< Part Five: 1963-1964 (Ten Years In…)

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:


On August 27, 1965, Elvis invited into his Bel Air California home the four men who had recently supplanted him as the ultimate force to be reckoned with in music: The Beatles. Technically the meeting was arranged by Col. Parker, in a shrewd move to look friendly with the new competition, so as not to force fanbases to draw battlelines against one another. While the young rock stars were excited to meet one of their idols, Elvis could not have been more disinterested. The foursome walked into his living room to find Elvis sitting on his couch, watching TV with the sound off and piddling with an unplugged bass guitar (a sight which likely excited Paul more than seeing Priscilla walk down the stairs with a tiara and gown looking like a Disney Princess). The Beatles sat down around the living room and…and uncomfortable silence followed.

Finally, after an eternity of nothing, Elvis said “well do you guys wanna play something or just sit here?” At that, the guitars were passed around (Ringo clapped I’m sure) and a jam session followed. After a few hours, Elvis rose and declared the night ended. Paul invited him to come over to their temporary home, northwest of Beverly Hills, to party the next night. Elvis didn’t go, of course, but several of his lackies did (of course). When they returned the told Elvis that John had a message for him. He said “Tell Elvis that without him, there would be no Beatles.”

That’s a sweet thing to say, especially for the often-sardonic Lennon, but at the same time it sort of subconsciously put Elvis in the past. It framed him as the foundation on which the next generation of contemporary talents were built. Elvis was still toiling away making pointless movies with worthless soundtracks. The Beatles had movies too—A Hard Day’s Night was already out, to great success, and Help! was soon to follow—but their movies had a carefree, almost improvised nature to them, a perfect compliment to their boyish antics. Elvis’ movies were factory stamped, formulaic and dry. Everything about them felt…engineered and carefully controlled, whereas everything John, Paul, George, and Ringo did felt spontaneous, a fact which Elvis’ commented on to Priscilla, lamenting the freedom they had with their various projects “just to be themselves.”

The two icons of the industry never met again. The Beatles would soon be flying back to London to put the finishing touches on the album that would evolve their sound (for the first time): the inspired Rubber Soul LP.

What was Elvis working on around this time?

Tickle Me.

His frustration was probably never more realized than when, during their one-off meetup, John asked Elvis “when are you going to make another Rock-n-Roll album?” Elvis had no answer except to say “they” (his manager, producers, handlers, etc) had him doing too much of “this and that.”

Like Tickle Me.

The film was produced hastily. In fact, everything about it was done on the cheap, to get it made as effortless and inexpensively as possible. It was a story of mutual desperation: Elvis was in the middle of financial trouble: He owed a lot of money to the IRS and, while he kept buying houses, cars even entire ranches, the money to support his spending wasn’t what it was in the past; those album sales weren’t what the once were either.

Meanwhile, film company Allied Artists was facing possibly bankruptcy. They needed a hit to pull their heads above water. The two struck a (again, hasty) deal which saw Elvis secure a $750,000 paycheck (literally 65% of the entire film budget) as well as 50% of the film’s profits. To keep things profitable (i.e. cheap), the movie was shot entirely on a soundstage, and the soundtrack featured a hodgepodge assortment of previously-released, non-movie material. And yet, despite the studio seemingly throwing darts on a board to pick out their songs, two singles broke the easy-listening top-20, with “Just an Easy Question” (originally recorded for 1962’s Pot Luck album) coming in at #11.

Boy when you watch the clip you’d never know it was all on a soundstage.

And yet, terrible and cheap (in every way) though it was, the plan worked: The film raked in five million dollars at the box office. It made more than Blue Hawaii. Just stop and think about that. It was soulless and ham-fisted but it made money (and sure enough, staved off Allied Artists’ bankruptcy fears). No wonder Parker pressed on with his current business model.

Harum Scarum might just represent the nadir of the “Elvis visits _____ locale” theme. He had been to New Orleans, to Hawaii, to Mexico, to Las Vegas, back to Hawaii, to the Circus, to the Fair, to jail. He’d been everywhere, and now he was going to….the generically-named “Middle East.”

Just read the official synopsis:

American movie star Johnny Tyrone goes to the Middle East to premiere his new picture. He is seduced by the lovely Aishah, then kidnapped by a man who wants Johnny to help him kill the king. Johnny encounters a slave girl, Shalimar, who turns out to actually be the king’s daughter. When he helps restore order to the government, Johnny and his new royal bride honeymoon in Las Vegas, along with a few of her dancing girls.

There’s nothing else to add.

The soundtrack was, to that point, the worst he’d ever recorded, although he would soon top it. The songs were filled with corny cliches, puns and stereotypical “Arabian-flavored” instruments like tambourines and oboes. Some songs stand out, for good or ill. “So Close Yet So Far (From Paradise)” is pretty subdued, but it reaches a nice crescendo throughout and especially at the end. It has a mildly-curious structure as well; it’s not “Surrender” but it’s not “Barefoot Ballad” either. The rest of the songs all run together, they all have the same sound, the same pun-ladened lyrics, the same obviously-bored Elvis, whose voice by now was clearly much more gruff and deeper than he was forced to let on here. He’s singing in the same smooth style that he used so effectively half-a-decade ago, but the songs and his voice just aren’t the same. He needed new material and a new—more natural—way of singing it. But that was still a year away.

May used to be the month where Elvis would return to Nashville to lay down sixteen or so modern hits to be compiled into his next big LP and hit singles. Those days were memory now, however. Now he was back in Hollywood, after only two months back home, laying down a dozen old-timey showboat songs for a movie set in the Victorian Era. Frankie and Johnny featured Elvis playing a Riverboat Gambler (literally) who has a falling out with his girlfriend over his aforementioned gambling problem. As the classic song from which the title is based implies, Frankie (the girlfriend) shoots Johnny, but unlike in the song, Johnny lives; the safe and toothless movie had a safe and toothless ending.

As for the soundtrack, there’s a little more pep to many of the tunes, but apart from the title song (which is easily the best movie title song since “Blue Hawaii,” and really felt like a parallel-dimension outtake from the King Creole sessions) there’s not much to hang your hat on. The affectionate ballad, “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me” comes close to being worthy of the man, but it suffers from Elvis’ voice being forced to sing in a way that betrayed where his vocal range actually was in 1965.

Though those two tunes were the extent of, what you’d call “actually good songs,” it was still two fairly good songs on an Elvis album. That’s two more than could be found on the soundtrack for Harum Scarum…or Paradise Hawaiian Style.

Elvis’ final Hollywood trip to Hawaii would bring out the hands-down, absolute worst album the man ever recorded, not counting the album entitled Having Fun With Elvis On Stage (Google that and roll your eyes at the extent to which Parker would go to make a buck). Not only are there no good songs to be found here, but other than the title song, which is at best merely “not offensive,” everything else is insultingly poor. We haven’t reached rock bottom yet (“Old MacDonald” is still a year away) but we can see the outer-rim of it with “Datin’.” And then there’s the song that was probably hoped would be the big romantic ballad of the production, akin to “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” or “Puppet on a String.” But “This is My Heaven” can’t come close to measuring up to either of those. It’s a flat, repetitive, monotonous slog and you will feel every second of its too-long runtime.

With all of his soundtrack work done for the year, there was still one more album that RCA was prepping for release. It would be marketed as Presley’s first studio album since 1962’s Pot Luck, but Elvis hadn’t stepped into a studio to record anything for it.

The album was a grab-bag of songs the studio had lying around, some previously heard in movies (but not released on vinyl) and some “brand new” in the sense that they were recorded as far back as 1955 but were never released. Elvis’ last time in a Nashville recording studio only produced three songs, and two of them (“Ask Me” and “It Hurts Me”) had been issued as singles. Only “Memphis, Tennessee” was genuinely new. The biggest problem with the album is there wasn’t enough triple-A quality material to fill a whole record, so some movie songs that weren’t good enough for soundtrack release had to be tossed in…and if a movie song isn’t even good enough for its own soundtrack you know you’re not getting prime beef here.

The album was entitled, very generically, Elvis For Everyone!

That’s a really desperate exclamation point, too. When they used one on the Elvis is Back! album it was earned; his return had to be shouted over the sounds of screaming Presley fans. Now his new album had to be shouted over the sounds of screaming Beatles fans.

And yet, despite its hit-and-miss material, parts of the album shine, particularly the the tracks from days when he had more passion and better material to work with. The standout is “Memphis, Tennessee” (written about in the previous article) but there are other gems to enjoy. A cover of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” never saw the light of day because Elvis was never satisfied with it, and maybe in 1958 it would have been considered a lesser track; in 1965 it was at least bouncy and fun without leaving you feeling insulted afterward. The too-short but very smooth ballad “I Met Her Today” missed the cut for 1962’s Pot Luck, which is a shame as it’s better than many of the songs that did make it onto that album. And even though “When It Rains It Really Pours” was as old as the Sun Studio days, it’s probably the second-best cut on the record, and had a vibrancy and energy that put his modern work to shame.

Unfortunately, despite being promoted as an anniversary/celebration album, the record was really only a desperate attempt to milk a few more dollars out of whatever material RCA could get their hands on. And the public didn’t buy it…literally: it was the first Elvis album to sell fewer than 300,000 copies during the decade. At this point it was apparent to everyone at RCA, as well as to Col. Parker that Elvis’ standing with the public was in free-fall. In fact it was known by RCA before they released the album; Elvis’ struggles to remain relevant as a musician, and the dearth of studio releases since 1962 were why RCA released the album in the first place.

As the New Year approached, more soundtracks were set to be recorded, more movies were set to be made, and unless something changed, Elvis was going to find a new “career low” in 1966 to outdo the low 1965 brought on.

February’s soundtrack recording for the Spinout film certainly didn’t raise his career-confidence. The material recorded for the movie was moderately better than what he laid down for Paradise Hawaiian Style (it would almost have to be), but little of it was notable at all. That’s probably the biggest sin of these songs; they offered nothing remarkably good or bad. It was just…material. It was an album of contractually-obligated filler (not counting the “bonus tracks” that were recorded later in the year). The best of the bunch from the film was “All That I Am,” a ballad that sounded like every other movie-ballad Elvis had been singing for years.

The worst on the record was “Beach Shack.”

Okay, nevermind: “Beach Shack” was terrible. One famous outtake-recording illustrated how Done With It All the singer was with the material he had to work with…

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this time in Elvis’ life is that he hadn’t forgotten how to make good music. He just wasn’t being allowed to make it on a regular basis. At home, with only friends and tape-recorders around, Elvis was making amazing music. As those released candid home recordings show, when he was free from restrictions, deadlines, and corporate-approved lyrics by Hill and Range Publishing, Elvis could belt out hits as good as any chart-topper of the day….

Thankfully, in a return to a tradition that never should have been abandoned, Elvis stepped into RCA’s studio B in Nashville, in May of 1966, ready for a marathon recording session to produce a bona fide studio album. In fact he recorded enough material in that four-day stretch (plus another three songs recorded in June) for an album and a half. In all, twenty-one studio cuts were finished in May and June, with the bulk of the material meant to comprise a new Gospel album.

1960’s His Hand in Mine was, to that point, Elvis’ most consistently-selling album of the decade. It made sense to return to that well after six years of milking the original’s success, but this time the Gospel songs had much more of a “black/Pentecostal” flavor than the more traditional hymns of the first album. The slower songs were meditative and reverential, but when he cut loose on the up-tempo numbers is where the album really shined.

The title track, “How Great Thou Art,” was still a fairly new song to North American evangelicals, having only recently been made a staple of Billy Graham’s crusades. A few recordings had already been done by various Gospel singing groups (The Statesmen had a version that Elvis heard back in 1964) but no mainstream singer had yet to tackle the tune. Elvis poured everything into the song with a passion not seen since at least his first post-army recordings in May of 1960. Hundreds of times singing the hymn at his Graceland home paid off as he took over the production of the number and instructed the band and backup singers through his own unique arrangement. The result was a musical tour de force that won Elvis his first Grammy Award. Incidentally, it would also win him his second Grammy, for best sacred live recording, taken from his 1974 Memphis concert, making Elvis the only man to win two Grammy awards for two different recordings of the same song.

Other Gospel standouts from the session included “Run On” and “By and By” with their foot-tapping beats and almost too-fast lyric-deliveries. These songs constantly felt like they were about to fly off the rails, but Elvis kept it together and made them memorable.

“Where No One Stands Alone” was another slower-tempo’d hymn, but even more than “How Great Thou Art,” Elvis’ delivery here illustrated how much his voice had changed over the past six years. His silky smooth crooner sound is now almost entirely gone, replaced by a deeper, raspier and more natural sound than he was allowed to have in the recent under-produced, half-hearted soundtrack recordings. It helped too that, for the first time in years, Elvis had material in front of him he could be proud of and not embarrassed to sing.

Nine non-religious songs were also recorded, and even though the writing and arrangements were not as strong as with the spirituals, they were a dramatic improvement from anything he’d recorded since at least 1963. His good spirits and the obvious feeling that high quality music was being made likely contributed to Elvis’ willingness to press on through some more challenging songs. In the end, the non-Gospel material was never compiled into a studio album; it was dispersed among various soundtrack records the way the 1963 songs had been, but the music speaks for itself and proved without a doubt that Elvis was never “gone,” he was just in forced-hibernation.

A personal favorite for Elvis, of the non-spiritual variety, was a Bob Dylan song, “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” It was said to be Dylan’s favorite cover of any of his songs by any artist. Like almost every musician of the 1960’s, Elvis admired Dylan’s poetic songwriting style, and though many tried to emulate the inimitable Dylan, Elvis did not; he made the song his own and made it all better as a result.

“Love Letters” was selected as the A-side single, backed by “Come What May” from the same session, and it peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it his best-charting single featuring two new songs since “Kissin Cousins/It Hurts Me” reached #12 in early 1964.

When the mood would strike him during a jam session, Elvis would sometimes shout for his band-mates to “play it dirty,” indicating a desire to make the music the way R&B music was meant to be made: With an unpolished, improvised feel that was raw and pure. “Down in the Alley” carried that spirit through and through. Elvis had requested the song for the session and when he finally tore into it, he did so with the same raw, “dirty” style as any true blues singer would have done.

And then there’s “Beyond the Reef,” which somehow slipped through the cracks at RCA and never received a formal release until the 1980’s. The Hawaiian-inspired song once made famous by Bing Crosby was given a splendid performance by Elvis, but never made it onto the B-side of a single, or as a “bonus song” on a soundtrack. It’s a shame.

A month later Elvis returned to Nashville to lay down three more songs: a soundtrack bonus (“I’ll Remember You”) for the upcoming Spinout album, that far outstripped its soundtrack, a new A-side single to which Elvis gave a truly haunting and memorable performance (“Indescribably Blue”), and another single with a holiday theme. RCA had been insistent on a new Christmas song for the holiday 1966 season, and basically made the recording a condition in exchange for the Gospel record Elvis wanted. The song selected was an original one, written by his road-associate Red West, “If Every Day Was Like Christmas.” It reached #2 on Billboard’s Holiday chart and became an instant-seasonal favorite.

When you look back on the 1966 studio sessions, it’s easy to see them as a turning-point moment for Elvis. After reaching his nadir with Harum Scarum and Paradise Hawaiian Style, there were only two options available: Continue wallowing in the valley, or start climbing up to the top again. Elvis chose to climb, and even though much of the material recorded here failed to make an impact on the pop/rock music scene, the work that was put into them revived the passion that Elvis had almost lost. It helped that the session was produced for Elvis for the first time by Felton Jarvis. He would become Presley’s defacto producer from then on, but here was their first time to work together, and Elvis always liked to give his best on a first impression. In years to come, the familiarity Elvis had with Jarvis would become a hindrance, when Elvis would be so burned out on anything to do with his career, but in this initial meeting, they produced magic together.

Many of the new songs he recorded here weren’t new at all, as Elvis insisted on singing songs he was in love with, the songs he’d been singing for years at home. That they were ten or even twenty years old didn’t matter; the new material he was presented failed to spark his creative flames the way the classics did. He recorded the new material of course, because Elvis was a true gentleman and professional (you’d have to be to agree to sing “Beach Shack”), but he often dismissed them immediately after finishing a master. The decade’s wear on him was still strong and the old players who had dragged him into the studio to record multiple takes of “The Bullfighter Was a Lady” and “Cotton Candy Land” were finding it harder and harder to coax more than a few takes out of him. Elvis was reaching the point where if the material wasn’t good, neither would be his effort.

In the meantime Hollywood beckoned again, and the afterglow of the Gospel session quickly disappeared. Just two weeks after finishing “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” it was back to the drudgery of the MGM recording studio in Hollywood. Up next: The Double Trouble soundtrack.

Two songs stand out for wildly different reasons: A low-effort rocker called “Long Legged Girl (with a Short Dress On)” was the highpoint of the soundtrack session, but though it was comparatively good, it had nothing on the work he’d just finished in Nashville.

On the other side of the coin….is “Old MacDonald.”

If you want a quick summation of how far Elvis had fallen as a rebellious rock and roll icon, this is it: The man who recorded “One Night Of Sin” and who had to be filmed from the waist up on Ed Sullivan was now forced to smile with dead eyes and sing “E-I-E-I-O.”

Kill me.

And then, to pour salt in the wound, in comes September’s recording session for Paramount’s Easy Come Easy Go. Unlike most of his 1960’s soundtrack work, the thin and flat sound that usually accompanied Elvis’ bored uninspired vocals are missing here. Now, Elvis is at least backed by a lively band, but unfortunately, an overproduced brass section on “You Gotta Stop” turns an already-average song into something nearly-unlistenable as Elvis is almost drowned out for most of the number.

Easy Come Easy Go was a failure on all fronts.

As a movie it failed even to make its production budget back. This was actually the second Elvis movie that failed to turn a profit (not counting Wild in the Country which broke even), but unlike the previous failure, Frankie and Johnny, Easy Come Easy Go was not an expensive film. Frankie and Johnny was insanely-budgeted at nearly four-million dollars (a lot for an Elvis musical) and ended up earning 2.75 million at the box office; had the film been more modestly budgeted it might have made money. Easy Come Easy Go, however, was modestly budgeted. It only cost two million dollars to make, but only pulled in 1.9 million in ticket sales. Apparently Elvis himself wasn’t the only one growing tired of the same old song and dance.

The soundtrack fared no better; in fact it fared worse: With only eight songs recorded and no obvious hit among them, Parker decided to release the soundtrack as a six-track Extended Play. By 1966, however, the EP was essentially a dead medium and the album’s sales reflected that: It became the first Elvis’ album of new material to fail to chart anywhere on the Billboard rankings. Its sales were an astonishingly-dismal thirty-thousand units.

As 1967 approached, things looked no better.

Clambake saw Elvis playing a son who rebels against the arranged plans of his father, and oil tycoon. Let’s just pause and consider the fact that Elvis was over thirty years old and was playing a role that would have been right at home with someone almost half his age. The hook of the story is that Elvis trades identities with a water-skiing instructor so that he can see how people react to him, not as a “rich kid” (again, he’s over thirty) but as a “normal guy.”

Because nothing says “normal guy” like water-skiing instructor.

If the plot sounds derivative that’s because it is. Rich guy swapping roles with a poor guy has been done in storytelling since there were rich guys and poor guys. But if you tell a story well enough or put a clever enough twist on it you can make any “old tale” fresh and interesting. And if this was 1957 maybe you might expect something clever or well-told. But this was 1967, and by this point Elvis’ movies were just assembly-line productions that came with only the bare essentials needed to get by.

The movie was set in Florida, but next to nothing was filmed there (some minor B-roll footage and that’s it). All of the major scenes were filmed in Hollywood, to save money. On the one hand that’s understandable, considering some of the recent Box Office struggles Elvis’ movies had incurred, but on the other hand if you’re going to make the theme a beach/water-skiing one then why not just set it in California? I mean at one point the sun is shown setting over what is supposed to be the Atlantic Ocean!

Critics chewed the film up. It first premiered in October but didn’t receive a wide release until that Christmas, and its detractors used every bad Christmas pun they could think of in their reviews.

The soundtrack was a mixed bag; the material recorded for the movie (which was recorded way back in February) offered almost nothing of substance. The only real standout in the bunch was a cover of the Ray Charles classic “You Don’t Know Me” and even that song was bested just a few months later by a second version he recorded in Nashville. The Nashville version ended up as a B-side single release but still managed to reach #44. The movie version, however, is vocally-weak and lacks a depth of instrumentation that the second try in September would bring…

Only eight of the twelve songs featured on the soundtrack album came from the movie. The other four songs were taken from his recent September recording session. That material, both the writing and performances, were strong enough to almost save the record. It ended up a Top-40 album.

It wasn’t just Elvis career that seemed to be getting away from him, either: His personal life nearly did him in all on its own. Presley proposed to Priscilla around Christmastime of 1966, and the couple married on the first day of May, 1967. Depending on who you choose to believe, the marriage was either a case of Elvis doing right by the young lady he’d been stringing along for years, or Elvis being forced to do right by the young lady he’d been stringing along for years. Some close associates, like Elvis’ Graceland cook, claim that Elvis was despondent over having to marry Priscilla, saying that he couldn’t cancel and that he “had to” marry her.

There were whispers and rumors that either Priscilla or her father threatened to expose Elvis’ relationship with the twenty-two year old (who had been a minor when they first started seeing each other). It’s a felony to take a minor across state lines in the context of a sexual relationship, but Priscilla herself says that she and Elvis never had sex until after they were married. It wouldn’t have mattered though, RCA had its own rules and clauses in their talent contracts, and a scandal is a scandal even without any actual laws being broken. If you believe Elvis’ hand was forced then it came by way of Col. Parker more than anyone else. On the other hand, there’s someone like long-time companion Red West, who says that Elvis always talked to him happily about marrying Priscilla and seemed excited to do it.

In the end they wed, and exactly nine months later, Lisa Marie came into the world. Elvis was there, but soon after was gone again. More movies had to be made and more soundtracks had to be recorded.

Speedway was next up after Clambake but unfortunately it was too much like Clambake (in tone) and not enough like Viva Las Vegas. The movie again cast Elvis as a race car driver, a move that seemingly was meant to project “coolness” yet never could because everything around the racing scenes were square and corny. It also didn’t help that the racing scenes themselves were just shots of Elvis making faces in front of a rear-projection screen, mixed with stock footage of real racers zipping around a track.

At least in this film Elvis was given a female co-star of some presence: Nancy Sinatra played the role of Elvis’ love interest better than any since Ann-Margret. Sinatra had already scored a number of top-ten music hits as well as a number-one duet with her father Frank. Piggybacking off her popularity, the soundtrack featured a rarity: a song by Nancy without Elvis’ vocals anywhere to be heard.

Unfortunately, not even Nancy Sinatra could pull Elvis’ movies or soundtracks out of the ditch: The album never moved past #80 and the movie flopped; grossing only two-million dollars on a three-million dollar budget. Elvis was paid thirty-percent of the movie’s budget, with a bonus written into his contract that would have seen him score 50% of the film’s profit had the movie actually made a profit. Presley was now becoming more of a studio liability than a guaranteed bankable star. Elvis pictures used to be “easy money” movies for studios, films that could be made relatively cheaply and bring in a profit with ease. Those days were gone; Speedway was basically the last “goofy” Elvis movie that he would make, as most subsequent pictures tried to move toward less campy roles.

It’s interesting to consider that, at the time Elvis was recording the soundtrack material for Speedway, The Beatles released their masterpiece: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was an audacious album, vivid in color, varied in lyric, and instantly vital to every music aficionado. Meanwhile Elvis was knocking out songs like “Five Sleepy Heads” and “He’s Your Uncle Not Your Dad.” While there were a few gems on the album (taken from his studio sessions) the only worthwhile song on the album that was actually recorded for the movie, “Let Yourself Go”, was a song the man himself would remake and far outdo a year later.

After 1966’s studio recordings turned out to produce hit singles and a hit album, RCA was eager to get Elvis back in Nashville for a second round. It was a interesting reversal from everyone’s attitudes just a few years prior. When the 1963 studio album was nixed, the reasoning was that the soundtracks for his hit movies were far out-selling the studio work and that their focus should be spent on doubling-down on movie tunes. Almost immediately after that decision was made, Elvis’ soundtracks started falling down the charts and Elvis’ “hit” movies started become less and less of a “sure thing.” With the release of How Great Thou Art, the tables had turned: Now it was the studio album that was making bank while the soundtracks were failing to move the needle.

In September of ’67, Elvis returned to Nashville, eager to sink his teeth into some new material. Rock, pop, blues, R&B and Gospel were all on the docket and to each Elvis brought a passion and energy that simply wasn’t there in his Hollywood studio. Even compared to his 1966 studio recordings, Elvis sounds more engaged. He sounds older, more seasoned as a singer and clearly happy to have some lyrics and arrangements in front of him that were not beneath him.

“Guitar Man” and “Big Boss Man” brought the rock and roll, while “High Heel Sneakers” brought the blues. The aforementioned “second try” at “You Don’t Know Me” easily bested the version recorded in Hollywood, and it along with “Mine” gave RCA two quality pop ballads to work with…

“Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Singing Tree” were fine-enough country/western tunes, and Elvis ended the session with a pair of Gospel numbers, “We Call on Him” and the magnificent “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” clearly intending to offer a sequel to last year’s success. As with the work he did a year earlier, Elvis proved here that when he does get his hands on quality material, he still has what it takes to be the best. He just needed more opportunities to show it…

Unlike the 1966 session, there was no album produced from this material. Instead the songs were released as single material, and—where needed—as soundtrack supplements. Still, as it was a year prior, his late-night recordings, with music in front of him that he actually wanted to sing, was the best sort of pick-me-up that Elvis could have asked for.

Stay Away Joe was the final film and soundtrack of the year, though the movie would not see the light of day until the following Spring and the soundtrack would never come; only three songs were recorded and one was a love song to a cow. Other than the flimsy title song, there was “All I Needed Was the Rain,” a country-inspired ballad that was better than it had any right to be, but still wasn’t anything remarkable. Felton Jarvis stayed on as producer and the work was done in one evening in Nashville, which probably added to the fuller and richer sound present in the material. It was still a far cry from what he’d recently completed, however.

With the session ended, Elvis career obligations for 1967 ended with it. He ended the year much where he had started it: Looking back with promise on some great studio recordings, and looking back with frustration on the movie career that remained fixed over his head like a grey cloud.

Looking ahead to 1968, there was no more time for frustration; Elvis’ career simply couldn’t take another ho-hum year with ho-hum soundtracks and ho-hum movies. Something big needed to happen. Something big needed to be done to shake up his image. How Great Thou Art had been a brief respite; an oasis in the desert, but he had moved past it and was still searching for the true fountain of youth to bring him back to where he hadn’t been in years:

The top.

Fortunately for him, just such a “comeback” opportunity was about to present itself.

> Part Seven: 1968 (Coming Back)

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