“Music changes every six months, you gotta change with it.” Elvis in Jailhouse Rock
Man, I need a number one hit, want a number one record (article)! So I thought The King would be my good luck charm on the 32nd anniversary of his death, August 16th, 1977. His muse is with me as peck the clunky keys towards solid gold. I avoid discussing all the idiosyncratic (freakish) qualities of The King, and focus on what he could do best, make beaucoup beautiful music, in quantity and quality, and as diverse in its idioms as the ‘Pop-Up Presley Dolls’ that populate souvenir stands about Memphis or near the grounds of Graceland.
I created my own personal playlist of highly select cuts that span the whole of Elvis’ career. Most of the songs come from the CD “Elvis 30 # One Hits,” but I added a few from the later period, like “Moody Blue” and “An American Trilogy,” because I felt as if the ‘Star of Elvis’ was shining brightly towards the end. Another thing that I did was pick out tunes that were not that familiar to me, but which particularly struck a nerve as far as the performance or song structure is concerned. “Crying In the Chapel” gives me chills and “Surrender” slays me; it would be a good one to give to a prospective romantic paramour, should one come along.
Once I created the playlist, I burned a CD and listened to the songs repeatedly, did some necessary research on them, then jotted down some notes as to how they made me feel, or what special quality did Elvis bring to the song, that would tend to differentiate it from the pack, and make it a high point in his career. The last thing that I did was keep the number at the sacred count of sixteen, since today is the date of his death in August. So I hope you enjoy or even toil with my reflections on this most precious artist of all time. Let’s get down to business!
“Well, when Monday comes she’s Tuesday, when Tuesday comes she’s Wednesday, into another day again. Her personality unwinds just like a ball of twine, on a spool that never ends. Just when I think I know her well her emotions reveal, she’s not the person that I thought I knew, she’s a complicated lady so color my baby, Moody Blue.” This is from his last recording session in 1976, and “Moody Blue,” released as a single, reached number one on the Billboard Country charts. I love its continuous twangy guitar part and the lyrics that seem to be thinly-disguised gossip for one of Elvis’ many lady loves from the late, ‘decayed’ period.
A body could easily argue that the gifted songwriter Jerome “Doc” Pomus was the real king of rock ‘n’ roll, but that is a sound stage for a completely different production. “Little Sister,” penned by Doc Pomus and his partner, Mort Shuman, was released by Elvis in August of 1961 as a single, reaching # 5 on the Billboard charts. I’m more familiar with Ry Cooder’s version, but now am coming ’round to Elvis’ terrific vocal here and to a smokin’ rockabilly guitar part, that shadows the vocal.
“Little sister don’t you, little sister don’t you, (repeat) kiss me once or twice and say it’s very nice, and then you run. Little sister don’t you do what your big sister done.” Elvis is emotive on the vocal, sounds like he means it, and a baritone backup vocal has a comic effect on the last line of the chorus. “Little Sister” shows that Elvis was still issuing rock ‘n’ roll songs, even after he left the army.
“(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” another Pomus and Shuman composition, is my absolute favorite Elvis Presley song. I use to hear it all the time on the jukebox at the Bar of Soap when I was performing with The Potatoes, and it inspired me to do my very best work. The lyrics evoke a jealous situation, I believe, and Elvis is superior in his ability to evoke this particular nitty-gritty, emotional demeanor .
Whenever I hear “All Shook Up” I think of a teenybopper spinning this black vinyl 45 RCA Victor single on their primitive record player and struttin’ their stuff in front of a mirror. My older cousin ‘Butch’ use to have stacks of these RCA 45s spread out on the carpet, for he was surely going after it, as I can vaguely remember from when I would be visiting my aunt in the late 1950s. “All Shook Up” was released in March of 1957, and was written by Otis Blackwell, and Elvis has a writing credit too. The Colonel finagled an excellent publishing deal for Presley, but that’s an entire article unto itself, that I don’t care to tackle.
“She toucha my hand what a chill I got, her lips are like-a volcano that’s hot, I’m proud to say she’s my buttercup, I’m in love, I’m all shook up.” The King’s vocal chords gyrate like a Texican jumping bean on a red-hot skillet! The arrangement is simple with a lone boogie piano and a metronome, leaving room for the best simulation of erotic symbiosis ever modeled in rock ‘n’ roll. One has to reach for the stars to fathom how revolutionary this was for the 1950s!
“Don’t,” released in 1958, but recorded in September of 1957, is a composition of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, that winning songwriting team that penned so many early rock ‘n’ roll classics. This is a slower romantic crooner number that makes you feel as if you are covertly peeping into Elvis’ bedroom while he is appeasing *(polishin’ an apple) for his damsel in distress. Obviously, he captured an intimate moment in the studio with an over-the-top vocal that oozes with feely/touchy warmth, if not a damp-a-nin’ of his monogrammed silk handkerchief, that was most probably in his pocket. The natural vibrato of his voice, along with masterly dynamics, both vertigo and canyon bottom, pushes us to a precipice edge on “Don’t.”
“Surrender,” more of a rearrangement by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman of an old Neapolitan tune, “Torna A Surriento,” is a newly discovered treasure for me. As a 1960 release it has Elvis’ vocals in tact and trembling rapturously as I have ever encountered. “Surrender” has an up-tempo bossa nova beat with a shimmering mandolin, a romantic ballad that puts you on gondola ride in the canals of Venice, with The Pelvis as your guide.
“When I kiss my heart’s on fire, burnin’ with a strange desire…so my darling please surrender, all your love so warm and tender.” Excellent lyrics and he just wails out his guts, didn’t know The King had been to Italy? “All the stars will tell the story, of our love and all its glory.” You and I join hands together in heaven on the last two lines: “Be mine forever, be mine tonight!” See the pearly gates hither?
“(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” from the movie “Loving You,” was one of four songs that went to number one for Elvis in 1957. I find myself singing it in the shower, and this is because of its simplicity (only 1:46) and its catchy lyrics. Teddy Bear was written by Kal Mann (he wrote “Limbo Rock”) and Bernie Lowe with clever animal-play lines such as: “I don’t want to be your tiger, cuz tigers play too rough. I don’t want to be your lion, cuz lions aint the kind you love enough.” Elvis throws his voice like a ventriloquist and his throat warbles ecstatically, such as in he digs being the sex object of millions of adoring teenage girls. I believe that’s The Jordanaires providing the spiffy doo-wop backup vocals that clinches it, along with the short whirl of a piano cascade intro.
“An American Trilogy” is a relic of a bygone era, a custom arrangement for our pleasingly plump ‘grey boy,’ a moving medley of three Confederate anthems of yesteryear, and our perfect rebel son does the honors for us. When he belts out “Glory Glory halleluiah” on the last refrain I can see ‘bombs bursting in air’ and the sparklers of a Fourth of July firecracker-stand come alive, all in the same frame. The South rises up from the ashes, “Gone With the Wind” flickers in faded Technicolor on the plaster ceiling, as he belches “his truth comes marchin’ on…” and the chill of the rebel yell at Picket’s Last Stand at Gettysburg drapes over me in wanton soul-searchin’ ghosts.
Yesterday, just to tap into the karma of the king, I made a hefty meal that nearly floored me with fat gram count, a cholesterol blitzkrieg that so stuffed me, I was whiffed away by the Sandman at 7:30 PM. The King would usually have two huge cheeseburgers before snoozing, but I created a heapin’ helpin’ that I believe Elvis himself would nod yes from heaven, as I wolfed down zillions of calories of grub that transform any fit fellow into a blubber-slush of a blubbering Elvis imitator.
I had four hatch chili-pepper sausages with honey mustard, mountains of mashed potatoes, white cheddar cheese slices, cucumber slices with ranch dressing, tons of tomato slices, black eye peas with ample bacon bits, piles of spicy sauerkraut, a gigantic slab of hatch cornbread, & pineapple chunks to boot. I felt just like him, but fortunately didn’t croak right there on the couch.
I watched “Frankie and Johnnie” while I ate, and went back for seconds. By the way, I found out one time *(when I visited some famous kinfolk of mine in Hollywood) that Donna Douglas (Ellie Mae in “The Beverly Hillbillies”) had an affair and was madly in love with Elvis. For desert I had three pieces of coconut custard cream pie, & watched “Woodstock” for the one millionth and one time; I still got off!
John Lennon thought Elvis was slipping, when appearing on the BBC’s Juke Box Jury in 1963, in reference to the song “(You’re The) Devil In Disguise,” equating him with Bing Crosby. Actually, this one really rips where a slow part is fastened to a rollickin’ romp, almost an R & B trot for the finish line. The lyrics about a perfectly angelic girl, who may be really a devil concealed, could equally be applied to Elvis, being autobiographical to me, in the sharp delivery of lines, a textured confession.
“Maybe I didn’t treat you, quite as good as I should have. Maybe I didn’t love you quite as often as I could of.” There’s a tender spot in The King’s voice on “Always On My Mind,” a quiver of hurt, sorrow, and remorse; precious sincerity is present here, and I imagine this was a showstopper at one of his Las Vegas performances in the 1970s. While I can appreciate Willie’s version, this one from 1972 is more tender and poignant. I get the impression that it is especially tailored for Priscilla and his troubled marriage to her. I don’t detect any contrivance or artfulness on the part of The King here; I could just collapse and cry right here, make a mess of myself right cha-here on my trusty Gateway keyboard, but I’ve gotta ‘keep on truckin” ’til the end of this piece!
“Crying In The Chapel” is the only gospel song that I included on my itunes playlist, that I created for the purposes of this article. It was written by Artie Glenn, and Presley recorded it in 1960 for “His Hand In Mine,” but RCA held it back until 1965 as an Easter single. It’s touching for me, as I lack familiarity with most of his gospel material. This has both religious feeling and sensual feeling (for me). “Take your troubles to the chapel, sit down on your knees, and your burden will be lighter, and you’ll surely find your way.” I never have really seen him in this light? But after hearing “Crying In The Chapel,” I’d certainly do whatever he tells me to do, like make a beeline to the closest building with a steeple!
“In the Ghetto,” written by Mac Davis, comes during a creative renewal phase (1969) for Elvis, and was recorded at the American Sound Studio in Memphis. It is a song about poverty and the hardships of growing up underprivileged, and how that might lead you to do desperate things. “Well the world turns…and a hungry little boy with a runny nose, plays in the street as the cold wind blows, in the ghetto.”
When the kid seems to die in the end, after a showdown with the police, I always break out crying. Elvis has a serious tone in his voice, so you know that this is his socially conscious song. It’s a real tear jerker, and I recall that my Dad use to sing it in a mimicking fashion when our family was on one of our infamous road-trip vacations; it sounded very nice though through a car radio as you watched America stream by your car window, and wondered what comes next for our challenged nation (LBJ era).
“Suspicious Minds,” released in August of 1969 and written by Mark James, was a comeback number one song for The King, his first hit in six years. “So, if an old friend I know, drops by to say hello, would I still see suspicion in your eyes? Here we go again, asking where I’ve been, you can’t see these tears are real, I’m crying.” Once again, there’s a certain element of realism, something autobiographical to these lyrics, and when addressing the subject of jealousy, he’s very much in his element. I love the talking part, like in “It’s Now Or Never,” and there’s a fade out, then back in and up that seems high tech for those times.
“Burning Love” was recorded in March of 1972 and made it to # 2 on the Billboard charts. The King is a consummate LOVE MACHINE on this one: “Your kisses lift me higher, like the sweet song of a choir, you light my mornin’ sky, with burning love.” This one must really have worked well in a live setting. “Lord Almighty, I’m burnin’ a hole where I lay.” On another level than romance, it’s also about being burned out, something this man surely knew a lot about. On even a further level, it’s a predictor of The King’s own timely demise, and it’s on this level that my ears hear the tragedy unfold of ‘is DOOMSHIP!
“A Little Less Conversation,” written by Mac Davis and Billy Strange, is a funky one for The King, with a cow bell clanking throughout and lots of special effects mixed in, such as keyboard sampling and a whole chorus of background vocals fattenin’ up the sound. It was originally recorded for “’68 Comeback Special,” but was never used. It was remixed and included on the successful compilation CD: “Elvis 30 # 1 Hits,” released in 2002. The line “a little less conversation, a little more action” speaks volume for Elvis’ dynamic way of doing things, especially in his later badge-toting, kung-fu slicing period. It sounds like a ’70s game arcade is wafting from some speakers on here, and this is why I dig it!
“Hound Dog” is the greatest of all of the purely rock ‘n’ roll songs, and confronts the testy issue of social class. In knowing for sure that Elvis comes from humble origins, there is a detectably confronting and angry intonation in his voice when he says: “you said you were high class, well that was just a lie. (repeat) You never chase a rabbit, you aint no friend of mine.” Get workin’ class, people! Scotty Moore’s rockabilly guitar leads is out of this world! The most famous song he ever did, for sure!
In many ways Elvis was merely a manufactured commodity by Colonel Tom Parker, a ‘Ken Doll’ whose only purpose in life was to fulfill his hungry public. Tempered by his days with the circus, The Colonel mapped out every career move for Elvis like it was from the playbook of the Super Bowl, nothing was left to chance. Ultimately, his cut was fifty-fifty with Elvis, the most outrageous percentage take in showbiz history.
It’s obvious that ‘fat profit’ was his primary motive; thus a string of mediocre Elvis movies, if not down-right piss poor, were produced in the studios of the1960s. Because of The Colonel’s huckster shenanigans, The King’s music took a back seat to circus gimmickry. But once The King saw the truest beams of light, the naked truth that the stage and his music were his final destination, his final beacon *(not bacon) of hope, Elvis embraced a comeback the world has never again seen, on any mortal stage.
So toss the laurel wreaths on his sepulcher. Listen to his perfect songs again, forgive him and forget all of his sins of the flesh. “All my trials, lord soon be over.” You don’t have to join an Elvis secret group if you don’t want to, but you might consider it if you already worship The King. He gave of himself totally, absolutely, & he sang his heart out, completely from his chest, for his selfish fans, and this is why he died at such an early age. He could throw his voice, make it quiver, make it take the freeways of ‘easy rider’ for a spell; and could jive on stage like he was Dionysius himself. Maybe he was. He wasn’t of earthly descent, I know that. There are still many new songs for you to discover too, so let’s go on a treasure excursion through the catalogs of Our King! Come on, let’s go girl, “Fun In Acapulco,” “Clambake,” & “Girl Happy” all bundled up into one, but don’t forget to bring your federal law enforcement agent badges for protection!
I would like to thank Wikipedia for lots of good information, Albert Goldman for his insights in his book “Elvis,” and itunes, where I purchased all of these marvelous Elvis songs!