10 (for the individual songs, not the album).

  1. Today(1975)

If Promised Land was a better than average studio album for the period, then Today took it one step further.  An album that could easily have been marketed as a kind of sequel to Elvis Country but, for the most part, nobody bothered to market it at all.  But time has been kind to Today, and it now stands as Elvis’s best studio album since early 1971, and he excels on the rocking T-R-O-U-B-L-E, as well as Susan When She Tried, Shake a Hand, and I Can Help.  The recent Legacy Edition release also includes the 1975 concert recordings first issued on the Elvis Aron Presley boxed set, but this time in better sound quality. 7/10.

  1. Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 2(1976)

Following on where the first volume left off, here we have more alternate takes and live performances mixed with well-known masters.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to the songs chosen or their order on the LP – but this is something that has yet to change with regards to many of Elvis’s compilations.  5/10.

  1. The Sun Sessions (1975/6)

Released in the UK in 1975 and in the USA in 1976, this was the first collection of Elvis’s Sun material, with the recordings only having been available spread over a number of LPs prior to this.  It remains a stunning collection, even more so without the wonders of the master recordings being watered down by poor sounding live material and alternate takes as has been the case in Sun compilations since.  10/10.

  1. From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee(1976)

RCA had done a good job of keeping Elvis’s vocal decline a secret up to this point, but there was nothing they could do maintain that with this depressing album, consisting of nine maudlin ballads and just one upbeat number, For the Heart, that never gets off the ground.  Recorded in the Jungle Room at Graceland, the only really worthwhile addition to Elvis’s legacy is a moving Danny Boy.  Some might argue that Hurt is an Elvis classic, but, if so, then the bar had been lowered considerably.  3/10.

  1. Welcome to My World(1977)

This country-themed compilation could have been more worthwhile than it is.  While there are a couple of unreleased tracks included, it seems strange than more unissued live performances were not included to make it of more interest to fans.  Even so, it’s a nice mix of songs, and it still performed better than Elvis’s studio albums of the period.  5/10.

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  1. Moody Blue(1977)

Elvis’s last album before his death is a strange mix of single sides, studio leftovers and live tracks recorded and overdubbed out of desperation.  And yet it all holds together as a surprisingly enjoyable effort.  Way Down and Moody Blue are genuine classics, and Unchained Melody shows that Elvis could still deliver a killer performance when he felt inclined, despite his spiralling health problems.  6/10.

  1. Elvis in Concert(1977)

The first posthumous release was this double album recorded on Elvis’s last tour in June 1977, released to tie-in with the TV special of the same name.  The special is devastating, although the album is a little less difficult to listen to thanks to some post-production overdubs and sweetening.  Still, it’s clear that Elvis was a very ill man by this point, and the good performances are very few and far between, although That’s all Right and I Really Don’t Want to Know are worthwhile.  Sad though this album is, it’s still an essential part of the Elvis story, and has been in print constantly since its release in 1977. 3/10.

  1. Our Memories of Elvis(1979)

This album was intended to be a chance for fans to hear how Elvis sounded in the studio in the 1970s without all the overdubbed instruments.  Actually, that isn’t quite what you get here, but it’s close enough.  At a time when RCA were still lost as to what to release next following Elvis’s death, this was a decent concept and was relatively effective.  Volume 2 was actually better, featuring an eight-minute edit of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, and now both have been released on a Follow That Dream CD along with the aborted volume 3. 7/10.

  1. Elvis Aron Presley(1980)

This 8LP boxed set was the first release to mine the vaults in a significant way, and there was something for everybody, ranging from live recordings from 1956, 1961, and 1968-77 to alternate takes and previously uncompiled singles.  A real treasure trove for fans when released, and this still holds its own with some of the later boxed sets – and stands out through being sequenced by theme rather than chronological order.  7/10.

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  1. A Golden Celebration(1984)

This 6LP set is organised in a similar way to the 1980 set, but this time the emphasis is on early Elvis, with a collection of alternate takes from the Sun years, early live recordings and TV appearances, and a batch of private recordings making up most of the box.  The final disc jumped forward to 1968 for a collection of recordings made for the TV special.  Poor sound quality lets the set down, but this was in many ways the start of RCA treating Elvis as an historically important artist, and is still the only way to obtain the audio from the television performances via Elvis’s own label. 7/10.

  1. Essential Elvis: The First Movies (1986/8)

First released in Europe, with the American edition following two years later, this album contained the master takes from the first three movies together with a substantial number of alternate takes.  Quite a revelation on release, this was another sign that Elvis was once again being taken seriously.  All of this material has since been re-released in better sound quality, but that doesn’t take away the importance of this release.  9/10.

  1. Stereo ’57: Essential Elvis, Volume 2(1989)

This follow-up to Essential Elvis saw the focus shift to recordings made in binaural in early 1957.  While this was hardly Elvis’s best few months of recordings from the 1950s, once again we get to hear him working (and, in some cases, struggling) in the studio.  Highlights include alternate takes of Peace in the Valley and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.  7/10.

  1. Hits Like Never Before: Essential Elvis, Volume 3 (1990)

The third volume of the Essential series concentrates on recordings from 1958.  As with the first volume, this material has been released in better sound quality since but, despite this, the disc is still remarkably enjoyable, and important for giving us almost a full album of unreleased Elvis in his prime.  The highlight was the unreleased takes of King Creole and the unedited version of Crawfish.  8/10.

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  1. Collector’s Gold (1991)

Collector’s Gold took the format of the Essential series further, by putting together three discs of unreleased material from the 1960s.  The first disc concentrates on movie songs, and the second on the Nashville recordings.  But most important was the album of concert recordings from 1969, containing a number of songs previously not widely known to have been ever performed live, such as Inherit the Wind, This is the Story, and Rubberneckin’.  Hugely enjoyable.  8/10.

  1. Double Features (1993-1995)

This series of ten CDs saw the 1960s soundtrack recordings re-released in superior form.  Many were remixed in order to improve the sound quality, while others included previously unreleased songs, alternate takes and unedited masters.  Highlights include the undubbed master of Almost, the unedited versions of the stereo masters of Kid Galahad songs, and the first ever complete release of the Viva Las Vegas soundtrack.  The final disc, concentrating on the non-formula films is particularly good.  7/10.

  1. If Every Day Was Like Christmas(1994)

Despite the amount of errors in the extensive liner notes, this merging of Elvis’s two Christmas albums with some added alternate takes is the best release of this material during the CD era – despite these recordings having been re-released in a different running order virtually every year since.  Sadly, this doesn’t make the 1971 performances any more cheerful, but at least the maudlin numbers are interspersed throughout the disc.  7/10.

  1. A Hundred Years from Now: Essential Elvis, Volume 4 (1996)

This time, the Essential series jumps forward to 1970 for a disc full of alternate takes from the Nashville sessions of June 1970.  Heard without the overdubs, these performances sound really quite different, and highlights include a beautiful alternate version of Bridge Over Troubled Water and a (very) informal version of The Lord’s PrayerFollow that Dream would also mine these recordings for more alternates on The Nashville Marathon several years later, which is also recommended, although it is not quite as strong as this release.  8/10.

  1. Platinum: A Life in Music(1997)

This 4CD set aimed to tell the story of Elvis’s career mostly through the use of live recordings, alternate takes, jam sessions, and private recordings – and it succeeds very well for the most part.  This was the first of a number of 4CD sets of this ilk to be released over the coming years, but none did their job as well (or as enjoyably) as this one.  The decades boxed sets aside, this may well be the best Elvis boxed set ever released.  Highlights include a beautiful home recording of Tennessee Waltz, a stunning alternate take of You’ll Never Walk Alone, and the first release of Steamroller Blues from the March 20, 1974 Memphis show. 10/10.

  1. Brightest Star on Sunset Boulevard, Volumes 1 & 2 (Fort Baxter, 1998)

The only bootleg release to make this list is this collection of recordings made during rehearsals for the August 1970 Las Vegas season.  RCA/Sony have also released performances from these rehearsals, but they have mostly been given over to fragments and novelties, whereas here we get Elvis tackling songs with interest rather than just goofing around.  While Elvis’s off-colour humour might put some people off, hearing Elvis at work in this way is fascinating.  7/10.

  1. The Home Recordings(1999)

Quite a risk was taken issuing a full-length disc of often poor-sounding home recordings, but the result was a fascinating, if flawed CD.  Sadly some tracks were edited for reasons still unknown, and this take of Tennessee Waltz is, alas, one that finds Elvis fooling around far too much.  Still, the performances from 1966 are often real eye-openers, most notably If I Loved You from Carousel.  A further volume of home recordings, entitled In a Private Moment, was later released under the Follow that Dream banner.  6/10.

  1. Such a Night: Essential Elvis, Volume 6 (2000)

This final entry into the Essential series concentrates on recordings made at Nashville between 1960 and 1964.  This is a particularly strong collection of alternate takes that cleverly manages to mask the falling standards in material during this period.  The only issue here is that most of the alternates sound very much like the masters, thus making them of less interest and less importance.  After this release, compilations of this type were mostly reserved for the Follow that Dream label.  7/10.

  1. Live in Las Vegas(2001)

This 4CD has a number of flaws but it still provides a complete concert from 1969 (albeit with the monologue moved to the end of the disc), another from August 1970 (touted as the best Elvis concert ever recorded), and a disc of soundboard recordings from 1974 and 1975.  The last group are rather underwhelming (and needn’t have been), but the two full concerts are worth the price of admission alone.  Reissued recently at a cheaper price and in a slightly smaller format.  6/10.

  1. Memphis Sessions(Follow That Dream, 2001)

This disc is the only complete release given over to outtakes from the 1969 Memphis sessions.  It isn’t quite as satisfying as perhaps it should be, but it’s still a fascinating set, in particular the alternate takes of Power of My Love and Suspicious Minds.  Also, the producers managed to splice something together to make even Hey Jude sound reasonable.  7/10.

  1. Today, Tomorrow and Forever(2002)

Another 4CD this set, this time entirely given over to alternate takes and live performances.  Not as strong as Platinum, with the cream of the unreleased material already having been issued in many cases.  Also some of the songs chosen are head-scratchers.  Was the retail market really interested in outtakes of Never Say Yes?  Still, there are some nice performances here, and the set also provided the first official release of the Little Rock concert from 1956.  7/10.

  1. Close Up(2003)

This 4CD set has one disc dedicated to soundtracks, Nashville recordings, binaural recordings and a concert from 1972.  In other words, it was like four Follow that Dream releases thrown together for no obvious reason.  The main point of interest here is that this is the only official release of any of the concerts recorded for the Elvis on Tour documentary.  6/10.

  1. So High: Nashville Outtakes, 1966-1968(Follow That Dream, 2004)

This disc of outtakes centres on one of the most under-rated periods during Elvis’s career – the non-soundtracks recordings of 1966-1968.  This shows Elvis mostly in fine form, particularly during the How Great Thou Art sessions, but also during 1967 and 1968 as well as with his recordings of Guitar Man, Hi-Heel Sneakers, and You’ll Never Walk Alone. 7/10.

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  1. I Sing All Kinds(Follow That Dream 2007)

This is another of the Follow that Dream discs that feels like an entry in the Essential series.  Concentrating on the 1971 recordings, this is a patchy group of performances, but there is still enough of interest to make this a must for fans (and the only single-disc collection of outtakes from the period).  Mixing seasonal and non-seasonal material together may not have been the best idea, but it is still worthwhile.  6/10.

  1. The Complete ’68 Comeback Special(2008)

Finally, the four unedited live segments of the 1968 TV special were collected together in one package, alongside the original album (with bonus tracks) and the tapes of the dressing room rehearsals.  One only has to wonder why it took until 2008 for this to happen.  Quite why the bonus tracks (such as Let Yourself Go and It Hurts Me) weren’t inserted back into the medley of which they were intended to be a part of is unknown, but that is a small complaint given the quality of music here.  9/10.

  1. Nevada Nights(Follow that Dream, 2008)

This 2CD set contains two concerts from the rather strange August-September 1974 Las Vegas season.  This release is highlighted due to the inclusion of the opening night performance, in which Elvis changed his repertoire a great deal, only to ditch many of the new songs the very next day.  Many have put this down to an unresponsive audience but, listening to the concert, it’s clear that the audience are only reflecting the lack of enthusiasm they see on stage.  Elvis’s singing is largely uninspired, but the inclusion of one-off performances of Good Time Charlies’ Got the Blues, Down in the Alley, and others, make this a must for those wanting to go deeper into the Elvis catalogue, even if the soundboard quality is not the greatest. 6/10.

  1. Elvis as Recorded at Boston Garden ’71(Follow that Dream, 2010)

This fine concert was available for some time on bootleg releases before finally being issued officially on the Follow that Dream label.  It is without doubt the only official release of a 1971 concert that is worthy of this list, and shows Elvis back to performing at his best following the funk he had shown during the two previous Las Vegas seasons.  The sound is not perfect, but decent enough to enjoy this spirited performance.  6/10.

  1. Chicago Stadium(Follow that Dream, 2010)

Chicago Stadium is included as part of an effort to include at least one concert per year from the period 1969 to 1977 within this list.  Recorded on October 15th and 16th, 1976, this double disc set provides two concerts showing Elvis is in surprisingly good form for the year.  Others might suggest that something from the December tour would be more fitting, but in these October shows Elvis seems less agitated and manic than in the later ones, and the sound quality is extremely good (particularly on the second concert) given the soundboard source. While Elvis is still struggling on quieter ballads such as And I Love You So, he is in fine form on the likes of Steamroller Blues and You Gave Me a Mountain.  6/10.

  1. Young Man with the Big Beat(2011)

This 5CD set includes all of Elvis’s studio recordings from 1956, as well as a batch of alternate takes, interviews and live recordings.  Perhaps most important was a newly-discovered Louisiana Hayride performance from December 1956.  Originally issued in deluxe packaging at a high price, this has since been reissued in a smaller format for a little over £10.   8/10.

  1. Elvis at Stax(2013)

If you were wondering why the fifth volume of Essential Elvis from 1998 wasn’t listed here, then this is the reason.  That CD featured alternate takes from the two 1973 sessions at Stax studios.  This 2013 release includes the majority of those takes plus some others besides and the master takes of all the songs recorded.  Not quite as positive a listening experience as the liner notes might have you believe, this is still probably the best way to get hold of the Stax performances.  7/10.

  1. Way Down in the Jungle Room(2016)

This two-disc set attempts to present Elvis’s last recording sessions in the best way possible and, for the most part, succeeds.  The first disc is given over to the master takes, while the second consists of alternate versions, most of which had been issued before on the Follow that Dream label, but not at retail.  The result is a surprisingly satisfying package which, while not being able to demonstrate that Elvis was anything like his best here, still manages to show that he could step up to the mark when he was fully committed.  6/10.

  1. The Hometown Shows(Follow That Dream, 2016)

This double disc set contains two Memphis concerts, one from 1974 and one from 1975.  The 1975 show had been available on bootleg issues for years and here makes its official debut.  The 1974 show, however, had not been released in any form, and it is this concert that assured this release makes this list.  Not only is Elvis in fine spirits and remarkably good voice, but this is also the best-sounding soundboard recording you are ever likely to hear.  7/10.

  1. A Boy from Tupelo(2017)

And we end at the beginning.  This 3CD set includes all of the recordings Elvis made at Sun (including the private discs), as well as all known outtakes and the live recordings from the period that exist in listenable sound quality.  This includes the performance of I Forgot to Remember to Forget that was found a few years ago.  Due for release in July 2017, this promises to be the most historically-significant Elvis release at retail level for many years.    10/10.

Don’t Be Cruel: Presley and the Press, 1956

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By the beginning of 1956, everything was in place for Elvis Presley to burst onto the national and international music scene.  Since July 1954, his recordings for the Memphis-based Sun label and his exciting live performances had brought him regional fame, and Presley was rewarded for his hard work at the end of 1955 when he was signed to the major label RCA.  Within weeks, he would record Heartbreak Hotel, his first single for RCA and his first to reach number 1 in the U.S. charts, and then, at the end of January 1956, he would appear on national television for the first time.  His performances on twelve television episodes over the next year have become both infamous and legendary and, following his final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, 1948-1971) on January 6, 1957, Elvis would only ever appear on television three more times before his death some twenty years later.

Despite all of the success that 1956 would bring Elvis, with three singles and two albums reaching the top spot in the U.S. charts (and that’s without mentioning the release of his first film role), the year would also prove to be a difficult one when it came to his treatment in the national and international press.  This article examines the circumstances of how one television performance in June 1956 resulted in a change of attitudes towards Elvis within print media from little more than curiosity about the new phenomenon to downright hostility and revulsion.

Elvis Presley’s first national TV appearance was on the January 28 edition of Stage Show (CBS, 1954-1956), hosted by big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, singing a medley of Shake, Rattle and Roll  and Flip, Flop and Fly, as well as I Got a Woman.  Both numbers had been staples of his live performances during the Sun years.This was the first of six appearances on the show within the space of just a couple of months.

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Rather strangely, Elvis didn’t perform Heartbreak Hotel, his first RCA single, until his third appearance on the series.  By this point, he appeared to be causing little controversy beyond a few raised eyebrows.  The trade journal Motion Picture Daily referred to him in advance of his fourth appearance as ‘an abandoned performer who plays and sings in a manner that Marlon Brando should, and doesn’t’ (Anon, 1956a: 8) – no doubt a dig at Brando’s vocalising in the previous year’s film Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955).   But the focus was on the failing viewing figures for the television series itself.  ‘Properly exploited,’ we are told, ‘he might even return the Saturday night blue ribbon to CBS,’ but even Elvis (and high profile guests such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dick Haymes, Joey Bishop, and Della Reese) couldn’t save Stage Show from being cancelled in the summer of 1956.

A number of publications saw Elvis as the obvious successor to Johnnie Ray (below), a singer who had entered the charts for the first time in 1951 with his double-sided single Cry and The Little White Cloud That Cried, with the songs reaching #1 and #2 respectively in the U.S. charts.  Ray was seen as a crossover artist of sorts, mixing elements of pop singing with rhythm ‘n’ blues, and his stage performances were notable for his emotional delivery as well as on-stage antics including provocative moves that would later be associated with Elvis himself.  Ray’s popularity faded quite rapidly in the USA (although re-emerged briefly in 1956/7), but lasted until the end of the decade in the UK and Europe, where he would retain a devoted following until his death in 1990.

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Presley’s parallels with Ray came early on.  For example, in their review of Elvis’s first album, Variety stated that ‘Elvis Presley belts away in uninhibited style and his current click continues where the Johnnie Ray vogue of a couple of years ago left off’ (Schoenfeld,1956: 50).  Later, Ed Sullivan was even quoted as saying ‘I’d been told this guy was disrupting the morals of the kids, that his whole appeal was sensual.  But all I saw was a pale carbon copy of Johnnie Ray’ (Doncaster, 1956a: 12).  Looking back at articles from early 1956, there is little suggestion of Elvis being controversial, instead he is simply referred to as ‘frenetic’ and ‘uninhibited’ (Schoenfeld, 1956: 50).

When the New York Times reviewed Elvis’s first album, they also compared Presley to the earlier singer, stating that Elvis was, ‘nominally a country singer, who has the most torrentially belting style since Johnny (sic) Ray’s early days’ (Wilson, 1956: 131).  It’s also interesting that the newspaper, which would go on to criticise Elvis more than any other in the early years of his career, gives the album a surprisingly positive review.  ‘On ballad numbers,’ John Wilson writes, ‘he takes off with a drive that is startling, hair-raising and thoroughly provocative.’

The New York Times also published a positive piece in late May 1956 about a New York library that was trying to lure in young readers through a series of ‘disc jockey concerts,’ with the one in question concentrating on Elvis.  The librarian in charge of the events told the newspaper: ‘It is an important part of the librarian’s work to help young people identify their interests and to guide them in reading that will develop these.  What some youngsters consider music, many adults consider noise.  But libraries aren’t run for individuals with just special kinds of tastes’ (Barclay, 1956: 24).  While many adults were not approving of Elvis’s music, there was at least a tolerance for the latest teen idol.

Not all writers were quite as positive, however.  Gord Atkinson in the Ottawa Citizen, for example, was using the ‘C’-word about Elvis (‘C’ for ‘Controversial’ that is) as early as March 1956, but not in an entirely negative way.  While bemoaning the fact that ‘it’s the gimmick today that seems to make recording stars,’ they do call Elvis ‘the most controversial and electrifying show business personality since Johnny (sic) Ray’ and note that he ‘almost explodes before an audience’ (Atkinson, 1956: 26).

Over in the UK, relatively little was written about Elvis at all in the newspapers of the first half of 1956.  Perhaps most notable was Lionel Crane’s article in the Daily Mirror, entitled Rock Age Idol.  Remembering that UK audiences had yet to see footage of Elvis (outside of, possibly, a newsreel), the article is again one with a tone of curiosity rather than viewing the new star as controversial.  What is perhaps most notable here is that it introduces one of two themes that would recur in articles during the second half of 1956 and beyond: class.  Elvis’s poor background and, in particular, his new-found riches, would be mentioned time and time again as the year went on.  Here the writer quotes Elvis as saying ‘“Look at all these things I got … I got three Cadillacs.  I got forty suits and twenty-seven pairs of shoes.” I asked him how knew it was exactly twenty-seven pairs and he said: “When you ain’t had nothing, like me, you keep count when you get things”’ (Crane, 1956: 9).

Following the series of appearances on Stage Show, Elvis was seen twice on The Milton Berle Show (NBC, 1948-1956).[1]  The first of his appearances was a special edition on April 3, 1956, from the U.S.S. Hancock stationed in San Diego, and saw Elvis on a bill that also included movie star Esther Williams and jazz greats Buddy Rich and Harry James.

By the time of the second Milton Berle appearance on June 5, we start to get early signs that Elvis was being viewed as a commodity as much as a serious artist.  Vernon Scott’s article in the Schenectady Gazette on June 7 (but clearly written before the Berle appearance) is one of the first to find Elvis’s manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, blatantly and unashamedly selling merchandise – to journalists, no less.  He gives Scott a postcard and says ‘this is for you…absolutely free of charge. Any fan who writes in gets one for nothing.  Then, of course, if they want one of our souvenir packages can send in the attached order’ (Scott, 1956: 26).   Elsewhere in the same article, Elvis is asked why he sings ‘such off-beat songs.  Elvis grinned, “I like rock and roll because it’s selling.  But if I had my way I’d be singing ballads and love songs.  Man, I’m no bopster or hipster.  I’m from right back in the country.”’  Once again, we have another reference to Elvis’s background/class (this time through a supposed quote from Elvis himself), and the article also appears to demonstrate a sense of naivety and innocence on his part – a young man caught up in a business he doesn’t quite understand or have control over, but enjoying the ride while it lasts.

While the vast majority of articles in the first five months of 1956 show curiosity, bemusement, and general head-scratching by the authors at the Presley phenomenon, that all changed after the performance of Hound Dog on the second Milton Berle Show appearance.  The articles that appeared shortly afterwards condemning the performance set the tone for how Elvis was seemingly viewed by many adults and conservative America in particular for the rest of the year and beyond.  Previous commentators such as Guralnick (1994) and Jorgensen (1998) have put forward a straightforward account that Elvis’s performance was viewed with disdain by television audiences at the time, and this was the catalyst for the condemnations of Elvis as both a person and an artist that were to follow.  However, the issue is somewhat more complex than this, and has as much to do with how television (and Milton Berle himself) was viewed at the time.

It is easy now, some sixty years later, to wonder what all the fuss was about.  However, television was still in its relative infancy, and many adults were still getting used to the idea of sharing their family evenings together with strangers being beamed into their homes.  Television time in the evening was also family time for parents and kids to gather around the small box in the corner of the room and experience the programme they were watching together.  But people were not yet as comfortable with television as they would be in the decades to come.  However, while parents struggled to grapple with the new medium and the implications it would have on their family life, an article from the period reminded readers that ‘Children and teen-agers in television homes form a unique group in that they will be the first group to grow up with television.  Particularly to children, television is not something intruding upon already established patterns, but is an accepted fact in their lives, present from virtually the beginning.  Television at this point promised to be a part of their total experience far more significant than it can ever be for the great majority of adults’  (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 230).

Despite what appeared to be a concern that children and teenagers might view television in a different way to their parents, there was also the understanding that the new technology could help to bring the family together.  The article goes on to say that there was deemed to be a high percentage of ‘TV owners who express an awareness of an enhanced family solidarity.  Television itself is a new focus of interest, the fact that the family is together more, and the creation of a bridge between adults and children, all reflect the possibility of an enlarging role of television in creating new ties between family members’ (Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger, 1949: 232).   A New York Times article from the same year put it altogether more simply: ‘Today the homely scene has changed.  Mother, Dad and the children aren’t reading books – they’re grouped around the television set in the living room’ (Anon, 1949: 21).

At the same time, there was also a fear of the new technologies that had started entering homes in the years following the end of World War Two.  Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘the home magazines of the postwar era adopted [an] ambivalence toward machines, scrutinizing each step forward in household technology for its possible side effects (Spiegel, 1992: 47).  She goes on to say that ‘the idea of “technology out of control” was constantly repeated as the language of horror and science fiction invaded discussions of everyday life.  The television was often likened to a monster that threatened to wreak havoc on the family’ (ibid).

Television in America was therefore being viewed in contrasting and contradicting ways during the early-to-mid 1950s.  On the one hand, it was seen as an instrument to bring the family together as one but, on the other, there was almost a sense of fear that it could also ‘wreak havoc’ on the same family, not least because what children and teenagers liked to watch and what parents wanted them to watch were often vastly different to each other.  Spiegel notes that ‘as numerous surveys indicated, youngsters often preferred the programs that parents found unwholesome, especially science-fiction serials and westerns’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57).   These concerns were nothing new, nor were they exclusive to the medium of television, having been debated around film almost since the movies began and, in part, leading to the introduction of the Production Code.  Even this, however, did not stop all concerns.  For example, in 1947 the New York Times reported that ‘crime movies and radio programs offer too many pointers on criminal methods to youngsters, members of the Women’s City Club of New York declared yesterday at an open meeting’ (Anon, 1947: 25).

Despite (or because of) these various arguments, many saw the people they were watching on television as, essentially, being invited into their homes, and therefore they expected them to be on their best behaviour and act as they would expect their own family to act – and not everyone on television was obeying those unspoken rules.  At the very centre of this issue was Milton Berle whose variety show was entitled at the time Texaco Star Theater.  Lynn Spiegel writes that ‘Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater (which was famous for its inclusion of “off-color” cabaret humor) became so popular with children that Berle adopted the personal of Uncle Miltie, pandering to parents by telling his juvenile audience to obey their elders and go straight to bed when the program ended’ (Spiegel, 1992: 57).

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Criticism of Berle’s television shows began in the early 1950s.  Jack Gould (who would go on to be one of the most vocal critics of Elvis Presley in 1956) launched an attack on Berle’s show in the New York Times in September 1951.   ‘Uncle Milty, the self-appointed guardian of the nation’s youth on Tuesday nights,’ Gould writes, ‘is a rather trying relative this season’ (Gould, 1951: 32).  He goes on to accuse Berle of reducing his performance to the ‘one-dimensional plane of the burlesque comedian.’  Speaking of Berle’s various guises during his television appearances, he says ‘the characterization is neither pleasant nor amusing any more and, as executed by Mr. Berle, has a harshness and coarseness which are most unpalatable.’  Perhaps most notable within the article are references to the striptease and the burlesque – terms that Gould would go on to use in relation to Elvis.  He ends his article by writing  ‘Steadily creeping in Berle’s act are routines more generally associated with the runway of the burlesque house than the screen of home TV. … Mr Berle could not resist the temptation last Tuesday [of] prancing around to the accompaniment of the standard theme for a striptease. … Much of the contemporary Berle humor has for its payoff  some reliance directly or indirectly on effeminacy, and already this season the comedian has come through with the inevitable reference to the trapdoor on the long underwear. … Television viewers are not prudes…but Mr. Berle has rather special obligations to TV…with a large children’s audience, [and] he must keep in mind that there are minimum standards he is expected to observe’ (Gould, 1951: 32).

By the time Elvis appeared on what was by then called simply The Milton Berle Show in 1956, Berle’s fortunes had fallen considerable from the early 1950s when he was generally known as ‘Mr. Television.’  Texaco had withdrawn their sponsorship several years earlier following falling ratings, and the show had thereafter gone through format changes, for a time becoming what is best described as a backstage sitcom with Berle playing an exaggerated version of himself, with ‘self-deprecating jokes about Berle the control freak, Berle the egomaniac, Berle the frantic comic’ (Inman, 2006: 18).  When Elvis performed on a special edition of the show from the U.S.S. Hancock on April 3, 1956, as with the Stage Show appearances, reviews were indifferent.  There was certainly none of the outpouring of shock, revulsion and hatred that would follow the June 5, 1956 show – the very last episode of The Milton Berle Show to air.

The Berle show had already been cancelled (and was only airing every three weeks during its final run), and so eyes appear to have been on the programme to see how Berle’s eight-year residency on a Tuesday evening would come to an end.  Elvis performed both I Want You, I Need You, I Love You and Hound Dog.  The latter was a song that he heard performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys during Elvis’s largely unsuccessful stint in Las Vegas during late April and early May, and quickly incorporated it into his act.  The performance of the song on The Milton Berle Show was similar to that which he had been giving in concerts for the previous few weeks.  Dispensing with his guitar, television audiences got to the see the gyrations that Elvis’s live shows were becoming famous for.  This would, perhaps, have been bad enough but, for the last minute or so of the song, he cut the tempo in half, upped the ante when it came to his suggestive movements, and treated viewers to what is perhaps best (and most often) described as a ‘bump ‘n’ grind’ routine.  Guralnick states that he ‘goes into his patented half-time ending, gripping the mike, circling it sensuously, jackknifing his legs out as the audience half-screams, half-laughs, and he laughs, too – it is clearly all in good fun’ (Guralnick, 1994: 284).

As we have already learned, there was already concerns about what children and teenagers were seeing on television during this period, and The Milton Berle Show (in its various guises) had already come in for criticism for this.  Now, as Berle was saying goodbye to his television show, with much of America watching, Elvis had turned television into the unwanted ‘monster’ and ‘bad influence’ that much of middle America had been fearing.  Watching Elvis’s performance now allows us to appreciate that the young performer was, as Guralnick suggests, just having a bit of fun – the end of Hound Dog is clearly tongue-in-cheek rather than intending to be viewed as something overtly sexual.  What’s more, Berle’s history of ‘off-colour’ humour during his period as a TV show host only compounded the issue.  There is also the unanswered question of whether Elvis’s half-speed finale to Hound Dog was planned or off-the-cuff.  A surviving live recording from a concert in Little Rock a couple of weeks earlier informs us that this was part of Elvis’s normal act and so, presumably, he would have performed it that way during rehearsals for the television show.  This, in turn, begs the question of why someone didn’t inform him that such a routine wasn’t suitable for television audiences.  Or, perhaps, with it being the last show in the series, no-one cared anymore.

The criticisms came thick and fast.  One of the first and most scathing was Jack Gould in the New York Times who, as we have already seen, had been one of the most vocal critics of Milton Berle’s variety show.  He started by criticising Elvis’s vocals.  ‘For the ear he is an unutterable bore,’ he said, ‘not nearly so talented as Frankie Sinatra back in the latter’s rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theatre.  Nor does he convey the emotional fury of a Johnnie Ray’ (Gould, 1956a: 67).  He went on: ‘His one speciality is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde-bombshells of the burlesque runway.’  Elvis was essentially being compared to a female stripper but, as we have seen, these are not dissimilar accusations to those that Gould had already made against the Berle show when it was still Texaco Star Theater back in 1951, comparing Berle’s comedy routines to burlesque.  While Elvis’s Hound Dog routine was clearly pushing the boundaries of acceptable taste on television at the time, one also has to wonder, given the past criticisms of Berle and his shows, whether he would have attracted less condemnation had he performed in a similar way on a show hosted by someone else.  Either way, the floodgates had opened, and attacks on Elvis and his performances continued unabated.

Gould didn’t end his tirade on Elvis with the Berle show. With Berle no longer on air, Gould appears to have found in Elvis a new corrupting influence to campaign against.  Picking up again three months later, following Elvis’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Gould wrote that Elvis ‘injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful’ (Gould, 1956b: X13).  He then launched into a strange and almost hysterical monologue about how teenagers were being failed by society.  He complains that teenagers have too much money in their pocket and that easy access to cars has ‘been accompanied by a lessening of parental control.  Small wonder, therefore, that the teen-ager is susceptible to overstimulation from the outside’ (ibid)  He goes on to blame record companies who have ‘disgraced themselves’ by ‘some of the rock ‘n’ roll songs it has issued.’  He ends his rant with the hope that Elvis ‘will do everyone a favour by pointing up the need for earlier sex education so that neither his successors nor TV can capitalize on the idea that his type of routine is somehow highly tempting yet forbidden fruit…If the profiteering hypocrite is above reproach and Presley isn’t, today’s youngsters might well ask what God do adults worship.’

While Gould might have been the most vocal opponent of Presley in the mainstream American media of the time, he certainly wasn’t the only writer at the time to compare Elvis to a female stripper – and attacks on Elvis’s masculinity were something which continued within newspapers and magazines right through until his death in 1977 and beyond.  Pat Doncaster reminded UK readers in December 1956 that Elvis had been called ‘a male burlesque dancer’ and a ‘male Marilyn Monroe’ (Doncaster, 1956b: 7).

Jane Newcomb, in the same month, repeats the stripper complaint telling us that ‘his wiggles have been variously described as: shagging, jazzing it up and acting like his pants were on fire.  … They are all slang terms for the physical act of love.  And this, most people agree, is what is selling Presley.  Just plain, crude sex’ (Newcomb, 1956: 9).  Newcomb’s article continually refers to sex.  ‘Every girl watching him sees herself as Elvis’ partner in his fantastic writhing orgy,’ she writes.

Newcomb also makes reference to Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show (NBC, 1956-1960), telling readers that he had been ‘de-sexed’ on the show.  Elvis’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show, on July 1, 1956, is almost as infamous as his one on The Milton Berle Show. Unlike Berle’s show, which was reaching the end of its run, Allen’s was just starting out in a new format that concentrated more on comedy than on variety.  Allen’s humour was also very different to Berle’s.  While Berle was often low-brow, Allen tended to veer more towards satire, and often poking fun at the establishment with it realising.  He presented on his show the ‘new’ Elvis Presley, with Elvis wearing a full dress suit and singing Hound Dog to a real basset hound.  Allen wrote nearly forty years later that ‘When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program. I asked him to sing Hound Dog (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe – white tie and tails – and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare. For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat’ (Allen, 1992: 172).

Many fans believed that Allen, who had stated on record that he didn’t care for rock ‘n’ roll, was simply making fun of Elvis.  However, Allen was correct when he said that the routine fitted into the ‘comedy fabric’ of the program, and certainly Elvis wasn’t the only performer on the show to be presented in such a way.  When Jerry Lee Lewis kicked his piano stool off-stage during his appearance, it can be seen thrown back on to the stage again (presumably by Allen).

Allen was, in fact, one of the first to jump to the defence of Elvis following the Milton Berle appearance.  Allen had been criticised in the Sarasota Journal for booking Elvis on his TV show, to which he replied:  ‘He has made many TV appearances before the Berle show, all without arousing any hue or cry, so there can be no firm basis for keeping him off TV altogether.  The heart of the matter is that he thoughtlessly indulged in certain dance movements in his LAST TV appearance which a number of people thought objectionable. … When I was a teenager all the adults I knew told me that Frank Sinatra had no talent.  Later I’ve heard it said that Vaughn Monroe had no talent, that Liberace had no talent.  I’m sure the point is obvious’ (Allen, 1956: 2).

Allen’s point, quite clearly, was whether someone had talent or not was not something that could be measured in a definitive way, and that previous teen idols who had been criticised when they came on to the scene were now respected members of the music world and that the same might happen to Elvis (and, of course, Allen turned out to be correct).

Another subject that often arose in articles about Presley at the time was that of his poor background, his upbringing, and his newfound wealth – with the rise from poverty to riches seemingly irking the journalists as much as Elvis’s gyrations.   Many writers of the period seemed to think that somebody from Elvis’s poor background should stay there, and in not doing so, he was punching above his weight or trying to be something he was not.  ‘He’s been criticised for his wild extravagance in buying four cadillacs,’ Jules Archer wrote.  ‘But this seems an understandable spree for a youngster who is now being showered with sudden wealth, but who as a child only saw meat on the table once a month’ (Archer, 1956: 19).

Newspapers, particularly the New York Times, appeared to see this change in financial fortune as pretension.  We can see this coming through most notably if we return to Jack Gould’s attacking piece from just after the Berle show aired.  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’ (Gould, 1956a: 67).   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’.

It was almost inevitable that Elvis’s acting in his first movie would be criticised, particularly in the hostile New York Times.  It was, after all, seen as Elvis trying to go legit – here he was trying to prove he was an actor when the newspaper wouldn’t even believe he could be called a singer.  Again, it was being misinterpreted as something akin to pretension or, more simply, another case of Elvis trying to be something he wasn’t. Bosley Crowther’s put-down in his review of  Love Me Tender (Robert D. Webb, 1956) is almost legendary:  ‘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 one of the slavering nags’ (Crowther, 1956: 22).

It was only with the arrival of G. I. Blues (Norman Taurog, 1960) in 1960 that Crowther would start to give Elvis some slack, and thereafter many Elvis films were given good reviews in the New York Times, particularly the light-hearted musical comedies.  They weren’t, after all, attempts by Presley to be taken seriously as an actor as he was in the 1950s, but seen as an admittance that what he was good for was ninety minutes of fluffy nonsense with nice scenery, a few palatable songs, and pretty girls.  The New York Times were far happier with that; any attempt at being a dramatic actor had gone.  The status quo had been returned.    Elvis now knew his place.

Love Me Tender also got poor reviews elsewhere.  In the UK, The Times thought that Elvis sang with ‘jerks that suggest a species of St. Vitus’s dance and breathlessness natural to the end of a cross-country race’ (Anon, 1956b: 5).  Rather oddly, the anonymous writer also thought there were ‘some pleasant scenes of train hold-ups and robberies!’

While Elvis’s class, aspirations, singing, acting, and even masculinity were under attack, there were still some people that were willing to stand up in defence of the young star.  Jock Carroll, a Canadian writer, came to Elvis’s defence in Weekend magazine with a lengthy article simply entitled I Like Elvis Presley.  ‘The solemn accusation that these old codgers throw at our boy is that he is “selling sex,”’ he writes. ‘Come now, fellows.  Ever hear of Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Jane Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt? Or, perhaps in your day, Mae West or Theda Bara?  What do you think the girls have been selling?  Violin lessons?’ (Carroll, J. 1956: 7).  It’s interesting to note that, once again, Elvis was being compared to women and not men.  Carroll could just as easily have listed Valentino, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.  The meaning would have been the same.

But it was John S. Wilson who was the critic that perhaps made others think again about the musical worth of Presley.  In his lengthy review of Elvis’s second album, he refers to Elvis’s ‘impressive, if sometimes distorted, talent’ (Wilson, 1957: X16).  Elsewhere he praises Elvis’s mastery of the blues in So Glad You’re Mine, Anyplace is Paradise and Long Tall Sally, before stating that between his first and second album there has been ‘an improvement in his diction, in the use he makes of his strong natural voice, and in the thoughtfulness of his presentations.’

Despite the album being released in October 1956, the review was not published until mid-January 1957.  By this point, Elvis had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on three occasions, with his final performance ending with Sullivan patting Elvis on the back and telling him he was ‘thoroughly alright.’  It was the start of the change of public (and critical) opinion towards Elvis.  Sullivan, like Berle had once been in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was treated by audiences as part of the family, invited into their homes each week, but Sullivan had attracted none of the controversy of Berle.  Indeed, Sullivan’s show was possibly the most family-friendly variety programme on television.  If Sullivan thought Elvis was alright, then perhaps he was.

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While the print media didn’t change its mind about Elvis overnight following the endorsement from Sullivan, attitudes towards him and his music softened in general.  That said, it was not all smooth sailing from this point on.  For example, a review of Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957) in the UK referred to it as a ‘dreadful film.  An unsavoury, nauseating, queasy-making film, to turn even the best insulated stomachs’ (Zec, 1958: 11).  Also, not all of the American public were convinced either.  In response to a defence of Elvis by Fred Sparks, letters poured in both for and against Elvis.  ‘Your pal Presley acts like a baby with a handful of blue blades who’s been told to go play in traffic,’ writes one (Sparks, 1957: 12).  While another doesn’t hold back, saying that ‘the joker can’t sing on key.  When he tries his eppiglotis stands out like a jumping frog on account of because frogs croak and it’s an awful strain (sic).  He has a nasty curled lip, a mean eye and those ridiculous sideburns remind me of a hoss-rangler who was hanged a long time ago in Helena, Montana.’

Elvis’ Christmas Album, released in late 1957, was also greeted with contempt and, in some cases, horror, by a number of critics, and a few radio stations banned the playing of any tracks from the record.  However, the often-told story that Irving Berlin was so incensed by Elvis’s version of White Christmas that he and his staff called radio stations imploring them not to play the track, appears, following an in-depth search of trade journals/magazines and newspapers of the time, to be unfounded.  There appears to be no indication in any print media from the time that this ever happened.

Elvis’s transformation in the media from a bad influence on teenagers to ‘thoroughly all right’ was completed when he spent two years in the army, from 1958 to 1960, and then was welcomed home in a TV special hosted by then-establishment figure Frank Sinatra, even allowing the former and current teen idols to tentatively duet together for the one and only time.  This was swiftly followed by the release of the romantic comedy G. I. Blues, the gospel album His Hand in Mine, and singles such as Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now or Never, that reached out far beyond the core Elvis fan base.  The transformation (still a controversial one among some of the fan base) from rock ‘n’ roll performer to family entertainer was complete.

1956 was, without doubt, the most important year in Elvis Presley’s career.  His recordings and television performances within those twelve months have gone down as some of the most important moments in 20th Century cultural history.  While he started out the year by simply causing many to raise their eyebrows, just a two-minute performance of Hound Dog on The Milton Berle Show turned opinions from confusion to outrage.  What is clear, however, when putting this performance into a wider context of television history (and therefore cultural and social history) is that Elvis very much became a scapegoat for those that disapproved of the changes going on around them, from the new technology of television through to the social acceptance (and even the embracing) of less prudish elements of entertainment that came with the new technology and, most importantly, the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, which would change popular music forever.

 

REFERENCES

Allen, S. (1956).  ‘Steve Allen Defends Appearance of Presley.’  Sarasota Journal, 28 June, p.2

Allen, S. (1992).  Hi-Ho, Steverino! My Adventures in the Wonderful Wacky World of TV.  Thorndike: Thorndike Press.

Anon. (1947). ‘Woman Assail, Defend Effects of Programs on Children, with Changes Suggested.’ New York Times, 7 November, p.25.

Anon. (1949). ‘Television Feared as Foe to Culture.’ New York Times, 3 January, p.21.

Anon. (1956a).  ‘Passing in Review.’ Motion Picture Daily, 14 February, p.8.

Anon. (1956b). ‘Mr Elvis Presley’s First Film.’ The Times, 11 December, p.5.

Archer, J. (1956). ‘Stop Hounding Teenagers.’ True Story, December, pp.18-28.

Atkinson, G. (1956).  ‘Possibilities in the “Pops”.’  Ottawa Citizen, 31 March, p.26.

Barclay, D. (1956). ‘Library Rocks ‘n’ Rolls, and Books Come Later.’ New York Times, 24 May, p.24.

Carroll, J. (1956).  ‘I Like Elvis Presley.’ Weekend, 8 September 1956, p.7.

Crane, L. (1956). ‘Rock Age Idol.’ Daily Mirror, April 30, p.9.

Crowther, B. (1956). ‘The Screen: Culture Takes a Holiday.’ New York Times, 16 November, p.22.

Doncaster, P. (1956a). ‘Do We Want this Shockin’ Rockin’?’ Daily Mirror, 16 August, p.12

Doncaster, P. (1956b).  ‘The Rage of the Year.’ Daily Mirror, 28 December, p.7.

The Ed Sullivan Show. (1956).  TV, CBS. September 9.

The Ed Sullivan Show. (1957).  TV, CBS. January 6.

G. I. Blues, (1960). Film. Directed by Norman Taurog.  USA: Paramount.

Gould, J. (1951).  ‘Radio and Television.’ New York Times, September 28, p.32.

Gould, J. (1956a).  ‘TV: New Phenomenon.’ New York Times, 5 June, p.67.

Gould, J. (1956b). ‘Elvis Presley.’ New York Times, 16 September, p.X13.

Gurlanick, P. (1994).  Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. London: Abacus.

Guys and Dolls. (1955).  Film. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. USA: Goldwyn

Inman, D. M. (2006). Television Variety Shows: Histories and Episode Guides to 57 Programs. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

Jailhouse Rock. (1957).  Film.  Directed by Richard Thorpe.  USA: MGM.

Love Me Tender. (1956).  Film.  Directed by Robert D. Webb. USA: Twentieth Century Fox.

The Milton Berle Show.  (1956).  TV, NBC.  April 3.

The Milton Berle Show. (1956).  TV, NBC.  June 5.

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

Newcomb, J. (1956). ‘The Ants in Elvis Presley’s Pants.’ Exposed, December, pp.9-11, 55.

Riley, J.W. Cantwell, F.V. and Ruttiger, K.F. (1949).  ‘Some Observations on the Social Effects of Television.’ Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol 13, No. 2, pp. 223-234.

Schoenfeld, H. (1956).  ‘Album Reviews.’ Variety, 14 March, p.50.

Scott, V. (1956).  ‘“Can’t Sing Worth a Hoot’, Elvis Presley Drawls.’ Schenectady Gazette, 7 June, p.26.

Sparks, F. (1957). ‘Why Elvis Fans Howl Like Hound Dogs.’ Movie Teen Illustrated, Summer, pp.10-12.

Spiegel, L. (1992).  Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stage Show. (1956).  TV, CBS.  January 28.

Stage Show. (1956).  TV, CBS.  February 11.

Stage Show. (1956).  TV, CBS.  February 18.

The Steve Allen Show. (1956). TV, NBC. July 1.

Wilson, J. (1956).  ‘Stylists in Jazz.’ New York Times, April 15, 1956, p.131.

Wilson, J. (1957).  ‘Elvis Presley: Rocking Blues Shouter.’ New York Times, 13 January, p.X16.

Zec, D. (1957). ‘Elvis, You’re a Bore!’ Daily Mirror, 16 January, p.11.

[1] Dates given here are for The Milton Berle Show in all its incarnations and covering the various title changes over the years.

Destination Victoria Station: the Lost Johnny Cash album.

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A few years ago, Sony released a 63CD set called “Johnny Cash: The Complete Album Collection” which also included an album originally issued on the Supraphon label and another which was only issued in the UK.  Bearing this in mind, it seems somewhat surprising that there is still a “lost” Columbia album that hasn’t been reissued since its initial release back in 1975.

“Destination Victoria Station” was released by Columbia Special Products and could only be bought at Victoria Station restaurants, meaning that it was unavailable outside America even back in 1975.   This is basically an LP in which Cash sings about trains – one of his favourite subjects from the Sun years through to his final recordings in 2002.   Eleven of the twelve songs included are familiar to Cash fans – but not necessarily these performances of them.

Five songs previously recorded by Cash were here given a makeover to either a lesser or greater extent:  Casey Jones, Hey Porter, John Henry, Waitin’ For a Train, and Wreck of the Old ’97 were all re-recorded for the project, some in very different arrangements.  Meanwhile (and rather bizarrely) two more songs had new vocals added to the backing tracks used on previous recordings.  These are Orange Blossom Special and Wabash Cannonball.  The title song, Destination Victoria Station, was a brand new studio recording of a brand new song, which was later given a live outing on the UK-only album Strawberry Cake – an album perhaps best known for having an IRA bomb alert in the middle of the concert, causing the audience to be evacuated (all of which is heard on the LP).  Thankfully, it was a hoax.   The remaining four songs are taken from Cash albums ranging from 1968 to 1975.  Folsom Prison Blues is taken from the 1968 live album recorded at Folsom Prison, whereas Texas-1947, City of New Orleans, and Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy come from obscure LPs from the early to mid-1970s.

This mish-mash of sources and recordings should result in a rather shoddy album, but that isn’t true.  In fact, it is actually a cut above most of what Johnny Cash was releasing at the time.  On the eight new performances, Cash is in splendid form.  He gives the remakes a rather different, less frenetic, more relaxed feel, to their previous studio incarnations, with them having more of a fatherly-tone in the storytelling – and most of these are story songs.  Only Orange Blossom Special is something of a disappointment, with the new vocal appearing to be half-hearted, but I wonder if it ever did work particularly well in the studio compared to the exciting live performances that came later.  The new song is appealing enough, even if it was never going to be a classic Cash composition – and it’s placing as the final track leaves the album with a rather bland ending.  It’s also nice to hear some of the reissued tracks here too.  City of New Orleans never deserved to be stuck on the rather appalling Johnny Cash and his Woman album, and Texas 1947 (from Look at them Beans) is as good a train song as Cash ever sang, and deserves to be much better known.

While Destination Victoria Station is not a masterpiece, it certainly deserves to be better known, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t included in 63CD boxed set.  The fact that it is a themed album means it holds together as a listening experience much better than other LPs of the period such as John R. Cash, the Junkie and the Juicehead, and Look at Them Beans which mix the great with the not so great, and the secular with the sacred.  The likelihood of it ever appearing on CD now appears to be slim – although it would be nice to see it appear in the Bootleg series, pulling together the other “lost” Cash Columbia sides at the same time.  In the meantime, the vinyl edition from 1975 is kicking around on eBay or Amazon marketplace surprisingly cheaply, and is well worth your time if you are a Cash fan.

Ella Fitzgerald’s Country Album: Misty Blue

117365037It’s hardly surprising that viewpoints on this album vary wildly. For fans of Ella’s jazz material, it’s a waste of talent. For fans of country music, it’s a weird mish-mash of styles. But, let’s be honest, Ella had never been JUST a jazz singer. In fact, she had wrapped her tonsils around country music before, such as A Satisfied Mind back in 1955, and much of her material from the early to mid-1950s wasn’t jazz either, with her tackling the likes of Crying in the Chapel and Soldier Boy during those sessions. And, throughout the 1960s, she incorporated some of the “now sounds” (as she called them) into her albums and concerts, including Beatles tracks and the likes of Walk Right In. So, really, this country album didn’t come completely out of left-field.

It certainly was a strange choice of album as her first project for Capitol, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. In fact, it’s hugely enjoyable for the most part. Ella’s country is not dissimilar in sound to that on Bobby Darin’s You’re the Reason I’m Living album – and by that I mean that it takes country material and melds it with big band instrumentation. The songs are well-chosen too, with Ella given the chance to sing some rather feisty lyrics such as “This Gun Doesn’t Care Who It Shoots,” and there is also a wink and a nudge on a few tracks too, such as Evil on Your Mind and Don’t Let That Doorknob Hit You.

Ella was probably never in better voice than in the mid-1960s. On ballads, she had a fuller sound that was silky smooth, but she was also adding a kind of soul-like rasp to her voice on bluesier and upbeat material. The best songs here are those written by Hank Cochran – It’s Only Love and Don’t Touch Me, with Ella’s performance of the latter being truly beautiful. Also listen out for the phrasing on Born to Lose – absolutely stunning.

These songs might not have been her natural “bag” but they are beautifully recorded and Ella throws herself into this (on the face of it) unlikely project with great enthusiasm. She would continue to explore new avenues during the late 1960s with an album of hymns and spirituals, and even dalliances with rock on her two albums for Reprise – and that’s not to mention her reinvention of Hey Jude on the under-rated Sunshine of Your Love LP. In concert she would wail her way through Spinning Wheel, and even enter protest territory with What’s Going On (recorded live twice) and her own Capitol single It’s Up to You and Me – her self-penned response to the killing of Martin Luther King that has sadly never made it to CD.

Bobby Darin at 80: 10 Key Tracks

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May 14, 2016 would have been the 80th birthday of Bobby Darin.   In celebration, here is a look at ten key (although not always obvious) recordings from the five hundred or so that Bobby made between 1956 and 1973.

Silly Willy (1956)

Some singers find their voice the very first time they set foot inside a recording studio, and record some of their greatest work during their early years.  Elvis Presley is probably the best example of this, recording the classic That’s All Right at his very first professional recording session.  This was not the case for Bobby Darin, however.  In fact, it was over two years after he entered a studio before he recorded his breakthrough single, Splish Splash.  Prior to that, Bobby seemed to be constantly in search of his own sound, with many of his early records adopting the styles and mannerisms of other singers of the period.  He needed something to make him stand out from the rest of the would-be pop stars trying to carve themselves a career in the mid-1950s, and that something was his own identity.  Nowhere is this more noticeable than during the eight sides he recorded during his short tenure with Decca.

Recorded at his first session was a song that saw Bobby turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom.  Silly Willy is no Splish Splash, however.  Much of the problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempi and rhythms that the song employs.  It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should.

Silly Willy is interesting, however, in that it provides us with our first audible clue that Bobby wanted to be more than just a pop singer.  The number has its roots in a 1920s risqué jazz number about a drug-addicted chimney sweeper called Willie the Weeper which, in turn, provided the inspiration for Minnie the Moocher, which Darin would record a few years later.  The lyrics of the first verse of Silly Willy and Willie the Weeper are so similar that it’s clear that Bobby knew the more obscure song and was drawing from that rather than the better known Minnie the Moocher.  The first verse of Willie the Weeper reads:

Have you heard the story, folks, of Willie the Weeper?/Willie’s occupation was a chimney sweeper/He had a dreamin’ habit, he had it kind of bad/Listen, let me tell you ’bout the dream he had.

Silly Willy barely changes the lyrics at all:

Listen to the story about Willy the Weeper/Willy the Weeper was a long time sleeper/He went to sleep one night and dreamed so bad/Now let me tell you about the dream that little Willy had.

What is remarkable here is not the fact that Bobby Darin “borrowed” lyrics from an older song (this was not a rare occurrence in pop music at the time), but that he knew the lyrics to Willie the Weeper at all.  Most of the well-known recordings, such as those by Louis Armstrong and George Lewis, were instrumentals – possibly with good reason due to the song’s repeated references to “dope” and taking “pills” – and so one has to wonder where Bobby heard the lyrics in the first place.  If nothing else, it shows just how wide his knowledge of popular music was even at the tender age of nineteen.

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (1958)

Bobby struggled to find a breakthrough hit following his move to ATCO in 1957, but eventually made the big time with Splish Splash.  However, never one to rest on his laurels, he wanted to try new things and avoid being pigeon-holed as just another rock ‘n’ roll singer.  In late 1958 he recorded his That’s All album, which would feature the track which would become his signature song, Mack the Knife. 

On the same album was Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, taken from a 1920s operetta called The New Moon.  The treatment it receives here is raucous and brash, both in the arrangement and the singing, and it’s clear that the whole point is that it is going against how the song was originally conceived and normally performed (particularly within a vocal arrangement).

There is a possibility that Bobby got this idea from the 1954 Hollywood biopic of the song’s composer, Sigmund Romberg.  In Deep in my Heart (Stanley Donen), Romberg, played by José Ferrer, attends a show in which the song is being performed and is mortified at the up-tempo, crass arrangement of his beloved composition.  There is more than just this casual link between the two performances.  For example, towards the end of the song, Bobby changes the lyrics in exactly the same way as they are in the film sequence by repeating words:  “Softly, softly, as in an evening sunset, sunset.”  But he goes yet further, breaking the “fourth wall” and talking to arranger/conductor Richard Wess, telling him “the title of this tune is Softly, so can we do it that way please?”  He then proceeds to sing it louder than ever.  It’s a brash and cocky move, totally breaking with convention, and the kind of thing which separates him from Sinatra, who treated his material somewhat more reverently.

Sinatra did come close, however, on the rarely heard attempt-at-a-hit Ya Better Stop, recorded in 1954, in which he shouts as the song starts to fade: “Oh here now, this ain’t gonna be another of those fade-away records.  Get your grimy hand off that dial, man!”  The chief difference here is that Sinatra waits until the song is over before his interjection, whereas Darin is making out that he has almost no regard for the song itself in the way it was originally intended.  That, no doubt, was not the case, but Romberg was probably turning in his grave despite the fact that Bobby had just exposed his relatively obscure song to a new generation. Ya Better Stop remained unreleased until 1978, nearly twenty years after Bobby’s recording of Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.

Milord (1960)

Bobby wasn’t just recording in different genres, he was now recording in different languages!  Only one song appears to have been recorded at the session on June 20, 1960, in New York, but it’s a Darin classic, albeit one that is not particularly well-known.  A year earlier, Bobby had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same bill as Edith Piaf, and here he takes one of her signature songs and turns it into a tour-de-force.

Milord is one of Bobby’s most infectious recordings, and there are few recordings within the Darin legacy where his enjoyment of singing a particular song jumps out of every groove as much as it does here.   He sings the entire number in the original French, although he changes a few words to account for the song being sung by a man instead of a woman.  There is a Gallic element to the orchestration thanks to the use of the accordion, but the arrangement gains momentum with each verse, until Darin lets loose completely during the instrumental, singing along and clearly having a ball.  The only fault, perhaps, is that it’s all over in two minutes – but what a great two minutes!

Despite the wonderful singing and arrangement, ATCO clearly didn’t quite know what to do with a song sung completely in French, and it languished in their vaults for four years before they released it as a single, reaching #45 in the U.S. charts during a period where Darin was having something of a lull when it came to chart success.  The Daily Mirror in the U.K. called the release “interesting, but I can’t see it tearing the charts apart.” Likewise, the Australian press weren’t too excited either, saying “as great an entertainer as Darin is, he doesn’t inject into the number the mood and feeling that Piaf did.”

It’s hard to tell what the critics were listening to, but it certainly didn’t seem to be Bobby’s version of Milord.

I Got a Woman (1961)

Darin had already recorded I Got a Woman at the jazz combo sessions nearly two years earlier that had produced the Winners album (that version remains unreleased), and also for the Darin at the Copa album.  However, he tackled it again for his Bobby Darin sings Ray Charles LP – for a whole six and a half minutes.  The song starts off in normal fashion, but then Bobby keeps the “alright” ending of the song going for over three minutes despite it being basically the same line repeated over and over again.  This is Darin at his most self-indulgent, and yet there is still a point to it, for he finds almost every possible variation of singing that line during this extended coda which listeners are going to love or tire of quickly and simply hit the “next” button on the remote control.  There is also a rawness here, particularly with this song.  During the main section, he reaches for notes and misses them, but it doesn’t matter – Darin is showing us that this music is all about “feel” and not about technical perfection, and he hits that message home time and again during the course of the album.

I’m on My Way, Great God (1962)

In July 1962, Bobby started work on his first album of folk songs.  Earthy wouldn’t simply tap into the then-current vogue for folk music, though, but would instead pull together both traditional songs from around the globe as well as newer compositions written by the likes of Tom Paxton.

I’m on My Way Great God is the first of the spiritual/gospel songs on the album, and it is quite an epic.  It starts off with minimal instrumentation, with the arrangement growing subtly with each subsequent verse.  The song also utilises a choir, but here they are not at all intrusive in the way that they are on the big band album recorded during the same series of sessions.  It’s interesting to note just how controlled Darin’s vocal is, starting off at barely a whisper, and then slowly but surely getting more and more powerful over the four-and-a-half minute running time.  Bobby, no doubt, was aware he had a showstopper on his hands, and included the number in the folk section of his live concerts through 1963 as well as when he appeared on The Judy Garland Show filmed just days after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Gyp the Cat (1964/5)

In 1964, Bobby couldn’t get a hit record for love nor money.  In September 1964, he made his first attempt at recording his own composition Gyp the Cat, a clever pastiche of Mack the Knife, this time about a thief, and using a similar melody to the Kurt Weill song.  As with Mack the Knife, the song tells a story, and the arrangement works in the same way, with it gaining in intensity with each successive verse.  It’s a lighter affair lyrically, with a nice twist in the final verse, and would have been a better choice of single than Hello Dolly which was released instead.  Despite the British Invasion, there was clearly still a place in the singles charts for this type of material, as Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and the Darin-produced Wayne Newton hit Danke Schoen had shown.  The 1964 version of Gyp the Cat remained unissued until thirty-odd years later, with a 1965 recording of the same song issued as a B-side.  It was something of a waste of a fun Darin original, in his signature style, and showing that he could poke fun at himself through a pastiche of his earlier hit.

We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here (1965)

We Didn’t Ask to be Brought Here (recorded just after he returned to Atlantic in 1965) was a fine, adult, contemporary pop song with a clear message and, as such, was Darin’s first overtly political single.  While there were no specifics mentioned within the song, it would have been clear to listeners at the time that the song was referring to events such as the Vietnam War and the Cold War when he sings “the world’s gone mad.”  Billboard called the single “his greatest chance for the charts since Mack the Knife.  In the current commercial protest vein, he excels with his own composition backed by a hard driving dance beat.”  Sadly, very few got to hear it, and the single sank almost with trace.  One has to wonder if both Darin and the advertisements for the song had something to do with it.  An original advert is shown in Jeff Bleiel’s book, That’s All, and tells the reader that the song has a “great message” but then has a picture of Darin in a suit and tie – hardly the image associated with someone singing a protest song in 1965. The image and the content were simply an anachronism.

If I Were a Carpenter (1966)

Bobby Darin told many times in concert a humorous story of how a couple of agents came to see him in 1965 or 1966 and offered him songs by the likes of John Sebastian and Tim Hardin that he rejected and that went on to become hits.  Quite how much of the story is true is debatable, although it was no doubt at least partly based in fact, even if it had been somewhat embellished.  “When they came to me the next time, I was lying in wait for them,” he told an audience in 1973, and the song he ended up recording was If I Were a Carpenter, a number which would introduce yet another phase in the career of Bobby Darin.

Despite the fact that Darin spent time trying to ease the rumours that Tim Hardin was annoyed at him “stealing his song,” the original stories still make for good copy.  Fred Dellar, in the liner notes for the CD release of the If I Were a Carpenter album, repeats the story that Hardin was “incensed” that Darin had “copied Hardin’s own vocal approach.”  He even quotes Hardin as saying “he played my version through his headphones, so that he could copy my phrasing.”  While Darin was clearly inspired and influenced by the original Tim Hardin demo, he certainly wasn’t listening to it through headphones when he recorded the song as he makes a number of small, but not unimportant, changes to both the melody and the timing.  The bridge section, for example, is sung faster in Hardin’s version, but in tempo in Bobby’s.  Meanwhile, certain notes are exchanged for others in Darin’s rendition, particularly in the second verse where this happens on multiple lines.  Finally, Bobby’s vocal is far more intimate, more delicate, than Hardin’s.  Somehow, from somewhere, he had found yet another new voice that had only ever been hinted at over the previous decade.

Me and Mr. Hohner (1969)

In 1968, Bobby moved away from traditional record labels and set up his own:  Direction, where he would spend the next two years recording songs of protest and social commentary.  Darin’s second album for the label opens with Me and Mr. Hohner, and finds Darin talking, almost rapping, the lyrics, producing a sound that was considerably ahead of its time.  At face value, this is a song about police harassment in general, but the references to “South Philly” at the end of each verse makes it clear that this is Darin’s view of Frank Rizzo, who was Police Commissioner in Philadelphia at the time.  His obituary in the New York Times states that Rizzo was often viewed as a “barely educated former police officer who used a hard line and tactics bordering on dictatorial to suppress opposition and keep blacks out of middle-class neighborhoods.”  The 1991 article goes on to say that “Mr. Rizzo personally led Saturday-night round-ups of homosexuals and staged a series of raids on coffee houses and cafes – saying they were drug dens.”  This, together with the multiple charges against Rizzo (all of which were dropped) regarding the beating of suspects, fits in with the picture the song paints of a young man and his harmonica “not doing nothing to no-one/When a squad car stops and out jumps cops/‘You’re one of them if I ever saw one’” and the fear at the end of each verse of getting a beating.

The track is brilliantly executed, with a fine production and Darin’s vocal sounding completely natural despite the nature of it.  Billboard called it “another strong message lyric set to an infectious beat [with a] top arrangement and vocal workout.”  Later in the year, Variety stated that Bobby was told he couldn’t sing the song during his appearance on This is Tom Jones (he sang Distractions instead).

Happy (1972)

Finally, we come to Bobby’s last single, which was released in December 1972.  The effect of television appearances could be seen when Happy was sang twice on Darin’s TV series in early 1973, and the song went on to reach #67 in the US charts.  That may not sound much, but it was his highest charting single since The Lady Came from Baltimore in 1966, and his first to chart at all since 1969.  Happy is subtitled Love Theme from Lady Sings the Blues, but this is a little confusing.  The song itself never appeared in the film sung by anyone.  Indeed, it hadn’t even been written at the time of the film’s release.  Instead, the song simply borrows a melody from the incidental music in the film and adds lyrics to it – much like Somewhere My Love (Doctor Zhivago) or Stella By Starlight (The Uninvited).

Darin turns the song into an epic.  There is a huge orchestral arrangement but, even when the full force of the band is heard during the bridge section, Bobby shows that he can compete and he belts out this section before turning on a dime to a much softer voice for the end of the vocal.  The single clocks in at just under four minutes, but the version released on LP is two minutes longer, although Darin doesn’t sing a single note extra.  Instead, the extra two minutes are an extended orchestral outro, with backing vocals at the very end adding a gospel feel to the proceedings.  The number and production were atypical Darin, but show that Bobby could still deliver even this late in the game.  Billboard called the single “one of Darin’s finest performances on record.”

(Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide is available in Kindle and paperback format from Amazon)

 

2016: Bobby Darin at 80

Bobby new york

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post detailing how badly 2015, the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80, had been handled by both his record label and the Presley Estate.  The only major release was centred around a gimmick rather than the great music that Elvis made during his lifetime, and that great music was largely ignored for the entire year.  In 2016, Bobby Darin would have turned 80, but what should we be allowed to expect?

Less than a decade ago, all but three or four of Bobby Darin’s original albums were available on CD.  Now, as 2015 draws to a close, less than half a dozen are available as physical product in America.  Not even That’s All or This is Darin are available from Bobby’s own label, although public domain copies can be imported infrom Europe.  In Europe, the situation is somewhat better thanks to Warner’s release of ten of the ATCO albums spread over two 5CD boxed sets.  But, after the ATCO period, the situation is just as bad as it is in America.

“How did this happen?” is a question that many Darin fans are no doubt asking.  From the mid-1990s, Bobby’s star was once again in the ascendency, with well-advertised compilations of issues of unreleased material appearing with great regularity.  And then, without warning, it stopped.  I say “without warning” but that isn’t strictly true.  There were signs that those behind Bobby-related releases were cutting corners or, perhaps, just getting a bit bored.  Aces Back to Back was released with quite some fanfare (even a single to promote it), but was in reality a hodge-podge of performances that didn’t gel together and about which we were told absolutely nothing in the poorly-conceived booklet.  The 2006 DVD Seeing is Believing contained some great performances but seemed to be edited together by someone using Windows Moviemaker, and with no thought as to which performance should go where.  After that, it was not only a further seven years before a release containing “new” Bobby Darin material, but during that time there was not even the appearance of an official compilation to celebrate what would have been his 75th birthday.

The consequences of all this is that Bobby, despite being highly thought of by critics and having an extremely loyal fan-base, is now struggling to be remembered by the general public beyond half a dozen key songs.  Alas, that is what being forgotten about by your label and, seemingly, Estate does for your popularity.  2016 is the year that can change all of that.  Not only would it have been Bobby’s 80th birthday, but it is also the 60th anniversary of his first recordings for Decca.  Whether we can actually expect anything from record companies and/or the Darin Estate to mark these occasions in style, and to get Bobby Darin talked about and noticed once again, is very much up for debate.

One would like to think that, at the very least, there could be a compilation put together of Bobby’s hits and signature songs that could be advertised on TV, radio and the internet.  This might contain nothing new, but at least it would get Bobby’s name out there again.   But what else could we, or should we, expect?  Frankly, going by the last few years, perhaps we should set our expectations low and hope to be surprised.  The Bobby Darin Show series from 1973 was decimated when released on DVD.  Yes, an apology of sorts was issued by the Estate a month after the release, but one would assume they would have seen the planned DVDs and the packaging they criticise some time before release date and could have had things improved or changed if they really wanted to.  It is, after all, The Bobby Darin Testamentary Trust that is credited on the DVD cover.  Moreover, it took some twelve years from the discovery of the so-called Milk Shows to their arrival on CD.  Another sign we should perhaps not hold out breath for a special release next year.  We have been told for some time that a project is in the works containing the previously unreleased Manhattan in my Heart and Weeping Willow, but there appears to be no sign of such a project as yet.  Also, in the May 2014 apology about the television series DVD, we were told about a remastering and restoration of the final concert-style episode of Bobby’s TV series that would be released – and, more than eighteen months later, there’s been no sign of that either.

Could we possibly dare to hope  that a set of rarities might appear to celebrate Bobby’s 80th?  There are, for example, a number of items that have never appeared on CD – such as the studio recording of Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the songs from the 1972 album that were not released as singles.  And how about the title song from That Darn Cat, a song Bobby recorded for the Disney film but which was never released on record.  A four-song live set from Australia in 1959 was released on a bootleg a couple of decades ago, but has yet to be released officially – and neither has the Something Special LP, which was the soundtrack to the BBC TV special recorded in 1966.   What’s more, I Don’t Know How to Love Her, recorded at Motown in the early 1970s, was heard on a BBC radio show a year or so ago but remains unreleased – as do a number of other tracks  recorded during the same period that are still in the vault (and some of which have been heard).  Can we not assume that there are more songs on tape from The Troubadour in 1969 than the four released so far?  And how about at least the audio of some of the songs excised from the TV show DVD and from the Bobby Darin Amusement Company series that came before it?

A release of Bobby Darin “discoveries” might not set the world afire but, with a decent compilation of Bobby’s greatest moments to accompany it, at least Bobby’s popularity/recognition might once again start to rise – and this without even entering the realms of producing an in-depth documentary, or a book of unreleased photographs and other documents, or perhaps a collection of Bobby’s guest appearances on TV variety shows.

Many will, no doubt, say that none of this will ever happen – and they are probably correct – but it is also time for Darin fans to start asking the question of why none of this will happen, even if the answers might well complicate the situation even more.  No matter how talented the star, if their work is largely unavailable and their legacy rarely brought back into the public eye, that star will, alas, shine less brightly than it needs to outside of the fandom.  Fans do what they can to stop that from happening, but it also perhaps time to start demanding more from the powers that be that can and should be making a difference.  Here’s hoping that 2016 will bring about changes in how Bobby is handled that means these questions don’t need to be asked and that these demands don’t need to be raised.  But, I confess, I’m not hopeful.