< Part Seven: 1968 (Coming Back)

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 EIGHT: ALIVE

As Elvis ended 1968, he did so with more optimism for the future than he’d had in nearly a decade. His film career was nearly finished, his TV special was drawing rave reviews, record sales were climbing and once again he was the talk of pop culture. Work still needed to be done, however, to maintain the momentum, not only as a music-artist but also as a celebrity. After all, Elvis was no ordinary musician. From almost the beginning of his career he’d been a superstar, with film after film giving him added exposure to the spotlight. Now, with only one movie left to film, a bittersweet reality set in: Elvis needed something else that was big to keep him at the level of exposure he was used to. Without it, he’d become “just another musician” and that was not a position he (and especially not his financial handlers) wanted to find him in.

Fortunately, Kirk Kerkorian of the International Hotel offered him a deal unlike any a major musician had received before. Instead of touring the country nonstop to earn income, Elvis could settle down in Las Vegas and let the audience come to him. There had been musicians to perform in Las Vegas before (Sinatra was famous for it) but never had there been such an extended-commitment signed to such a high-profile singer. Despite an early flop in Vegas in the mid-50’s, a lot had changed over the years and Elvis was ready to redeem his past misstep. His natural flashy character that had been cultivated over a decade-and-a-half of movies fit like hand-in-glove with the new and improved night live scene of Las Vegas. Elvis took the offer and signed a deal that would—little did he know—define the rest of his life.

Before reporting for duty in Las Vegas, however, Elvis needed a new “soundtrack” as it were. He needed a new catalogue of music to accompany his newfound career renaissance. The NBC special was a great first step, but other than two big numbers (“Memories” and “If I Can Dream”), it was short on new material.

The “Comeback Special” (as it would later be called) had sufficiently heated up the anvil; the time to strike was now. After the relative ineffectiveness of the Felton Jarvis/Nashville recordings (other than How Great Thou Art, no major LP was produced and only a few modest hit singles were released), Elvis sought a change in venue and direction. As it turned out, the perfect place for him was right in Memphis, a mere ten miles away from Graceland’s front gates.

Lincoln “Chips” Moman founded American Sound Studio in north Memphis in 1967 with a focus on fusing black gospel with white country (with a healthy helping of classic “Memphian” Rhythm & Blues). The studio closed its doors in 1972 and today is merely a footnote in rock history, but during that half-decade, the little rat-infested building in the ghetto produced 100 hit records (from artists like Aretha Franklin, BJ Thomas, Petula Clark, Dusty Thomas and more), almost all of which under the obsessive direction of perfectionist-producer Chips Moman.

Moman was thrilled to work with Presley, and had to bump some guy named Neil Diamond off his schedule to do it. Diamond agreed to move things around if Elvis agreed to sing one of his songs (he did). Despite the bright spotlight that was always on Elvis (and especially now in the post-NBC Special days), Moman did not temper his managerial style. He had no qualm stopping a take mid-way through to tell the King he was getting sloppy, or to tell the band they were off the rails. The material Elvis brought, along with the songs Chips knew Presley would be perfect for, was all given careful attention and countless takes, with Elvis going hoarse by the end of each Dusk to Dawn session. It paid off, and the soul he brought out of Elvis was as much a creative comeback on vinyl as the NBC Special had been on video.

Elvis walked into the studio on Monday night, January 13th, 1969. It was 7pm when Chips hit the record button and the night session didn’t end until sunrise at 5am. That this was going to be a special marriage was obvious from the first recording Elvis and Chips tried together: “Long Black Limousine.” Instantly upon hearing it, the creative influence of the producer is felt, as church bells ring to hint at the funeral-theme in the lyrics. Elvis sang it like it was a Gospel hymn and Chips arranged it so that the orchestra could play a big part in its mood: A horn accompaniment was spotlighted during a middle eight that, in earlier times, would have simply been knocked out with a basic guitar solo. This was a big production. It wasn’t Sgt. Peppers or Pet Sounds, but for Elvis it was a totally different ballpark.

By sunrise, Elvis had only finished three songs, having been put through many more takes than he’d been used to working on throwaway soundtracks. By the time he recorded the third song of the evening, “Wearing that Loved on Look” Elvis voice was shot, but the raspiness only aided in making the sound something real and raw and natural. You wouldn’t dare call the music he recorded with Chips “stripped down” or “under-produced” but the hoarseness to Elvis’ voice kept the blaring horns and saxaphones and backing vocals from being “too much.” Everything felt authentic, like Elvis was singing from the heart for the first time in a long time.

“You’ll Think of Me” was written by one-half of Elvis’ early-sixties associates, Mort Shuman (long-time collaborator with Doc Pomus). The song had a strange blend of Elvis’ country twang combined with a sitar (which was all the rage in the late-60’s). The song’s structure and length (four minutes) were unusual for Presley, but after only a few takes everyone in the room knew they had a great hit on their hands. Nevertheless, Moman insisted on perfecting it, and after twenty takes he had what he wanted. There are more layers on this track than on anything Elvis had recorded thus far. It wasn’t a Phil Specter production, but it was robust: the sitar plays in the song’s first ten seconds, with a simple high hat in the background keeping the beat. Elvis then begins as a bass guitar joins the fun, and after his opening, a piano and the backing vocalists start oohing and humming and repeating the song’s title-refrain. After that, there’s a middle-eight sitar solo that, again, is wholly unlike an Elvis record, but Presley told Chips he wanted a fresh and modern “grown-up sound” and Chips was bringing it.

“In the Ghetto” was the natural follow-up single to “If I Can Dream.” Like the NBC big show-closer, it was penned by Mac Davis and had a modern sound and political message. Elvis typically refrained from making overtly-political statements, and in fact often told the media that it wasn’t his place as an entertainer to get caught up spouting his political opinions. But songs like these were vague and generalized enough that no one could accuse him of alienating one segment of his fanbase or another. It was Chips Moman who insisted that Elvis record “In the Ghetto” and threatened to give it to another artist to use if he didn’t. He of course did, and as with “If I Can Dream” Elvis poured everything he had into the song. He didn’t go for the big bravado of the previous song, however; he kept it subtle, even somber and let the storybook-nature of the lyrics do the work. Moman adds just the right touch of strings, backing vocals and that great guitar hook that weaves throughout the track. A+ work all around. The song was selected as a single and was an instant-hit, reaching #3 on Billboard’s Hot100, #10 in the UK (the first time Elvis had been a top-ten artist overseas in three years) and #2 in Canada. It hit number-one in several smaller European markets (ironically, considering the nature of the song was very much rooted in the poverty and crime problem of inner-cities in the US). It was worth every bit of the twenty-five takes Chips insisted Elvis do to get it right.

“Rubberneckin” was the first true rock-and-roll song recorded at the studio, and though the lyrics are simplistic, it’s the lively arrangement and obvious fun Elvis has with it that makes it worthwhile. It was another single release, albeit as a B-side to “Don’t Cry Daddy.” That song was likewise not much to write home about, with its cliched lyrics and too-syrupy strings, but it reached #6 all the same, proving that Elvis really was in the middle of a genuine turnaround. Just as his solid late-60’s material would be released and disappear with little fanfare due to the overall apathy surrounding the artist, this average song was released to great acclaim, simply because everyone was tuning in to him again.

“Without Love” demonstrated Elvis at his ballad-best, however. The lyrics were poetic, the delivery was pained, the arrangement a sparse piano-driven melody at first, that turns into a full-blown quasi-pentecostal gospel song, with drums and guitar, big background vocals, and Elvis shouting from the top of his lungs. It’s a show-stealer that was sadly held off the tracklist Chips was compiling for the major album release.

“Suspicious Minds” was the last song recorded at American in January and as with “In the Ghetto” it was a Chips Moman-suggestion. Moman had already recorded the song for its writer, Mark James, but it went nowhere on the charts. Still, there was a vibe to it that the young producer thought could work with Elvis’ voice. Even though the first two takes were ruined due to the band missing their cue and then Elvis flubbing the lyrics, it was apparent immediately that the song was a match made in heaven for Elvis. It had the perfect marriage of country and rhythm and blues with a little bit of Gospel soul, which is exactly the melting pot of styles that Elvis brought to mainstream in the form of “Rock and Roll” fifteen years earlier. By the third take they almost had it perfect and when it was done Elvis confidently declared it his next big hit, sounding like his younger hit-making self from nearly a decade ago. Sure enough, “Suspicious Minds” hit number-one, the first Elvis record to do so in the US since “Good Luck Charm” in early 1962. He’d come close a few times since then; “Return to Sender” peaked at #2 in late 1962, “Devil in Disguise” reached #3 in 1963, as did “Crying in the Chapel” in 1965. But after that, he never got any closer than “Love Letters” in 1966 (which hit #19) until his comeback began in 1968. The upward momentum was clear, as “If I Can Dream” inched-up to the top-ten, and then “In the Ghetto” broke through to #3. The public was paying attention again, and hearing Elvis with fresh ears. “Suspicious Minds” was the climax of his second run at the top, and even though the peak failed to produce as many hits as his run in 1957 did, it still proved he had more to offer than inane Hollywood schlock.

With the session ended, Elvis left Chips to arrange the material into what he hoped would be a hit record. The week Presley had spent at American Sound left him extremely confident that his “comeback” was on the right track. He was so excited, in fact, that a month later Elvis returned to American for a second round of recordings. It hadn’t been scheduled originally, but he felt so personally and professionally satisfied after the first twenty cuts that he and Moman agreed to meet again in February. Another thirteen songs were recorded, and though the energy may have been a slight step down from January, there were more than enough great tracks finished to leave everyone happy in the end.

“Stranger in My Own Home Town” offered Elvis the chance to sink his teeth into some genuine Memphis-style blues (though the writer, Percy Mayfield, was from Louisiana), albeit at a slightly-faster pace than was traditional to the genre. The song was one of the easier tracks that Elvis and Chips laid down in their second session together; it came together in only a few takes, and even though there wasn’t much that needed to be done with it, the arrangement was impressive nonetheless. There is a strong bass groove throughout the piece, and a twelve-bar-blues drum beat underneath, but nothing overpowers Elvis’ seemingly-improvised singing-style, with all the little asides and flourishes (“oh yeah” and shouts of “play it again!” peppered throughout) that would soon come to define his live act.

“Power of My Love” was another blues number, this time sung at a more moderate pace befitting the style. It’s the Trumpet and harmonica playing of session-musicians RF Taylor and Ed Kollis that steal the show here, however, taking the subtle double-entendres and innuendo of the lyrics and putting a spotlight on every turn of phrase. It makes the simple blues song turn into almost an inside joke between singer and listener. Elvis even cracks himself up at one of the lines, where the phrase “you can’t lick it” goes from referring to “beating something up” to meaning…something else entirely.

After a thirty minute break, Elvis returned to work by sitting down at the piano and taking the lead on “After Loving You,” another ballad. The final mix doesn’t allow the piano much chance to shine (it’s mostly the guitar and drumbeat that grabs your attention), but the passion in Elvis’ voice is unmistakable. The song runs three minutes long and ends up being a little repetitive toward the end (it even fades out awkwardly, as though there was minutes more that was simply cut), making the whole affair feel more like an informal jam than an official recording, but the quality is undeniable and Chips ended up using it on the forthcoming LP, despite a typical aversion to informal-sounding recordings.

As easily as everyone had arrived at “Suspicious Minds,” the country-ballad “Kentucky Rain” was a challenge. The lyrics were good, Elvis was clearly engaged by the material, and Moman saw the potential in it too, but the first few takes were off. One was too slow, one was too dramatic, one was too low-pitched. But eventually everyone found the right way to approach the song and it started coming together. It still took several more takes before it was done, but when it was it was quickly decided that it was single-worthy. Indeed it was, and it would reach #16 on the Hot100, and #3 on the Adult Contemporary. It even reached number-one on the Canadian country music charts. Ironically, its worst charting position was on the US Country Chart, where it only reached top-30 status. Still, it was another big seller, selling at least 500,000 copies (certified gold) just as the previous four singles Presley had released had done (his best streak since 1963).

“Any Day Now” was in the same vein as “You’ll Think of Me” in that it began with a long instrumental intro and put an equal emphasis on the arrangement around the singer as on the singer himself. Before these sessions it was rare indeed for Elvis to record songs that required so little of himself. There are seconds-long stretches of tape where all that is heard is the studio band surrounding Presley. Compare that to the music he had recorded going all the way back to his beginning at SUN studios and you’ll see how different these songs were. And yet, it worked: Elvis sounded truly contemporary for the first time in a long time.

In all, Elvis recorded over thirty songs under Chips Moman’s leadership. When he was done, the singer privately confided to friends that it was the most fulfilling work he’d ever done in his career. Part of that was just the afterglow of a successful session mixed with the light being clearly visible at the end of his weary 1960’s tunnel, but it was also not far from the truth. It had been a very long time since Elvis recorded that much material with that much enthusiasm. It was also the first time since working under Sam Phillips that Elvis really stepped back and let someone else control the direction of the music; he acted as a defacto producer on almost everything he recorded with RCA in the 50’s, only occasionally yielding to Lieber and Stoller on hits like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Don’t.”  Those songs were right in his wheelhouse however and didn’t require too many leaps of faith. During his soundtrack days, the singer was often too bored or too frustrated to speak up and offer suggestions; he just did as he was told in order to get out of the studio as quickly as possible. Working under Chips challenged him in a way he hadn’t been since the beginning of his career, and the fruits of his labors would pay off in a big way, with five high-charting songs, including a number one hit and three platinum-sellers of over a million copies.

It was almost enough to get through Change of Habit without a single frown.

Elvis’ last (scripted) movie required a March, 1969 soundtrack session, booked for Decca’s studio in Hollywood. Four songs were finished and “Rubberneckin” from the American session was added to the soundtrack to give it some oomph, likely because the rest of it was banal. The title track was just that, a movie title song and nothing more…other than a fuzz bass that is wasted on such a throwaway tune. A ballad, “Let’s Be Friends” was so flimsy it could have been see-through. Its companion song, “Have a Happy” was a little more lively, but it was handicapped by the same bad high-key piano-playing that hurts “Let’s Be Friends.”

As with his other recent soundtracks, there was no LP released. Instead a budget LP entitled Let’s Be Friends featured a trio of songs from the film, mixed with songs from Stay Away Joe, The Trouble with Girls, and Charro! as well as a few songs recently recorded at American (but deemed not good enough for a proper LP release). The album actually ended up going gold and then, years later, platinum. Maybe they should have adopted that mix-and-match strategy for his soundtracks earlier…

With the weight of Hollywood finally off his shoulders, Elvis turned his attention to Las Vegas and to what would be his first true live performance since 1961. The first show was set for July 31st, and while Elvis and his team discussed what kind of a set-list his show would have, the first LP from the American Sound session was released. From Elvis in Memphis was the title, fittingly, as it not only pointed to the city where the recording had taken place, and not only reminded people of the King’s hometown, but it also pointed out the musical style that the album would bring with it: True to rock’s roots and the menagerie of musical sensibilities that Memphis is known for (rock and roll, blues, R&B, country), Chips selected twelve highly varied cuts for Elvis’ big comeback album (it was his first traditional studio album since 1962’s Pot Luck). Key omissions were “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” since this was the era when singles and albums had separate tracks, although “In the Ghetto” was added after Chips insisted that the album needed a big seller to push it over the top (it was a shrewd move that helped make the album a hit).

Unfortunately, politics and pettiness reared their ugly heads and poisoned the oasis that had just been discovered at American.

From the beginning of the partnership, Chips Moman knew that his work with Elvis was one of mutual-desperation. The tiny Memphis studio had secured a few hits and was getting looks from people within the industry, but it was far from a big player. It lacked the resources to compete with the bigger names. Elvis chose to work there because he needed a new sound and fresh ears overseeing his work to bring out something that had been missing over the years. The partnership was a smashing success, but with it came the jealousy of Col. Parker (whom Moman had essentially cut out of the loop during Elvis’ two-months with him) and Elvis’ entrenched producer Felton Jarvis. Jarvis was malleable by Parker while Moman was not. Jarvis saw Elvis as his chief meal ticket; Moman saw Elvis as one great opportunity among what he hoped would be many. For Felton, Elvis was life. For Chips, Elvis was January. So when the time came to list the credits for the From Elvis in Memphis LP, there was no question in either party’s mind how things should go.

Chips expected to have his name and his studio listed as producer, while Parker expected that no one but Elvis be given credit (as had been custom over the years).

That was unacceptable to Moman. When it was pointed out that Felton Jarvis was a co-producer on the album and that he didn’t mind (as in the past) yielding his credit, Moman pointed out that Jarvis wasn’t running the studio and Jarvis didn’t handle the arrangements. Jarvis was a co-producer merely by association with RCA and Elvis. The album was Moman’s and Elvis’, and both should have been credited. Still, without proper credit, he was merely insulted, nothing more. However, when Moman found out he would also be denied the royalties expected of a record producer (but instead would be treated like an RCA subcontractor), things got very ugly. Moman went into a tirade and accused Parker of robbing him. In a heated phone call, he told Parker never to come back to his studio again.

That was the last time Elvis worked with any producer not named Felton Jarvis.

In fact, Felton was put in charge of arranging the final mixes of the American Sound recordings, and it was his idea to add a fake-fade out near the end of “Suspicious Minds” which Moman described as “a scar” left over from his once-pleasant work with Presley.

There was no time to dwell on hard feelings, however, as Elvis was soon in Las Vegas gearing up for his first show. The deal Parker secured for his client saw Elvis performing in a newly-built 2,000-seat venue inside the brand new International Hotel with an initial four-week engagement, constituting one show per evening on Tuesday-Thursday (getting Monday’s off) and two shows on Friday-Sunday, for a total of half a million dollars.

The deal was altered a few times along the way and by the time Elvis actually touched down in Las Vegas he was booked for two shows every night after opening night, with no days off. It would be brutal and in the end not even the enthused and easily-excitable Elvis could maintain the rigors of it, leading him to turn to medication to give him the extra pep in his step he needed during late-evening shows (and more medication to unwind him when it was time to sleep…in the middle of the day).

His Las Vegas attire would soon be defined with a very distinct look (white jumpsuit and tall collars) but for his first show, Elvis chose something a little more subtle. He wore a two-piece black suit with a big open front and an elaborate cloth belt that draped down his leg below the knot. It looked like a glorified Karate Gi. Neither it, nor the white variant he also wore, was anything close to the costumes he’d soon be sporting, but it was flashy enough for a debut engagement and perfectly highlighted his slim and tanned features.

When he took the stage, he exuded the magnetic charisma that had always been there (but which had been suppressed throughout the decade), despite admissions of nervousness. His charm was off the charts as he welcomed the crowd to his first live show in “nine” years live, before adding “I’ve appeared dead a few times, but this is my first live show…” After that the ice was broken and the show went off without a hitch.

For the all-important set list, Elvis and his handlers decided on a healthy mix of old favorites, newly recorded tracks, newly-written tracks, and personal favorites that would never be recorded in studio due to licensing and rights-holding issues. Here at the beginning of what would be the rest of Elvis’ career, many of the future tropes that would define his live act were already solidified. He hadn’t quite settled on “See See Rider” as his opening number (or, for that matter, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”), but he did feature a medley of old hits halfway through, he did use “Love Me Tender” as an excuse to kiss every pretty girl who approached the stage, and he did end with a rousing rendition of “Suspicious Minds” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Many of these first Vegas recordings would become staples of his 1970’s run but there were a few songs that never made it into the regular rotation.

“Are You Lonesome Tonight” was perhaps a bit too wordy to work as a live performance, which is why it was a rare treat in Las Vegas, but occasionally Elvis would bring the song out and serenade his audiences with it. Just as frequently, Elvis would play around with the lyrics, demonstrating a mild embarrassment at the words that were sincere in 1960 but were out of fashion in the more cynical late-60’s. One of the more famous alternate renditions of the song saw Elvis change the line “do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there” with “do you gaze at your bald-head and wish you had hair?” It was a change he made almost every time he played the song live, but on one occasion he happened to see in the audience a very stiff looking man in a suit and a slick-bald head. A fit of laughter consumed the rest of the recording and has since become one of the best outtakes of the early Vegas years.

“Baby What You Want Me To Do” was introduced during the filming of the NBC special as kind of a running-jam that he and his musicians would play in between actual songs, but Elvis brought it back for Vegas and used it as an early tune to loosen everyone up–musicians and audience both–before the show really kicked off in full. It was a great song for that purpose: As with almost everything Elvis did on stage in Vegas, the song was sung fast (much faster than Jimmy Reed’s original blues recording from a decade ago) which kept the audience energized, drummer Ronnie Tutt, guitarist James Burton, and Bassist Jerry Scheff all had moment to shine, as did the background singers The Sweet Inspirations. Elvis of course rolled through the lyrics, effortlessly. He was in command of the stage from the moment he stepped out of the curtain and despite claims of anxiety, he never let it show; he was born to perform.

“Runaway” was a number-one hit for Del Shannon in 1961. Bringing it to Las Vegas seemed unnecessary but Elvis liked the hook and made it work, thanks to the big band production and the Sweet Inspirations. As with the rest of the set, Elvis blazed through the lyrics almost in double-speed (the amphetamines probably contributed to that). James Burton’s guitar solo is arguably better than the one from Shannon’s original.

“Words” was a recent hit by The Bee Gees, a band that had only started finding North American success. It was added to the set list, first of all because Elvis liked the song (there wasn’t a track he performed in Las Vegas in 1969 that he didn’t want to record, keeping his 1968 pledge to Steve Binder that he’d never record another song he didn’t believe in) and because International Hotel owner Kirk Kerkorian asked him to feature modern hits as well as old favorites. Once again the biggest change was the tempo; whereas the Bee Gees version was essentially a ballad, Elvis sang it with such urgency he turned it into a pop song.

After twenty or so songs, and about sixty minutes of performing with music and banter, Elvis ended with a rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and even though he never sang the song in Las Vegas (or anywhere else in the 70’s) with the same softness he did in 1961, the arrangement ended with such a crescendo the performance never failed to bring the audience to their feet in appreciation of the whole concert.

1969 ended up being the singer’s busiest and most productive year since 1960. His final films were released, as were multiple singles and albums, all of which were hits in one form or another (either on the charts or simply in terms of units sold). 1969 was also the first year Elvis would release a double album, as RCA combined the left-over music recorded at American Sound with selections from the August concert in Las Vegas. Chips Moman opposed the second album of his produced-music, stating that the first album (From Elvis in Memphis) was the best of the bunch and that anymore would dilute the waters. RCA was not about to leave the material lying around however, and pairing it with the Vegas concert gave them a thematic angle to take with the title: On one side the LP’s cover read “FROM MEMPHIS TO VEGAS” whereas the other side read “BACK IN MEMPHIS.”

Despite the higher price and lesser quality of the studio work included on the album, the double-LP sold better than From Elvis in Memphis, and ended up one notch higher on the charts (#12). No doubt the highlight of the live album portion of the collection was the jaw-dropping seven-minute rendition of Suspicious Minds, which Elvis recorded in August before the single had even reached record stores. By the end of it, Elvis’ once perfect (and massive) head of hair was fallen over his eyes as sweat poured from his cheeks. It brought the house down and more than made up for the fact that the studio-version was withheld from the album.

The Vegas debut could not have been more warmly received by critics. Combined with the ’68 Special from the previous year, Elvis had completely shed the “stale and corny” persona that a decade of musical-comedy movies had thrust upon him. Rolling Stone called it “nothing short of a resurrection from the dead.”

Acting quickly, Colonel Parker worked with Kirk Kerkorian to sign a long-term contract. It ended up being a five-year deal with weeks-long engagements happening throughout the year, starting in just six months, February of 1970.

The February show yielded additional new material, enough to be compiled on another concert LP. Unlike the double album that captured the August 1969 show, this new record (entitled simply “On Stage,” with Elvis’ name not even appearing on the cover) collected several random tunes sung during the various concert performances of the month (as well as a couple taken from 1969).

“See See Rider” makes its Elvis concert debut here, and the old, depression-era blues song would go on to be used by Elvis as the show-opener for almost every performance the man would have until his death. As with everything else Elvis did on stage, the song was sung in warp-speed and given a pseudo-Gospel feel with the backing of The Sweet Inspirations.

“Release Me” is another old favorite, this one dating back to the late 40’s, but in the hands of Elvis is given a contemporary coat of paint, to the point where you’d believe it was recently written. He also sings it, as with almost everything else in this brief window of time, with such unbridled enthusiasm it’s almost awe-inspiring.

Having already recorded “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” for Neil Diamond in 1969, Elvis turned to another Diamond song—the soon to be seminal “Sweet Caroline”—and showed off his flair for interpretation. He did the same thing with a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”

The first side of the On Stage LP ended with “The Wonder of You,” a top-25 hit for Ray Peterson in 1959. Elvis big band production sufficiently modernized it, and his belting vocals were strong enough for RCA to release it as a single. It reached #9 on the Billboard Hot100, and even reached number-one on the Adult Contemporary chart.

On side two Elvis tore into a recent R&B song, “Polk Salad Annie” and had so much fun with it, he’d keep it in his live act for the next three years. He even played it at Madison Square Garden, offering the audience lyrics which no doubt entirely bewildered them!

“Proud Mary” was another recent hit that Elvis saw the potential in, and as with “Polk Salad Annie” would use it in his live performances regularly through 1972. CCR took the song to #2 but Elvis never released it as a single. Tina Turner did, however, in 1971, and reached #4 with it, and won a Grammy. Elvis’ version is perhaps not as iconic as either of those takes, but it packed its own punch, nonetheless.

The album closed with a stirring ballad “Let it Be Me,” and demonstrated, above all else, Elvis’ remarkable gift for interpretation: He could take a song someone else had made synonymous to themselves and make you believe it had been written specifically for him. The On Stage album ended up being a big hit, going platinum in sales and reaching #12 on billboard’s charts, making it his fifth straight top-fifteen record. It would also set the precedent for RCA to release as many live albums as they could get away with, no matter how much of the material was repeated from record to record.

The album wasn’t the only success; the February concerts themselves sold out every showing. Keep in mind that the early months of the year were, historically, the worst time for Las Vegas. Musicians who played during the winter months rarely did so to huge crowds, and many hotels and casinos were hesitant to spend much money on luring big name performers on the assumption that people just wouldn’t come to the desert in January. Nevertheless Parker’s gamble paid off as did his booking of Elvis at a massive concert at the Houston Astrodome in the beginning of March. After that there was a big studio recording session planned for June, followed by his first concert-tour since 1957, and then a documentary that Parker had planned to film and release as a closed-circuit concert show (the precursor to Pay Per View). There was no time to relax, which the easily-bored Presley needed now that his career had finally risen again.

Felton Jarvis resigned from RCA soon after the Houston Concert. Over the several years he’d worked with Elvis, the singer came to enjoy the laid-back approach that Jarvis took as a producer and he asked him to come work for him directly, not only as his personal producer but also as a co-manager of his suddenly-busy concert schedule. With his new role Jarvis would work with RCA on behalf of their most prized asset, giving him more leverage than he had as an employee of RCA. The downside would come when Elvis grew bored of his current situation and started craving new adventures; when that happened it would be up to Jarvis to reel him in and ensure the singer met the contract obligations RCA set out for him (multiple albums and singles per year). But in 1970 Elvis was focused and excited, so getting him to work was no challenge at all.

The June recording session in Nashville would accomplish multiple needs: RCA needed a new studio album and Elvis wanted to make a whole record of country songs, almost like an anthology of the history of the genre that was only recently breaking into national airplay. In addition there would be a soundtrack accompanying the documentary film that was set for Thanksgiving of 1970. The idea of doing it as a closed-circuit show was nixed for a traditional film release, focusing on Elvis as a stage performer and the excitement fans had to seeing him live for the first time in years. Thirty-five songs were selected to be spread out over the two LP projects, with others set aside for single release. Even then there would be enough material left over for an additional album. It was the biggest recording session Elvis had ever undertaken, but he was in a working-mood and it needed to be used while it lasted.

Unfortunately, only a handful of the songs Felton assembled for him to sing were able to match the library Chips Moman brought to him the previous year. Many of the standouts of the session were old songs that Elvis intended to sing; the new material frustrated him and he would even criticize them on stage when he had to sing them (for the documentary). His 1968 pledge to Steve Binder was already out the window.

“Twenty Days and Twenty Nights” was supposed to be the big new ballad to be shown off for the movie and released as a single, but Elvis never got comfortable with the lyrics and even said on stage “this is a new song I have and I don’t particularly dig singing it…but it’s on the program so here we go…” and even showed obvious frustration when he and his band were out of sync. The final film cut out all of that, but out-takes reveal it. The song itself just didn’t have the spark that the 1969 ballads offered. The straight-love song “How the Web was Woven” offered a little more to work with, but only a little.

“I’ve Lost You” was a more like it, however. A ballad about love-lost would become an albatross that dragged down much of his music in the final few years of his life, but here he sings with gusto and passion instead of depression and solemnity.  The big band production elevates it further and made it a song worthy of single release. It only hit #32 on the Hot100 however, but it peaked at #5 on the Adult Contemporary charts.

“The Sound of Your Cry” is sort of the forgotten sibling to “I’ve Lost You.” The songs are similar in composition and arrangement but where “It’s Only Love” was given a big 45 release, “The Sound of Your Cry” was dropped as a B-side a year later with little fanfare or publicity. In the years to come, when RCA would re-release seemingly every Elvis song on one compilation album or another, “The Sound of Your Cry” would typically be overlooked. It’s become almost a lost gem that many Presley fans have never heard.

“The Fool” was originally informally recorded in the late-50’s while Elvis was in the army. There’s a pretty fine quality version of it floating around online, despite it being a home tape-recording. Elvis returned to it twelve years later to give it a big budget makeover and to feature it on the country and western album he was excited about. Playing the two songs back to back show how far Elvis had come since he said goodbye to the 1950’s and how much his voice and style had grown too.

“Bridge Over Trouble Water” was only a few months old when Elvis recorded his own version. Of all the songs he performed live in Las Vegas, this is arguably the greatest vocal performance that never received a studio rendition. His voice is huge, operatic, and chill-bringing in its delivery. Unfortunately it would not become a fixture of his act in the future, but it never failed to bring the crowd to a standing ovation whenever he performed it.

“It’s Your Baby You Rock It” was one of the few new songs Elvis recorded during the June studio session, and its silly lyrics and passionless delivery illustrate how hard it was to get consistently-good hit music that was also new. Most of Elvis’ best work came from material twenty or thirty years old, songs he’d been singing since childhood. When he was given something written recently for him and told to deliver it with the same passion and effortless charm as the “old stuff” he rarely could do it. He needed to believe in the music to really give it something special; sometimes he could take a brand new track and make it instantly-timeless, but it was a magic that couldn’t be brought to life on cue.

“Just Pretend” is an enigma of a song. The official version, released on the soundtrack for the upcoming-documentary is the studio master, in all its plodding. The studio version is so sleepy and uninspired it might as well be white noise. It inspires no emotion. It stirs up no reaction.

On the other hand is the live version, featured in the docufilm: Elvis ups the speed, and feeds off the energy of the moment to deliver a stirring version that’s night-and-day better over its sister version.

“Faded Love” is a western-swing in its origins, with lyrics that date back to antebellum days. In Elvis’ 1970 hands, it was turned into a country-rocker with far more attitude and emotion found in the fiddle-featured versions sung in generations prior. Elvis was happy with the finished product and suggested it as a single, but instead RCA went with “I Really Don’t Want to Know” as the big lead-off of the Country Album. It reached #6 and Faded Love faded into relative obscurity, though it was resurrected in 1980 as a B-side that managed to be a top-40 hit.

“Tomorrow Never Comes” is probably the most effective ballad on the Country Album. Elvis’ voice booms with heartache over a love that promises eternal companionship but never follows through with it. Where it was equal parts tender and powerful, the outlaw-country tune “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” was equal parts loud and energized. Elvis sings about a rebel on the run and turns silly lyrics into a fun country-rocker.

After thirty-five masters were finished over the course of a week, Elvis flew out to Vegas with documentary cameras ready. The film, now titled That’s the Way it Is, focused on three aspects of Elvis’ 1970 Las Vegas commitment: His rehearsals, his fans anticipation for the show, and excerpts from the concerts themselves.

For his outfit, Elvis turned to Bill Belew, who designed Elvis’ instantly-iconic black leather suit. What Presley needed here, however, was something that allowed a little more freedom of movement. The same basic design was retained, with the open chest and massive collars, but the fabric was switched to 100% cotton. Stark white was the color of choice, as it would allow Elvis almost to glow under the spotlight in the darkened concert hall; at times he looked like Jor-El in the Dick Donner Superman movie! Multiple variants were featured, some with more tassels, some with more splashes of color, some more simple and some more extravagant. Within just a year, Elvis would add rhinestones, and then would come the giant belts and the capes, and the costumes would grow and grow to mythic proportions, but in the beginning it was a very clean white suit meant to let the overly-energized Presley dance and shake and move at 100mph.

“Suspicious Minds” was the song that best-demonstrated the importance of freedom of movement. Elvis’ sings the song for six manic minutes, occasionally literally hopping in place in an attempt to drive his pent-up energy out. By the end of it he was absolutely haggard, but still commanded the band like a karate instructor-turned-orchestra conductor and with just a wave of his hand brought the audience to its feet during the final note.

The documentary film was released in theaters in November and though it was not a huge hit, it still performed better than his recent scripted-films had done, and the accompanying soundtrack was a top-twenty album in the overall LP chart and reached #8 on the country chart (higher than the eventual Country Album would do, ironically).

To Elvis, things looked better than they had in a very long time. He was making music again—real music—and even with another movie in the can it was a movie that did not require embarrassing line readings or insulting soundtrack material. He played himself, which was always a more interesting character than anything Hollywood could write. Right now he was starring in the comeback story for the ages.

Unfortunately, right around the corner would be a much darker sequel.

> PART NINE: 1971 – 1972 (PEAKS & VALLEYS)

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