Frank Sinatra: 20 Years On

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As someone who has written a book about the music of Bobby Darin, what was especially nice about the recent release of the Frank Sinatra: Standing Room Only 3CD set a few weeks back was to hear Sinatra in 1966 recommending that his audience takes time out to go and see Bobby while they were in Vegas.  The comments were, for this listener at least, unexpected, but put to bed once and for all the fake-feud between Darin and Sinatra that the media seemingly made up around 1960 and have continued to talk of as fact ever since.  It should also be added that, in a 1975 newspaper interview, Tina Sinatra said that her father would be performing at a Darin tribute concert (a concert that sadly never happened).   Another suggestion that the stories of animosity were untrue.

A second edition of my book on Bobby Darin will come out late in 2018, all being well, just as the second edition of my book on the music of Elvis Presley came out last year.   Those books take a reader through the recordings of the artist in question, from the first to the last, re-evaluating them from a modern viewpoint as well as providing excerpts from contemporary reviews and articles from trade magazines and newspapers, showing how the music was received at the time.  They have garnered some nice comments, but the question I’m asked most (especially by those who know me and my musical tastes) is “are you going to do one on the music of Frank Sinatra?”  The answer to that is always that I would love to, but where would I start?  Sinatra recorded more than double the amount of songs than Elvis and Darin put together, and if I ended up writing close to a quarter of a million words on Elvis, how much would I end up writing on Sinatra?  And what about collecting together all of those reviews and articles.  I have around 400-500 for the new edition of the Darin book, so with Sinatra I would be looking at probably five or six times that amount – at least!  I am not sure I am up to that task.

But this week marks twenty years since I switched on the TV and browsed Teletext one morning only to see on the news that Frank Sinatra had passed away.  It’s one of those moments that you don’t forget.  I had “got into” Sinatra about five years earlier while working in a used record store.  There were no customers, and so I started browsing through the albums, trying to find something to play.  I picked up, by chance, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back.  And that was the start of that.  And I have Sinatra to thank for so much more than just his own music.  I picked up the albums he made with Basie, that got me searching out his records.  The same is true for Duke Ellington after hearing the much-maligned album that Frank Sinatra recorded with him.  And then came the VHS (as it was back then) of the 1967 TV show with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  And who couldn’t fall in love with her?  Through Sinatra, I found Basie, Duke, and Ella.  And through them I found John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson.  And through them I found…  Well, you get the idea.  But it all comes back to Frank Sinatra.  Without him, I would never have heard any of them in the wonderful, weird world of musical six-degrees-of-separation.

And so, twenty years after Sinatra’s passing, I thought it would be nice to look at ten of the Sinatra albums, TV shows and concerts that I cherish most, but which aren’t always talked about a great deal.   Of course, our musical preferences change on a regular basis – you learn to like things you didn’t, and go off things you used to love.  But, right now, here’s ten glorious moments with Frank Sinatra.   Albums dates refer to year of release.

1.  The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946).   There really is no other place to start than with Frank’s first album.  Many have argued that this was the first pop concept album.  Just as many have argued that there were earlier ones.  But it doesn’t matter, because Sinatra took the notion of the concept album to a whole new level.  In this case, not just the bringing together of eight wonderful ballads, but their orchestration with a string quartet and small rhythm section.  If I had to live without any era of Frank Sinatra music (and I hope I never have to make that choice for real), then it would be the Columbia years, but despite that, this collection of eight songs is wondrous in its concept and delivery.  And if These Foolish Things doesn’t tear you in two, then nothing will.

2.  Close to You (1956).  Let’s skip those albums you already know about, and concentrate on Close to You, one of Sinatra’s least-known Capitol albums, and one that seems like a cousin of The Voice.  Here, again, he utilises the string quartet, augmented at various points by a woodwind or brass instrument.  Sinatra avoids the over-used American standards here, and goes for more obscure ones.  They aren’t “unknowns” exactly, but more “rarely heards.”  I don’t think there is a better version out there of P. S. I Love You or Blame It On My Youth.   And Frank gives Chet Baker a run for his money on Everything Happens to Me, only to go on to eclipse all versions in 1981 when he re-recorded the song for She Shot Me Down, although it remained in the vaults for over a decade.

3.  Monte Carlo, June 14, 1958.  This concert, finally released officially in 2016 (although any self-respecting fan had it in their collection long before that) is a stunning tour-de-force, and a rare snap-shot of where Sinatra was musically at this time.  He brings something to the relatively bland Monique here that he seemed to miss entirely in the studio.  And what can be said about Where Or When?  Sinatra takes it as a stripped back ballad, and sings the hell out of it, again beating the studio version that also remained in the vaults for years.  That song alone is worth the price of admission here, and I’ll take this show over any other from the 1950s that we are lucky enough to have in our collections.

4.  Point of No Return (1962).  This is one of those albums that have had a bad rap over the years.  We hear tales that Sinatra wasn’t really bothered about recording this album of ballads, his last LP for Capitol, and his last with Alex Stordahl as arranger.  But how can anyone listening to this come to that conclusion?  When the World Was Young is as perfect a recording as I can think of.  We don’t think of Sinatra singing French cabaret-type songs, but here he does, and does so beautifully, as always completely understanding the character at the heart of the piece.  A new, jazzier phrasing can be found in I’ll See You Again, and These Foolish Things, originally recorded for The Voice of Frank Sinatra, is here darker and moodier.

5.  Hibiya Park, Japan, April 21, 1962.  This concert was released on DVD on the World on a String boxed set in 2016.  This was part of Sinatra’s charity world tour in 1962, in which he travelled with just a jazz combo to support him, and raising a huge amount of money in the process.  What is so special here is that I don’t ever remember seeing Sinatra happier on stage.  His smile seems to beam from the beginning of the show to the end.  He interacts with the crowd in a way we have rarely seen, clearly getting a kick out of the amount of children in the audience at whom he smiles, waves, and even blows kisses to at various points.  Musically, the show is shorter than some of the others on the tour, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the singing or the playing – despite the wind trying to blow music stands across the stage.

6.  The Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim (TV show, 1967).  The late 1960s were a wonderful time for music specials.  1968 brought us Elvis’s NBC TV special, and the year before had brought us this.  Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald had appeared together on TV before, but not like this.  Everything just clicks into place, from the playful, semi-serious first duet medley, through to the finale of the show where Frank and Ella just go for it.  Ella was in superb form (and, oddly, without a permanent contract at the time) and Sinatra couldn’t be happier to be jousting with her.  The medley with Jobim is also a delight, and one can only wish that somewhere out there is material that was recorded for the show but not used due to time limitations, and one day we’ll have a deluxe release.  Is there more material?  Possibly (collectors will know that there is material in the vaults from the 1973 TV special).  We can but hope.

7.  Francis A. & Ellington K. (1968).  This wonderful album seems to have been much-maligned over the years, with it said that Sinatra wasn’t in great voice, and Ellington not in great form.  And yet it contains some of my favourite performances from both the Ellington band and Sinatra himself.  All I Need is the Girl may be taken at a pedestrian pace, but it’s so exciting, with both singer and the band threatening to let rip at any moment.  And is there a better version of Sunny out there?  If so, I haven’t heard it.  A follow-up album, with Frank singing an LP’s worth of Ellington songs, would have been most welcome, but never happened.

8.  Watertown (1970).   Watertown has become something of a cult favourite in recent decades.  It’s one of those albums that few have heard, but those that have would never be without it.  This is, essentially, a song cycle about a man whose wife has left him, and he now has to look after their two children.  He doesn’t know if she will come back or not.  Sinatra was always challenging himself – and his audiences.  And that is the case here.  This isn’t an easy listening album.  It demands your attention from beginning to end.  Michael & Peter, a song in the form of a letter to his wife about his children and what they are doing, is so remarkably moving.  And the disappointment is palpable when The Train arrives at the end of the album and the man’s wife is not on it.  But nobody appears to have heard the album at the time of release – except Nina Simone, it seems, who covered one of the songs on a 1985 album.  But this is a beautiful, haunting album.  Lady Day remained unissued for years, with Sinatra re-recording it with a lush Don Costa arrangement which was released on Sinatra & Company.  

9.  The Lost Songs (1973-1978).  OK, I’ll come clean.  This isn’t really an album at all.  It is just me taking the opportunity to draw attention to a group of songs that Sinatra recorded during the 1970s that deserve to be heard.  In the studio, at least, Frank seemed to be lost during this period.  He didn’t know what to record.  Albums were discussed and discarded.  Albums were started, and discarded.  Singles came out that were never going to do well commercially.  Other singles came out that were the worst things Sinatra ever disc.  Other songs remained in the vault.  And yet, the really good recordings from this period (outside of the 1973-4 albums) are stunning and deserve to be heard.  I’m talking here of Everything Happens to MeJust as Though You Were HereDry Your EyesLike a Sad SongEmpty TablesSend In the ClownsBang BangI Love My Wife.  Most people have never heard these because many were only available on CD through a 20CD set from the 1990s.  So, if anyone from the Estate is reading, get a collection of these lost 1970s songs (and the 1980s singles too) out on CD.  They deserve to be heard.

10.  The Ultimate Event (1988).  One of those concerts that is out on DVD, but no-one is sure whether the release is legal or not.  This was recorded in Detroit, as part of a tour featuring Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minnelli alongside Sinatra.  What is wonderful here is that all three are on fire, and the clear love they have for each other.  Davis takes the audience from Rodgers & Hart, through Newley & Bricusse, and on to Michael Jackson and Andrew Lloyd Webber in twenty minutes.  Liza Minnelli had, arguably, never been better.  Her repertoire is familiar, but she wrings every ounce of emotion out of Quiet Love and Sailor Boys.  Then comes Sinatra, showing that Minnelli and Davis created great results but so can he – but seemingly with much less effort!  Finally, the three of them come together for a wonderful medley.  Again, this is an edited show – how great it would be to see a release of the whole thing.

Perhaps that’s an idea for the next Sinatra anniversary?

 

 

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Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Review)

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There has been much anticipation over the last year or so about the three and a half hour documentary about Elvis Presley, entitled The Searcher, which finally got aired last weekend.  Many have believed that this would be the definitive documentary on Elvis and his music, both with regards to what he recorded and what he was influenced by.

In reality, the documentary proved itself to be worthy of its subject in many ways.  It was well put together and edited, it didn’t stray much from its mission to be mostly about the music rather than the man, and there was enough confidence by the filmmakers to delve deep into the Elvis legacy for the soundtrack, skipping over many hits and, instead, presenting songs that many viewers would not have heard before.   The way the documentary used the 1968 TV show as a pivot for the various chapters of the story worked well enough, but it seemed to borrow the idea from the HBO Sinatra documentary a year or two back which used his 1971 retirement concert in much the same way, and with better effect.

However, there was little here that hadn’t been said before.  The story is well-known, and here it certainly got a sophisticated telling, but it’s hard to find anything here that shone new light or new perspective on the established narrative.  There is plenty of material that could have questioned some of that narrative, but instead there was no effort to do so.  For example, Steve Allen was said to have booked Elvis purely for ratings, despite the fact that he booked Elvis before his TV performances caused ratings to soar.  Allen was said to have hated rock n roll music, and yet nothing was mentioned about the other rock ‘n’ roll acts on his show, the fact he defended Elvis in print, and that he gave Elvis’s first album a good review in a magazine column.  This material might not have been widely known in the past, but it certainly is out there now, and this would have been a good opportunity to at least show just a hint of the other side of the equation.  The same is true of the Colonel, who also comes across as a one-dimensional bad guy.

As is so often the case with these things, facts are intentionally or unintentionally distorted.  D. J. Fontana tells us that the “bump ‘n’ grind” ending to Hound Dog  on The Milton Berle Show had not been done before, and nobody knew what was happening, and yet we have aural evidence from a Little Rock concert a month earlier which shows us that it was a regular part of the performance.  Clearly, some mis-remembering on Fontana’s part, but an important detail nonetheless.  Meanwhile, the discussion of Elvis’s Las Vegas return in 1969 was accompanied by footage of Elvis a year later, with no indication in the voice-over or on screen that this was the case.

Some things were almost conspicuous by their absence – there was no mention of Elvis winning three Grammys – despite this being a documentary almost entirely about his music career.  Likewise, there was no mention of the two concert films by name – although footage from them was shown – meaning there was no talk of Elvis on Tour winning the Golden Globe.   The Memphis sessions of 1969 were dealt with in surprisingly little screen time, and Elvis Country, possibly Elvis’s greatest album wasn’t even mentioned at all, despite its return to Elvis’s musical roots and the use of footage of a press conference where Elvis discusses the importance of country music to him.

While the storytelling was sophisticated, the story it told often lacked nuance, and was remarkably safe. The 1968 TV special was a one-stroke return to form.  Not true – and the comment that it received universally great reviews is also not true.  There was no mention of the non-formula movies at the end of the 1960s, which might not have artistic or commercial successes as such, but they certainly demonstrated that Elvis and his work was changing.  There was much discussion about the publishing situation but, again, nothing about some of the fine music that came through that avenue from the likes of Pomus and Shuman or Don Robertson.   There was no mention of how Elvis approached his studio work in the 1970s, and how the mega-sessions might have helped or hindered that process.  And, oddly, nothing at all about the final videotaped performances from Elvis’s last tour.  They might not be an easy watch, but a choice excerpt from Hurt, or I Really Don’t Want to Know or Unchained Melody would have been apt in demonstrating that there were still flashes of brilliance even at the end.

Despite these failings, or (to be kinder) artistic choices, The Searcher achieved something which very little Elvis-related TV does – bringing it back to the music, and that is always a good thing.  However, the endorsement by the Estate does make it feel just that bit too safe.  We never really learn what made Elvis tick.  We learn about his musical influences, and the loss of his mother, but very little else.  Despite much talk about the evil Parker, we don’t ever get to grips as to how their relationship worked, or why Elvis didn’t just sack him when he was unhappy with his choices – a question which many viewers were probably left asking themselves.  In many respects, I’m reminded of Vincent Canby’s review of Elvis on Tour:  “Close-ups do not reveal anything but, rather, they enshrine an ideal, like an official photograph of a president or a pope.”  The Searcher seems to have a similar problem.

If you enjoyed The Searcher and would like to know more about Elvis’s music and how it was received during his lifetime, check out Reconsider Baby: A Listener’s Guide.  http://a.co/eenPMzO

 

Elvis Presley: The 1969 Vegas Season

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The following is an except from the book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, 2nd edition” available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.  

The day after the airing of the NBC TV Special, the New York Times announced: “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances.”[1]  Elvis’s season at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, beginning on July 31, 1969, was to be his first live appearance in eight years (unless one counts the live segments of the TV show).  Unlike the TV show of the previous year, and the albums recorded in Memphis six months earlier, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Billboard raved that “the greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom….But it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s, on stage Thursday.  It was a polished, confident and talented artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when.”[2]  A week further on in the season, they reported that “nine years away from live performing have not affected his affinity for interpretation, combining the visual affects (sic) of the flaying arms and slowly gyrating hips; of his gutsy attack on quasi-blues songs or his shifting into a romantic milieu for Yesterday or Love Me Tender.”[3]

Norma Lee Browning in the Chicago Tribune takes time from her caustic assessment of Elvis’s appearance at a press conference to admit that “Presley’s smash opening in the showroom of the new International hotel, following Barbra Streisand’s fair-to-middlin’ engagement, has set a lot of showbiz folks back on their ears.”[4] Mary Campbell of the Ottawa Journal said that most of the audience were “old enough to have hated him 13 years ago and some of them admitted that they had…Rock music no longer gives cultural shock to the middle-aged.  And neither does Elvis Presley.  Presley still makes those ‘suggestive’ movements.  But the shocking of 1956 can be the nostalgic of 1969.”[5]

The third and final act of the Presley comeback was an unequivocal success, and it was hardly surprising that RCA were there to record a number of shows for a live album.  Six days of shows were recorded, and then a live album was assembled from the tapes.  Originally released as the first disc of From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the live album would eventually be re-released on its own with the equally catchy title of In Person at the International Hotel – or In Person for short.

The disc starts with Blue Suede Shoes, the number that Elvis used to open the shows.  The Vegas setting is obvious from the first notes of the album thanks to the introduction by the Bobby Morris Orchestra.  This is followed by an opening vamp from Elvis’s core band before Elvis finally starts singing.  His voice is strong (probably stronger than in the Memphis sessions earlier in the year), and he sounds confident and full of energy.   The song is taken at a faster pace than the studio versions (and, for some reason, Elvis repeats the same two verses rather than using the others), and the whole thing is over in two minutes, including the introduction and the vamp.

The high energy continues with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode.  Again, Elvis misses out a verse, the second in Berry’s recording, and substitutes it with a repeat of the third verse.  Elvis would continue to use the song in slightly different variations over the coming years.  It would be shorn of the repeated verse by the time of the performance on the Aloha from Hawaii TV special in 1973, and would get the briefest of renditions in the final years, normally as part of the extended band introductions.  The version issued on In Person is probably the best Elvis version that has been released.  He rocks with abandon, spitting out the words at breakneck pace, and the band is as tight as a drum.

All Shook Up follows, at much the same pace as the previous two numbers.  The song doesn’t really work so well at this speed, but Elvis had a penchant for speeding up his 1950s hits on stage during the following eight years, and that habit appears to have been formed even at this stage.  It is a far cry from the shuffle rhythm of the studio recording, and it lacks charm and suggests there were some of his earlier hits that he struggled to update for his new live act.

Are You Lonesome Tonight gets a serious rendition from Elvis, with Millie Kirkham’s almost-otherworldly soprano providing a lovely obligato.  The performance is very different from the one captured on tape a couple of nights later in which Elvis gets a fit of giggles and laughs uncontrollably through almost the entire song.  That version, referred to affectionately as Are You Laughing Tonight, was released in 1980.

Elvis introduces Hound Dog as his “message song” for the evening.  The self-deprecating humour of these shows is often quite charming, but at other times just doesn’t work on record.  From this point of view, the live album released from these concerts doesn’t always work due to the often-sloppy editing.  There are long moments of silence (do we really want to hear Elvis drinking water?), and other times where the on-stage humour needs the visuals to work or where a joke goes on too long.

Hound Dog doesn’t receive the throwaway performance that it would in later shows, but it seems clear that, even in 1969, Elvis didn’t really know what to do with it.  It was no longer the yell of frustration and rebellion that it was in the 1950s, and the first verse is repeated over and over, leaving out the “high-classed” second verse on the vast majority of live performances. This demonstrates the conundrum that Elvis would find himself in for the next eight years – songs that were huge hits a dozen or more years earlier were not necessarily relevant to Elvis in his mid-to-late thirties.  His commitment now was often towards more recent songs of a more serious (and, in the coming years, more maudlin) nature.  And yet it was clear that he had to include the “oldies” in his set.  In 1969, the older songs generally got given proper attention, but they would later be used as a punctuation point in a show where Elvis could sing half-heartedly, catching his breath while handing out scarves to screaming fans.  In these 1969 shows, it is great to hear Elvis singing Hound Dog live, but there seems little point to it.  The arrangement has no real structure (it doesn’t build to a big finish), and it simply does the job and little else.  Not everyone agrees.  Cub Koda and Bruce Eder write that the guitar work of James Burton “puts a new edge on Hound Dog, coming up with something different than, yet vaguely similar to, Scotty Moore’s approach to the song in concert 14 years earlier.”[6]  One can only wish that Elvis had chosen to keep the switch to half-speed that was present in the live renditions from the 1950s.

The same can’t be said for I Can’t Stop Loving You.  Whereas the song was given a country flavour in the short jam session at the Memphis sessions earlier in the year, here it is given a full work-out and becomes a show-stopper, with a much more thought-out arrangement than many of the live versions of Elvis’s own hits.  Elvis’s vocal is both sincere and playful and the big finish is stunning, even if the cut-in of an audience member screaming is unnecessary and distracting.

Elvis romps through the r&b classic My Babe, using the song as a vehicle to show off his stronger vocal abilities.  A second version of the number was released in 1980, and this uses slightly different orchestration, but Elvis’s vocal isn’t as strong or controlled here, although it is always nice to hear the different arrangement, and fascinating that Elvis was still toying with his act this late in the engagment.

The medley of Mystery Train and Tiger Man is given a typically self-mocking introduction in which Elvis talks about the sound he had in the early days.  The sound here is brought up-to-date, though, with an arrangement that rocks like hell and features some great work from Ronnie Tutt on drums, with his riffs effectively punctuating Elvis’s vocals on Tiger Man.  The medley is, alongside Suspicious Minds, the highlight of the live album.

The recent Bee Gees hit Words gets a relatively perfunctory run-through.  Elvis’s vocal is sincere and committed, but the arrangement would be slightly modified for the Vegas season a year later, and those performances seem to have a bit more substance.

In the Ghetto doesn’t have the same impact in a live setting that it did in the studio.  The arrangement is beefier, and something is lost.  Elvis’s voice isn’t in such good shape here either, and he appears to be struggling with the low notes, with them having heavy vibrato and often threatening to go out of tune.  The biggest problem, though, is that Elvis hadn’t found a way to translate the intimate sound of the studio recording on to the concert stage, and this was something that would appear to cause him issues during the next eight years.  The ballads that made their way into the live act were, for the most past, ones with big arrangements and big choruses, which could be delivered with an impact during the live performances.  More fragile songs from the 1970s, such as I’m Leavin’ and Until It’s Time For You To Go were, like In the Ghetto, “beefed up” when sung in Vegas or on tour.  Elvis could have done with a short section in each show where the arrangements were stripped back to just him and a couple of musicians.  This would have resulted in some light and shade during the performance as well as giving an appropriate setting for Elvis to sing some of the quieter moments from his back-catalogue, whether hits such as Loving You and Don’t, or album tracks from the 1970s such as I Miss You or For Lovin’ Me.

The highlight of the original album and the Vegas season in general is Suspicious Minds.  This was Elvis’s latest single at the time, and he turns it into a showstopper that lasts over seven minutes.  Again, this lacks some of the vocal subtleties of the studio version, but here it doesn’t matter, as Elvis starts the number relatively sedately and then slowly but surely works it up into a frenzy over its mammoth running time.  This should be tedious, but it works superbly, and the excitement of the stage performance transfers surprisingly well to record.

The original album ended, as did the shows, with Can’t Help Falling in Love.  Taken at a faster pace than both the original studio recording and that used in the previous year’s TV special, the track becomes a closing credits theme song rather than receiving a fully committed performance.  Soon it would take on a new meaning, as Elvis would use the number in the vast majority of his live shows for the next eight years, and it would signal to the audience that their time with their hero was all but over.

The live section of the double album resulted in Elvis getting some of the best reviews of his career.  Don Heckman in the New York Times wrote that “the rhythmic surge is the same and peculiarly appropriate mix of Presley’s country twang with the rolling syllables of black blues still scorches the ear – what was successful a decade and a half ago is successful today.”[7]  Variety stated the live set is “packed with performer and audience excitement that explain the singer’s title as king of rock ‘n’ roll.  His vocals and poise are in top shape, and although he does considerable material over 10 years old, the backup updates the music.”[8] Robert Hilburn simply called the live album “the best thing Presley has done on record in years…Presley [demonstrates] the restless, unconventional vocal style that made him rock’s most important and most influential male singer.”[9]

Two more songs from this Vegas season were issued in 1970 on the album On Stage, primarily recorded in February 1970.  Runaway, a cover of the Del Shannon hit, receives a fine performance from Elvis, who gives the song a slightly harder edge than Shannon.  Years later, another performance was released, this time on a night when Shannon was in the audience.  It’s a nice moment when Elvis introduces him from the stage, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t this version that was released back in 1970.

The other song from 1969 on the On Stage LP is a rather bland take on The Beatles’ YesterdayIt was originally performed with the “na na na” refrain of Hey Jude tagged on the end, but this is omitted on the original release.  It is a pleasant enough rendition, but the arrangement is uninspired to say the least.

In 1991, RCA issued a three-album boxed set entitled Collector’s Gold, featuring outtakes from Elvis’s soundtrack and secular non-soundtrack recordings during the period 1960-1968, with a final disc given over to more performances from the 1969 Las Vegas season.  The emphasis here was on songs not included on In Person, although alternate versions of some of those titles were used to fill up the disc.  What these recordings show is that the double album released in 1969 should have been an all-live affair, with the Memphis material saved for a separate project.  Here we have a driving version of I Got a Woman, complete with a bluesy coda; a nice update of Heartbreak Hotel; a country-influenced version of Love Me Tender; and a fun medley of Jailhouse Rock and Don’t Be Cruel which teeters on the edge of being a throwaway during the latter half but doesn’t quite topple over.

With RCA recording, Elvis also tried out some of his newer material on occasion, and that is also included on the Collector’s Gold CD.  From the Memphis sessions, Elvis tried out Rubberneckin’, which works rather well in the live setting, and Inherit the Wind and This is the Story which suffer from Elvis losing his focus and fooling around just a bit too much.  From the TV show of the year before, Elvis includes Memories, a strange choice of song that simply doesn’t fit in this kind of live setting, and Elvis is out of breath, rather fatal for a song that requires such precise phrasing.  He also revives Baby What You Want Me To Do, but this time in a much more structured version than seen on TV the previous year. Elsewhere, there are one-off performances of Funny How Time Slips Away (nearly a year before Elvis turned to it in the studio) and Reconsider Baby, which is nearly as good as the studio recording from 1960, and certainly the best live performance of the song released thus far.  Sadly, the disc ends with an interminable rendition of What’d I Say, which might have been exciting to watch, but is remarkably tedious to listen to as Elvis shouts out the words rather than sings them, and the band play a series of solos.  It lasts for nearly six minutes, and is not remotely satisfying.

Over the last decade or so, a number of complete concerts from this Vegas season have been released by Sony both at retail level and on the collector’s label.  What these releases demonstrate is the remarkable consistency in both quality and choice of material within these shows.  There is relatively little variation between shows, with the majority of the material consisting of full throttle performances of past hits as well as the covers already discussed.  Perhaps it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the most interesting shows are the ones that veer most from the standard repertoire, and these are the dinner and midnight shows from August 26th, released as Live in Vegas and All Shook Up respectively.  The first of these features the alternate arrangement of My Babe, as well as performances of Inherit the Wind and Memories.  The midnight show, on the other hand, gives us renditions of Rubberneckin’ and This is the Story, as well as allowing us to hear the laughing version of Are You Lonesome Tonight within the context of the very loose show from which it originates.

These shows may well be the best performances that Elvis gave, but it could be  argued that they are not the most satisfying set-lists.  The concentration here is on rock ‘n’ roll.  Sure, there are a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure, but only Are You Lonesome Tonight really gets a decent treatment.  As we know, there was more to Elvis than rock ‘n’ roll.  There are almost no nods to his country influences here, and no gospel material at all.  By the following summer, he still wasn’t performing gospel songs on stage (except for an off-the-cuff performance) but at least the gospel sound was much more prominent, incorporated into the backing of some of the ballads, such as Just Pretend, and country songs became part of the live repertoire.  At this stage in 1969, then, Elvis’s set-list was surprisingly restricted, and ultimately built upon the black leather segments of the 1968 TV special.

Restrictive set lists notwithstanding, Elvis’s return to live performing was a huge success and, after years of having his career in the artistic and commercial doldrums, he was once again back on top.  It had taken just over three years (from the How Great Thou Art sessions to the live performances of July and August 1969), but the effort had been worth it.  Elvis now had his second chance – all he had to do now was build upon the foundation he had created for himself.

[1] Mike Jahn, “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances,” New York Times, December 4, 1968, 51.

[2] James D Kingsley, “Presley Faces Toughest Challenge in Las Vegas,” Billboard, August 9, 1969, 4.

[3] Eliot  Tiegel, “Elvis Retains Touch in Return to Stage,” Billboard, August 16, 1969, 47.

[4] Norma Lee Browning, “Elvis, in Person, Still the King,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1969, Entertainment Section, 5.

[5] Mary Campbell, “The Pelvis Isn’t Stilled,” Ottawa Journal, November 1, 1969, TV Journal, 13.

[6] Cub Koda and Bruce Eder, “Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada,” in The All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music, ed. Vladimir Bogdanov (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 605.

[7] Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.

[8] “Elvis, The Byrds, Neil Diamond, Rankin, Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, Parks, Humble Pie Top New LPs,” Variety, November 19, 1969, 48.

[9] Robert Hilburn, “Live Albums Best for Displaying Artists Talents,” Lansing State Journal, December 6, 1969, D3.

Bobby Darin: 1971 – The Lost Year

Even for many Bobby Darin fans, 1971 is a year which is a bit of a mystery.  Darin began the year with a residency at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  An album was planned, entitled “Finally,” but it didn’t emerge until 1987.  Straight after the engagement, Bobby had heart surgery and laid low for next eight months or so, only appearing on TV again in September in a short, almost unrecognisable, cameo in a Jackson 5 special, and then in two acting roles in Ironside and Cade’s Country.  He finished the year with an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

This post pulls together some press cuttings from this “lost year.”  I have purposefully NOT included the many articles that dwelled on the surgery, and instead concentrated on other things.  Check out, though, the second and third articles, both from Variety.  In the first, they accuse some singers in Bobby’s act of walking out without warning on his show.  In the second, just days before the heart surgery and when he no doubt had plenty of other things on his mind, Bobby wrote to Variety to set the record straight.

news-press fort myers

Fort Myers News-Press, Jan 6, 1971. 

variety

pg (42)

Variety, Jan 27, 1971. 

pg (43)

Variety, Jan 29. 1971

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_2

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_3

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_ part 1

All of the above:  Detroit Free Press, Nov 10, 1971

The_Daily_Times_News_Tue__Mar_16__1971_

Burlington Daily-Times News, March 16, 1971

Des_Moines_Tribune_Fri__Jun_4__1971_

Des Moines Free Press, June 4, 1971

Reno_Gazette_Journal_Fri__Sep_10__1971_

Reno Gazette-Journal, September 10, 1971

The_San_Bernardino_County_Sun_Sun__Sep_19__1971_

San Bernardino County Sun, September 19, 1971

Bobby Darin on Stage – Part I

bobby big head

While there are a couple of sessiongraphies and discographies of Bobby Darin online, and an extensive (although still incomplete) list of his TV appearances within my own book (Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide), there is, alas, no list of Bobby’s on-stage appearances.   Working with newspaper archives, I have done my best to start that process, beginning with what I can find of his 1956-1959 concert appearances.  However, I am well aware that this list is FAR from complete.  Some entries have question marks beside them as I am not sure of when an residency began or ended (or both), and many performances are not listed at all.  And so if you are aware of missing performances, please message me and let me know.  If I ever do a second edition of my Darin book and include this material as an appendix, then any information given to me by yourselves would of course be noted in the acknowledgement section.  But, at this stage, that is a long way off (if it ever happens).   At the moment, I am simply trying to put a list together to share with other fans and nothing else.  I look forward to hearing from you.

1956

April 15th         University of Detroit Memorial Hall .  Rock ‘n’ Roll Show with The Four Aces, The Four Coins, Cathy Carr etc

May 2nd-5th       Purple Onion, Guilford . 3 shows nightly.  Headliner

1957

April 13           Paramount Theater, Montgomery .  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

April 15 – ?      Mike’s South Pacific Club.  3 shows nightly

April or May    Murray Franklin’s Night Spot

May 19            Paramount Theater, Montgomery.  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

September 7    Paramount Theater, Montgomery.  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

Oct 7-12?         Gay Haven Supper Club, Detroit

October  ?         Apollo, NY.   Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue

December 6     Elms Ballroom, Youngstown.   All-Star Record Hop, with Frankie Avalon, Mello Kings etc

December 31   War Memorial, Rochester.  New Year’s Eve show with Bill Haley, The Spaniels etc

bobby in pyjamas.

1958

June 27            Barnum Festival.  Ballyhoo show, with Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme

July 1               Broadway Theater, Philadelphia .  “Rock ‘n’ Shock Spooktacular”

July 2               Orpheum, Germantown.  “Rock ‘n’ Shock Spooktacular”

* The Spooktacular played dates for the entirety of July 1-5, but specific dates & locations unknown

July 5               Saylor’s Lake, Allentown .   Big Beat Dance, with Danny and the Juniors, The Aquatones

August 18        Johnson City Recreation Center.  Record Hop

August 24        Hollywood Bowl, LA.  A Salute to Dick Clark

August 30        Paramount Theater, Montgomery.  Bill O’Brien’s Teen Time

September 13  Elms Ballroom, Youngstown .  with Tony Pastor, Dion & the Belmonts etc

October 3        Worcester Auditorium.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 4        State Theater, Hartford.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 5        Montreal Forum, Canada .  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 6        Peterborough Memorial Center, Canada.  Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 7        Kitchener Memorial Center, Canada.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 8        Toledo Sports Arena .  Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 9        Indiana Theater .  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 10      State Fair Coliseum, Louisville.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 11      Veteran’s Memorial, Columbus.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 12      Stambaugh Auditorium, Youngstown.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 13      Syria Mosque, Pittsburgh.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 14      Akron Armoury.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 15      Community War Memorial.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 16      Catholic Youth Center, Scranton.   “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 17      Municipal Auditorium, Norfolk, VA.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 18      Park Center, Charlotte.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58”

October 19      The Mosque, Richmond.  “Biggest Show of Stars for ‘58” included Buddy Holly

November 20  Loew’s Poli Theater, Bridgeport.  “Shower of Top Recording Stars”

December 6     Chicago Opera House.  “Howard Miller’s Pop Music Concert” with Everly Bros etc

December ?      Ben Maksik’s Town & Country, Brooklyn.  Support act

Chicago_Tribune_Mon__Jul_27__1959_

1959

January 1         Civic Auditorium.  “Show of Stars” with The Platters etc

January 31 – February 2       Melbourne Stadium, Australia.  “Shower of Stars” with Chuck Berry etc

February 4-7    Sydney Stadium, Australia .  “Shower of Stars” with Chuck Berry

February 22     Evergreen Ballroom, Old Olympia.  with Little Willie John

February 26     Cottonwoods, Albany.  Show and Dance

March 1           Playquato Ballroom, Centralia.  Dance

March 9           Surf, Clear Lake, Iowa.  Special for ages 14-21

March 11         Prom Center, Minneapolis.  Teen hop with the Bellnotes

March 12         Fournier’s, Wisconsin.  In Person

March 19         Val Air Ballroom, Des Moines.  with the Bellnotes

March 22         Cinderella Ballroom, Appleton.  with the Bellnotes. Afternoon perf

April 20-at least 29th     Blinstrub’s, Boston

May 4-17         Harrah’s, Lake Tahoe.  George Burns show

June 1-?             Copacabana, New York

June ?                Sahara, Las Vegas.  George Burns show

July 10             Community Hall, North Bend

July 12             Eureka Municipal Auditorium

July 13             Klamath Falls Auditorium.  Bobby Darin and his Orchestra

July 17             Vets Memorial Hall, Petaluma

July 24             El Paso County Coliseum

July 25             Tingley Coliseum, Albuquerque

July 26             Seth Hall, Santa Fe

July 31             Cloister, Hollywood

August 8          Playboy Jazz Festival, Chicago Stadium.  with Duke Ellington & Oscar Peterson on the same bill

August 23-30   Steel Pier Music Hall, Atlantic City.  August 29 & 30 perfs were televised on WRCV-TV

September 5    Hollywood Bowl, L.A.   A Tribute to Jimmy McHugh

Sept 7-13         Three Rivers Inn, Syracuse

Sept 16 &17      West Texas Fair, Abilene

Sept 14-20?      Santa Clara County Fair.  Bobby’s particular performance date unknown

October 3        Los Angeles Jazz Festival, Hollywood Bowl

October 6-27  Sands Hotel, Las Vegas

October 28      Royal Casino, Washington

October 30-31 The Terrace, Salt Lake City

November 2    New Arena, Pittsburgh

Nov 3-5           Arizona State Fair.  3 shows per day.  9 in all.

Nov 13-15       Mosque Theater, New Jersey.  3 shows per day.  9 in all.

Nov 16 -22       Sciolla’s Philadelphia

November 26  Concord Hotel, Catskills

November 27  New Haven Arena

Dec 4-28?        Chi’s Chez Paree, Chicago.  Did Bobby really have a near-four week engagement?

Dec 26-31        Jimmy & Jack’s New Arena, Pittsburgh

 

Neil Sedaka at the Royal Albert Hall, Sept 18, 2017 (review)

neil sedakaNeil Sedaka admitted to Billboard magazine in 2010 that “I’m a crier.”  Well, I am too, and Sedaka got me from the moment he walked on stage and sat down and sang what is possibly my favourite of his songs: One More Ride on the Merry-Go Round.  Recorded back in the day by Peggy Lee, Sedaka’s own version has always been  more compelling, not in any small way due to the fact that he includes an extra verse.  With the singer-songwriter now aged 78, one could be forgiven for thinking that the show would be one lasride on the merry-go-round, and yet, for the most part, he sounds little different, and the version of the song from last night sounds virtually the same as the one recorded for the criminally out-of-print live album from 1977,  Neil Sedaka and Songs, if perhaps the voice is now a little darker (note that the “CD” pictured in the Youtube video is not official).  Does this 78-year-old sound any older?  Yes, a little.  He now sounds all of 50.

One More Ride is a melancholy start to a concert but does give way to Standing on the Inside and The Miracle Song, with the latter not performed in 2012 when I saw Sedaka at the Royal Albert Hall the first time, if memory serves me correctly.  Again, this lush sweeping melody is sung beautifully.  Sure, a couple of melody notes are changed to allow for a slightly narrower vocal range, but essentially nothing has changed.

The run of early hits was given more attention this time around.  I seem to recall that some were abridged back in 2012, but not only were they sung with in full tonight, and with particular attention, Oh Carol even got an encore.  Likewise, Where the Boys Are gets a full and passionate outing, with no apologies from the singer for the performance of what was essentially a woman’s song, and it was all done far less self-consciously than on the aforementioned 1977 LP.  Tonight, alas, there was no I Go Ape, or, indeed, the slow version of Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, but when you’ve written 600 songs (that’s ten a year in a 60 year career!), you can’t do them all.

Despite his permanently cheerful demeanour and good humour, I prefer my Neil Sedaka singing about lost love, desolation and missed opportunities.  The Hungry Years is still the saddest song I know, Solitaire is still devastatingand Going Nowhere makes me bawl like a baby each time I hear it.  It was good too hear Superbird, too, another song of innocence lost – and, in a twist, regained.  Cheerful Neil also put in an appearance as he shimmied around the stage to Do You Remember in a slightly absurd, but disarming, fashion.  Sedaka takes his songs and his craft seriously, but not always himself.

But that also has its downsides.  That happy demeanour and self-deprecating humour also means that he isn’t always taken as seriously as he should be.  One can only wonder why this genius of songwriting hasn’t been rediscovered by the hip, cool cats of the student crowd.  Are there any more fitting songs for 2017 than Going Nowhere or The Immigrant?  One can only feel that so many people are missing out.  Oh, to see Sedaka at Glastonbury in the legends slot. And in that rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame.  Why he isn’t there is anybody’s guess.

Neil was on stage for 105 minutes, and performed well over two dozen songs.  Just him and his piano.  The connection with the audience was instant, and he held us in the palm of his hands all evening.  Faults?  Not really, although it would be nice if there was more time to explore some of the darker recesses of the back catalogue.  There are dozens of songs that are hidden away, and I for one would love to hear Stephen, My World Keeps Getting Smaller EverydayIs Anybody Going to Miss YouLonely Nights, or The Leaving Game – a song that should have been a hit, but was wasted as the B-side of Amarillo.   But you can only sing so much in one night.

It is almost criminal how much of the back catalogue is out of print, and never released on CD, and it is something that needs to be put right.  Albums such as Neil Sedaka and SongsIn the PocketA Song, All You Need is the Music, Neil Sedaka Now, and Come See About Me are all more than deserving of a CD release.

What perhaps is really needed is a definitive career-spanning boxed set, but Sedaka greatest hits packages of the past suggest that the various labels are unable or unwilling to work together, with (albeit very good) remakes of the 50s and 60s hits more often than not replacing the originals in recent years.  Here’s hoping that boxed set might eventually happen, collecting not only the hits but the multitude of other great songs that have been on albums and now are, perhaps temporarily, forgotten.  Until then, Sedaka will continue to do what he does best, entertaining audience with his remarkable catalogue of songs.  There was a suggestion on a TV show appearance a couple of weeks ago that this might be the last UK tour.  Going by the strength of the voice last night (much stronger than on the TV shows a fortnight ago, I might add), I wouldn’t be surprised if he returned for another ride on that merry-go-round – after all playing The Leaving Game isn’t easy.

Postscript

Given the terror attack in London just three days earlier, all credit to the staff and crew at the Royal Albert Hall last night for making people feel as safe as they could possibly be through bag searches etc.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciated that outward show of being security conscious.  As always, the staff at the RAH are some of the most friendly and helpful I have yet come across in a theatre environment.

As a final comment – if you’re at a concert such as this:  turn your bloody phones off.  An atmosphere in a concert hall/theatre can be easily spoilt by little lights going on everywhere as budding Alfred Hitchcock’s think it would be fun to start filming.   PUT THEM AWAY!   If all else fails, perhaps singers should start saying “right, you can film the next song.  Everyone who wants to film, do it now for the next performance, and then put the damned things away!”

Songs performed (from memory, and in no particular order, but I think complete!)
One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round
Standing on the Inside
The Miracle Song
Alone at Last
Oh Carol
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Next Door to an Angel
Calendar Girl
Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen
The Queen of 1964
Stairway to Heaven
Where the Boys Are
Solitaire
Laughter in the Rain
Superbird
The Hungry Years
Betty Grable
Going Nowhere
Trying to Say Goodbye
You
Do You Remember
Amarillo
Love Will Keep Us Together
That’s When the Music Takes Me
I Do It For Applause

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.

*

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.