Elvis and the Critics, 1976-77

This blog-post is a piecing together of a number of excerpts from the book Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide. It takes the reader through Elvis’s concerts from March 1976 through to the spring of the following year, and concentrates on how these were received by critics and reviewers at the time, as well as the fans’ reaction to some of the negative reviews.

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Despite continued worries about Elvis’s health and state of mind, 1976 saw Elvis embark on what must have seemed like a never-ending touring schedule. The first tour was at least respectable.  Whereas Hurt was the only new song added for the tour, Elvis did at least sometimes pull surprises out of the bag such as Until It’s Time For You To Go and Steamroller Blues.    

At the afternoon show in Cincinnati, Elvis split his trousers (not for the first time) and left the stage to get changed, with J. D. Sumner introducing the band while he did so.  Billy Reed in the Courier-Journal wrote a lengthy column about the show which concentrated on Elvis’s weight rather than his singing abilities.  He quoted a female fans as saying “Lord, he looks like Raymond Burr, his face is so fat.  I came to see Elvis Presley and I get Raymond Burr.”  Elsewhere in the piece, the columnist referred to Elvis as “fat.  Not just overweight, but F-A-T.”  Later he calls him “Moby Elvis,” “the Great White Whale,” and “Whalelvis.”  The following week, numerous letters were published in response to the article, including one telling Reed to “drop dead.”  Despite the splitting of his jumpsuit, Elvis appeared to be in good spirits.  According to the report, when he returned to the stage after getting changed, he brought the ruined garment with him, laughing, and showing the audience the damage, telling them that the jumpsuit he had on now was the last one he had with him and so he needed to be careful.  The evening show, released unofficially, finds Elvis in solid form and giving an enjoyable show, particularly for the period, albeit with a shorter setlist than usual.

For the next six months, the tours continued. Nothing of significance was added to the setlists, except that the band introductions, and instrumental solos that went with them, now lasted ten to fifteen minutes, thus reducing the amount of time that the audience actually got to hear Elvis.  Sometimes there were solo numbers from Kathy Westmoreland and Sherrill Nielsen as well.  On occasion, a show such as that given in Memphis on July 5th would give hints of former greatness, with Variety noting that he had the audience “in his palm” after telling them “it’s the end of our tour and I have as much time as you want tonight.” Mid-show, he shows defiance at his critics, announcing That’s All Right and saying, “I’ve had a couple of people say ‘you can’t do that anymore,’ but by God you watch me.”  It is a surprisingly touching moment as Elvis goes on to sing a spirited rendition of the song, clearly trying his best for his hometown crowd and trying to convince them (and possibly himself) that everything was just fine.  In the end, he was on stage for ninety minutes.  It isn’t classic Presley, but it is Elvis being the best he could be at that point in time, and by the end, as he attempts It’s Now or Never, it is clear that he has used up all the energy he has, and is totally spent. 

Exceptions such as the Memphis show aside, for the majority of the time performances were merely passable at best, and, on occasion, they were disasters, with the singer seemingly half asleep and barely able to speak.  Reviewers and critics couldn’t work out whether to try to overlook the obvious shortcomings, or to voice their disappointment and, on occasions, pity.  Elvis’s performance at Long Beach in April 1976 was described in Variety as “unambitious,” and the singer appeared to be “indifferent.”  Most telling is that the writer states that “the most serious offense is attitude.  Program has remained basically unchanged for years.  Talk to the audience is minimal, while chatting to fellow performers onstage is excessive.”    Meanwhile, a review from the following month in Rolling Stone described Elvis as “weak,” and “that you go to see him as much out of reverence for the past as from expectation for the immediate future.” 

Reviews from the period continually refer to the Elvis of the past, and perhaps that was hardly surprising given the release of The Sun Sessions LP at the time.  Robert P. Laurence asked in a headline if “No Longer Young, Must [Elvis] Still Symbolise Youth,” before taking readers through a list of his achievements before stating  that the “gold record figures for Elvis singles cut off at 1972; that’s the way the Colonel wants it.” Little did the writer know that Elvis didn’t have any gold singles after 1972. A review of a concert in Minnesota also suggests that Elvis and his performances are entrenched in the past:

There’s also a ‘Let’s Pretend’ element to the show.  Let’s pretend that Elvis, dressed in a tight white jumpsuit extravagantly overlaid with rhinestones, won’t really be 42 next Jan. 8, that he doesn’t have a weight problem so serious he had to check into a hospital last year to drop about 30 pounds, and that his predominately female, mainly middle-aged audience is still teen-aged: chewing gum like mad, saying ‘Kid’ in front of each sentence and hurrying home from school to catch American Bandstand…What else for the 41-year-old millionaire, so establishment these days that Richard Nixon made him an honorary narcotics officer, but to parody the Elvis of old, once the epitome of teen-age rebellion and outrageous sexuality?

There is a sadness in some of these pieces of writing that it isn’t still the 1950s, that Elvis is no longer the anti-establishment figure that he once was, and, perhaps more than anything, that the audience members themselves (and therefore the writers) were no longer the same age as they had been twenty years earlier.  For even the kinder critics, seeing Elvis on stage with the added weight, singing songs about divorce rather than the excitement of first love, and tossing off renditions of his early hits with an acknowledgement of just how innocent those lyrics had been in most cases was a constant reminder that nothing remains the same, and everybody gets older, even rock ‘n’ roll kings. 

Meanwhile, there were other critics who were less interested in reminiscing and far more concerned with letting their readers know of the stark realities of the level of Elvis’s performance and his physical condition.  Dale Rice wrote that “an overweight Elvis merely went through the motions of what once must have been a polished performance.  The show lacked enthusiasm, and the only thing that sparkled was Elvis’ costume…Surprisingly, the songs didn’t bring people to their feet.  In fact, the audience response was far less than I had expected it would be.”  Unsurprisingly, the mail bag over the next week was full with fan’s reactions to his review.  However, this time, alongside the angry condemnations of what had been written, others were writing to agree with what Rice had said.  One person wrote “in our opinion your review was a perfect description of the concert.  We were extremely disappointed by that ‘fat, puffy, over-fed’ Elvis Presley.”  Another added “[Rice] reported exactly what we felt and saw at Elvis’ performance,” while Dene Snyder confessed that “Elvis was not much of a showman Sunday night.”  Such comments must have been worrying.  Negative comments from critics was one thing, similar comments from fans themselves was something else entirely.

The final tours of 1976 were, for the most part, an improvement on what Elvis had been delivering in concert during the previous six months.  The Chicago Stadium FTD release, containing the concerts from October 14th and 15th finds Elvis slimmer, sounding somewhat rejuvenated, and giving more controlled, careful vocals than earlier in the year.  In late December, another short tour would also find Elvis in good form, culminating in the famous New Year’s Eve show in Pittsburgh that was, to all intents and purposes, Elvis’s last great show.  In between the October and December tours were rather more routine efforts both on the road and in Las Vegas, with Elvis betraying signs of being bored and tired with the latter.

One thing that stands out during the reviews of these shows (and those during the first months of 1977) is the way critics talk about Elvis’s age.  Elvis was only in his early forties, and yet he is talked about as if he is much older.  “If Elvis is 41 years old, his voice doesn’t reflect it,” wrote Pat O’Driscoll in the Nevada State Journal.  Another writer asks if you can be “sexy at 42 with a weight problem.”  Elvis is being talked about as if he is in his sixties rather than his forties.  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he had been in the public eye for such a long time, or maybe the reporting of health problems for the last four years had contributed to this somewhat twisted view of his age and what should be expected from him. 

If there had been an upswing in performance quality in late 1976, then it had disappeared by the first tour of 1977.  There are signs that he is still trying, not least by the inclusion of such rarities as Reconsider Baby, Moody Blue, Release Me, and Where No-one Stands Alone.  However, if the mind was willing, the flesh was weak, and the performances are marred by Elvis sounding out of breath and tired, and his speech slurred. 

With four tracks still needed for the next album, and Elvis unwilling or unable to take part in studio sessions, producer Felton Jarvis had no choice but to record Elvis on tour in the spring of 1977, in the hope that a previously unheard song would enter the repertoire.  Despite weeks of recording, only three new songs would be caught on tape.

Unchained Melody had been a part of Elvis’s live repertoire for a few months.  The performance featured Elvis playing the piano, something he only rarely did in concert.  The finished recording is stunning.  It presents Elvis in total command of his craft, with his voice sounding better than during most recordings from this period.  The almost rhapsodic arrangement works well and is grandiose without being totally over-the-top.  However, much of the magic of the recording was created after the event through the overdubbing process.  The original undubbed recording is surprisingly ragged.  For once, the overdubs had improved the original recording dramatically.

Little Darlin’ is a throwaway version of the 1950s hit for The Diamonds.  While this might have been fun in concert, and would have been suitable for a live album, the jokey performance had little place on the regular album where it ended up. 

The final song released at the time was If You Love Me (Let Me Know), a rather innocuous song that had been recorded by Olivia Newton John.  Let Me Be There had been a fun and infectious addition to the repertoire a few years earlier, but If You Love Me is not such good material, and Elvis’s performance (and the arrangement used) adds nothing to the subpar material. 

All three songs would end up on the Moody Blue LP, released in June 1977.  Despite the difficulties in putting it together, the album was a decided improvement over From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee – even the artwork was classier.  It remains a surprisingly enjoyable album that paints a rather positive portrait of Elvis in his final years.  Even so, Robert Hilburn was correct in saying that “no one in pop is operating as far beneath his potential as Presley.”  Dave Marsh was even less impressed, referring to the album as being “within a track of the worst piece of garbage Elvis ever recorded.”  Unsurprisingly, those who reviewed the album after Elvis’s death saw it differently.  Wiley Alexander wrote “there is not a bad song on the album.  It is one of Elvis’ best, and that’s saying a lot…It is full of class, but so was Elvis.”

Despite the pleasant Moody Blue album, Elvis’s concerts were getting more and more problematic.  A whole CD was released on the FTD label of the recordings made during the spring tours, and the quality of performance is often shocking, with Elvis struggling for breath and mumbling his way through songs. Something as straightforward as Lawdy Miss Clawdy had become laboured, and it is hard to believe that this is the same singer who had powered his way through the gospel-tinged arrangement in the Memphis concert just three years earlier.   Bridge Over Troubled Water finds Elvis struggling with his vibrato and veering out of tune throughout the performance.  Meanwhile, the Mystery Train/Tiger Man medley sounds utterly lifeless.  Also noteworthy are the slowed down arrangements, making the overall sound remarkably bare at times

His appearance was getting worse, as were the reviews.   Fans, however, still stuck by their man.  Greg Oatis, in the Toledo Blade, wrote a decidedly unfavourable review of Elvis’s concert in Toledo on April 23, 1977 (the night before Unchained Melody and Little Darlin’ were recorded).  He referred to the singer as a “parody of his past performances,” and said that several couples sitting near him in the audience left early, “evidently disappointed.”  He states that Elvis was a “little pudgy,” and that “the only standing ovation he got was when he quit singing.”

The next day, a new article appeared in the newspaper saying the review had stirred a “hornets’ nest of fans.”  It says that the objections were to Oatis writing that Elvis “has a bulge around his waist, that he can’t play the guitar, that he mumbles at times, and that the old pelvis movement isn’t what it once was.”  Interestingly, he also says that none of the callers said those comments were inaccurate, but “all said it was unfair to write those things about Elvis, and if he read them he would never come back to Toledo.”

This, however, wasn’t enough.  A week later, the newspaper printed eight letters from unhappy fans.  One wrote that “Elvis in Toledo was an honor.  Mr Oatis’ article was an embarrassment.”  Another thought the review was “thoroughly disgusting.”  Someone also thought that the article dealt “with the writer’s personal opinion of…Presley.”  Clearly this fan didn’t realise that a personal opinion was the whole point of a review.

Despite all of this, the poor reviews kept on coming.  After a concert on April 27th, Damien Jaques wrote: 

The greatest superstar doesn’t get lost in the middle of a song and have the band start over.  He doesn’t carry sheets of paper on stage because he doesn’t know the lyrics to a song, and then ask the audience to forgive him if he makes a mistake.  He doesn’t mumble and swallow lyrics, sing so softly that he can’t be heard and play almost exclusively to the few rows in front of the stage.  And the greatest superstar doesn’t walk off stage after 70 minutes of all of this, failing to return for even one encore.

Despite the fact that Elvis was clearly struggling, a deal was inexplicably struck for him to record an in-concert TV special in June 1977. It would provide a sad final chapter to Elvis’s career.


Bobby: Directions. A Listener’s Guide. 2nd Edition

During a career of seventeen years, cut short at the age of thirty-seven, Bobby Darin did it all. He recorded well over five-hundred songs ranging from jazz and swing through to folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and virtually everything in between; was a composer of dozens of songs and film scores; played piano, guitar, harmonica, drums, and the vibraphone; was a record producer; made over two-hundred television appearances; was an Oscar-nominated actor; hosted his own variety show; and was hailed as one of the greatest live performers of his time.

Bobby Darin: Directions covers all of these facets of Darin’s career, but tells its story through his recordings, taking the reader session by session, song by song, on a journey from his first tentative session in 1956 through to his final one in 1973.

This significantly expanded and revised edition of 2015’s “A Listener’s Guide” provides a commentary on Darin’s vast and varied body of work, while also examining in detail how he, his recordings, films, and television and live performances were discussed in newspapers, magazines, and trade publications from the 1950s through to the 1970s.  The text of the second edition is around 40% longer than the first (in terms of word count) and much of that is taken up by examining nearly 600 contemporary articles and reviews, telling for the first time how Bobby’s life and career played out in the printed media, and often forces us to question our understanding of both the man and his music.  All of Bobby’s music is discussed, up to and including Go Ahead and Back Up, issued in 2018.

Perfect for both dedicated fans and those approaching Darin’s work for the first time, this is the ultimate book on the career of one of the most electrifying performers of the 20th Century.

Large format paperback (7 inch by 10 inch).  Over 100 black and white illustrations including rare record sleeves from around the room and candids previously unpublished in book form.  465 pages.

Paperback available from all Amazon sites.    Please note that there are no plans for a Kindle edition at this time.

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