Graham Reid | | 4 min read
When John Lennon was told in August 1977 that Elvis Presley had died, he apparently said, “Elvis died when he went into the army”.
That comment is glib, dismissive and inaccurate. But we know what he means.
Elvis the rebel rock figure who shook up popular music in the mid Fifties with That's All Right Mama, Blue Moon of Kentucky, Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes and other definitive rock'n'roll songs was a changed man after his army stint in Germany.
He'd recorded songs to keep his name out there while he was absent from the States but when he returned in 1960 his career took an odd turn.
Although his first album Elvis is Back! is a decent collection, Presley was persuaded that his future lay in making movies. Actually, that might have been a fair call given rock'n'roll, as it had existed before he left, had become increasingly marginalised in popular culture.
He could have reinvigorated the idiom perhaps, but instead he headed for a series of increasingly bad movies which he could sleepwalk through. And the music in these films?
For every Viva Las Vegas there were half a dozen like There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car or Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. Yep, that's a song title (from Girl Happy in 65).
But to dismiss Presley's post-army career as Lennon did is to deny there were some great moments, fine performances and excellent songs in that 17 year period.
When even he eventually wearied of the films with their routine plots, he made that leather-clad appearance on television in the '68 Comeback and followed it up with sessions in Memphis' American Sound Studio with producer Chips Moman and Felton Jarvis where he reconnected with his roots in soulful country, rhythm and blues and gospel.
That album From Elvis in Memphis included Only the Strong Survive, Long Black Limousine, Gentle on My Mind and In the Ghetto. The sessions also saw him record Suspicious Minds and other great songs (collected on The Memphis Record:1969; Year In Review which is worth seeking out)
He took to touring and performing live again (documented in That's the Way It Is and Elvis on Tour, on DVD and recommended to Elvis doubters) but then . . .
His marriage fell apart (listen to Always on My Mind recorded at this time and hear the regret) and later in '73 spent time in Memphis' famous Stax Studio, perhaps looking to connect with the hometown spirit he'd tapped into at American (which had closed).
They were his last major studio sessions (in July and December 73) and although they sprung no major hits, among the songs – because this was Elvis who could always surprise – are some fine interpretations. On It's Different Now you can hear him inject emotional ambiguity, that Stax sound is explored fully on the sexual/religious I Got a Feelin' in My Body, and on the country-flavoured You Asked Me To and Talk About the Good Times.
He rocks his way through Chuck Berry's Promised Land and other material (workmanlike songs like Raised on Rock get a steamy treatment which elvates them), but aims squarely for the Stax soul sound in other places. And a bit of that gospel spirit.
Typically, the Stax songs dripped out on the albums Good Times and Promised Land (not released until December 75) but all have now been collected for the three CD set Elvis at Stax which comes with a liner essay by the knowledgeable Robert Gordon who argues for a reconsideration of this music which covers rhythm and blues, country and pop.
There is a single disc edition which, interestingly enough, selects different takes of the songs which appeared on previous collections . . . and you can hear in these informal versions or warm-ups that the man still had it.
But it was Elvis' great last gasp in the studio.
By the following year he'd had become increasingly eccentric and reclusive. His weight ballooned, his RCA sessions in 75 are mostly ordinary, and his live shows became wobbly as he forgot words or even where he was.
The tragedy is not just how he came to his end (dying on the toilet is embarrassing), but for many Elvis is figure of fun and fat jokes.
The rejoinder to those jokes lies in the music.
And sometimes, even now, you can still be taken aback by Presley's power, sensuality, sentiment and fragility.
The Sun Studio songs: There are many versions of these first recordings floating around (The Sun Sessions and Sunrise come to mind, avoid Elvis at Sun) but any sensible record collection has these classic rock'n'roll and rockabilly songs (That's All Right, Good Rockin' Tonight, Milk Cow Boogie, Mystery Train etc). The rock'n'roll era began here in earnest.
Elvis Presley: His self-titled album for RCA (right) in the cover the Clash referenced for London Calling.
The Essential 60's Masters: They come in a massive box set or as a couple of cut-down double discs, but given this was the decade in which Elvis' career faltered you'll be surprised by how many great songs there are.
68 Comeback: The album of the classic television show (also on expanded DVD)
CHEATING ON THE KING
Given the regular repackaging, collecting Elvis or even finding a way in can be bewildering for beginners. Here are some useful options which cover most of the significant periods . . . but you still need a disc of the Sun sessions.
Original Album Classics: These
budget-priced five CD sets are perfectly adequate. Two stand out: the
set which has the early studio albums (that self-titled one, Elvis is
Back! and GI Blues are included) and the live set which includes the
68 Comeback, Aloha From Hawaii and That's The Way It Is. In the
studio or on stage, you can feel his heat and charisma.
A Greatest Hits: Yes, it's cheating but the 2002 collection 30 #1 Hits is an excellent starting point. But the double CD 30 #1 Hits; Second to None (right) is a sequel which roams wider (top selling country hits, great songs like Little Sister and Viva Las Vegas, and some MOR ballads).
It is more patchy but still covers so much essential Elvis you need both. Then you've got the King covered.
Unless you want to get into the gospel albums . . .
And there is plenty more at Elsewhere about Elvis Presley