< Part 8: 1969-1970 (Alive)

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 NINE: PEAKS & VALLEYS

As Elvis ended 1970, he did so on a high the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since the heyday of 1957. Multiple albums were selling hundreds of thousands (if not millions) left and right, single after single was charting high and receiving frequent radio play, his International Hotel shows were the standing room only talk of the Las Vegas and every stop on his brief nation-spanning tour in the fall had sold out on the day tickets went on sale.

The king was back on his throne.

But as thrilling as the year had been, it had been equally as hectic. As exhilarating as it was to be Rock’s top banana once more, it was equally as grueling to keep up with the renewed demand he suddenly enjoyed. The solution, sadly, was prescription drugs. Uppers at night, to keep him going through the many early-morning concerts. Downers in the midday, to bring him down and let him sleep as much as he could in between house calls, rambunctious fun with his cronies and meet-and-greets with world leaders…

In December of 1970 Elvis made his now-legendary White House visit to sit down with President Nixon. The famous photo between singer and leader is iconic, and when copies finally went on sale, years later, it was the single-most requested item ever sold in the National Archives:

Sporting his recently-gifted “World’s Champion of Las Vegas Attendance” title belt, Elvis met with the President to discuss the epidemic of drugs facing the country. The actual story of how the meeting came about is so fantastical you’d swear it was dreamed up.

It began with Elvis’ father Vernon and his wife Priscilla complaining that he’d spent too much money on Christmas presents (something in the neighborhood of one hundred thousand dollars on friends and family). Tired of the drama Elvis left Graceland and flew on the first available flight out of town. It was a flight to DC and he took it. After spending a little bit in a DC hotel he decided to fly to Las Angeles. While resting in his house there he decided that he shouldn’t have left DC because he really wanted to meet the President, and he really really wanted to be deputized as a drug marshal.

What a random thing to really really want.

According to Priscilla, Elvis believed that if he had a badge and Presidential authority then he could travel freely with any kind of drug he wanted without the fear of being arrested or having his possessions seized.

So, just like that he left LA and returned to DC with California Senator George Murphy in tow. On the flight, he hastily scribbled a letter to the President explaining his intentions, confident he could just drive right up to the White House front door and sit down with the leader of the free world. Because why not.

The letter read:

Dear Mr. President,

First I would like to introduce myself. I am Elvis Presley and admire you and have great respect for your office. I talked to Vice-President Agnew in Palm Springs three weeks ago and expressed my concern for our country. The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it the establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out. I have no concern or motives other than helping the country out. So I wish not to be given a title or an appointed position. I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages. First and foremost, I am an entertainer, but all I need is the Federal credentials.

I am on this plane with Senator George Murphy and we have been discussing the problems that our country is faced with. Sir, I am staying at the Washington Hotel, Room 505-506-507—. I have two men who work with me by the name of Jerry Schilling and Sonny West. I am registered under the name of Jon Burrows. I will be here for as long as long as it takes to get the credentials of a Federal Agent. I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good. I am Glad to help just so long as it is kept very private. You can have your staff or whomever call me anytime today, tonight, or tomorrow.

I was nominated this coming year one of America’s Ten Most Outstanding Young Men. That will be in January 18 in my home town of Memphis, Tennessee. I am sending you the short autobiography about myself so you can better understand this approach. I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy. Respectfully,

Elvis Presley

P. S. I believe that you, Sir, were one of the Top Ten Outstanding Men of America also.

I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.

Elvis landed in DC around sunrise and his letter was quickly delivered to the White House. It came into the hands of a Nixon aid who happened to be a big Presley fan. Knowing the good publicity that would come with meeting with the biggest entertainer in the world, the get-together was hastily arranged for noon that day. Elvis brought his bodyguards/lackeys Sonny West and Jerry Schilling as well as the “gift” he mentioned in his letter: A Colt-45 that he quickly grabbed from his Las Angeles mansion on his way out the door.

Elvis was waiting inside the White House to meet the President before the Secret Service even inquired about any items he had brought. That’s when he whipped out the gun, which the Secret Service quickly seized before ushering him into the Oval Office. Elvis apparently thought he’d just waltz up to the President’s desk with a revolver and seven matching bullets.

Bananas.

Their meeting was brief with each star-struck by the other. Elvis repeated his request for a badge and then lit up when Nixon turned to an aid and said “Can we get him a badge?” When the aid nodded, Nixon turned to Presley and said “Consider it done.” Elvis was so happy he grabbed the President and hugged him.

I’m sure that’s a no-no today.

As Elvis was being escorted to the Oval Office door to leave he turned back and asked if his entourage could meet the President too. They did and Nixon gifted them White House-engraved cufflinks. Still not satisfied Elvis said “Mr. President, they have wives too.” So Nixon gave the wives brooches on behalf of the First Lady.

The man was on a roll. Elvis could have gotten an ambassadorship out of him if he wanted.

1971 began with a humbling award. As he’d mentioned in his Nixon letter, Elvis was honored by the Jaycees with their annual “Most Outstanding Young Men” award given to “young men who demonstrate outstanding achievement in their field of endeavor.” It sounds a little like a Simpsons gimmick, but it’s actually an honor that had been handed out since the 1930’s (and continued to be well into the 2010’s). It’s sort of a “congrats on achieving the American Dream” honoring, and Elvis was touched to receive it and gave a short and heartfelt speech in acceptance.

Another Las Vegas engagement came and went with mostly the same set-list as in 1969-1970, except a new song was featured as the show-closer: “The Impossible Dream” became sort of a biographical anthem for Elvis and one he fell in love with briefly in this year. Even though much of the early 1971 Vegas season was hindered due to illness, he still gave the closing-number his all, and regularly received big ovations for it.

Another studio session was booked for the Spring, but the March recording was ended early due to Elvis still not being in good health. In fact his eye was causing so much trouble that he went to an optometrist and was diagnosed with secondary glaucoma. Determined to press forward with one big marathon session (such as had succeeded in 1969 and 1970), Col. Parker and Felton Jarvis rescheduled the March session for May, intending to burn through some forty songs and end with enough material for three albums and some 45s.

The success of the 1957 Christmas record, which had recently been re-released as a ten-track budget album (to tremendous sales), had Parker itching for a follow-up for years. All he’d been able to wiggle out of Elvis so far was a single song in the mid-60’s and the 1968 TV Special that featured one throwaway rendition of “Blue Christmas.” Parker was determined to have a proper Christmas album recorded, as well as a follow-up to the big 1967 How Great Thou Art hit record.  Elvis, however, had other music on his mind: Folk.

He had of course already dabbled in the genre a time or two in the sixties, and numerous home recordings show how much Elvis enjoyed it, but had never fully committed himself to it in the studio before. The recent music of Peter, Paul and Mary and the continued work of Bob Dylan had motivated him to devote more attention to folk music in the studio. In the aborted March session, he only recorded four songs, but three of them were clearly inspired by the folk music craze.

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was a 1957 duet by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, but it was the Roberta Flack version that inspired Elvis, and which his cut is clearly based on, albeit with a more moderate tempo. Flack ended up winning a Grammy for the song and Rolling Stone declared it the song of the year in 1972, leading to multiple covers. Elvis gave it as much as he could under the circumstances, but he just wasn’t able to rise to the occasion the way others could.

“That’s What You Get for Loving Me” was the one of two Gordon Lightfoot numbers he tried in March. The Canadian singer/song-writer was quickly being recognized as one of the best folk artists around at the time. His version of the song featured a much simpler, more “folksy” arrangement. Elvis’ version however was much more robust. Despite the singer’s desire to dabble in folk, his producer couldn’t help but add too much to the song (harmonica, female backers, male backers, a steady drumbeat). It overdoes it, which will be a running theme with most of Elvis’ 1970’s studio recordings. It hurts the song more than Elvis’ diminished vocals do.

The other Gordon Lightfoot song was “Early Morning Rain” which Elvis ran through with the same genuine interest he gave “For Loving Me” earlier in the day but sadly with the same diminished voice as well. While the song would not become a staple of his live act, it’s clear Elvis had an affinity for it as he would sometimes spontaneously break out into a rendition in the middle of a bored Vegas set, and it would reappear on big shows like the 1973 Aloha concert and the 1977 CBS concert tour.

The only Gospel song he attempted before calling off the March session was “Amazing Grace.” Since it was public domain, Elvis is credited with an “arrangement by” note, but there’s very little unconventional in the recording; if anything the song needed more: More tempo, more energy, more something. The only thing it had was more “production” compared to the folk songs; Elvis’ backup singers are mixed very loudly, to the point where they sometimes drown out Elvis’ voice, which is a shame since it’s the best vocal performance of the session.

The flaws that will be even more apparent when studio work resumed in May are still obvious here. The biggest red flag for Felton Jarvis was Elvis’ voice. A year ago it was strong and enthusiastic, even on songs that weren’t up to the quality of the 1969 selections. Here, however, it is wobbly, strained and tired. He’s also noticeably slurring in a few places, especially in “Early Morning Rain.” Granted, Elvis always mumbled a bit when he spoke and that occasionally bled through in his early singing, but producers were usually able to do enough takes to get a crisper delivery out of him. Felton Jarvis was clearly unable to do so.

When Elvis returned to Nashville in May he did so with over thirty songs before him (and still another ten would come in June). Everyone from RCA to Col. Parker to Felton Jarvis thought it was just a brilliant little idea to knock all of his studio commitments out in one go, but no one asked Elvis. Likely if they had, the congenial singer would have agreed anyway, but it was clear very quickly into the proceeding that his voice had not fully recovered from the cancelled March session, and his energy and enthusiasm for the material would wane fast.

Seven masters were finished on the first day, five of which were for the upcoming Christmas album. A Gospel-themed song was done first; “Miracle of the Rosary” was completed in just a few takes and was easily the most enthusiastic Elvis would be on the opening night of the session. He had brought the song into the studio with him, having fallen in love with it (despite not being a Catholic) and having it offered to him by its writer Lee Denson (himself not a Catholic either). His voice is still wobbly but it’s obvious that he really wanted to do the song right and he belts some spectacular high notes here (notes he would not quite be able to nail later in the evening). In the end, the song was left off the Gospel album and instead was tossed into the catch-all pop album that would collect the non-Gospel and non-Christmas recordings of the session.

A pair of Christmas songs followed, both of which were pop-songs and not traditional holiday standards. In fact only half the album would be comprised of traditional standards as it was decided early on that the new album would need to stand out from the 1957 album and 1970 reissue. Both “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” and “If I Get Home on Christmas Day” immediately set the countrified tone that would dominate the record.

The irksome wobble in his voice (listen to any sustained note in the song) that turned great songs good and good songs average is at its worst in these two songs (and his slurring is noticeably bad throughout “If I Get Home on Christmas Day”). The quality of the music is fine and will be on all of the Christmas songs, but overall it’s uninspired. It sounds more like a warm-up than a master, but as with the over-produced nature of the Gospel tracks, it seems like Felton was doing it on purpose.

“Merry Christmas Baby” is a frustrating slow-blues jam that drags the album down significantly. Clocking in at almost six-minutes it’s one of the longest songs Elvis ever recorded, and you will feel every second of it. It’s fine enough after two minutes, but then it just keeps going and going with no change in key, no bridge, no middle eight. It’s just the same thing over and over, and it’s obviously just an informal jam that Felton Jarvis hit “record” on and slapped it onto the album; Elvis plays around with the lyrics, calling out bandmates and what not. It’s informal and was probably a blast in the studio, but as a track on an album it never should have been presented in this way. If anything it should have been cut down to three minutes or so, and failing that, at least have the common courtesy to put it as the final track of the record. Instead it’s the second-to-last track, which means you have to sit through all six minutes of it to hear a pleasant-enough rendition of “Silver Bells.”

Speaking of “Silver Bells,” the song was one of the last recorded of the day and Elvis was growing tired. After a couple takes, he asked Charlie Hodge to sing it as a duet and after ten minutes of getting the microphone and everything set up for Charlie to join him, Elvis held up his hands and said he didn’t mean for Charlie to be on the record; he just wanted to be able to hear him sing while he sang. An awkward silence followed that was broken by a frustrated Elvis saying “forget it, let’s go to something else.” Felton tried to coax him into recording one more take, but Elvis sat silently and defiantly for a long moment before saying that he wasn’t feeling it and what they’d already recorded would have to do.

And so it did.

Before calling it a day, Elvis finally recorded a song he’d been wanting to do since he left for the Army. “Padre” was originally a French song released in 1956. An English version came to North America in 1957 and Toni Arden made a hit of it in 1958 and Elvis said soon after that her version was his favorite song at the moment. Had he recorded it then it would have been unlike anything he’d ever released before. But just a couple years later he would take “It’s Now or Never” and “Surrender” to number-one, so maybe he was onto something. Elvis’ 1971 version lacks the almost operatic styling Arden had in her take, and it obviously lacks the silky smooth vocals he might have brought to the song in 1960 or 1961. He gave it his best shot but it might have been better to try it after a good rest. He sings it here as his final take before calling it a day and he just didn’t have it in him to hit the final high note.

The next day began with another Gospel song, though this one was never intended to be a master. Elvis was goofing off on the piano before working and broke into a musical-version of The Lord’s Prayer. It’s credited as “arranged by Elvis Presley” since he was just piddling on the piano, but really his take is a version of the song arranged by Albert Hay Malotte in 1935, which everyone from Perry Como to Dorris Day and Johnny Mathis recorded. Elvis’ jam is interesting but not particularly remarkable. At one point (2:13 in the video below) he reaches for a high note and clearly misses the hurdle, yet he still calls out “you didn’t think I could do it did you?” In truth, he didn’t hit it, but he believed he did, and everyone agreed with him that he did because no one wanted to upset him or tell him what he didn’t want to hear.

And that’s what we call “foreshadowing.”

With his vocal chords loose, Elvis turned to eight songs on the docket for the day, six of which were Christmas numbers. “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day” came first and the version he recorded here would end up on the album, but he would still return to it in a month to record a remix version. This take is more like a country-blues song and is one of the better ones on the record. Jarvis added just enough around Elvis’ voice to give the song some character without overpowering the singer, and Elvis’ voice is strong throughout. It was a good omen for the rest of the day, as he followed it up with “On a Snowy Christmas Night.” It was another original song, as was “The Wonderful World of Christmas” but all three were done well-enough to stand-up to repeated listening alongside the more well-known standards people enjoy hearing during the holidays.

Another folk song broke up the holiday theme, mid-way through the day, as Elvis tackled his first Bob Dylan song since “Tomorrow is a Long Time” in 1966. Back then, Elvis took Dylan’s words and gave them a totally new arrangement. This time, Elvis wanted to give “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” a more traditional folk sound. As with everyone who tries to cover Bob Dylan, there’s no use trying to imitate that one-of-a-kind voice, and his mix of picking-guitar and harmonica is as much of a Dylan trademark as swinging hips and raised lips are to Elvis. To that end, Elvis’ version of the song was nowhere near as sparse, but it was as close to “folk” as Elvis was going to get. He actually went at the song for nearly fifteen minutes and let Felton cut it down to something manageable. Jarvis ended up trimming it into an almost-three minute rendition that is nearly as pleasant to listen to as the original.

Two more Christmas songs ended the day. This time they were public domain spirituals, giving Elvis another “arranged by…” credit (much to the happiness of Col. Parker, as that was cheaper than buying the rights to someone else’s music). The first of the two Christmas songs, “O Come All Ye Faithful” suffers from the same problem that plagued “Amazing Grace” a couple months before: Elvis’ voice is sometimes non-existent with so many background voices it the mix. “The First Noel” works better in Jarvis’ hands, however, although Elvis’ vocals aren’t as strong as in the former song.

After fourteen songs in two days, things would slow down as Elvis quickly grew bored. With eleven Christmas songs in the can, attention was turned to the pop and Gospel albums they still had to finish. Kris Kristofferson had enjoyed a long career as a songwriter before trying his hand at recording. His debut album, the self-titled Kristofferson, came out in 1970 and although it was not a great seller, it did well on the country album charts. Many of the songs featured had already been covered by more famous artists, including “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” but Kris’ version still managed to reach number-one on the country charts and #8 on the pop charts. Elvis probably missed his window of opportunity to make the song a hit, but he liked the song and recorded it nonetheless, and did alright with it. It was never released as a single, however…

The pop song that was released as a single was “Until It’s Time for you to Go,” a song that was doomed to failure from the start. There was no energy in the recording; Elvis sounds half-asleep as he sings it, even when he performed it live on tour in 1972 he couldn’t breathe any life into it. Even Elvis recognized the song needed a little more pep, and tried it again in June with a faster tempo, but it was the May version that was released. And why it was released as a single is a great mystery. It had no chance of appealing to radio-listeners nor was it the best pop song recorded at the session; it peaked at #40 and sold less than 500,000 copies.

“Fools Rush In” was more of the same. This time at least the song had some tempo, and it was a well-known song, but it was well-known because it dated back to World War II. The songs recorded in 1971 failed to catch on with record buyers or radio DJs the way the material from 1969 and 1970 had done and the primary difference between those songs and these songs was the feeling of freshness that the 69-70 material had that the 71 material lacked. His previous songs felt modern, cutting-edge, like a new sound from a new and improved Elvis. There were still old standards that Elvis loved to sing but they were buried onto the B-sides of albums and not given the publicity that songs like “Suspicious Minds” were afforded.

Too many of Elvis’ pop songs lately were just the old favorites he wanted to sing, and Felton Jarvis did not have either the means or the desire to insist on better, fresher material the way Chips Moman had done. Is “Fools Rush In” a bad song? No, nor is Elvis’ version a bad take on the song. But there’s no commercial value in it either. It’s just a filler with little done to it to help it rise above just being filler.

A trio of Gospel songs were finished in one day, and two more came the day following as the style that would define the Gospel album began to take shape. The 1960 Gospel record was very much a product of the time; it was straight-laced and traditional. The 1967 follow-up took a few more liberties, but it too ended up being pretty conventional. This new Gospel album would go all-in on the “black, jubilee, pentecostal” flavor that Elvis grew up being around and admiring.  That style is best exemplified by the songs “I’ve Got Confidence,” and “Seeing is Believing” which are more or less presented as “Rock and Roll spirituals.”

The album still featured several traditional “hymnal” songs but none of them measured up to what was recorded in 1960 or 1966. The title track “He Touched Me” was serviceable but not memorable. One song that Elvis really wanted to do something special with was “A Thing Called Love.” The song was written by Jerry Reed, who had previously provided Elvis a modest hit with “Guitar Man” and, after that, “US Male.” Reed had taken “A Thing Called Love” to top-twenty success and Elvis was keen to try it. Incidentally, Johnny Cash recorded his own version of the song around the same time Elvis did, but though Cash scored a number-one hit with it, Elvis’ version was never released as a single. His version featured Elvis in a duo with deep-voiced Armond Morales as well as a pretty fine arrangement by Felton Jarvis. The song may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a pretty nicely produced number that deserved better than to be buried in the middle of the He Touched Me album.

Later in the evening, at about two in the morning, Elvis sat down at the piano and began messing around with some songs he’d been playing at home since the 1950’s. Ivory Joe Hunter was a black singer from Texas who’d been a regional star since the 1940’s. He started out as a blues singer but found early success as an R&B artist. In the 1960’s the 50+ year old singer/songwriter switched to country music. Throughout it all Elvis was a fan and recorded many of his songs over the years (such as “My Wish Came True,” “I Need You So,” and “Ain’t That Loving You, Baby”).

It wasn’t on the schedule but upon hearing Elvis’ playing, Felton asked him if he wanted to record and Elvis agreed. Two of Hunter’s songs were recorded here, with “It’s Still Here” played first. Elvis stripped away the country trappings of Hunter’s 1964 version and presented the song as a naked piano ballad. He did the same with Hunter’s other song “I Will Be True.” After that Elvis performed a song he played to himself frequently while in the Army, the 19th century German-American folksong, “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.” His voice is again not as strong as it was on older piano-focused numbers like “Anything that’s Part of You” but you can hear the sincerity in the work and that elevates it.

As pleasant as the songs were, however, they weren’t the kind of songs that could chart high or sell much, so focus returned to music that RCA and Felton Jarvis hoped could be a hit. “I’m Leavin'” was the one they pinned their hopes on, but it was no “Suspicious Minds.” It was another ballad albeit with a little more punch in the production than what the bone-dry “Until it’s Time for you to Go” offered. It at least cracked the top-thirty.  The final single recorded before taking a month off was “It’s Only Love.” Although not much of a rocker, it was at least an up-tempo pop song, but though it hit #19 on the Adult Contemporary chart, it failed to climb higher than #51 on the Hot100.

Eight more songs were needed in June, mostly to finish up the Gospel album, though two (“Until it’s Time for you to Go” and “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day”) were remakes of previous masters in an attempt to improve them. Two Gospel songs stand out from this session: “Put your Hand in the Hand” and “I, John” were fun up-tempo numbers with the former offering the best single appeal (it peaked at #2 for the Canadian band Ocean) and the latter offering Elvis’ most lively recording of the whole year.

Neither were released as 45s.

The last thing Elvis recorded in the studio in 1971 was an initially-unreleased version of “My Way.” Elvis had been obsessed with the song since Sinatra made a big hit out of it. What’s interesting is that Sinatra hated the song; he thought it was self-indulgent and only sang it so frequently because his fans demanded it. Elvis, on the other hand, thought the song was a musical biography of himself. After working on it for five hours a master was completed but Elvis was not satisfied with it and ordered it shelved, promising to do it right in front of a live concert. He may have been on to something, as the studio version feels hollow whereas the many live recordings had more passion as Elvis fed off the applause and adoration of the live crowd. It makes sense: A song all about patting yourself on the back works better when thousands more are cheering you on.

With studio work done, Elvis refocused his attention on live performing. It would soon be a grind as tiresome for him as movie shoots were, but in 1971 he still enjoyed the thrill. It was during a two-week engagement in Lake Tahoe in July that he added Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as his big entrance number. The song was made famous a few years earlier by Stanley Kubrick who used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s big and bombastic, toeing the line of eye-rolling parody without crossing it. It was perfect for Elvis in the 70’s. Who knows why that particular song was chosen, of all things, to be his walk-out music, but Elvis was famous for getting random (obscure, weird) ideas in his head, and more often than not he made them work. The song would come to be as iconic to him as it was to 2001, so either his instincts were right and the song was always meant to be a glorified entrance theme, or Elvis just made it work by sheer force of will (and repetition repetition repetition).

August brought with it another return to Las Vegas, where the International Hotel had been renamed “The Hilton.” Midway through the engagement Elvis received the “Bing Crosby Award” from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the group that presents the Grammy’s every year). Elvis was the sixth recipient since Bing Crosby won the inaugural award in 1963. The honor is not an annually-given one, but instead is presented to “performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.”

It would later be renamed “The Bing Crosby Lifetime Achievement Award.”

On the one hand it was a splendid accomplishment for Presley to be honored in such a way, especially considering he had only won a single proper Grammy award in his seventeen-year career (A “Best Gospel Recording” win for “How Great Thou Art” in 1967). On the other hand, the man was only thirty-six years old. He remains, in fact, the youngest “Lifetime Achievement Award” winner in Grammy history. It’s one thing to be honored for all you’ve accomplished in your field of expertise, but getting a lifetime achievement award is supposed to be a capstone on a finished, or at least nearly finished career. The average age of all other recipients is sixty!

Certainly the man had achieved much, basically embodying the phrase “living the (American) dream.” He grew up in absolute poverty, but managed to skyrocket to superstar-status before he was twenty. And yet, looking back on his “lifetime” of “achievements” one has to pause to reflect on them from the man’s own perspective. How did Elvis himself view his life thus far? He spent a third of his life being shuffled from one movie shoot to the next, only to start the 70’s trading movies for Vegas shows. The thrill of a live performance was soon to wane, and his recent pop culture resurgence was already disappearing.

A month before, the street on which his Graceland mansion was located was officially renamed “Elvis Presley Boulevard” in his honor. Days later his Tupelo, Mississippi childhood home was transformed into a museum.

Once things start getting named after you and museums start getting opened to chronicle your history, a lifetime achievement award is sure to come. But should it have? Such honors typically signaled the end of a career and the period of reflection that comes with retirement. Was Elvis finished? He should have had another three decades left in him, but in 1971 everyone was acting like he was done. His career was being talked about in the past tense, despite new material being released every couple months. Barely more than a year ago he had a number-one record and everyone was saying “Elvis is back!” Now they looked at him as though he was a novelty act, riding on the coattails of the past in the twilight of his career.

It would be a presumption that followed him for the rest of his life; no matter what big releases he offered up, no matter what new ground he broke, no matter what hit records he recorded, from this point on Elvis would always be “an oldie.”

And then there was his personal life, which was slipping away from him too.

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