< PART FOUR: 1960 – 1962 (TUG OF WAR)

2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the sudden death of Elvis Presley. The singer, movie star and globally-known entertainer had been a mainstay in popular culture since he burst onto the scene over twenty years prior. Known for his southern charm, his manic on-stage gyrations, his many cookie cutter film roles (with accompanying soundtracks) and countless hit records, Elvis is considered by many the greatest entertainer ever to live. Numerous outlets hailed him as the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century, despite only operating for a fifth of the century and only living for less than half of it. The acclaim is deserved, not only for the work he did between 1954-1977, but also for the impact he continues to have on the world today. “Elvis” today is no longer just the name of a singer/actor. “Elvis” is an icon. “Elvis” is an institution.

Elvis is the king, transcendent above other singers, actors or otherwise-entertainers.

As fellow Memphian and legendary musician B.B. King quipped, “Elvis is worth more dead than he was when he was alive.” Today, in the fortieth year since his death, his life and legacy remain a source of great interest to longtime fans as well as neophytes. A look back on his history as a musician, an actor, and just as a man pulled in every direction by the rapid winds of fame, is proper on this anniversary year.

You can read the previous installments in this series here:

PART FIVE: TEN YEARS IN…

If 1962 represented the surrendering of Elvis Presley as an artistic force to be reckoned with, 1963 was the messy aftermath. Presley kept busy in the recording studio and on movie sets, but little of his work made an impact. An album’s worth of studio material was recorded, but ignored and multiple soundtracks were recorded but offered little for music lovers to sink their teeth into. Movies were filmed and movies were released, with scripts ranging from bad to laughably bad. But the bottom dollar returns on the investments put into the work was worth it enough not to change course.

Even though the soundtrack was recorded months earlier, in 1962, the It Happened at the World’s Fair movie and accompanying soundtrack came out in April of ’63. The movie only grossed two million dollars and failed to connect with audiences the way Blue Hawaii had done two years earlier. Even the flimsy Girls Girls Girls made more money, not to mention had a much more robust soundtrack. Both Girls Girls Girls and Blue Hawaii both had big fourteen and thirteen-track albums released alongside their films, but It Happened at the World’s Fair came with a sparse ten-track record. The total time of the album clocked in at only twenty-one minutes, enough to fit on a single LP side.

Colonel Parker’s hopes to release the album with a booklet of full color photos were dashed when RCA said that such a release would mean selling the album for a higher price. Parker knew not to test the limits of Elvis’ fanbase with a too-short album at too-high a price. Instead it was decided that, in the future, they would work to produce albums that gave fans more for their money. That strategy was first implemented with the Fun in Acapulco album, for which eleven songs were recorded in January of 1963.

Unfortunately, the actual quality of the songs was not much better than on the It Happened at the World’s Fair album. At least that album had the very good “They Remind Me Too Much of You” ballad, and the almost-hit single “One Broken Heart for Sale.” Fun in Acapulco‘s soundtrack had little to hang its hat on; there was “Bossa Nova Baby” (an upbeat samba tune originally recorded by Tippie and the Clovers in 1962). It had a fun sound but nonsense lyrics. That’s basically the theme of the whole album: It has a fun sound but embarrassingly silly lyrics throughout. Songs like “The Bullfighter Was a Lady” and “There’s No Room to Rumba in a Sport’s Car” speak for themselves; you don’t even need to get past the titles to know what you’re going to get with the music. Still, Elvis was clearly having fun recording the material, which elevates it above the World’s Fair album and later soundtracks to come. Nevertheless, there wasn’t a hit record to be found. “Bosa Nova Baby” reached number eight on the Billboard Hot100, more due to the fact that there was a short-lived “Brazilian music” craze sweeping across the radio at the time, than to anything remarkable about the song itself.

Let’s not even get into the fact that the song is Brazilian, yet is featured in a movie about Mexico…filmed at Paramount’s Hollywood backlot…and banned in Mexico!.

After recording Fun in Acapulco, Presley returned to Nashville for what was, by this point, an annual tradition.  These studio sessions had started in the Spring of 1960, resulting in the flawless Elvis is Back! album. A year later they released the good (but not as good as the previous) Something for Everybody, and then the “not even as good as Something for Everybody” album Pot Luck a year later. The trend was pointing downward, but even though there were again some stinkers in the bunch, Elvis’ 1963 bucket of songs to record contained a few diamonds in the rough, as well as a couple obviously-instant hits.

The most famous song recorded during the session was “Devil in Disguise,” easily the last big song Elvis would release until “Suspicious Minds” at the end of the decade. The song is memorable for how it plays against your expectations. It begins like a sequel to “She’s Not You” (smooth, playful, light), but then, twenty seconds in, it turns into a pure rock and roll track. After drowning in toothless pop tunes, “Devil in Disguise” was a true return to form. Record buyers and DJ’s responded to it as well; the song reached number three on the Billboard Hot100 and even cracked the Billboard R&B top ten charts, being the last Elvis record ever to do so.

Incidentally, the song went to number one in the UK, and was played on the BBC show “Jukebox Jury” where guest-judge John Lennon bashed the song and its singer as “basically Bing Crosby.” This was still a year before Beatlemania hit the US, so his words meant little to listeners in the states. They ate up the album, which went straight to gold, selling over 500,000 copies.

There were a few other songs too that Elvis really made something out of. Otis Blackwell (who had supplied Elvis with “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender,” and many more) offered fun rocker with a wordy title, “Please Don’t Drag that String Around.” There was also “Witchcraft” (not to be confused with the Frank Sinatra hit), which mimicked the tempo-changing style of “Devil in Disguise,” only where that song starts like a ballad and then turns into an uptempo number, “Witchcraft” starts off up-tempo and then shifts to and even more rapid pace, making for a fun two minutes.

By the end of the two-night session, fourteen tracks were finished. It was enough for a full-length album as well as two independent singles. It wasn’t up to the quality of the 1960 work, but it was on par with with studio albums released since then, if not the best work he’d recorded since Something For Everybody.

A November release was planned but the album never materialized. Originally, Parker informed RCA that the Fun in Acapulco material would be cut down to an EP and that the May studio session would be Elvis’ third LP of the year (his first was It Happened at the World’s Fair, and Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 3 was the summer release). But then, Parker had a change of mind, and decided to chop up the studio recordings and scatter them among various other projects, turning them into B-sides of singles, as well as “bonus recordings” on soundtracks that needed a little extra kick to ensure strong sales.

Considering the fact that Parker’s entire business philosophy with Elvis revolved around the cycle of movies bolstering soundtrack sales, which in turn bolstered movie ticket sales, it’s understandable why the greedy manager would put a priority on soundtracks over studio albums. He stood to make more money off of a successful movie than he did a successful studio album; the importance on making art was no longer a debate, after all. Thus the 1963 recordings were broken up like the remnants of Alexander’s empire. It wasn’t until 1990 that an official release of the material was made available, dubbed “For the Asking” (the Elvis Presley “lost album”).

With the studio album cancelled, the Fun in Acapulco LP was brought back to life, featuring eleven songs recorded for the movie plus two bonus songs from the May session. There was no time for Elvis to think about the business side of things, however (not that ever tried to), as he was soon back to work on another movie and soundtrack, this time for Viva Las Vegas.

The movie was still almost a full year away, and would be a Blue Hawaii-like hit upon release, but the music was a different story. Today the title track is one of the most recognizable of Elvis’ catalogue, but at the time it was considered another nonsense track no different from “Follow that Dream” or “Girls Girls Girls.”

A total of twelve songs were recorded, plus a few alternate versions, enough for a full-length album, but nothing was strong enough to warrant it, and Parker was still milking the dying EP market for all the life it had left, so many of the songs recorded ended up cut (from the movie, the album, and sometimes both).

Though nothing was loved at the time, a few songs—beyond the title track—have found second life and are worthy of note. One of the notes Parker sent to the song writers was to bring a “Ray Charles” like feel to their tracks. Few songs managed to replicate that particular sound, so an actual Ray Charles song was recorded instead: “What’d I Say.” It failed to measure up to the original, however. A pair of duets with movie co-star Ann-Margret (with whom Elvis began a love affair that went beyond the movie set) were the real highlights of the album; a fun blues number “You’re the Boss” was recorded but was ordered cut from the movie (by Tom Parker) and was also left off the EP. It went unreleased until 1991. Another duet, a ballad called “Today, Tomorrow and Forever” was recorded twice, with one version featuring only Presley’s vocals, though the duet version is the superior take. The duet version was cut (again, due to Parker’s meddling) and instead the movie only features Elvis, though decades later fans would splice in Ann-Margret’s removed part onto film footage, showing how it might have sounded.

Parker was angry during the filming of the movie because word came back to him (from some of Elvis’ hangers-on) that the movie’s director, George Sidney (who had just helped Ann-Margret become a superstar in Bye Bye Birdie) was favoring Presley’s female co-star over the man at the top of the billing. He wasn’t, of course, and the final product bears that out. Still, Parker was angry but had little influence over the production of the movie to do anything about it (Sidney was both director and producer, and MGM was certainly happy to ride Ann-Margret’s stardom). As a result, Parker’s only means of retaliation was via the EP soundtrack. Cutting two of the duets did little to diminish Ann-Margret in the eyes of fans, however; the movie performed much better than the soundtrack did; it ended up selling less than 300,000 copies. Parker’s tantrum only managed to deprive Elvis’ fans of good music, but no one ever accused Tom Parker about putting good music first.

Viva Las Vegas (the movie and the album) was not set for release until May the following year. Elvis had a few weeks off, after wrapping, before work was to begin on his final film shoot of the year. In the meantime Elvis and Ann-Margret continued their romance, albeit in secret. Priscilla Wagner, whom Presley had fallen for while stationed in Germany, was now living in Memphis at Elvis’ request. The two had kept in touch over the phone after Presley returned to the states in 1960, but they did not see each other until a two-week visit by Priscilla in 1962. After that, Elvis asked her parents if she could move to Memphis; they initially rejected the idea (she was only eighteen, a decade younger than Elvis), but agreed when he insisted that she would live with his father and step-mother, attend an all-girls Catholic school, and eventually be his wife. Months after moving to the city, Priscilla moved out of Elvis’ parent’s house and into Graceland itself (where she’d been spending all of her free time anyway), a move which upset her parents until he reiterated his desire to marry their daughter.

When tabloids reported on Presley’s relationship with Ann-Margret, Priscilla confronted Elvis, but he denied any wrong-doing and insisted that they were just friends. Truth be told, the two of them had been nearly-inseparable whenever Elvis was in Hollywood (where Priscilla did not follow), and other flings with other co-stars followed after. All the while Elvis maintained faithfulness, an act he kept up to the bitter end of their relationship in 1972.

The less said about Kissin Cousins, the better.

Without question the movie was the weakest Elvis had made thus far. Not only was the script an embarrassment, but the production values were B-movie quality. Say what you want about Elvis’ movies, they almost always at least looked good. New Orleans, Hawaii, Mexico, Las Vegas: Elvis’ movies were travelogues. They were around-the-world adventures, led by one of the most popular entertainers in the world. It was a recipe for success that Parker leaned on as much as possible. Kissin Cousins, however, was trash. Due to Viva Las Vegas going over budget (which meant diminished profits for Parker), Kissin Cousins was produced on a sub-million dollar budget, filmed in only a month, and whose soundtrack was recorded in Nashville (as opposed to previous soundtracks which were handled at Radio Recorders, in Hollywood).

The setting for the movie was also local; Elvis played dual parts—look-alike cousins—from the state of Tennessee. One was a hillbilly and the other a GI returning from service (a trope now worn to exhaustion). How to tell the twins apart, you ask? Well, the hillbilly had blonde hair, you see, and the GI had dark hair. And even though Elvis naturally had sandy-colored hair (he dyed it black), he actually wore a garish wig instead of just using his natural color. And even though the soundtrack was recorded in Nashville (to save money, Parker insisted), the band ended up having to fly to Hollywood anyway to lay down some backing tracks for Elvis to overdub. And even though the movie was set in Tennessee, where Presley was living, the film was shot on the Hollywood backlot. Even the title is odd: Elvis plays a pair of cousins, and the title of the movie is “Kissin” Cousins. Without seeing the picture, would that not give the wrong impression? Nothing about this movie makes any sense.

Naturally it was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for “Best Written Musical.”

Ten songs were recorded in September for the soundtrack, including two different versions of the title theme, neither of which deserve any attention, except to mock them: The song “Kissin Cousins Number 2” is the first song on the album, whereas the other version, simply titled “Kissin Cousins” closes the album. No, it doesn’t make any sense to me either. Other songs like “There’s Gold in Them Mountains” and “Barefoot Ballad” are best left forgotten. The best song recorded for the movie is “Tender Feeling,” a plodding ballad with what sounds like a half-hearted performance (at best) by Elvis.

Two more tracks from the “lost album” were added, as they were on Fun in Acapulco, to round out the album to the industry-standard twelve songs. The clash of styles and energy is easily noticeable, but by this point in his career, no one handling Elvis was caring about consistency. 1963 ended with dozens of songs recorded but few that etched themselves in history. As the calendar turned over to 1964, Elvis’ prospects did not shine any brighter.

in January, Presley returned to Nashville to record a trio of studio tracks, two of which he had already worked on the previous May. “Ask Me” was a high-pitched ballad that Elvis tossed aside after struggling through two takes. He returned to it here to try and get it right, hoping it could be a single. A new song, “It Hurts Me,” was also recorded, taking five takes to perfect; it did everything “Ask Me” tried to do but better: They both have a basic structure and simple hook, but the latter song simply had better lyrics and a more manageable range.

The other song they recorded—also a retry from the previous year’s session—was “Memphis, Tennessee.” The Chuck Berry rock-and-roller is a timeless tune that Elvis could have made his own at any year of his career. Why he waited so long to record it (Berry released it in 1959) is a mystery but with the right push it easily could have been a big hit for him.

Originally the song was going to release alongside “Kissin Cousins” as a double-A-side single but that was nixed when Elvis decided he wanted more time to perfect the song. “It Hurts Me” was released opposite “Kissin Cousins” in late January instead. After that, the plan was to pair “Memphis, Tennessee” with “Ask Me” and score a near-certain top ten hit, but in the end the song ended up being tossed away on the Elvis For Everyone compilation album and was never given a 45 release. So what happened?

Johnny Rivers happened.

The wannabe/Elvis soundalike visited Graceland in May of 1964, not long before the “Memphis/Ask Me” single was scheduled to release. Rivers was given a sneak peak at the song and then, in an act of shamelessness, raced to his own studio to record his own version of the song. Copying everything everything from Elvis’ inflection to the arrangement of the backing band. Angry and hurt, Elvis cancelled the 45 release and then watched as Rivers’ version peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 (Chuck Berry’s original never cracked the top 50). As much as it stung to be blindsided by a fellow performer, Johnny Rivers wasn’t the real threat to Elvis in 1964.

Beatlemania had arrived.

The Beatles reached number one for the first time on the February 1st edition of the Billboard Hot100, thanks to the strength of their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (which Lennon and McCartney wrote specifically to generate a hit in the US). That song held the number one spot until March 21st, when it was replaced by another Beatles song, “She Loves You.” That lasted for only two weeks however, before it was replaced at the top by another Beatles song “Can’t Buy Me Love.” That song held the top spot for a month, when Louie Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” broke the streak. All told, the Beatles spent fourteen of the first eighteen months of the year at number one, with three different hits. And they also had “Love Me Do,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “I Feel Fine” still to come in 1964, all of which would likewise reach number one. Suddenly, the Beatles were the biggest force to be reckoned with in music since Elvis himself exploded in 1957.

While the British Invasion was taking over the radio and Ed Sullivan’s TV show, Elvis was stuck in the doldrums of soundtracks with songs of little quality, meant to promote movies of little intrigue. He recorded the Roustabout soundtrack in March, knocking out eleven songs with little gusto. The theme for the movie was the Carnival, with Elvis playing a musician who helps a struggling carny family by singing and dancing blah blah blah. Songs such as “It’s Carnival Time” and “Carny Town” are self-explanatory. There was the obligatory Leiber/Stoller submission, a fun little ball of energy called “Little Egypt.” Like most of the writing duo’s songs lately, it was not a tune written originally for Elvis; the team wrote it for The Coasters (with whom they had a long business relationship), and their version is superior, if only because their harmonizing gives the song more depth than Elvis’ solo performance could. Still, Elvis did alright with the number and it was easily the only bright spot on the album.

Other songs like “Big Love, Big Heartache” and “One Track Heart” sound more like parodies of Elvis hits. They sound like what a comedian imitating Elvis might sing as a joke. The title song was recorded in two different versions, the first (penned by Otis Blackwell, called “I’m a Roustabout”) was a rock and roll tune better than it had any right to be. The remake (simply titled “Roustabout”) was a mid-tempo go-nowhere pop tune. Naturally the pop version was released and the rock version sat in a vault for decades.

One movie rolled into another and by this point, for Elvis, boredom was turning to frustration. Producer Hal Wallis had consistently rejected opportunities for Elvis to star in movies with any substance. Wallis and Parker saw Elvis as a vehicle for a very well-defined “type” of movie, and that meant scripts that played it safe. Roustabout, for example, was originally written with Elvis’ character dishonorably discharged from the Army. Wallis nixed it because he didn’t want “depth” in his Elvis movies. The template had worked well in Blue Hawaii and, to a lesser extent, Girls Girls Girls. It had worked well in Viva Las Vegas too; there was no need to rock the boat as far as Wallis was concerned. In fact, the producer had very little regard at all for Elvis’ movies, telling an interviewer that he saw them as a financial necessity in order to have the money needed to make the real, “artistic” pictures.

But artistic pictures were exactly what Presley wanted when he first signed a movie deal nearly a decade before. Elvis had to watch while parts he was interested in were given to others which then went on to achieve success. The 1964 film Becket won the Oscar for best screenplay; it was produced by Hal Wallis and written by the man who penned Girls Girls Girls. Elvis was being passed over by people with whom he had direct Hollywood connections. They were getting the glory while he was stuck making rubbish like Girl Happy. And even though the soundtrack to Roustabout managed to hit number one on the LP charts, it was a pyrrhic victory; the surrounding competition was simply weak at the time of its release and the album itself never even cleared 500,000 units sold. Elvis career trajectory was still angling downward.

And speaking of Girl Happy, work began on that musical-comedy only a few weeks after Roustabout finished shooting. And like the others, this one offered nothing Elvis could sink his teeth into. Three songs are noteworthy from the soundtrack: “Puppet on a String” is a simple ballad, good enough better albums from years earlier, GI Blues or Blue Hawaii. It wasn’t remarkable but it was good enough that Elvis bluffed his way through it, almost convincing himself that it wasn’t terribly out of date.

“Do Not Disturb,” however, was a song over which Elvis labored through thirty takes. Unlike the persistent work put into “Don’t Be Cruel,” this was not a labor of love. Elvis frequently cursed at himself, the song, and its writers, throughout the multiple takes, as he struggled to get a handle on the odd chord changes that occur throughout.  The master ended up being a Frankenstein’s monster-splicing of multiple takes just to stitch together a workable version. Gordon Stoker, of the Jordanaires (who provided backing vocals on countless Elvis records) said that, during the recording of these terrible songs, Elvis would constantly inch back away from the microphone until at one point he was almost up against the wall, as though he was ashamed to be singing the nonsense lyrics and dated melodies.

And then there’s the title track, which, on the one hand is no more or less remarkable than so many others like “Girls Girls Girls” or “Kissin Cousins,” but one thing makes this song an oddity. The engineers, or perhaps record producer George Stoll, sped up the master, changing the pitch of Elvis’ voice, making him sound almost like a chipmunk. The effect is weird and off-putting. If a faster version was needed, why wasn’t one simply requested and recorded? Speeding it up seems like a lazy way to go about things, unless the desire was to make Elvis sound younger… There was no question his voice was becoming deeper and more growling that it had in the past, and it would still be a few years before his song selections caught up to his deeper vocals. In the meantime he was singing childish ditties with the voice of a thirty-year old.

As if it wasn’t already apparent that Elvis’ handlers had no concern about how rapidly the musical tastes of the 1960’s were changing, Girl Happy (both the movie and the soundtrack) was finished in the summer of 1964, and wouldn’t be released for another year. In the meantime, Elvis was free to return to Graceland. He had no tour-dates to fulfill. He had no studio albums to promote. He had nothing to do but return home to his live-in girlfriend and stew about the career that was slipping through his grasp while groups like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Four Seasons were taking their place (formerly his place) at the top of the musical mountain.

As Elvis closed the door on his ten year anniversary as a singer/entertainer, it was never more apparent that he was no longer a serious force to be reckoned with. Just after Christmas, Billboard released their list of the top “Hot 100” singles of the year, and for the first time since the chart was created (in 1958), Elvis’ name was nowhere to be found.

As he looked ahead to his next ten years, and turned the page to 1965 (and beyond), there was little hope the future would get any better, at least not without himself taking initiative…

> Part six: Fighting Back from Irrelevancy

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  • David Gibbs

    I was ten years old in 1964 and I dearly loved Elvis and his movies.Even today while I appreciate the movies were of their time I still think the soundracks have a few gems in them.

    • matthew martin

      no doubt and Elvis’ natural charisma often elevates forgettable music into something that fans remember forever.

      • David Gibbs

        Amen to that.Regards.

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