Elvis Is Back!, named in reference to the man’s return from service in the U.S. Army in Germany, marked a clear transition in his music. The days of wild, energetic, iconoclastic rock and roll were behind. The new approach is more clean-cut. If the early Elvis could not be shown on television from the waist down, for what his gyrating hips implied, then the new Elvis was calculated to be a little safer and more palatable to parents, implying nothing much at all. And to be clear, Elvis is Back! is calculated. It’s a highly eclectic batch of songs, performed in a variety of styles, determined to find something to appeal to everyone. There is peppy Drifters-style R&B/doo-wop, Hollywood country & western like Marty Robbins or Roy Rogers, sultry R&B/proto-soul like Little Willie John, secularized gospel, and a lot of teen idol heartthrob fodder. There are no up-tempo rockers (though “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” comes closest). Any echo of rural origins from Elvis’ earlier music is also gone. The man’s voice lets go of its previous bite and sharp delivery in favor of increasing amounts of vibrato in the style of Roy Hamilton, something like a traditional pop or even operatic form of singing that doesn’t come from blues or rock. Elvis, surprisingly, proves up to the task. He sings strongly in this new way even without using falsetto or breathy vocals. His stylistic range and versatility emerged here as some of his most unique and lasting talents. While the songs aren’t all great–this was an era when the best stuff was reserved for non-album singles (like the ballad “Fame and Fortune“)–there are no missteps. Elvis sings well, though really he would only improve in his vocal abilities in the coming years. It’s easy to see how the styles developed here would later produce the best of what The King accomplished from 1968 to around 1972. What shouldn’t be ignored on this record is the production. Elvis’ handlers made this the absolute pinnacle of sound recording technology in its day, just as producers at Columbia had made strides recording Paul Robeson in the 1940s with new ribbon microphones. New three-track technology allowed a crispness and balance between Elvis’ leads, backing vocals, and instrumental accompaniment. This one is ultimately a bit of a period piece, evincing a time in pop music when innocence and conservative values briefly won out over the revolutionary energy of 50s rock–before being crushed by the wave of modernity in the “underground” rock movement of the late 1960s and the growing power of black soul music during the freedom/civil rights movement. Yet, it’s probably one of the best examples of what strictly commercial pop had to offer in 1960.
From Elvis in Memphis was recorded after Elvis made his comeback on a 1968 TV special. It is widely regarded as one of his best albums–maybe the very best–from his later career or even his entire career. That’s something. On closer inspection this is a little different from that, but still amusing and intriguing. This was the beginning of, or at least the immediate precursor to, the Vegas act, sequined jumpsuit period. He was singing differently than he used to, with a smoother, rounder tone heavier on vibrato, taking away all the sharpness of his earliest recordings. In a broader cultural context, this album came at the absolute pinnacle of the good times for the American working man. Ordinary folks had their chance to obtain a small, bastardized piece of the leisure class lifestyle, and Elvis was there ready to grow fat and lazy with them. What From Elvis in Memphis offers is an attempt to portray a kind of “ordinary” life, street-wise and gritty, dressed up enough to keep the peons interested. It’s a life of huge cars, electric home appliances, and a growing sense of deserved (yet limited) decadence. The thing is, Elvis is always hesitant to go too far. This is an album that doesn’t really want to get its hands dirty, or at least not too dirty. So it can only look on its subjects from a distance, never quite getting there. “In the Ghetto” is a perfect example. It’s a good Elvis performance, but there are better versions that shed some light on the one here. Candi Staton did a version (that Elvis liked) that goes that extra distance; it feels like it’s sung from the ghetto rather than looking in on it. Then there is a version that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds did. The Bad Seeds’ version is reflective of Elvis’ performance, more so than of the song’s lyrical content, with Nick Cave singing it ironically on the basis of its kitsch value but always threatening to make it serious at any moment. The songs on From Elvis in Memphis are mostly quite mediocre and the band forgettably professional. But there is still something here in spite of that. There is a charming pomposity in this music. The vision it conjures up is the sort of humble guy growing up, making it big and looking back to those folks that got him there, as if kneeling down to deign some poor kid to admire his jeweled ring (hey, maybe you can make it too kid). It’s like giving that kid, that kind of listener, this music out of a sense of charity. It’s the subtle complacency behind that sort of a perspective that led to the downfall of the good times it enjoyed. Rather than going the extra distance and being the sort of honest, humble music that might show a solidarity and adherence to the values of the common man, this album really takes the sort of view that sees itself as standing apart, looking back, acknowledging a divide from its origins and its audience. Yet the lasting value of this work is that it represents the dreams and hopes of its times, even though those dreams and hopes are flawed and their achievement somewhat hollow. There’s no denying that songs like “Long Black Limousine,” “Power of My Love,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “After Loving You,” and “In the Ghetto” are all solid expressions of these things–with much of the best material congregated on a very solid side two of the LP. If this commentary means anything, consider it in the context of Orson Welles‘ film Vérités et mensonges [F for Fake], the notion that the act of forgery says something in and of itself about motives that lead humans to create art and artifice.
Although widely acknowledged as a cultural phenomenon that transformed America with his charisma and music in the 1950s, Elvis’ career got off-track in the 1960s as he focused on making terrible (but profitable) movies rather than making music. In 1968 he made a comeback with a TV music special, followed by a Vegas engagement with a new band. As it turns out, the Vegas act came to define Elvis’ later career. It was a glitzy show, with a horn section, backing singers. Elvis had taken to wearing gaudy jumpsuits too. This music had now become a sort of high-energy, rock- and soul-inflected, southern style of crooning. No one had really done anything like that before. It was a period when rural-influenced musical acts could find wide acceptance, with former Sun Records label-mate Johnny Cash having a major network TV show at the same time. Elvis sings remarkably well here. The results are probably more consistent than his much-lauded From Elvis in Memphis album, even if this never reaches the greatest heights of that earlier studio effort. One notable characteristic is the lack of the customary mid-set batch of Elvis’ past hits, which many aficionados deem the least interesting part of most Elvis shows and live recordings of the era. Although Vegas acts have become something of a cliché, Elvis was a pioneer in the form. Countless musicians, down to even Bob Dylan, have tried to emulate this kind of grandiose entertainment, but few if any came close to Elvis. That the man became a cultural icon not once but twice in one lifetime, all before the age of 40, is nothing short of amazing. Consider this Elvis’ best live album, and possibly one of his best albums period.
Recorded during the height of Elvis’ “Vegas” show era, An Afternoon in the Garden presents an afternoon show recorded June 10, 1972 at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was part of a sold-out four show stand. The evening show of June 10th was previously released as Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden. There are plenty of live Elvis albums from this era (Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, On Stage: February 1970, Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis, not to mention plenty of live cuts on That’s the Way It Is et al.), and most are quite good (uh, not Having Fun With Elvis on Stage though). Guitarist James Burton really gets a chance to shine here, even getting space for a psychedelic wah-wah solo on the Presley favorite “Polk Salad Annie.” The set list is almost the same as on Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden, minus “The Impossible Dream” but with a few additional tunes here. For that matter the set list is similar to many other Presley live albums. But these are all great tunes. What makes this set so amazing is that you get some of the soulful bombast of On Stage: February 1970, some of the grandiose theatrics of Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, plus some of the kicking rock drive of Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, all rolled into one perfectly balanced package. Elvis just commands this show, with every little flubbed lyric chuckled off and re-purposed as an opportunity to charm the audience. As with most other Elvis live albums of the era, this is a complete show that plays (almost) like being there in person. Pop music rarely if ever had a figure like Elvis who could deliver with spectacular feeling and aplomb the biggest, brightest and best hopes and emotions of salt of the Earth folks who quite rightly dubbed him their king. This is a damn fine album, recommended for anyone.
It is impossible to consider the state of American social fabric in the mid Twentieth Century without factoring in Elvis. The magic of Elvis’ early career was that he was this “other” when it came to the characteristically straight-laced 1950s mainstream culture. He took just about every element of unacceptable subculture and threw it together in a seamless, integrated package. C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced the “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” in the 1950s, and it featured a complete meal separated into divided compartments. Take that as a metaphor for the era. Elvis represented all the food commingling, a stew that crossed all the boundaries and dividing walls. There were poor, rural, hillbilly country elements, there were bits of raucous blues and r&b, and more, and it all came together as this new thing people called rock ‘n roll. The music drew from black and white culture at a time when ugly Jim Crow segregation still ruled. But this music was a powerful shot across the bow of the status quo, a warning sign that segregation and the thinking behind it didn’t work. Some truck driver kid from Memphis crossed over. And his undeniable charisma and energy just didn’t leave room for doubt that the most compelling argument was on the side of a new (younger) generation and their new way of thinking. When Elvis famously went on the Ed Sullivan TV show and his gyrating hips couldn’t be shown on camera while he danced and performed because of what they suggested, it is telling that Sullivan still had Presley on, because there was simply no denying that he had something compelling to offer that people identified with. Sullivan had no choice but to accept it. Elvis wasn’t trying to wage a cultural war. But the size of his talent, like that of Louis Armstrong a generation earlier, transformed the cultural fabric. He represented the most successful kind of revolutionary: one that almost naively didn’t recognize or seek change but instead suddenly and completely offered a viable alternative that left the old ways obsolete. They call those paradigm shifts.
Elvis had begun his career with the tiny but now legendary Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. But as Presley started to gain some attention, label owner Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA Victor in late November 1955 for $40,000 (Phillips made a fortune by investing that money in the new Holiday Inn hotel chain). RCA producer Steve Sholes took Presley to Nashville and began recording songs. “Heartbreak Hotel” was released as a single, and after Elvis made a series of appearances on television for The Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show” the single became a smash hit. A few weeks later, Presley’s debut long-player Elvis Presley was released. The rest, as they say, was history.
This album was remarkable in that the LP format was still a new prospect. There were no accepted formulas for how it might work for rock and roll music, if at all. Singles were still the dominant medium. It featured a few leftover recordings from Sun Records (“I Love You Because,” “Just Because,” “Trying to Get to You,” “Blue Moon”), plus new material recorded with Sholes. Elvis tackles covers of some of early rock and R&B’s biggest talents, Carl Perkins‘ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Little Richard‘s “Tutti Frutti,” Ray Charles‘ “I Got a Woman,” The Drifters‘ “Money Honey.” But he also ventured into the territory of Hollywood show tune balladry with Rodgers/Hart’s “Blue Moon.”
Although Elvis was a hot commodity and starting to receive more and more attention, he was still unproven and not yet a big star when he recorded Elvis Presley. As reviewer timregler writes, “so what we get is Elvis on his own terms . . . .” There is something still raw, uncertain and dangerous about this music. The Sun recordings feature Presley with mostly just an electric guitar and acoustic bass (plus drums on one track), while the RCA recordings add piano and drums for a fuller, more elaborate sound. The Sun tracks have the label’s characteristic reverb, leaving a faint feeling of spooky, otherworldly distance. That atmosphere is felt most strongly on “Blue Moon.” The punchy numbers “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)” and “One-Sided Love Affair” benefit from the drive they provide that frees Elvis’ vocal acrobatics to develop more nuance. If Presley’s earliest Sun recordings didn’t make explicitly clear the man’s range, it was undeniably apparent when the later RCA recordings sat next to them. The earliest attempts at pop balladry are here. Although in some respects this remained Elvis’ weakest skill at this moment in time, he demonstrates a lot of potential, if nothing else, in songs like “I’m Counting on You.” Elvis’ surprising growth as a singer, together with more elaborate production in the coming years, would improve his prospects. Yet the multifaceted approach of mixing up-tempo rockers with slow ballads would make this LP a defining statement and standard against which rock and roll albums (and pop music albums in general) would be judged for decades to come. The songs may not all be great, but there was practically no filler here. This was put together as a full album of material rather than a few preexisting singles cobbled together for re-release or a few singles padded with many inferior outtakes.
The vocabulary of this album is romance, tempered with some self-assured posturing. This made perfect sense in an era of claustrophobic conformity. It represented a more unbridled form of individual expression. But the predominant language of romance made it accessible yet also less directly objectionable than, say, the more intellectual jazz and beatnik music of counter-cultural circles. Elvis had stumbled through the unlocked back door of America’s cultural stronghold. And it seemed like everyone else followed. While certainly Elvis was not the only musical innovator of his day, the magnitude of his rather sudden and surprising fame made him an easy reference point as a kind of dividing line between different eras of popular culture.
Elvis became the fist popular music superstar of his kind in large part due to the timing of his arrival. In the 1950s, the United States was the biggest economic superpower in the world (parts of Europe still being in ruins). The combined legacies of the so-called Progressive and New Deal eras, together with the economic opportunities created by massive World War II industrialization, created a unique environment in which the powerful (willingly or unwillingly) gave working people the greatest share of wealth and power that they had ever experienced in the history of the nation. Those gains would be attacked relentlessly, and would begin to steeply erode in less than two decades, but they still presented themselves as new and seemingly permanent changes as Elvis came to the fore. This was the double whammy of Elvis’ stardom. He was the choice of both the young and of the working class. And he was their ally in the sense that he was a cultural commodity, an emblem of uncontrollable cool and swagger, the sorts of characteristics that entrenched interests can never convincingly deliver. But while cultural mavericks exist all the time, Elvis’ records sold millions of copies, proving not only in cultural terms but also in terms of cold hard dollars (the language of entrenched interests) that he had tapped into something that was tangible from any angle.
Elvis on Tour (1972)
Main Cast: Elvis Presley
An unusual and innovative documentary that chronicles part of Elvis’ 1975 U.S. tour. It features a “multi-screen” format, with multiple moving images presented simultaneously. The crew filmed Elvis performing with multiple cameras, and the film frequently presents a given performance from multiple camera angles shown side-by-side, shots of Elvis interspersed with shots of the audience, and clips of similar performances from different shows presented together. A similar approach was used a few years later in The Longest Yard. This finds Elvis around the time he was just starting to decline. He had a successful show in Las Vegas, and had started to take that tour on the road. He did two shows a night, and the grind of doing a similar show for years on end was taking its toll. The performances in the film aren’t all great, but there are some good ones–particularly further in. The filmmakers demanded special access to Elvis, and that results in scenes that show him shuttled to and from shows, harangued by fans, and excerpts from a pre-tour interview. The filmmakers clearly have no real interest in Elvis’ music, but are looking in on the culture of his fans with a mixture of amusement and condescension. That’s fine, as far as it goes, because there is no narration or even titles throughout the movie. Mostly you just see a series of documentary footage clips, though the non-concert footage gravitates toward the craziest fans caught up in a vague cult of personality, without any reference to any discussion of the merits of the music. What’s interesting is that some of the rehearsal footage shows how much Elvis liked gospel music and how some of the stripped-down rehearsals sounded a bit more interesting that the grandiose treatments on this studio albums and in the live shows. By 1972, Elvis’ show had settled into a formula, doing mostly the same songs over and over. He and his band still play them remarkably well, considering. Yet the more intimate rehearsal performances sometimes reveal something that always seemed obscured on the albums and concerts of the era.