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Elvis Presley

Without question the most popular rock’n’roll singer and iconic figures of the 20th century, ELVIS defined a whole generation of would-be wannabes that went beyond his god-like genius. A product of a musical industry of the 50s intent on instigating stardom, greed and contractual power, rather than on creativeness and inner talent, the man still proved he was head and shoulders above his R’n’R rivals and country cousins, long before his untimely death in 1977. If there’s a guy down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis, then punch him squarely on the jaw.
Most of the songs which peppered his ailing Hollywood soundtracks were promptly abandoned to history. For rock’n’roll purists, granted, there can be no amnesty; ELVIS’ transformation from taboo-busting, sexually-charged rock’n’roll rebel to malleable, clean-cut film staple was a waste of his talent and a betrayal of his establishment-baiting roots. It’s only too easy, though, to swallow the line that the King’s 60s film output was one big, indelible black mark on his considerable overall achievements. No-one’s under the illusion that these movies constitute anything more than a proven formula, yet dig a little deeper and one might find several surprises.
Born Elvis Aaron Presley, January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi; one of twin sons (the other Jesse was stillborn), he was raised on country-blues and gospel by his Depression-hit family in Memphis, Tennessee. Between the summer of ‘53 and ‘54, PRESLEY spent time in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, cutting demos and perfecting a style unto his own.
With the arrival of back-up session players, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, his first single, a rousing cover of Arthur Crudup’s `That’s All Right Mama’, gained local airplay even before its release on Phillips’ Sun label. After a brief flirtation with country music, he opted for R&B after his young audiences lapped up his unique pelvic action. Although Phillips initially thought PRESLEY was a black blues singer prior to seeing his thrusting power on stage, he still chose to feature ELVIS’s country recordings on each flip side of follow-up platters, `Good Rockin’ Tonight’, `Milk Cow Boogie Blues’, `Baby Let’s Play House’ and `Mystery Train’.
Colonel Tom Parker became the singer’s manager in ‘55, subsequently securing a large 5-figure deal with R.C.A., who also bought out his contract with Phillips; the attention attracted by PRESLEY’s riotous stage shows had prompted an intense bidding war. His first major 45, `Heartbreak Hotel’, sparked off a new phenomenon at the start of 1956 which soon gave him a massive-selling chart-topper.
The constant demand for ELVIS’s records saw many simultaneous releases clogging the charts; while chart-scaling LPs ELVIS PRESLEY (1956) {*9} and ELVIS (1956) {*8} – entitled “Rock’n’Roll” in Britain – it was really as a singles artists that the singer made his name; a further nine No.1’s (namely `I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’, `Don’t Be Cruel’, `Hound Dog’, `Love Me Tender’, `Too Much’, `All Shook Up’, `Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear’, `Jailhouse Rock’ and `Don’t’), kept him ahead of his rock’n’roll rivals.
While his lengthy movie career began with a singing/acting part in Love Me Tender (1956) – a screen debut that acquitted himself reasonably well – his subsequent lead roles were box office.
The semi-autobiographical LOVING YOU (1957) {*7} – also a chart-topping LP, the musical B-movie grit of Jailhouse Rock, and the superior KING CREOLE (1958) {*7} – featuring his tenth number one, `Hard Headed Woman’ – suggested that, if not exactly pushing the envelope, PRESLEY was serious about his acting career and committed to developing it. His performances were as promising as the music was galvanising, showcasing bona fide classic title tracks, heavy-duty Leiber/Stoller material and one-off pearls like `Crawfish’.
Having been controversially conscripted into the army on March 24, 1958, his pre-recorded platters were at least allowed to filter into the charts. While serving his country over a two-year period, ELVIS suffered the death of his mother, Gladys, something which was to deeply affect him in the years to come. During this period, several singles were issued, the records – including double-headers: `One Night’ & flipside `I Got Stung’ and `A Fool Such As I’ & double-A `I Need Your Love Tonight’), plus chart-topper `A Big Hunk O’ Love’ – all cut just prior to his draft. His enforced layoff and its artistic consequences as good an argument as any for scrapping military service. After being promoted to Sergeant, his army time expired in March 1960; another US No.1, `Stuck On You’, celebrated his much-publicised reunification with civvy street.
ELVIS returned to the Nashville studios and began working on a new ballad-esque style backed with an uptempo beat, a sound that was only vaguely reminiscent of his pre-army days; 1960’s ELVIS IS BACK! {*7} produced at least two classy cuts, `The Girl Of My Best Friend’ and `Reconsider Baby’. His films too, (around three a year in the 60s), contained a sort of manufactured pop, guided no doubt by the vast sums of money it stimulated. There was really no way the King could convincingly continue to portray a dangerous, anti-establishment, angry young man. Instead, he scored the biggest box office success of his career to date with G.I. BLUES (1960) {*6}, a good-time army base romp which foisted `Wooden Heart’ (a UK-only hit) upon his growing legions of fans. In 1960, he also released the first of a series of gospel albums, HIS HAND IN MINE {*7}, a record showcasing his harmony-rinsed backing group, The Jordanaires.
Yet even at this point, all was not lost. Both Flaming Star and Wild In The Country – both EPs rather than LPs at this point, although subsequently combined for one CD – were brave, if ultimately failed attempts to cast ELVIS in challenging roles, with the musical content kept to a minimum. His non-album SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY (1961) {*4} was a bit of a damp squib in terms of attendant hit singles, but it still managed to hit the top spot.
Come 1961’s BLUE HAWAII {*5}, however, the die was cast: a combination of exotic setting, transparent plot, ELVIS’ stunningly photogenic looks and easy-going persona, and copious quantities of scantily clad ladies set the tills ringing. They didn’t stop until the recipe had been cooked to mush, music which was no longer cutting edge and all too often cutting floor, but which still showcased one of the most resonant voices of that or any time. In amidst the musical’s slack-keyed guitars and traditional adaptations was `Can’t Help Falling In Love’, one of the King’s most poignant performances and reason alone to watch the film. The movie’s huge success was replicated with the likes of Kid Galahad and GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! (1963) {*4}, vehicles whose soundtracks showcased great songs – `King Of The Whole Wide World’ and the near chart-topping `Return To Sender’ – as well as great vocal presence.
Next to the un-challenging OST’s of IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR (1963) {*3}, FUN IN ACAPULCO (1963) {*3} and KISSIN’ COUSINS (1964) {*3} – all thought worthy of a full-album release, 1964’s Viva Las Vegas! – which was not – was probably the most successful of ELVIS’s all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas, if only because its sense of showmanship was equalled in the screen partnership between PRESLEY and Ann-Margret; its brilliant title song was a campy celebration and encapsulation of ELVIS’ Hollywood years.
It couldn’t last, though. Dire, plot-less disasters like ROUSTABOUT (1964) {*3}, GIRL HAPPY (1965) {*5}, HARUM SCARUM (1965) {*5}, and a last gasp Polynesian sequel to the sequel, PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE (1966) {*3}, plus other equally forgettable films, challenged even the most committed ELVIS fans and really began to drive the nails into his rapidly fading reputation. The received wisdom is that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was the man who allegedly tied the singer to these dismal movies and novelty songs, loath to allow his protege weightier dramatic roles. ELVIS expert Alanna Nash has even suggested that Parker’s strategy – inadvertently or otherwise – saved PRESLEY from having to compete with the British Invasion.
Regardless, the King was in serious danger of finally losing his crown in the mid to late 60s as he churned out movies like FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1966) {*3}, DOUBLE TROUBLE (1967) {*3}, CLAMBAKE (1967) {*2}, SPEEDWAY (1968) {*2}, et al, in order to fulfil contractual obligations. It didn’t help that the songwriting material he was being supplied with had gone, in general, from bad to terminal, although there were still memorable moments in all but the worst soundtracks: `Goin’ Home’, for instance, a country-rock classic sequestered on 1968’s “Stay Away, Joe”, or Clambake’s `Guitar Man’.
Everyone and his hound dog has acknowledged that ELVIS PRESLEY’s latter-day film career was a dud, yet how many people actually listened to the soundtracks or, God forbid, even sat through the films themselves? The idea that ELVIS’ Hollywood years were less Honolulu than horror show has become one of popular music’s self-perpetuating myths, up there with subliminal messages and JIM MORRISON still roaming the earth. While it’s true that the bulk of these films were little more than disposable star vehicles, they did actually have some good songs tucked away in the furthest recesses of their soundtracks, some of which stand alongside the cream of PRESLEY’s career and which casual observers probably wouldn’t have imagined emanating from one of the King’s much lampooned movies.
On May 1, 1967, PRESLEY married long-time girlfriend, Priscilla Beaulieu; she bore him a child, Lisa Marie, a year later. The couple separated in ‘72 and divorced a year later (she subsequently became an actress, most notably on the Dallas TV soap opera). Finally, in 1968, ELVIS’s live televised comeback opened up a new, and to many, definitive, chapter in his career. The once grandiose rocker revived a somewhat commercially declining singles career when `In The Ghetto then `Suspicious Minds’ hit the Top 3. 1969’s contemporary-country comeback, FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS {*8} – his first produced by Chips Moman – was almost immediately followed by FROM MEMPHIS TO VEGAS – FROM VEGAS TO MEMPHIS (also 1969) {*7} showcased his move away from celluloid and into the money-spinning country-cabaret circuit as his live appearances were mainly in Las Vegas and Hawaii. While one could find grace and gospel glitz in the likes of `The Wonder Of You’, `There Goes My Everything’, `I Just Can’t Help Believin’’ and `An American Trilogy’, selective albums such as his documentary, THAT’S THE WAY THAT IT IS (1970) {*7}, ELVIS COUNTRY (1971) {*8} and PROMISED LAND (1975) {*7}, won over the hearts and minds of his once 50,000,000-strong fanclub.
While “The King” was still a top performer, as loyal disciples old and new flocked to see his larger frame (squeezing out of a white glitzy suit) churn out another exhaustive show, he was barely a shadow of the rock’n’roll hero he once was. A combination of a special diet, prescribed drugs, junk food (beefburger binges) and alcohol eventually proved too much for his ailing heart and, tragically, on August 16, 1977, he was found dead in his Graceland home by girlfriend at the time, Ginger Alden. He was only 42. Having just eased back into the charts with `Moody Blue’, an expectant flop `Way Down’ (also from swansong set, MOODY BLUE {*5}) rocketed up to the UK No.1 spot and the US Top 20. His funeral saw over 75,000 fans/mourners flocking to the gates of his home in Gracelands. The King of Rock was dead. Following the death of ELVIS, many tabloids reported sightings of a living ELVIS and speculation about his doomed life has been catapulted into the ridiculous. The King should’ve been laid to rest in peace, his music the only thing to live on.
The fact was, PRESLEY went on to have numerous hit compilations and the odd hit single, none more so than when Junkie XL sent his updated remixed version of `A Little Less Conversation’ (taken from the movie remake of Ocean’s Eleven) to the top of the UK charts in summer 2002. The PAUL OAKENFOLD twist on ELVIS’s `Rubberneckin’’ nearly followed suit in 2003, both giving the King crossover dance hits a quarter of a century after his death! After `That’s All Right’ hit the UK Top 3 in October 2004, his label kept the ELVIS gravy train rolling the following year with a weekly series of cannily-marketed re-issues, primed to break PRESLEY’s record of No.1 singles but just falling short as the schedule progressed.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Oct 2014

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