< Part Six: 1965-1967 (When it Rains it Really Pours)

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 SEVEN: COMING BACK

1968 will end with Elvis well and truly “back” and even though the year began with little reason to have such lofty expectations, there was a glimmer of hope that things were starting to change. In January he returned to the studio to record additional material for the Stay Away Joe film (he had already recorded three tracks for the movie back in October of 1967). Four songs were finished, and once again he had remained in Nashville to record them, eschewing the bland Hollywood studio where many of his previous soundtracks had been done. All together Elvis recorded only seven songs but with the Extended Play format dead as a door-nail after Easy Come Easy Go, no official soundtrack was released to accompany the film (the first time that had happened since Wild in the Country in 1961). After a string of disappointing album releases, there wasn’t much motivation to pump out another soundtrack to another movie that few were likely to be interested in.

As for the film itself, the story was a light-hearted western which didn’t allow Elvis the chance to try any serious range as an actor, nor did it—on account of the lack of soundtrack—offer much for his music fans either. Without a clear focus on how to market the movie, it ended up appealing to no one. The insultingly bad tagline on the poster was a jumble of nonsensical phrases to try and rope in Elvis’ diehard fans…

Elvis is kissin’ cousins again, and also friends, friends of friends, and even perfect strangers! He’s playing Indian, but he doesn’t say how, he says when!

…but even they stayed away.

The two-million dollar film ended up grossing only 1.5mm, making it yet another motion picture mishap and making the Colonel’s instincts right that no soundtrack would have helped.

Not that the material he had was worthy of a major RCA release.

“Goin’ Home” was sung with gusto but Elvis had to burn through multiple takes to get a master; he spent much of the recording either laughing at the lyrics or fretting that he had no idea what to do with it to make it respectable. The other movie song, “Stay Away” was set to the traditional tune “Greensleeves” which Elvis always enjoyed. The song was better than the similarly-titled “Stay Away Joe” which Elvis had already recorded. And even though “Stay Away Joe” was the name of the movie, “Stay Away” was played over the film’s opening credits. In the end “Goin’ Home” ended up being slapped onto the Speedway LP, in a complete mismatch of style and context. “Stay Away” was released as a B-side to little fanfare.

There’s more passion in the vocals and more beef to the arrangements than could be found in much of his mid-60’s soundtrack output, but the lyrics are still unfit for the radio, and it was the radio where Elvis wanted to dominate once more.

The other two songs recorded in January had nothing to do with Stay Away Joe, or with any other film. Ever since the How Great Thou Art sessions in 1966 Elvis had insisted on bringing hand-picked material into the studio to break up the monotony of his soundtrack work. Most of the time the songs devolved into glorified jam sessions unfit for recording, but every now and then he would insist on putting on a professional face and actually make something: “Too Much Monkey Business” was a mid-50’s Chuck Berry rock and roller that Elvis turned into a proto-funk rock tune, tearing into the lyrics into with unmistakable excitement. Despite the energy on display, the song was passed over for single release and instead found itself on a budget album—Elvis Sings Flaming Star—in 1969.

“U.S. Male” was actually brought to Elvis’ attention late in the recording session as they were looking for “one more song” to record. Jerry Reed had recently supplied Elvis with a mild-hit “Guitar Man” (he even drove to the Nashville studio to lend his guitar-picking to the track) and returned in January to play for a whole session. It was then that fellow-guitarist Chip Young suggested to Elvis that he give Reed’s newest song, “U.S. Male,” a listen. The song is a “talking-blues” number with Reed’s inimitable picking driving the lyrics. Reed’s original arrangement is sparse and simple, but it worked for him. Elvis took the lyrics, slowed them down a hair and worked with Felton Jarvis to add more to the arrangement, such as background vocalists. The end result was a song that everyone felt strong enough to release as the A-side to a single; it ended up peaking at #28, making it his first top-30 hit since “Love Letters” in 1966.

Only a few months passed before Elvis was set to return to Hollywood to film Live a Little, Love a Little for MGM. It would be his 28th picture over all and with only two more to go after it, Elvis could see the finish line in sight. There would be no new film contracts. No more movies with inane plots and tiring songs. He was almost done and then he would have his career back again.

But first…Live a Little, Love a Little.

Unlike Stay Away Joe, which was basically a musical-comedy without the musical, this film was intended to be a return to the musical-comedy stylings of Presley’s past pictures, only with more grown-up scenes and situations. There was more strong language, drug use and sex (or at least sexually implied scenes) than all prior films. As with all other Elvis movies, the final product ended up being another lightweight film that was forgotten soon after it premiered; as with most other Elvis movies recently, it failed to make a profit at the box office.

On the music side, Billy Strange was brought in, not only to score the picture, but also produce the sparse, five-song soundtrack. Once again, no proper album was planned, only a “promotional single” would be released with the other three spread out as needed. “Wonderful World” was recorded first, and would be the song to play over the title tracks. It has a bouncy, upbeat, schmaltzy sound that would have been right at home in the hands of Frank Sinatra…fifteen years earlier.

“Edge of Reality” was next up, and it was as far removed from “Wonderful World” as a song could be. Producer Billy Strange had brought a new approach to Elvis’ typical recording sessions, preferring to use a full orchestra in the studio with Elvis and to treat each song as an independent work, with its own sound and stylings. With “Edge of Reality” the styling was “psychedelic rock” (albeit about six months past that sub-genre’s popularity-peak). It can’t really be categorized as a “good” Elvis song, but it was unlike anything he’d ever recorded before.

The real gem in the session was a Mac Davis-penned rocker called “A Little Less Conversation.” Davis had already written the tune when he was assigned to write a song for Live a Little, Love a Little. Elvis’ movie scripts were usually very basic constructions, with a lot of “Elvis does this” and “Elvis does that” scattered about, with “Elvis sings about this” or “Elvis sings in response to that” mixed in. Needing a song to go along with the cue “Elvis invites a girl to leave the pool with him” Davis immediately recalled the song he had tried to sell to Aretha Franklin. The result is one of Elvis’ purest rock and roll numbers of the decade.

Unfortunately, the song was slotted as the B-side to a single with “Almost in Love” topping the bill. “Almost in Love” was a fine enough ballad but it was nothing like its flip-side song. It lacked the commercial appeal of the rocker and ended up barely cracking the top-100.

“A Little Less Conversation” would remain in relative obscurity until it was featured in the 2001 film Ocean’s Eleven. A few months later, Nike featured a remixed version of the song in a commercial, and the subsequent re-release of the song went to number-one across the world (including in the UK, where it became Elvis’ 18th #1, tying him with the Beatles for most chart-toppers). At the time though, the song went nowhere, but it did give Elvis and his team a new songwriter to take advantage of. Mac Davis would go on to produce the song “Memories” for Elvis’ recently-announced NBC TV Special, as well as “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” which would become hit singles for Elvis in 1969.

Unfortunately, the 1967-1968 studio recordings failed to spark an interest among record buyers the way the 1966 session had done. Likewise, Elvis’ latest movies continued to struggle. The only interesting project on the horizon was a TV Special, which the Colonel had organized and sold to NBC as a Christmas-themed broadcast. Radio stars hosting Christmas specials was a common occurrence (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and more had produced such shows to great success), but it was something Elvis had never done. In fact, after his 1960 special that celebrated his return from the Army, Elvis had not done any TV work. Considering how television had played a critical role in expanding his fanbase throughout the 1950’s, this was always a strange strategy by Colonel Parker, but he felt if Elvis was going to be seen it would need to be paid for (in the movies) and not give away for free on TV. By the end of the 60’s, however, there weren’t enough people willing to pay to see Elvis, and his new music—which was far and away superior to his mid-60’s output—was failing to be noticed.

A Christmas special might seem like a no-brainer in hindsight, but it was in fact a gamble: Elvis’ recent holiday-themed single “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” was a poor seller. Likewise his post-How Great Thou Art spiritual-release, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was a sales dud. There was little reason to have optimism in a Christmas-themed TV special, but the Colonel was determined to see it through.

NBC suggested Steve Binder to produce. Though he was just twenty-three years old, Binder had already proven himself as a music-TV producer. He had spearheaded the musical-variety show “Hullabaloo,” which was a big NBC hit between 1965-1966. He had also directed the motion picture/concert film The T.A.M.I. Show which spotlighted The Supremes and The Rolling Stones and also introduced white America to James Brown. If Elvis was going to be presented to the music-loving youth of the late-sixties, there was no better director to follow.

From the outset, however, Binder knew the Colonel’s “Christmas Special” idea was a non-starter. For one thing, Elvis’ TV special would be the first “one man show” of its kind. Previous themed-shows always featured a variety of musical talents and stars with one superstar emcee (like a Frank Sinatra or Bob Hope), but this would feature Elvis in all his glory; something special was needed to highlight what a remarkable performer Elvis was. Parker, however, had his team gathering new holiday songs for Elvis to perform, and sent Binder a tape of a Christmas radio special Elvis had hosted in 1967. The special was little more than Elvis welcoming everyone (and later, thanking everyone for listening), followed by some of his previously-released holiday music, but the Colonel wanted nothing more than “that, on screen.”

Binder had other ideas, but found Parker too inflexible. It wasn’t until he and Elvis finally met that he was able to pitch a different vision. Binder was relieved to find that Presley was likewise preemptively frustrated by Parker’s holiday theme. Though Binder warned Presley that Parker and NBC had certain expectations, Elvis assured him that they would do what he wanted and not to worry about it. Elvis forced NBC to sign Binder as “musical director” as well as producer, ensuring that he’d have greater autonomy in deciding how the show would take shape.

With that, Binder and his team began crafting a special focused on Elvis as a singer past and present, as a contemporary artist with attitude and sex appeal that the many toothless movies he’d made had hidden from audiences for almost ten years. If Elvis was going to be the first “one man show” on a TV special, they were going to focus on the “man” and not some hockey “theme.”

Parker was naturally livid at Binder for not following his instructions, and threatened to force NBC to remove him from the production. Instead, it was Parker that was put in his place: The show’s primary sponsor, Singer Sewing Machines, threatened to pull out if Binder’s idea wasn’t kept; without a sponsor there would be no show at all. With that, Parker relented, and the “comeback” special was on.

Originally the show was to feature two key elements: A concert performance in front of an intimate audience (which took some convincing as NBC originally wanted only Elvis and no live audience of any kind), with Elvis singing songs from his vast library of hits, and—interspersed throughout—a series of musical skits focusing on some of Elvis’ more contemporary recordings. After nightly rehearsals, Elvis and his band would do what they always did during downtime after a recording: They jammed. And as Binder listened to his typically introverted and shy star shooting the breeze, laughing and reminiscing, he was struck with an idea, and pitched a third segment to his show: Sit Elvis down with a circle of his closest musical companions, and a very very small audience, and just let the camera roll; no rigid format, no overly-scripted structure, just Elvis and his naturally-magnetic personality shooting the bull, talking music and jamming.

It was MTV’s Unplugged, twenty-years before its time.

Elvis was extremely wary of being put on the spot to have to “talk.” More than once he asked Steve “What if I run out of things to say?” Even on the day of filming, after several days of rehearsals, Elvis was still worried about drawing a blank when he was expected to carry the conversation. To ease his worry, a list of topics was placed on the music stand in front of him, and his companions were also informed to cue him as needed. It would be needed, but when he would get rolling, Elvis’ charisma and ease-of-charm overcame his natural introversion.

In order to secure a crowd to gather at the feet of Presley, Binder merely had to walk up and down the streets of Burbank and approach any pretty girl he could find and ask them “do you want free tickets to an Elvis Presley concert?” In just one lunch break he had his audience. Elvis performed with an effortless gusto and raw passion for his music, the likes of which had not been seen (nevermind heard) since he hopped and bopped from the waist up on Ed Sullivan.

The song selection was almost exclusively limited to numbers from the 1950’s, although Elvis did sneak in a version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and performed, as his show-closer, the new Mac Davis number “Memories.” More important than the music, however, was Elvis talking, and even though that was the part the singer was most nervous about, that was the part that Binder wanted to spotlight. The director knew that this TV Special had the chance to reintroduce Elvis to America, and that his mischievous, boyish personality was as big a part of his original appeal as his music.

Toward the end, Elvis looked over to Steve (off camera) and inquired about strapping up his guitar and standing up. Of course the whole point of that mini-concert was that Elvis sit down and talk as much as play, but once Elvis got going it was hard to stop him. He got his wish and tore into a blistering rendition of “One Night” before sitting down in the crowd and serenading them with “Memories,” ending the experiment a glorious success.

After the sit-down concerts were recorded, the so-called “stand-up” concert was a walk in the park. Though Elvis had not taken the stage in any formal way since his Pearl Harbor concert in 1961, he took to the role like a duck to water.

It was in these shows that his now-famous “black leather” outfit was really shown off. He had been wearing it for the sit-down shows but it was hard to get a good look at it with so much blocking him. Standing in the middle of the red-and-white square stage, Elvis’ trim frame never looked better. He’d lost a good twenty pounds for the show and had continued to grow out his sideburns after ten years of being told by studio executives it was “not proper” to have them.

He was finding freedom again, and liking the taste of it.

That “look,” defined as “messy jet black hair, thick sideburns, cheekbones sticking out like mountains on a well-tanned, half-smiling face and book-ended by a massive raised collar” would define him, for better or worse, for the rest of his life. It was born here, with Elvis asking designer Bill Belew to give him something memorable, with a collar that looked like Napoleon. The all-leather two-piece outfit looked equal parts 1950’s retro and like something out of the future.  The high collar is the outfit’s most striking feature, as it was designed to swallow up Elvis’ neck (for some reason Elvis was, according to Priscilla, always self-conscious about the length of his neck).

If there was any hiccup in the stand-up show it was the fact that Elvis was left alone on stage and his orchestra and band accompaniment was prerecorded. This caused technical problems here and there, most notably at the beginning of one set, when he missed his cue (to the opening of “Heartbreak Hotel”) and had to do three takes to get it right. You’d never it know it by the TV edit, but bootleg recordings reveal it and it would be something Elvis kept in mind as he planned his Las Vegas career; in the future he would have his accompaniment right behind him, trained to perfection to follow his every improvised whim.

The other segment of the show featured scripted skits, depicting Elvis as a guitar-playing drifter, and mostly featured Elvis more-recent studio output, such as “Let Yourself Go” and “Big Boss Man.” The former song had only been released a month before the special’s filming, but Elvis’ second crack at it blew the original away…although NBC forced half of it to be cut (probably because half of it featured Elvis singing in a brothel).

The connective tissue that linked the various skits was “Guitar Man,” which co-opened the show (after a rousing rendition of “Trouble”). If there was any doubt that Binder had the right idea with the TV Special, that electric opening eased all worries. The original studio version of “Guitar Man” is hopping enough, but Elvis is working on an entirely different level of excitement here. His comeback is complete before the show’s first commercial break.

There was also a medley of Gospel songs, introduced in the broadcast by Elvis during the sit-down concert, as he discussed rock-and-roll’s roots as “rhythm and blues infused with Gospel soul.” A song from his How Great Thou Art album, “Where Could I Go But to the Lord” was given a livelier arrangement here, and was accompanied by the old black spiritual “Up Above My Head” and a Leiber and Stoller number, “Saved” which was originally written as almost a parody of religious-conversion, but Elvis sang is straight, sang it with conviction, and blew the roof off with it.

Originally, when Colonel Parker envisioned the TV Special as Christmas-themed broadcast, the show-closing number was to be “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Even as Binder took the show in a new direction, Parker kept insisting on getting Christmas music into the script. Binder relented in only one place; Elvis sang “Blue Christmas” and a half-forgotten version of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” during the sit-down show; Binder included “Blue Christmas,” although NBC edited it out of future (non-holiday) broadcasts.

Parker was adamant that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” remain the final number of the special, however. But when Binder showed Elvis the song he wanted to close the show, Walter Earl Brown’s “If I Can Dream,” Elvis made the decision on the spot that it would be the song’s farewell number.

The song featured quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., who had died in Memphis only two months before the special was filmed, and whose death had caused a halt on the Live a Little, Love a Little shoot, as Elvis reportedly wept extensively at the news report announcing his death.

Binder had asked Brown to write the song, intending it to replace “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” but when Parker heard it, the petulant manager dismissed it flippantly, telling its composer “that aint Elvis’ kind of music.” Elvis however encouraged Brown and said he was going to try it anyway. He did, and sang with such emotion and passion in the first take that his backup singers were weeping at its conclusion. If the orchestra had not missed a note in the final moments, the first take would have been the master; Elvis nailed it on his first try.

The sight of Elvis in his stark white suit, standing behind the lit-up shape of his unique name, is just as iconic as the black leather suit, and ended the special with an unforgettable image.

After recording the song, Elvis declared that he would never again sing another song he didn’t believe in. The song was released as a single in conjunction with the special’s premiere, and peaked at number-twelve on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Elvis’ best-charting single since “Crying in the Chapel” reached number-three in 1965.

So much for “it aint Elvis’ kind of music.”

There was still six months to go before the world would get to experience the work Elvis and Steve Binder put into the comeback special. In the meantime, Elvis had two of his final three movie commitments to meet. First up was Charro!, a western with no on-screen singing performances (the only Elvis picture of its kind). Only two songs were recorded for the movie, but just one—the title-song—was heard by movie audiences (it played over the opening credits). The other, a throwaway ballad, “Let’s Forget About the Stars” was thrown away to a budget album.

The film has its fans, and is often regarded as one of Elvis’ best “serious” acting performances. It made a modest profit too, much to the delight of its production company, National General Pictures (a small studio that only operated for twenty years from the early 50’s to early 70’s), but it failed to move the needle any more than any of his other recent films had done.

A week after recording for Charro!, Elvis was laying down half a dozen tracks for his final MGM/UA picture, The Trouble with Girls.

The film was originally intended to be an MGM production, Elvis-staring film a decade prior, but getting drafted put the kibosh on that. MGM revisited the project in 1965 with Dick Van Dyke intended to be the lead, but it fell apart and the rights were sold to Columbia…who sold them back to MGM after they couldn’t do anything with it either. After that, MGM decided to knock it off the books with Elvis, as they’d originally intended. A lot had changed between 1958 and 1968 however. A decade ago Elvis was on top of the world; now he was just starting to crawl back to respectability. A decade ago Elvis starring in the film would have commanded people’s attention; now the film was the second movie in a “double feature” at the drive-in, with The Green Slime (a B-movie horror flick) getting top billing.

Still, there’s a harmless charm to the movie and a sense of fun being had by the lead star that hadn’t been present in a great many years. Elvis was always a consummate professional but you could just tell when he wasn’t feeling a movie and when he was. There’s a twinkle in his eyes here that had been absent for the better part of half a decade. Maybe it’s because he gets to play an actual adult and not a man-child like in so many films. Maybe it’s just because he knows he’s almost done and he’ll soon never have to make another film again. Whatever it is, it’s nice to see that twinkle again.

Six soundtrack songs was enough for half an album, and there was plenty of studio material lying around to complete an LP, but once again no formal soundtrack album was released, mostly because only two of the six songs had any life in them, both of them quasi-Gospel songs befitting the Chautauqua theme of the movie. “Clean Up Your Own Backyard” is good enough in lyric, arrangement and delivery to pass as a late-sixties studio release, and “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” (a remake of the song featured in the 1960 Gospel album His Hand in Mine), illustrated how Elvis had evolved as a singer over the course of the decade, and how he could still cut loose when motivated.

Other than that and maybe the too-short piano ballad “Almost” there’s nothing worth putting on an LP.

“Clean Up Your Own Backyard” was released as a single and reached a respectable number-thirty-five, “Almost” landed on a budget album, “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” was released on a greatest hits album, Elvis: A Legendary Performer Volume 4 in 1983, and the rest never saw the light of day until 1993. It’s for the best, however: He was about to unleash a new look and a new face to the world and he didn’t need the albatross of his soundtrack material dragging him down.

The “Christmas” special, simply entitled “ELVIS” aired on Tuesday, December 3rd at 9:00pm EST. By the time the clocks struck 10, the world was stunned. Elvis had not looked this vibrant and enthused since the Louisiana Hay Ride. It was the first time he’d been seen on television since the 1960 special, but on that occasion Elvis was decked out in a ratpack tuxedo acting suave and dapper. Here, clad in black leather, he swayed, smirked and strutted through every segment looking like the biggest star in the world. For that one hour he was the biggest star in the world.

It would take a few weeks before record sales started to reflect the impact of the show, but once they did, it was noticeable. Elvis needed this comeback more than ever before. In 1960 he just needed a “return.” He needed to remind people that he was still around and not much had changed while he was in the Army. By 1968 he had slipped into obscurity. Now he needed to insist to people that he was back; he needed to force them to pay attention to him again.

And he did.

The success of show led to an offer from Kirk Kerkorian of the International Hotel and Casino (later “The Hilton”), to have Elvis perform as a special attraction, live on stage, as a regular presence at the Hotel. It was a unique offer, unlike anything that had been tried with a musician of his great celebrity. With Hollywood nearly done with Elvis (and he nearly done with them), it was just the door of opportunity he’d been looking for to begin the next phase of his career.

But if he was going to do it, he’d need new music to accompany him.

(Next Month is Part Eight: “Alive”)

 

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