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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newspapers, particularly the New York Times, appeared to see this change in financial fortune as pretension.  We can see this coming through most notably if we return to Jack Gould’s attacking piece from just after the Berle show aired.  Gould writes that Presley was ‘attired in the familiar oversize jacket and open shirt which are almost the uniform of the contemporary youth who fancies himself as terribly sharp’ (Gould, 1956a: 67).   Already we can see that the stance is being taken that the singer is a nobody attempting to be a somebody (‘fancies himself as terribly sharp’).  In fact, Gould believes that Presley is only good at the ‘hootchy-kootchy,’ but then adds that is ‘hardly any reason why he should be billed as a vocalist’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elvis Presley, Irving Berlin and White Christmas

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Sometimes a story is told so many times that we believe it without questioning it.  We’re all guilty of it – and it is particularly true when it comes to showbiz stories.  However, in 2015, some of these oft-told tales simply fall to bits thanks to the availability of primary documents such as newspapers, magazines and trade journals through online archives.   Take, for example, the story of Irving Berlin’s apparent anger towards, and hatred of, Elvis Presley’s recording of White Christmas in 1957.  We have been told many times over several decades that Berlin tried to get the recording banned and/or that he tried to persuade DJs not to play it.  But is it really true?

There are a number of myths told and retold about Elvis’s White Christmas recording.  The first of which is that it used the same arrangement as the recording by The Drifters a few years earlier.  While Elvis clearly models part of his vocal on the earlier version, the arrangements are far from the same.

The opening of the Drifters take on the song starts with backing vocals, whereas Elvis’s starts with a basic piano and guitar introduction. The backing vocals continue throughout The Drifters’ version, but Elvis opens the song without backing vocals at all, and the backing vocals on his recording are far more restrained than on The Drifters version. In fact, the work of the backing vocalists in the two versions are VERY different indeed.   In the first run-through of the song, Elvis sings the “may your days” section in a straightforward, traditional manner, but the Drifters do not – they sing this section in the same manner as Elvis’s repeat of this verse.  The Drifters repeat the entire song – Elvis only repeats the second half, this time employing a vocal line very similar to the Drifters.   The Drifters version contains other instruments, such as the use of an organ, for example, and their recording ends rather differently to Elvis’s too.   So, rather than Elvis copying The Drifters arrangement, he simply uses their vocal line for the repeat section.

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One story that certainly is true is that the Christmas album received largely negative reviews when it was released.   One writer in the Ottawa Citizen review called the album “a masterpiece of seasonal miscasting,” and that it was “ludicrous and pathetic.”  However, the interesting thing here is that the album isn’t given a poor review by this writer because he or she is shocked by Elvis, but quite the reverse.  “Most of the time,” the review reads, “he’s so hushfully reverent in his approach to these unfamiliar themes that he just isn’t there at all.”

Despite the review in the Ottawa Citizen, the album certainly fell foul of censorship, with certain radio stations banning the playing of the album totally, and others banning White Christmas in particular, with one radio station official in Canada referring to the LP as “degrading” in an interview with Variety on December 4, 1957.   At least one DJ was fired for breaking a ban on playing the album, according to reports (although even this is now debatable).

It is certainly true to say that there are many articles about the album in trade journals and both local and national newspapers in 1957.  So this, surely, is where we can find the first mention of Irving Berlin trying to get White Christmas banned?   No, is that answer to that.  In fact, the story doesn’t seem to appear at all anywhere until 1990 when Laurence Bergreen included the anecdote in his acclaimed biography of Irving Berlin, As Thousands Cheer.   There, we are told that, on hearing the recording for the first time, “he immediately ordered his staff to telephone radio stations across the country to ask them not to play this barbaric rock-and-roll version.”  In the notes for the book, Bergreen lists an interview with Walter Wager as the source of the information.  Wager was a novelist and, later, an executive of ASCAP – and yet there are questions raised here as to how Wager knew this information if he wasn’t with Berlin at the time – and there is no indication that he was.  In fact, this could easily have been a story that Berlin told to him at a later date, and that Wager then repeated in the late 1980s to Bergreen.

The story really entered the Elvis world in 1994 with the release of the CD If Every Day was Like Christmas.  Here, the story from the Berlin book is regurgitated in Charles Wolfe’s liner notes.  Since then, it has been taken as the truth – and why not?   There was nothing at the time to suggest that the story was false, exaggerated or inaccurate.  It has been repeated many times since then, most recently in the liner notes for the FTD edition of Elvis’ Christmas Album  and, yes I admit it, my own book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide (none of us are infallible!).   We don’t question these stories until something suddenly makes it fall apart – and the thing that makes it fall apart is that there is no mention of it until 1990.

We live in a world now where there are many free online archives of newspapers and magazines, and even more that are not free or only available to researchers and academics.  This allows us to go back and see how things were reported at the time – and that’s exactly what I wanted to do about a year ago.  But there was a problem.  This story, in which one of the most respected songwriters of the 20th Century tried to ban a recording by the new sensation Elvis Presley, was nowhere to be found in these publications.  Not in Billboard or Variety, not in the New York Times or Washington Post, not in fan magazines, not in regional newspapers.   There was/is no logical reason why such a huge story would not have been reported in some (or all) of these publications – unless it never happened.   This would have been big news, and would have been picked up by the trade magazines and journals at the very least.  And we should also remember that Berlin was having more than his fair share of publicity in 1957 because it was the 50th anniversary of his time in show business – even more reason why such a kerfuffle would make the news.

But there was nothing.  Until 1990.

The only source for the story is that interview with Walter Wager that Bergreen used for his book – every other retelling of the story stems from that, not from other witnesses or interviewees.  Sadly, it is a fact that interviewees are often unreliable, and this is something we are discovering more and more now that we can go back and check facts ourselves with relative ease.  Why would Wager twist, exaggerate or lie?  Sometimes, it appears that interviewees tells us what we want to hear, or memories are dimmed and foggy thirty years after the events.  Or perhaps Berlin told him the story and Wager was simply repeating it – and it was Berlin who was exaggerating or fabricating a good tale.  What is clear, however, is that Berlin never did set in motion an attempt to get the recording of his beloved White Christmas banned.

Perhaps there is a nugget of truth somewhere – that, perhaps, Berlin wanted to ring those radio stations but was advised against it, or he thought it would bring too much unwanted attention to the recording, or perhaps the royalty cheques were just too tempting.   We will never know the answers to these questions.  But, thanks to the ongoing digitisation of our recent past, we do know that neither Berlin or his staff made those calls.

Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. (1959)

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One of the greatest things about the Warner Archives series is that it encourages film fans to take another look at films that aren’t talked about a great deal and yet can still entertain and pack a punch just as well as their better-known counterparts.  Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. is a case in point.

Starring George Hamilton, the films takes Dostoevsky’s classic tale and transplants it in America in the late 1950s in what is a rather loose adaptation.  Hamilton, in his first film role, plays Robert Cole, a young law student who murders a woman and then finds it difficult to deal with the consequences – both the suspicion towards him from the police and his own conscience.

It’s all been done before, of course, and since, and yet this take on the story manages to be entertaining, and Hamilton’s performance is almost hypnotic.  Somehow, he manages to take what should be a highly unlikeable character and makes the audience care about him.  We know early on, from when he tries to help a man having a heart attack, that he has redeeming features, for example.  In some ways, he’s just yet another “mixed up kid” from the 1950s that could have been played by James Dean, Sal Mineo, James MacArthur or any number of other young actors of the decade.  And yet there is something more going on.  This is, more than anything, a character study – there really isn’t much story going on as such – and Hamilton manages to make his character believable.  Sure, there are times when he appears to overact, but for a first film role his performance is impressive, and Hamilton won a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for his efforts.

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This was Denis Sanders’ first feature film as director, and he comes across as a talented thirty year old here.  There are some sequences that look a little cliched, but others have an urgency and vibrancy which don’t reflect his relative lack of experience.   However, he had already won an Academy Award five years earlier for the short film A Time Out of War, and so his talent was never really in question.  But, despite another Oscar for a later documentary, Sanders never seemed to fulfil his potential.  Crime and Punishment should have been the start of a fine career in film, and yet odd to a slightly bizarre resume, often with several years between projects and jumping from feature films to documentaries to TV episodes with little rhyme or reason.  Perhaps he is best known now for the cult film Shock Corridor and the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.  I confess I haven’t seen Shock Corridor in a number of years, but one watches That’s the Way It Is and wonders what happened to all the promise shown in his first feature film ten years earlier.  The Elvis documentary is well-regarded because of Elvis’s fine performances, but not for Sanders’ pedestrian direction or the the sometimes sloppy editing.

Oddly, though, if Sanders never fulfilled his potential, neither did Hamilton.  Despite his fine performance here, he never really hit A-list status in Hollywood and, looks and talent notwithstanding, by the mid-60s he had drifted into television work and, for the most part, continues to work in that medium today.

Elvis at 80

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As the year in which Elvis Presley would have turned 80 draws to a close, perhaps it is a good time to look back at what has been, by and large, a year not just of disappointment, but also of comparative disaster – and all due to Presley’s own music label.

It is certainly true to say that Elvis’s popularity has taken something of a tumble over the last ten years or so.  The early 2000s saw the success of the remix of A Little Less Conversation, the release and commercial success of the greatest hits collection Elv1s (and its sequels), as well as what remains the ultimate release of the Aloha from Hawaii and 68 Comeback TV shows on DVD.  And all of that is without factoring in over a dozen re-release singles reaching the top 5 in the UK in 2005 and roughly the same amount reaching the top 20 in 2007.  After that, however, popularity amongst the general public seemed to wane – it was due to an infectious disease called Presleyitis which is more often than not caused by a record label releasing so many inane and bland items aimed at the general public that they no longer give a damn.

What do I mean by that?  Well, as of 2015, if you go onto Amazon you can have Prime delivery on brand new, unopened copies of around 100 different CD Elvis compilations issued by his own record company – that’s not including the public domain releases.  By compilations, I don’t mean products such as FTDs or the Legacy Edition series, but hits compilations, rock compilations, country compilations, gospel compilations, and our old favourite, Christmas compilations!  100.  And people thought Elvis’s catalogue was a mess in the 1980s!

Meanwhile, the last few years have brought us a series of “Legacy Edition” titles that have nothing in common with Legacy Edition titles by other artists but are, instead, two albums shoved on a double CD with a few singles from the period thrown in.  We also have the Original Album series of 3 or 5 disc boxed sets of original albums.  Again, with other artists these are just fine – nice, budget reissues.  With Elvis, however, we have one set with the same album included twice, one dedicated to movie soundtracks that also includes Pot Luck, and one that includes Viva Las Vegas, which was never an original album in the first place.  Speaking of soundtracks, the 20CD soundtrack box from a year or so ago was a nice idea, but ended up with songs being listed but missed off the CD, incorrect artwork, and other errors.

So, all in all, 2015, the year of Elvis’s 80th birthday didn’t have much to live up to – and could only be an improvement.  Right?  Wrong!

It all started ominously with the Elvis80 release in Germany, which was basically a double CD greatest hits release (because the public really needed another one of those) with a third disc that included such tasty treats as There Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Song and a remix of Shake That Tambourine which somehow turned out to be more embarrassing than the original version.  Oh yeah, and a duet on Love Me Tender with someone we’ve never heard of.

Then came the news that the world had been waiting for – a Legacy Edition release of the Today album.  Now, don’t get me wrong I actually really like the Today LP – but with Legacy Editions supposedly reserved for an artist’s best work, it hardly fit the bill.  And, to make matters even more strange, Sony went back to the original soundboard tapes of some 1975 concerts and reconstructed from scratch, and remastered, a concert released in 1980 that was in itself reconstructed.  They took the time to do this, but on FTD (the collector’s label dedicated to Elvis) they released some historically important concerts from 1956 and 1961 without even trying to improve the sound that had been achieved in 1998 – which in itself wasn’t an improvement on the release from 1980 and 1984.

But still fans held their breath, because they knew there was something coming that would “make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.”  They weren’t kidding.  The culmination of this wonderful year of celebration by Sony turned out to be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra overdubbed on to Elvis recordings.  Wow.  Just what we always wanted or, in Priscilla’s words, “just what Elvis would have wanted.”

Whoever came up with the idea deserves medals for both blandness and stupidity.  It is not possible to hear what Elvis would have sounded like with a symphony orchestra by placing one on top of his vocals.  If he had recorded In the Ghetto with the RPO he would not have used the same vocal phrasings and techniques that he did with just his core group back in 1969.  The vocal performance would have been very different indeed.  This should not be hard to figure out – well, you’d think, anyway.

And so what happened?  Well, someone arranged the new backings – quite what they were smoking when they were doing so is a mystery, as some sound less like they belong on an Elvis record and more like they’re channelling Debussy and Ravel…while Elvis sings Steamroller Blues, no less. Elvis’s voice on the new album might be crystal clear, but the new backings draw attention to themselves from the opening scratching strings on Burning Love to the closing notes of If I Can Dream.  The most horrendous thing about the entire project is that it wasn’t released quietly.  Oh, no, Elvis’s widow – sorry, ex-wife (it’s easy to get confused) – appeared on talk show after talk show in the UK, Sony publicised the release like mad, and the public went out and bought it, making it #1 in the charts.

This is the worst possible result of such an endeavour.  Firstly, it encourages Sony to make more bizarre, boring and bland releases such as this, and, secondly, it means that those who bought it and were buying their first Elvis album are now unlikely to buy another one.  Ever.  The album succeeds in not just being ludicrous and dull (quite an achievement), but it also even manages to make Elvis’s vocal sound worse than it did to start with on occasion.  Just check out What Now My Love.  The RPO arrangement is bizarre, and Elvis sounds awful.  Double whammy.

And that’s it, folks.  In a year when Sony should have been working like hell to release something wondrous on the back of the publicity created by Elvis’s 80th birthday, they provide us with a year bookended by utter crap releases, with a bit of unassuming country music that no-one really cares about in the middle.  Elvis’s 80th birthday year should have been the moment when Elvis rose in stature once more.  Sony will, of course, say that he did, because cash-tills were ringing and the album was a commercial success.  But at what cost?

Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide is available through all Amazon stores. 

Bobby Darin: the Musical Chameleon? I Don’t Buy It!

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I’ve been a fan of Bobby Darin for all my adult life, “discovering” him when I was around eighteen or nineteen, twenty-odd years ago.  Last year when I did some work on Elvis Presley (whose music I got into in a big way at around the same time as Darin), I was reminded of just how many musical styles he covered during his career:  rock n roll, country, folk, gospel, show tunes, blues, and big ballads.  However, Elvis was not as versatile as Bobby Darin who did all of the above and threw jazz and swing into the mix too, as well as delving into folk and show tunes in a way that Elvis never did – nor did Elvis tackle more than a couple of protest songs, whereas Darin recorded more than two albums worth.

Despite this versatility, I’ve never been happy with people calling Bobby Darin a “musical chameleon.”  For me, this has a negative connotation – albeit perhaps an unintended one.  I’m no expert on chameleons but, while they can change their colour for any number of reasons, we generally associate it with a kind of camouflage, an attempt to fit in to its surroundings so as not to be noticed or found out.  When we transfer this idea on Darin, it then makes him out to be someone who was just changing his style and genre in order to fit in to (or cash in on) the current music scene – the whole idea of jumping on a bandwagon.

I don’t buy that idea when it comes to Bobby Darin.  I’m not saying he never went bandwagon-jumping in search of a hit – he clearly did when he recorded the Ray Charles-like You’re the Reason I’m Living and even when he recorded If I Were a Carpenter.  But, elsewhere, I don’t think that is what he was doing.

We first come across this idea when he recorded the That’s All album back in late 1958, with the suggestion that he was somehow trying to be Frank Sinatra.  And yet, anyone who knows the music of both men will know that there are actually huge stylistic differences between their arrangements and vocal styles within the big band genre.  I don’t know of a single Sinatra arrangement that has the same sound and feel as Mack the Knife and Clementine.  Sinatra’s orchestrations swung in a very different way entirely.  In fact, perhaps the nearest Sinatra got to that sound was his version of Old MacDonald – recorded after the aforementioned tracks were released, not before – and even then, it’s not the exactly the same, despite the slow build-up in sound and the repeated modulations with each verse.   And it wasn’t often that Sinatra was as downright brash as the arrangements used for Softly as in a Morning Sunrise or Some of These Days.  Maybe on I’m Gonna Live Till I Die – but this was the exception, not the rule.  Darin’s vocal approach was far different too – he didn’t sing from a jazz background as Sinatra did, but he brought rock ‘n’ roll vocal stylings to the big band sound.  I’m not saying this to knock Sinatra in any way – I adore his music as readers of this blog will know – but my point is just that Darin wasn’t somehow imitating Sinatra, he was doing it his way.

If anything, Darin’s swing sound was more like Sammy Davis Jr’s than Sinatra’s.  Check out Davis’s version of There Is a Tavern in a Town, for example, and you will see what I mean.  He also got much of his material from the same place as Davis too:  the current Broadway scene.  Whereas Sinatra was normally reaching back to shows of the 1930s and 1940s, Darin and Davis were culling material from Broadway in the 1960s and, with Darin, the current Hollywood scene too.  Hence the albums Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie, In a Broadway Bag, The Shadow of Your Smile and individual tracks such as What Kind of Fool am I and If I Ruled the World.  Despite these connections with Davis, Darin wasn’t imitating him either, although both crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll material and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Darin’s last album to be recorded for Atco was his tribute to Ray Charles, and it’s true to say it retains much of the Ray Charles sound.  However, even this wasn’t a straightforward album.  Darin was taking risks here.  What other pop singer of the time would spend over six minutes on I Got a Woman (and, in a late-60s TV appearance, over seven minutes on Drown in my Own Tears)?  Elvis was rarely recording songs over two and a half minutes.  Darin’s I Got a Woman doesn’t actually work – it goes on for far too long – but at least he was willing to take risks or, to be less kind in this instance, be self-indulgent.  Darin was always his own man and recorded what he wanted.  Colonel Parker would have run a mile from such an artist.

Bobby is again accused of jumping onto bandwagons when he released his folk album, Earthy.  And yet, once again, an actual examination of the LP finds that this wasn’t any normal folk album but an ambitious, daring (from a commercial point of view) collection of folk songs from around the world.  What’s more, it’s also one of his best albums.  In this case, the risk and the ambition and the vision paid off.  While Peter, Paul and Mary (who he is often accused of copying) were recording songs by Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Darin was adapting folk music from across the globe along with a handful of new(ish) compositions in the same style.  And the musicianship here is incredible.  Listen to the final track, The Ee-I-Ee was Rising again – this time through headphones.  Sit and wonder at the remarkably complex rhythms that occur as the song progresses and gets quicker and quicker.  Check out Bobby Darin’s timing – so accurate, and a fraction of a second either way would have thrown the whole thing out.  It’s an incredible performance which can sound like a flippant joke until heard in this way.  And yet the album did very little business commercially.  Darin’s next folk album, Golden Folk Hits, was a simple attempt to hone in on the Peter, Paul and Mary sound, but he’d gone down the artistic route before turning to the commercial one.

Then there have been the comparisons with Bob Dylan when we come to the late 1960s and Bobby’s creation of his own label to record his own protest songs.  And yet, once again, there is no foundation in these comparisons, as what Bobby was writing and recording had very little to do with what other protest singers were doing at the time.  They may have been ignored at the time but, like Earthy, these albums have now gained cult status, particularly in the UK and Europe.  The first Direction album may have contained songs that were musically simplistic, but the lyrics are what matters here.  There is some wonderful word play in The Proper Gander, while Sunday lures the listener in before issuing a damning indictment on organised religion.  Commitment, the second album, is more musically interesting, and is clearly a more varied selection of songs, and Bobby manages to tie together a beautiful melody with a powerful political comment as in Sausalito.  Elsewhere he doesn’t seem to be protesting at all, but there is great wordplay and musicality in Water Color Canvas, and a dry self-deprecating humour in Distractions.

His Motown years were largely disappointing, and yet the 1971 live album (released in 1987) is probably the best live album he recorded.  Yes, he’s relying largely on contemporary covers, but look at what he does with them!  While Elvis’s idea of a Beatles medley was a bland re-tread of Yesterday with the end of Hey Jude tagged on the end, Darin had come up with a multi-song, almost rhapsodic masterpiece.  And, once again, ambition shone through, as in the extended version of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.

There wasn’t much musical ambition in the Motown studio recordings, as he turned into a bland balladeer with orchestrations that should have been torn up and thrown out long before they reached the studio.  And there wasn’t much ambition on his disappointing TV series either – and yet Darin was still doing what HE wanted when he could.  What other variety show gave over a few minutes each week to a chess game?  Again, this was Darin being self-indulgent and ambitious and this time it didn’t work – but he hadn’t given up despite seemingly losing his way musically in his final years (although appearances on The David Frost Show and Midnight Special showed exactly what he was capable of when he put his mind to it – as did the concert-style final show of his TV series).

No artist leaves a perfect musical legacy.  As I discussed last year, Elvis certainly didn’t, and neither did Bobby Darin.  He took risks, and sometimes they didn’t work or he over-estimated his audience.  And yet the quality of his recordings is far more consistent than Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr, or even (arguably) Sinatra, who went through nearly a decade of artistic doldrums.  But one thing I am sure of is that Bobby Darin had no interest in being a chameleon, and changing his genre and style just to fit in or, worse, cash-in.  If he changed his style, it was always because he thought he could bring something different to it, that he could add something, that he could move it forward, that he could push the boundaries.  So let’s throw away this whole “Darin the chameleon” idea once and for all, and celebrate “Darin the Diverse” instead.

Elvis Presley: His Hand in Mine (review)

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As it’s Easter, here are my comment on Elvis’s first gospel album, His Hand in Mine, recorded in 1960.  The following is taken from my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, available in paperback and in Kindle format from Amazon.

*

Some three and a half years after recording the Peace in the Valley EP of sacred music, Elvis finally found himself in a position to record his first full-length album of gospel music.  His Hand in Mine would have a very different feel to the sombre EP.  Here, traditional up-beat gospel songs would sit next to more serious sacred ballads, but the album would still have a consistency with Elvis essentially acting as the leader of the gospel quartet sound he had loved since his boyhood.

Milky White Way had been originally recorded by the Coleman Brothers in 1944, but Elvis based his arrangement on that by another group, The Trumpeteers.  However, he manages to incorporate a blues element into the material, sliding between notes in some places, and even bending notes in others.  Check out how he does this within the line “I’m gonna sit up and tell him my troubles/About the world I just came from” in the last verse.  This is brilliant singing, and shows Elvis thoroughly in his element, merging gospel, blues and doo-wop sounds to make a two minute masterpiece.

Elvis’s influence for the title song of the LP, His Hand in Mine clearly comes from the original recording by The Statesmen.  However, once again, Elvis makes subtle changes.  Doy Ott’s lead vocal on the recording by The Statesman is square in comparison to Presley’s.  Ott moves from note to note with clarity – there are no slides here – and sings with relatively wide, but controlled, vibrato.  Elvis does neither.  There are a number of changes in dynamics within the recording (not present in the original) and, at times, Elvis is almost whispering into the microphone.  There are also some startling switches from the sections in which Elvis sings in his bass voice to the sections where he sings in his higher register in duet with Charlie Hodge.  While his range had no doubt grown over the previous couple of years, it’s clear that Elvis hadn’t quite got the control at the very bottom of his range that he has at the top – he would be much more confident in this area six years later on the How Great Thou Art album.

Elvis gives The Jordanaires a moment in the spotlight at the beginning of I Believe in the Man in the Sky, with the group singing the verse with the barest of accompaniments before Elvis enters to sing the chorus.  His voice sounds glorious, and he uses all his range to navigate the tricky melody.  This is quite unlike anything on the 1957 gospel EP.  The sound is much lighter, the tempo quicker, and the song almost has a swing feel to it.

He Knows Just What I Need is more sombre and sedate and, in many ways, has a sound much more akin to that being used at the time by Johnny Cash on his albums of sacred music.  It’s possibly the least successful song on the album, but that makes it sound worse than it is.  It simply hasn’t got any of the magical moments that make the other songs so wonderful. In a similar vein is Mansion over the Hilltop, but this is distinguished by Elvis’s beautifully-controlled vocal.

In My Father’s House begins with Elvis singing a full chorus not just with The Jordanaires, but as part of them.  Elvis then sings a verse himself before handing over to The Jordanaires bass singer, Ray Walker, for a section before re-joining the group himself for the end of the number.  It’s brilliantly arranged, adding variety to the ballads on the album, and showing that Elvis was more invested in the music itself than hogging all of the spotlight for himself.

Three up-tempo spirituals were recorded next.  Joshua Fit the Battle was a song Elvis had talked about recording back in 1956.[1]  Here he sings the number with a natural swing, aided and abetted by more sterling work from The Jordanaires, against whose voices Elvis’s own nestles comfortably.  Swing Down Sweet Chariot was in the same vein, although there is the smallest hint of rock ‘n’ roll intonation here, not least in the repeated use of the word “well” in between each section.  Elvis would re-record the number in 1968 for the film The Trouble with Girls I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs again finds Elvis as part of The Jordanaires rather than as a soloist, especially during the choruses.  Even in the verses, when Elvis is singing the melody while the group add a rhythmic vocal backing, the mix allows for him to totally blend in – and in the final chorus Elvis can hardly be heard as a soloist at all.

If We Never Meet Again and Known Only to Him see Elvis returning to ballad material, with both songs in waltz time.  Both contain more of the same wonderful selfless musicianship that had dominated the session thus far.

Crying in the Chapel was slightly different.  This was more of a pop song with an inspirational theme – in the same way that I Believe was.  The number wasn’t released until five years later, and became one of Elvis’s few hits during the fallow period of the mid-1960s.  Jorgensen writes that, remarkably “the recording log … says that no satisfactory master was completed.”[2]  In other words, the song wasn’t even deemed as fit for release at the time, something which only goes to demonstrate Elvis’s search for perfection with regards to the project.  There is, of course, another option – that Elvis didn’t feel that the song fitted with the sound of the rest of the album.  That is certainly the case; it has a slightly different feel.  However, it has a fine, restrained vocal that deservedly has become one of the singer’s best-loved songs.

To finish the album, Elvis and the musicians turned to Working on the Building.  Of the upbeat material on His Hand in Mine, this is certainly the weakest.  Unlike the other numbers, there appears to be relatively little thought within the arrangement, which becomes repetitive.  The song was sequenced at the end of the album, thus meaning that an otherwise near-perfect record ended on one of the least effective songs.

His Hand in Mine was an artistic triumph for Elvis.  There wasn’t a single mediocre cut on the whole album, and it had all been recorded in a single night.  Billboard raved.  They called it a “fascinating set of performances,” and stated that “the gospel message has never been put forth with any more greater effect and impact than here.”[3]

[1] Aules Archer, “Stop Hounding teenagers,” True Story, Dec 1956, 22,” 24.

[2] Jorgensen, Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, 142.

[3] “Spotlight Winners of the Week,” Billboard, December 5, 1960, 5.

Elvis Presley: The Memphis Sessions (1969)

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The following is an excerpt from my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, currently available in paperback and as a download for the Kindle.  These pages discuss Elvis’s remarkable 1969 recording sessions in Memphis that produced two albums and four hit singles.

*

January 13-16 and 20-23, 1969:  Studio Sessions

The TV special that had been filmed in June and which has become known as the “Comeback Special” finally aired on December 3, 1968 and, with If I Can Dream, Elvis scored his first real hit single in years.  Around the same time, or shortly after, Elvis made the decision that his next scheduled recordings should take place at American Studios in Memphis rather than Nashville.  Those sessions, recorded in January and February 1969 formed the second act of Elvis’s comeback.

Producer Chips Moman pushed Elvis in a way that no-one had done since Sam Phillips (and possibly not even Sam).  The recordings that resulted are, arguably, the best that Elvis made.  Many would argue in favour of the Sun recordings, but the tracks cut in Memphis in 1969 are deeper and darker from a lyrical point of view.  They are performances that only the older Elvis could give.  Elvis now had life experiences to draw on and that shines through almost every song recorded here.

A few months earlier, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the bell sounding at the beginning of Long Black Limousine was a death knell for Elvis’s career.  Instead, it signalled the start of the sessions.  Elvis bases his version of the song on the recording by O. J. Smith, or, at least, uses that as a starting point.  As good as Smith’s recording is, Elvis’s is a tour-de-force.  His voice retains some of the harshness utilised in the TV special, but there is something more than just “sound” going on here.  Elvis had seen that there was a chance that his flagging career could be revived and he was determined to work at that chance with everything he had.  Long Black Limousine tells the story of a girl from a small town who left the narrator behind to go and live in the city, boasting that she would return rich and in a “fancy car,” only to fulfil her prophecy at her own funeral.  Elvis gives everything. He knows this story, he knows the frustrations the girl felt, and he also knows that he could one day be her.  By the end of the performance he sounds totally exhausted.

This is the Story might not have the same depth, but Elvis is again in stunning form.  The song itself follows unusual chord progressions, particularly in the verses, and this provides a slightly awkward melody line which Elvis negotiates with ease (and the second take was the master).  The lyrics might not be the most original, but Elvis still digs in deep and gives a performance that is totally sincere without becoming maudlin.

Elvis yells out the opening lines of Wearin’ that Loved on Look, the effective mix of soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll that would become the first track on the first album released from the sessions.  As he worked on the third great song in a row, he must have wondered why he had been so content singing bland songs for so long.  This was a track that was perfect for Elvis, and he’s clearly having a ball, even adding his own “shoops” during the chorus almost as if he is singing to (and with) himself.

You’ll Think of Me is different and unusual.  It’s a long song that is simple in structure.  There are no real choruses, just verse after verse with a nice twist in the lyrics at the end.  It’s not the most commercial song from the sessions, but it does show Elvis being interested in more challenging material.   As with Long Black Limousine he appears to be relishing the chance to get inside a character and tell a story.

A Little Bit of Green has a more relaxed feel than those recorded so far.  Written by the same writing team as This is the Story, this is a nice mid-tempo ballad with a lovely melodic hook in the chorus that stretches Elvis’s range to the limit.  Once again, Elvis puts in a superb performance and is totally committed to the song.

I’m Movin’ On is an old country standard that Elvis gives a makeover, injecting the song with an element of soul.  While this might at first seem like Elvis using his old technique of transforming a song to suit his own style, he did at least have a version to base his own on here.  The Box Tops had included a great rendition of the number on their third album, Non-Stop, and this was the one that Elvis used as the basis for his own.  What’s added in the Presley recording are his soul-filled vocals and the brilliantly-judged backing vocals during the choruses.

Gentle on my Mind was a much newer song, but it had already become a country standard by the time Elvis recorded it in 1969, with the number having received two Grammy awards in 1968.  The recordings by John Hartford and Glen Campbell had been pure unadulterated country, but Elvis’s version has, in many ways, a much heavier sound that mixes the country sound with elements of soul and even gospel – the latter thanks to the nature of the backing vocals throughout the song.

Don’t Cry Daddy kept things in a largely country vein, and the song would provide Elvis with one of four hits from the two sets of sessions in Memphis.  Views on the song vary depending on how much the listener can stomach the rather saccharine nature of the lyrics.  Billboard called the song a “potent tearjerking ballad handled in standout style.”[1]  Elvis sings the song beautifully and with sincerity, but to this author the song hasn’t grown old particularly gracefully and is just too maudlin for its own good.

The same can be said about Mama Liked the Roses.  However, this brings up the issue of association of where we first hear a song and if and when that matters in our appreciation of it.  Many first heard this (as I did) as the final track of the Camden issue of Elvis’ Christmas Album and, because of that, it holds a special place because of the memories of hearing that album when growing up.  That doesn’t make it any more or less maudlin than Don’t Cry Daddy, but happy memories of childhood Christmases tend to result in us making allowances.  The song itself, though, isn’t a happy one as the singer remembers his now-deceased mother. Considering Elvis’s close relationship with his own mother, it’s hardly surprising that he wanted to record the number, and the fact it first appeared as the flip-side of The Wonder of You can hardly be seen as coincidental given the lyrics of both songs.

Inherit the Wind returned Elvis to rhythmical ballad material that had made up much of the session so far.  The song was hardly top-drawer, especially when compared to some of the songs Elvis recorded at the session, but, by this point, Elvis seemed unstoppable and put in a great performance, almost snatching and biting at words at some points, most notably at the beginning of the final verse.

Similarly, My Little Friend is hardly a great song musically, but the lyrics about a man remembering his first love are interesting and often manage to capture the innocence and excitement of adolescence.  It’s a surprisingly adult song in many ways, if not explicitly then buried just beneath the surface:  “I learned from her the whispered things/The big boys at the pool hall talked about.” We all know what the narrator is talking about and probably also remember those overheard conversations of older kids as we grew up too.  Elvis tells the story simply, and we believe every word.

Between 1968 and 1970, Elvis recorded a number of songs with a social conscience theme – something he never did in other periods during his career.  Following on from Clean Up Your Own Backyard and If I Can Dream, In the Ghetto didn’t, therefore, appear out of nowhere.  Written by Mac Davis (who also wrote the maudlin Don’t Cry Daddy), the track was described in one newspaper as a “message song of the disadvantaged in a Chicago ghetto.”[2]  Elvis immerses himself totally in the story at the heart of the song.  Peter Guralnick writes that “the singing is of such unassuming, almost translucent eloquence, it is so quietly confident in its simplicity, so well supported by the kind of elegant, no-frills small-group backing that was the hallmark of the American style – it makes a statement almost impossible to deny.”[3] Guralnick’s description sums up the number far more articulately than I could ever dream of, and so let’s move on by simply saying that this is Elvis at his very best.

Rubberneckin’, by comparison, is far from being a message song and yet coincidentally turned up in Change of Habit, Elvis’s last scripted film – and one that has a social message at its heart.  The song itself is an infectious mix of rock ‘n’ roll, funk and soul that might not make a great deal of sense lyrically, but which Elvis attacks with abandon, seemingly letting off steam after over twenty takes of In the Ghetto.

This sense of simply playing around and making music at the same time is also apparent in both From a Jack to a King and Hey Jude.  The former is a playful romp through Ned Miller’s song, but it all seems inconsequential compared to almost everything else recorded at the session, and the overdubbed female voices really don’t help matters.

Meanwhile, Hey Jude is an unmitigated mess.  The number was held back from release until 1972 and some commentators suggest we shouldn’t take the song seriously as it was just an informal or incomplete recording.  Had it been released posthumously then it would be easier to take that view, however it was released during Elvis’s lifetime in the guise of a finished master and so that’s how it should be judged.  That Elvis doesn’t know the words doesn’t help, but that’s the least of the problems in a recording that sees the singer hitting a bum note at the same place in each and every verse.  That Elvis thought that this was OK to release shows the lack of interest he must have had in his own career by 1972 and, arguably, a sign of contempt for his fans who were paying good money for a half-finished recording.

The next night, things were back on track.  Without Love is a powerful ballad that Elvis infuses with a gospel feeling.  It’s a song that follows the format of so many Elvis “big ballads” during the 1970s, but here it is performed without the bombastic vocal and arrangement that would mar so many of the later recordings.

I’ll Hold You in My Heart is incredible.  Elvis takes this old country song and sings it over and over in the same manner as take 2 of You’ll Never Walk Alone and Saved during the TV special from the year before. Elvis wrings every last drop of emotion out of the song and yet, surprisingly, none of its lengthy running time seems forced or contrived. Peter Guralnick raved in Rolling Stone, writing that “nothing could better exemplify the absorbing character of Elvis’ unique and moving style.  At the same time nothing could more effectively defy description, for there is nothing to the song except a haunting, painful emotionalism.”[4]

With I’ll Be There, Elvis turned his hand to a pretty pop song written and originally recorded by Bobby Darin nearly a decade earlier.  Darin’s version suffers from a tinny, almost toy-instrument sounding instrumentation and an unusually forced and unconvincing vocal.  Elvis once again doesn’t know all the words, but shows Darin how great the song could be.  He tears it up, giving it a natural flow that is completely missing from the original.

The session ended with the recording of the classic Suspicious Minds, a track that Billboard referred to as an “outstanding performance.”[5] This song of romance gone bad would ultimately become one of Elvis’s most well-known and best-loved recordings.  For a recording so artistically brilliant it was also remarkably commercial.  The sudden drop to half speed during the bridge makes the listener take notice even on the first hearing and, while the fade out-fade-in ending could (and perhaps should) be viewed as a gimmick, it also meant that the song was instantly memorable and recognisable.

The sessions had finally come to an end, but that wasn’t the end of Elvis’s greatest set of recordings – another set of dates were pencilled in at the studio for the following month, and Elvis would pick up exactly where he left off.

February 17-22, 1969:  Studio Session

Rather than seeming like the start of a new session, this seemed simply like a continuation of the previous one.  The personnel were, by and large, the same, and Elvis, buoyant after the January recordings, was in good spirits and ready for work.  However, before getting down to business there was time for a short jam with Elvis and the musicians working their way through a medley that included This Time (written by Chips Moman) and I Can’t Stop Loving You, a song which would become part of Elvis’s live act just a few months later.

Then it was down to the real work.  The first song recorded was the rather clumsily-titled True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, a song that had been recorded the previous year by Duane Dee.  Dee’s version was strictly in the country genre but, as in the previous recordings in January, Elvis took the country element and mixed it with a generous helping of soul.  He also gave the song a more driving rhythm than the original and ornamented the melody a little, giving a looser feel to the number overall.

Stranger in My Own Home Town had been written and recorded by Percy Mayfield in 1963, but here Elvis doesn’t just alter the feel of the song but gives it a complete transformation.  The length of Elvis’s version is nearly double that of the original, with Elvis singing the same two verses over and over again, subtly changing the melody each time.  Unusually, there is an instrumental introduction lasting a full verse, and then a number of instrumental breaks over which Elvis improvises partly off-mic and tells the band to “give it clout.”  Everyone seems to be having a great time and, more than almost any other Elvis recording, this portrays the great joy that music-making can bring.

Neil Diamond’s And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind is quite different again.  Here, Elvis gives a gentle, delicate performance, while also negotiating the huge vocal range that the song requires.  The overdubbing of the female backing vocals and strings might be a little saccharine, but it can’t hide the beauty of Elvis’s vocal.

Power of My Love is an edgy rock number in waltz time that sees Elvis digging deep and giving a dramatic, almost threatening, performance.  It seems almost bizarre that this great number, one of the highlights of the session, was written by Giant, Baum and Kaye – one of the most prolific (and bland) of all the songwriters of the Hollywood years.

Elvis continues with the same style of attacking vocal with After Loving You, a country song that had been recorded by both Eddy Arnold and Della Reese, although Elvis’s version seems to be based on neither.  As with Stranger in my Own Home Town and I’ll Hold You in My Heart, Elvis seems unwilling to let go of the song, not unlike Reese’s own recording of Someday, in which she repeats the last lines over and over.

Do You Know Who I Am sees Elvis firmly back in quiet, understated ballad territory in a song that lyrically seems like a distant cousin of Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello.  In that song, the narrator has just spotted an ex-girlfriend across a crowded bar or in a restaurant.  In Do You Know Who I Am he takes the opportunity to go over and say hello.  Once again, Elvis gets to develop his story-telling skills, and gives a far more convincing acting performance here than in many of his movies.

The same can be said for Kentucky Rain, a rather more dramatic song with a strong narrative.  Here, the singer is looking for the lover that left him without saying goodbye the week before.  The song was the last of the Memphis sessions to be released as a single, and the only one not to reach the top ten in America, stalling at #16, and only reaching #21 in the UK.  It’s hard to figure out quite why the track did less well than its predecessors for it’s a strong song and Elvis’s performance is totally compelling.  Indeed, James E Perone wrote that Kentucky Rain is “among the strongest 1960s’ performances that Elvis gave” and that it has enough “genre-blurring vitality [that it] transcends many other releases from the 1960s.”[6]

Only the Strong Survive sees Elvis back in soul territory, covering Jerry Butler’s U.S. hit single.  Elvis puts in another strong performance here, but his version follows the original very closely, which is rather a shame when compared to the songs from these sessions where Elvis took a song and transformed it into something purely his.  Even though it took nearly thirty takes to get it right, the arrangement barely moved away from Butler’s own at all.

It Keeps Right on a-Hurtin’ sees Elvis returning to country material.  Here he gives the song a nice, easy-going feel that is less “straight” than Johnny Tillotson’s original.   In a similar style is If I’m a Fool (For Loving You), written by Stan Kesler, who had written two of Elvis’s Sun sides.  In comparison to other material recorded by Elvis at American Studios that winter, these are unremarkable, but they are still good country performances.

Any Day Now, written by Bob Hilliard and Burt Bacharach, has an awkward, hard-to-sing melody, but Elvis seems to manoeuvre around it with ease.  The bridge of the song gives the appearance of dropping in tempo, but it’s just an illusion created by the sparser instrumentation.   Elvis’s performance manages to retain some of the soul aspects of the number that were present in Chuck Willis’s original, but also seems to merge them with a vocal that clearly draws on the influence of Tom Jones, who had released his own version on his Green Green Grass of Home LP in 1967.

Two songs were recorded on the final night of the sessions and, while neither are highlights, both are pleasant enough.  The Fair is Moving On is another song that clearly draws upon the influence of Tom Jones, not least in the big, belting chorus.  Meanwhile, Who Am I is an understated religious number which, while attractive, lacks any real commercial appeal.

The material from the Memphis sessions was spread over two albums, a number of single sides (including four hits) and budget albums, with Hey Jude escaping quietly three years later on the Elvis Now LP.  From Elvis in Memphis, the first album released, is probably Elvis’s greatest album and it received rave reviews.  Billboard stated that “he’s never sounded better, and the choice of material is perfect.”[7]  Meanwhile, Variety referred to the release as a “tightly socked disk with adept Memphis backup.”[8]

The second album, now generally referred to as Back in Memphis, was originally issued as part of a double album also containing an LP of live performances from August 1969.  From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the original, rather un-snappy title of the double album, also received very good reviews.  The New York Times stated that the “new pieces become quickly and comfortably familiar.”[9]  A week later, the same newspaper printed a second review, this time by Albert Goldman, author of a posthumous, controversial biography of the singer.  Goldman admits that “this is Elvis Presley’s year.”[10]

Despite the wonders of these sessions, some people still lived in the past, believing that nothing Elvis could do (even when it was this good) would match the wonders of his first recordings.  Despite giving From Elvis in Memphis a glowing review, Peter Guralnick still wrote “And yet it’s still not the same. …You can’t recapture the innocent ease of those first sides, you can’t bring back the easy innocence of new adulthood, whether for listener or singer. What is so striking about the sides cut for Sun Records, even today, fifteen years after their release, is the freshness of style, the cleanness and the enthusiasm.”[11]

The problem here is that Guralnick’s yearning for Elvis’s early style seemingly has little to do with Elvis himself.  In fact, he has just spent two pages of a magazine praising his most recent work.  No matter how much it might be denied, the comments he makes about the Sun sides here have little to do with their quality (wonderful though many of them are), and much more to do with Guralnick’s yearning to recapture the wonders of his own adolescence. By 1969, Guralnick was a grown man, and not a twelve or thirteen year old boy who was, no doubt, captivated by Elvis’s early records.  By his own admission here, no matter how good Elvis was in 1969 (or after), it would simply never be good enough.

Much has been written about Elvis’s work in the final seven or eight years of his life, and much has been said about the material he chose to record, the genre he chose to sing in, and the arrangements he chose to employ.  Blame has been put on all those things when critiquing Elvis’s final decade but they are often just a scapegoat.  Even if the quality of those final years was as high as these masterful recordings in Memphis, they still wouldn’t have been good enough for those critics who were not able to face the idea that they had to grow up, and that their idols had to grow up too and sing about more serious things than “playing house.”

The Memphis sessions provided Elvis with three top ten singles.  He had now conquered both television and the charts. All that was left was for him to return to live performing – the event that would be the third act of the Elvis comeback.

[1] “Top Singles of the Week,” Billboard, November 19, 1969, 48.

[2] “Elvis Cuts a Song of the Ghetto,” The Afro-American, May 3, 1969, 10.

[3]  Peter Guralnick.  Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. (London: Abacus, 1999), 332.

[4] Peter Guralnick, “Records,” Rolling Stone, August 23, 1969, 34.

[5] “Spotlight Singles,” Billboard, September 6, 1969, 110.

[6] James E Perone, “From Elvis in Memphis (1969),” in The Album: A Guide to Pop Music’s most Provocative, Influential and Important Creations, Volume 1, ed. James E Perone (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012), 224.

[7] “Billboard Album Reviews,” Billboard, June 7, 1969, 51.

[8] “Baez, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elvis, ‘Midnight,’ Cowboy, & Lady Dead, Kaleidoscope Top New LPs,” Variety, June 11, 1969, 72.

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

[10] Albert Goldman, “A Private Bag of Mixed Beauties,” New York Times, December 14, 1969, D44.

[11] Guralnick, “Records,” 35.