Like many inhabitants of this blue orb stuck at home with no particular place to go, we’ve been binging on TV series and movies. This represented a major lifestyle change for us because in the good ol’ pre-pandemic era we rarely watched television and had access to only one streaming platform: Amazon Prime, French Edition. When the second wave hit after last summer’s false ray of hope, we reluctantly added a Netflix subscription.
Recently we reached the point where we had watched everything we wanted to watch, so we sampled a few TV series and movies that we wouldn’t have bothered with under normal circumstances but were “highly rated.” We discovered that our tastes hadn’t changed: violent-and-stupid really doesn’t work for us. We were also blown away by the prevalence of dark-and-dystopian options. Why anyone would want to watch dark-and-dystopian when we’re living dark-and-dystopian is beyond me.
Our desperation spiked after the authorities re-installed the curfew and took to the airwaves to deny that they were even thinking about another lockdown, which told us that another lockdown was imminent. The news motivated us to initiate a more thorough search for entertainment options. My partner took Netflix, I took Amazon Prime.
Instead of searching by genre, I decided to check out Amazon’s personalized recommendations. Based on my purchasing habits, Amazon thought I might enjoy some musicals, indicating that their recommendations are not at all personal and their algorithms are in serious need of an overhaul. I didn’t find much of interest until something on the third page caught my eye: a woman in a yellow two-piece bathing suit. “Is that Ursula Andress?” I wondered. I was so wrapped up in trying to determine whether or not those were her perfect cheekbones that I didn’t even notice the guy whose image loomed large in the forefront.
The perfect antidote to the poison of dark and dystopian!
I rushed into the living room where my partner was digging through Netflix on her laptop. “Stop what you’re doing and search for Elvis movies!” I chose to ignore the look of horror on her face and returned to my little corner of the world to check out Amazon’s Elvis offerings. As things turned out, my partner would happily report that Netflix had zero Elvis movies, only Elvis documentaries (I suspected sabotage but my own efforts confirmed her findings). As for Amazon, pickings were pretty slim. The French had invented their own Elvis impersonator in the form of Johnny Hallyday, so I guess there isn’t much of a market for the real thing. I ignored Love Me Tender because it doesn’t qualify as a real Elvis movie, leaving me with six choices featuring the typically odd translations of English movie titles into French:
- Bagarres de King Creole (Fights of King Creole): King Creole
- Sous le ciel bleu d’hawaii (Under Blue Hawaiian Skies): Blue Hawaii
- L’idole d’acapulco (The Idol of Acapulco): Fun in Acapulco. The French apparently take a dim view of fun.
- Des filles encore des filles (Girls, Still Girls): Girls, Girls, Girls
- Café europa en uniforme (Café Europe in Uniform): G. I. Blues
- L’homme a tout faire (The Handyman): Roustabout. This listing was really weird, as the poster image wasn’t from Roustabout but It Happened at the World’s Fair.
I knew my dad had a copy of Jailhouse Rock, so our Elvis binge would be limited to seven of his thirty starring roles—more of a binge-ette than full immersion. My partner’s dread still burning in my mind, I suggested we start with Blue Hawaii. “It can’t be that bad—I adore “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” and Angela Lansbury’s in it!” I reeled her in with the Angela Lansbury revelation—we both loved her as the incestuous, domineering mother in The Manchurian Candidate. “You’re right—it can’t be that bad,” she replied with an undeniably wan smile.
Well, it could and it was—really bad. Colossally bad. The film felt like an advertisement for the Hawaiian Tourist Board with Elvis choosing to rebel against parental authority by offering his services as a wannabe tour guide. Instead of saving “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” for the wedding scene with its tailor-made-for-a-wedding lines “Take my hand/Take my whole life too,” Elvis wastes the tune on his love interest’s mother after giving her a music box he picked up in Austria while he—er, his character—was in the service. Angela Lansbury delivers a disappointing and thoroughly ridiculous performance as The King’s domineering mother, playing an ex-southern-belle married to a bore who runs a pineapple company. Needless to say, the guys who ran things were all haoles; the Hawaiians featured in the picture either smilingly served their haole masters or frolicked in the water with guitars, drums and ukes close by in case Elvis suddenly decided to launch into song—a decision he made with terrifying frequency. Halfway through we spontaneously launched into our MST3K act, which enabled us to get through the wedding scene and the disappointment of yet another version of “Hawaiian Wedding Song” without a psychological scratch.
I was pretty sure that my partner would threaten to end our relationship if I pushed to extend our Elvis binge beyond this one movie, but much to my surprise, she expressed the same feelings I had. Though the plot was contrived and the acting fell far short of Olivier or Bette Davis, we both admitted that the film, as awful as it was, “exerted a strange fascination” over us. That little piece of phraseology was a fragment of memory retrieved from a review of one of Ed Wood’s cinematic masterpieces I read years ago. When you watch an Ed Wood film, you know it’s as crappy as crappy gets but you can’t take your eyes off the screen—and the same applies to most (but not all) Elvis movies.
We decided to go for it and one week later we were very, very happy—happy that the weak demand for Elvis flicks in France restricted our journey to seven films. Jailhouse Rock and King Creole were clearly several cuts above the rest, but even Ursula Andress and her perfect cheekbones couldn’t save Fun in Acapulco. Though a complete turkey, The King’s popularity was such that Fun in Acapulco was the #1 grossing musical film of 1963 and the #1 box office hit the week after the Kennedy assassination (apparently the movie-going public of that era recognized the value of Elvis as an antidote as well). The soundtrack highlights the racist American belief that all those brown people south of the border from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego can be conveniently lumped under the heading of “Mexicans” with tunes like “Bossa Nova Baby” (bossa nova = Brazil) and “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” (rhumba = Cuba). The backstory of the film is far more interesting than the film itself, but I’ll send you over to IMDb for those juicy tidbits.
Our journey did have one positive outcome: it reminded me that I’ve only reviewed one Elvis Presley album and three Elvis singles. Given that he was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and had an enormous influence on everyone from Bob Dylan to the Beatles, I decided that this was an unacceptable state of affairs—especially when you consider that I’ve reviewed two albums from the other Elvis (Costello). With this review, the score is now Presley 2 1/4, Costello 2, restoring The King to his rightful place in Elvisdom.
This second LP from Elvis is curiously hard to find in its original format. The UK release was titled Elvis Presley No. 2; the most available version bears the title Rock ‘n Roll No.2, usually co-packaged with his third album, the soundtrack from Loving You. As my modus operandi is to preserve the historical record, I will focus solely on the twelve tracks that appeared on the original release, Elvis.
Presley’s golden period was very brief in chronological terms. If you count The Sun Sessions (though none of that material caused much excitement at the time), we’re talking four years before he was inducted into the US Army; after his discharge, he returned to his new home in Dullsville. Though he still topped the charts and did well at the box office in the period following his stint in the military, his post-Army musical offerings lacked the spark and edge of early Elvis records. Under contract to make three films a year, the bulk of his album releases from 1962 to 1968 were in the form of film soundtracks loaded with substandard work from substandard movies. Live concerts completely vanished during that period, in large part because the highly unethical and profit-oriented Colonel Parker decided that tours were an unnecessary expense, given the ample profits earned from the films.
In 1956 he was still in the early stage of his career and Parker was busy building the brand after the stunning success of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the iconic debut album, booking television appearances and shows across the country—which left Elvis pretty much in control of his recordings. Elvis led the sessions for the follow-up album and selected most of the songs, concentrating on his sweet spot in the R&B-Country spectrum. Working with The Jordanaires and his trusty touring band of Bill Black, D. J. Fontana and the amazing Scotty Moore, Elvis must have felt right at home, ready to rock, roll and croon his heart out.
The song selection included five numbers written or popularized by African-American artists, and the debate as to whether or not Elvis was a “cultural appropriator” because he made a ton of money covering the contributions of black performers and songwriters still burns hot today. Nick Bhasin’s excellent piece on SBS gets to the heart of the controversy:
Indeed, even if he adored the black musicians that inspired and came before him, Elvis has come to represent the cultural crime committed against them. He became a target for people who were (rightly) tired of the “parade of white heroes” they were taught to idolise. He didn’t invent the racist system that held him above his black contemporaries, but he certainly benefitted from it.
“To me, Elvis represented somebody who — because our country was not ready then to embrace the black artist and make them No. 1 — became No. 1 because of his rendition of what some black people sounded like,” trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said. “What made it distasteful is that we had people who could do it better than him, but who couldn’t be accepted at that time because of the colour of their skin.”
For me, it doesn’t take away from Elvis’s legacy to acknowledge the greatness of these artists.
In fact, that’s probably what Elvis would have wanted . . .
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” he said. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
In another superb analysis, Brian Ward’s piece on The Conversation points out how Presley’s influence served to end at least one historic example of segregation:
Even more compelling is the sales evidence. In early 1956, Presley’s breakthrough RCA single “Heartbreak Hotel” simultaneously topped the traditionally white pop and country music singles charts and the traditionally black rhythm and blues chart. Indeed, Presley had 24 Top 10 rhythm and blues hits between 1956 and November 1963, including four number ones.
To put this into a broader historical context, this was probably the most integrated popular music market in US recording history: 175 Top Ten rhythm and blues singles were cut by more than 120 different white artists while black artists regularly enjoyed pop chart hits. By November 1963, Billboard could no longer differentiate between white and black consumption and suspended its separate black singles chart.
The bottom line is this: Elvis dug black music, loved to sing it and sang it well. He spent part of his youth living in a mostly black neighborhood in Tupelo; after the family moved to Memphis, he spent a lot of time taking in the blues scene on Beale Street. When he embarked on a career as a singer, his repertoire consisted of the songs he learned in his youth—R&B, country and gospel from both black and white artists. There is no evidence that his motives were contaminated by racism. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Sam “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars” Phillips or Colonel Parker, the illegal immigrant who rubbed Eddie Murphy’s head for good luck while playing the tables in Vegas. Elvis was just singing the kind of music he loved to sing and happened to arrive on the scene at a time when American teens were ready to . . .
“Rip It Up”: Elvis burns hot on the first of three Little Richard numbers, all of them singles Mr. Penniman had released earlier in 1956. Although on paper he was still relatively green as a performing artist, The King knew what not to do with stop-time opportunities—overplay his hand. The empty space of stop-time automatically shines the aural spotlight in the singer, so there’s no need to oversing your part. Elvis cools it in the first three lines, slowly building to ready-to-burst excitement in the line that leads to the chorus. He also relaxes his pronunciation (particularly in the chorus), inspiring a generation of singers who would follow The King’s lead and slur their way to rock stardom. Don’t give me that rain-in-Spain-falls-mainly-on-the-plain bullshit, man, this is rock-and-fuckin’-roll! And if you need any further proof that the boys in the band had little use for sheet music, pay attention to Scotty Moore’s absolutely nasty, dissonant, note-defying garage rock solo.
I’ll confess that listening to the song spawned an evil thought in my brain. If you don’t hear from me for a while, it won’t be because I died from the virus or was committed to a mental institution due to a severe case of Covid Claustrophobia. It will mean that the gendarmes took me out of the movie theatre in handcuffs (kinky!) because I ripped up the seats at the local cinema.
“Love Me”: Elvis made history with this tune that was originally written by the Leiber-Stoller team as a parody of country-western my-baby-dumped-my-sorry-ass-woe-is-me songs: it was the first non-single to reach the Billboard Top 10 (climbing to #2). The only reason it wasn’t released as a single is that RCA felt it would confuse listeners and compromise the sales numbers for “Love Me Tender.” Baby, I’ll take “Love Me” over that boring “Aura Lee” ripoff any day of the week! I melt every time Elvis sinks to the low-end of his register to start a verse and I get the chills every time he goes high on the line “Just to feel your heart beating close to mine.” The sincerity of his pleas for attention is immensely exciting for this dominant female—I just love to hear him begging and begging for more!
Ten versions of this song from a variety of performers were released prior to the Presley version; none made the hit parade. Elvis succeeded where others failed because he had a gift for making a song his own.
“When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold”: We’ve had fast, we’ve had slow and now it’s time for something in the middle. Elvis thought so highly of this Gene Sullivan/Wiley Walker tune first popularized by the great country songwriter Cindy Walker that he performed it during his last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Elvis take has a bit more bounce than Cindy’s version, though I do miss the muted trumpet of her arrangement. Featuring another melody that allows Elvis to open the verses in the low end, his excellent performance is supported by an exceptionally tight group vocal from The Jordanaires and some fine pickin’ from Scotty Moore.
“Long Tall Sally”: I had no idea Elvis covered this song until I bought this album . . . and now I understand why. Elvis really doesn’t get it up except in the “ducked back in the alley” verses and I don’t believe him when he sings “We’re gonna have some fun tonight” in the fade. By contrast, Little Richard gets it up and keeps it up all the way to the finish, delivering one of the most exciting performances in rock ‘n’ roll history. While McCartney’s take lacks the sexiness of the original, he does imbue his tribute to Little Richard with plenty of enthusiasm. The good news for Elvis fans is that The King clearly outshined The Kinks’ version, a debut single so abysmal I don’t know how they managed to survive (but I’m glad they did).
The highlight of the Elvis rendition is Scotty Moore’s lead solo that takes rockabilly to another level entirely. I just . . . can’t help falling in love with Scotty Moore.
“First In Line”: First, let me confess that I’m extremely uncomfortable with the “proper” use of an apostrophe-s in nouns ending in s. So, when I write Elvis’ instead of Elvis’s, just read it however you would say it and allow me my moment of rebellion.
We now return to the fifth track on Elvis’ second album, “First in Line.”
Whoa! Where’s Elvis’ voice coming from? Another room? Heaven? It’s certainly not natural reverb—the sound is too cold. It can’t be Sam Phillips’ slapback echo; he was out of the picture by then. It’s not Duane Eddy’s water tank. I’m guessing Elvis was in another room since it sounds like chamber reverb . . . but I could easily be wrong. Let’s just say the primitive reverb used in the ’50s and ’60s was anything but subtle. When used in excess (like it is here), reverb has a tendency to muddy the sound, robbing vocals of clean, crisp notes and clear articulation. Too bad—this would have been a nice slow dance number if the reverb hadn’t given Elvis’ voice an otherworldly quality that’s kind of creepy.
“Paralyzed”: The beat, tempo and some of the lyrics would have felt pretty familiar to even the most casual Elvis fan, as the song is really a twin of “Don’t Be Cruel,” which was also an Otis Blackwell composition (Elvis earned co-writing credit on this one). Even the preacher returns for a curtain call (“In front of a preacher you said I do”). Similarities notwithstanding, Elvis makes the song work by changing his tone from pleading suitor to a guy who’s absolutely dazzled by the babe on his arm. His “oohs” in response to her captivating beauty tell me he’s feeling a series of tingles in his dingle. The most obvious differentiating factor is the absence of The Jordanaires’ sharp “bop-bops” at the ends of the verse lines that added a nice touch of syncopation to “Don’t Be Cruel” and made it the more danceable song.
“So Glad You’re Mine”: It should be pretty obvious that “So Glad You’re Mine” sounds completely different than the other songs on the album as it was recorded eight months earlier during the sessions for his RCA debut album. You will find the song on deluxe editions of that more celebrated work, but I’m blown away that it didn’t make the first cut. This is my favorite high-register Elvis vocal ever! If you want to hear a great example of honky-tonk blues, look no further—Elvis was really feeling it when he recorded this one, nailing all the blue-note opportunities with marvelously libidinal overtones. Scotty Moore’s solo is sort of a warm-up for his rising-to-blues-heaven solo on “Too Much,” and it fits the song like a wet t-shirt. Kudos to Steve Sholes for placing this track in the pole position on side two, giving it greater prominence in the bad old days of disc-flipping.
“Old Shep”: Elvis goes way back in time for this one, drawing on memories of his first public performance at the ripe old age of ten when he sang Red Foley’s “Old Shep” in a singing competition at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.
Hey—you gotta start somewhere.
The challenge presented by this boy-and-his-faithful-dog story lies in its highly emotional content that might lead a ham-handed arranger to bury the song in harps and violins and an undisciplined singer to try to wring every last tear from the listener by overdramatizing the vocal. Elvis wisely chose a simple arrangement of piano, bass and a touch of guitar with The Jordanaires at very low volume. His vocal balances sincere emotional expression with due restraint, especially when we arrive at the point of the story when any human being equipped with a working heart would collapse into mush:
As the years fast did roll
Old Shep, he grew old
His eyes were fast growing dim
And one day the doctor looked at me and said
“I can do no more for him, Jim”
With hands that were trembling
I picked up my gun
And aimed it at Shep’s faithful head
At this point I scream, “No! Don’t do it, Elvis! You’ll never forgive yourself!” Thankfully, Elvis heard my heartfelt cries for a temporary stay of execution: “I just couldn’t do it, I wanted to run/I wished they would shoot me instead.” I love how Elvis gradually lowers the volume on those lines; I can see him slumped over, crying softly in the face of a terrible dilemma.
Oh, how I wish I knew about this song when I was still dating, for I would have played “Old Shep” for potential suitors to gauge their reaction, sorting their responses into three categories to simplify my decision-making process:
- The dude chickened out—he should have pulled the trigger. Throw the psychopath out. Consider a restraining order.
- So what—it’s just a dog! Throw the sociopath out. Anyone who can’t appreciate the special bond and companionship offered by our canine friends is a LOSER.
- Poor Old Shep! Poor Elvis!—Meet me in my bedroom in fifteen minutes.
“Ready Teddy”: With supercharged backup from D. J. Fontana and Scotty Moore, Elvis recovers from his “Long Tall Sally” slump and hits a grand slam with “Ready Teddy,” outperforming Little Richard’s original by a rock ‘n’ roll mile. Truth be told, Mr. Penniman left the field wide open by leaving his piano in storage, singing along to a horn section that can’t match his energy and winds up slowing things down. There are no such obstacles in the Elvis take, allowing Elvis to ride the propulsive rhythm, belting out the stop-time lines like there’s no tomorrow. The centerpiece of the song comes in the form of an extended Scotty Moore guitar solo split into two parts by a Fontana drum roll even more fierce than his rolls on “Hound Dog.” Elvis and the boys really burn the joint down to the cinders on this one.
This Blackwell-Marascalco collaboration contains a line about teenage sock hop fashion that I find utterly fascinating: “Flat top cats and the dungaree dolls.” I’d never date a guy with a flattop haircut and wouldn’t be caught dead in dungarees unless they were cut to be topless with an open crotch and came in black leather. I really can’t get my head around chicks looking like farmhands dancing to rock ‘n’ roll.
“Anyplace Is Paradise”: This smoky little number comes from Joe Thomas, an ex-jazz-saxophonist who rose in stature to become the top R&B guy at Decca and RCA. As a cool-down number following “Ready Teddy,” it works, but it’s not the most memorable song in the Elvis catalog.
“How’s the World Treating You”: I dunno, but it seems to me that Elvis’ selection of this piece written by Chet Atkins and Boudleaux Bryant of Everly Brothers fame wasn’t one of the better choices he made in his lifetime. As in “Love Me” he plays the submissive role, but in that song he’s a submissive filled with passion and not the whiny, self-pitying wimp he portrays here. Word on the street is that Elvis was the uncredited piano player on this song (as well as “Old Shep”), and all I can say is that he’s lucky he made it in show biz because he couldn’t have landed a job as a piano player in even the most pathetic dive in the world.
“How Do You Think I Feel”: With its sanitized Latin beat, this song brought back the trauma I suffered by watching Fun in Acapulco, so I don’t think I’m in the right state of mind to give it a fair evaluation. Sorry!
Well—this was fun! I now return to the grim reality of French incompetence in pandemic management without a damn thing on TV.
Oh, well . . . The Golden Girls never gets old.