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Elvis at 80

ElvisHad he lived, Elvis Presley would have been 80 on Thursday, January 8, 2015. I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” when I was at boarding school, aged nine, in 1956. I understand what John Lennon meant when he said that Elvis died the day he had his hair cut and put on a military uniform, but I never believed it. All but one of my 10 Elvis favourites come from the post-army period. Here they are. You might find the choice a little eccentric. Baby, I don’t care…

1. “Beyond the Reef”

Written by Jack Pitman, a Canadian songwriter, during a visit to Hawaii in 1946, “Beyond the Reef” was covered by Bing Crosby in 1950 and by the Ventures (as an instrumental) in 1961. Elvis recorded it on May 27, 1966 at RCA Studios in Nashville, during the sessions that produced the sacred album How Great Thou Art (as well as his cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, which almost made this list). It remained unreleased until 1971, when it surfaced as the B-side of “It’s Only Love”;  in 1980 it appeared on a four-CD set titled Elvis Aron Presley. Elvis sings the verses as an extra member of the Jordanaires, emerging to sing lead only on the bridge. On the surface it’s a bit of Polynesian-style kitsch. A little deeper down, it’s a singularly beautiful record of which Ry Cooder would have been proud.

2. “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”

I love Elvis when he finds the spaces between genres. This great UK No 1 hit from 1961 takes the Bo Diddley beat and turns it into pure pop music, just like Buddy Holly did with “Not Fade Away”. Acoustic rhythm guitars, what might be a stand-up bass, the drummer using brushes — and, in the bridge, a switch to a fast shuffle, with Floyd Cramer pounding an eight-to-the-bar piano figure. And a tragic little story of heartbreak in the lyric. The song is by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, who also wrote the other side of the 45: “Little Sister”. Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”, it’s the greatest double A-side in history.

3. “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care”

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote this for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. I imagine they borrowed the title from Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 classic film noir, in which Robert Mitchum, in a clinch with Jane Greer, is reminded of her relationship with a powerful mobster and the trouble that might ensue. “Baby,” he drawls, “I don’t care…” As told by Elvis, the story is very different: “You don’t like crazy music, you don’t like rockin’ bands / You just want to go to a picture show and sit there holding hands…” But the teenage soap-opera words are undercut by the backing, which exemplifies that “crazy music” to the max, with an ominously throbbing intro and the most brutally abrupt ending ever.

4. “The Promised Land”

I’ve talked about this song, and Elvis’s great version of it, here (and elsewhere). Written by Chuck Berry in 1964 and recorded by Presley at the Stax studio in Memphis in 1973, it was perhaps the last genuinely creative act of his life, brilliantly abetted by James Burton and Johnny Christopher on guitars, David Briggs on piano, Per Erik Hallin on electric keyboard, Norbert Putnam on bass guitar and Ronnie Tutt on drums.

5. “Sweet Angeline”

Another from the Stax sessions, with a slightly different line-up (including the MGs’ Duck Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson Jr on drums), this ballad was written by Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow: three British songwriters. I love the song, for the way it brings the best out of Elvis and for the way the bass fill towards the end of the second bar gives it the hook that makes you play it over and over again.

6. “The Girl of My Best Friend”

More pure pop, this time from 1960 and the pens of Sam Bobrick and Beverley Ross. Not released as a single by Elvis until 1976, when it made the UK top 10. Ral Donner had the US hit.

7. “Reconsider, Baby”

A very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic blues, from the Elvis is Back! album in 1960, with the singer on rhythm guitar.

8. “Dark Moon”

I’ve got this on a 1999 RCA CD called Elvis: The Home Recordings. The song was written in 1957 by Ned Miller (later famous for “From a Jack to a King”), and was recorded in a country version by Bonnie Guitar and a poppier rendition by Gale Storm. Singing with his pals to the accompaniment of his own guitar, apparently in his LA house in Bel Air in 1966 or ’67, Elvis finds an irresistible groove.

9. “It’s Now or Never”

All the bells and whistles — the full Neapolitan, in fact — on this remake of Eduardo di Capua’s “O Sole Mio”, the new English lyric written by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold and recorded on April 3, 1960, the day before “The Girl of My Best Friend”. If you agree with Lennon, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’ll hate. Those were the days when I used to write the week’s No 1 in my diary every Saturday night, and I’m not going to apologise.

10. “A Mess of Blues”

From the same session as “It’s Now or Never”, and a No 2 hit in the UK in 1960. Another Pomus/Shuman classic and an early reminder that, even with his hair still shaved army-style, the King still had it.

Happy birthday, Elvis.

* The fine photograph was taken by Lloyd Russell Sherman and appeared on the cover of the 1985 LP Reconsider, Baby.


21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    So, nothing from Sun? No classic et brilliant, “Trying to get to you” from 1955? That confidence and swagger? Elvis had dire taste in a great many areas, from food to Nixon, but he really understood and ‘felt’ for the then current black R&B. And must of been one of the first “rock” singers to pick up on Ray Charles (“I got a woman”).

    January 7, 2015
  2. I remember you writing about Baby I Don’t Care on MM. Mystery Train is my favourite, but at Christmas I bought the 5-CD Seventies set which I’m enjoying and which proves it wasn’t all downhill after the Memphis sessions and Singer Special comeback. Maybe I’ll do something similar on my blog – very different choices of course.

    January 7, 2015
    • I don’t know how I could have left out “Mystery Train”. It’s probably his greatest record, from a certain perspective. But it’s not quite one of my 10 favourites.

      January 9, 2015
  3. Bill White #

    I too understand what John Lennon was getting at re Elvis and the army and, like you, don’t particularly agree. Much prefer his, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” Incidentally, although possibly not remembering it entirely correctly, I remember many years ago when you seemed to be responsible for writing the bulk of Melody Maker each week an article by you imagining a recording session involving Presley making a carefully considered album that was receiving significant input from one or more individuals and which promised to be the album we all wished he would make. It was written in a way that led the reader to believe it was true. When you expressed, ‘if only’ at the end of the piece, I remember clearly the disappointment I felt but feeling pleased that you and I’m sure many thousands of others, were as frustrated with Elvis’ general recorded output as I was.

    January 7, 2015
  4. Surely “You’re So Square” IS from before the draft?

    Who can argue with your list, Richard, it’s such a subjective thing, everyone would have variations. Lennon was no doubt being poutily melodramatic if he indeed claimed the King’s bowing the knee to the US Army was “the day the music died” – but personally, I’d agree with him that “It’s Now or Never” is a teeth-grindingly corny rehash of an already borderline corndog, … and embarrassingly melodramatic. Just a question of personal taste, and all that.

    Personally, “All Shook Up” would have to be there. And “Suspicious Minds”. And the “Lonesome Tonight” where Elvis repeatedly corpses, cracking up at the gulf between the massively (over)sincere lyric and something trivial that has tickled him.

    To me, the greatest achievement of Elvis is not the charisma, the haircuts or the pelvis (sociologically crucial though that combination was), and less still the suits or the political views …. but the way he took some of the best from either side of the great American apartheid divide between “majority” and “race” music, without appropriating either, and rendered his own mix of heritage memorably, musically.

    Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bob are similarly meritorious, in a rather different musical mode, developing out of cowboy folk hollers blues rags.

    Many jazz musicians likewise, the ones who were not obviously “white” or “black” – neither painfully obviously one or painfully limited by the other – but simply outstanding in their own way. It was of course much harder for the poor ones, those discriminated against to become known in music. And to survive in life.

    January 7, 2015
    • Quite right about the date of Jailhouse Rock / “Baby I Don’t Care”. Now corrected.

      January 8, 2015
  5. Interesting choices – but there are so many buried gems in the back catalogue. Even on the soundtracks. The Memphis and later Stax sessions yield some real gold.

    If you haven’t got it, – although I’m sure you probably have A Hundred Years From Now – Essential Elvis 4, is the album getting the highest amount of replays in our house. Undubbed masters from the Nashville sessions, which also includes studio banter, jams and works in progress. The build up and lead in to It’s Only Love are worth the price of admission alone.

    Elvis at the 02 is a must visit – a mighty collection of wardrobe and memorabilia items shipped over from Gracelands

    January 7, 2015
  6. Richard Harris #

    I see the Telegraph has generated a “picture” of Elvis at 80 along with a bunch of other dead rock stars. Janis Joplin morphs into Jilly Cooper, no real surprise there.

    January 7, 2015
  7. Peter Walker #

    I have an irrational love of ‘Pocketful of Rainbows’ from GI Blues.

    I don’t know why, I just do.

    January 7, 2015
  8. John Harvey #

    Hi, Richard. I remember clearly the first time I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. It was in the 2Is coffee bar on Old Compton Street and I’d gone in on a break from working in the Joe Lyons tea shop on Picadilly – my job through sixth form. I’d put Sarah Vaughan & Billy Eckstein on to play and then Elvis, someone else’s choice, came on directly afterwards. I was gob-smacked, astounded; had never heard anything like it.

    January 7, 2015
  9. Although there a couple of tracks here I don’t think I’ve heard, I pretty much agree, a great selection. Loved Elvis’s post-army poppier sides.

    January 7, 2015
  10. wkb #

    I have always found his performance of “If I Can Dream” from the ’68 Comeback concert to be the one that hits me hardest. Frustrating as well when you think what he could have accomplished at Muscle Shoals or Stax or Atlantic.

    January 8, 2015
    • In 1976 I wrote a piece of fiction about a session at Criteria Studios in Miami which saw Elvis produced by Jerry Wexler, assisted by Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. I chose the sidemen — Fathead Newman, Hank Crawford, Mel Lastie, Cornell Dupree, Lowell George, Steve Cropper, Barry Beckett, David Hood, Roger Hawkins — and the repertoire, including Randy Newman’s “Guilty”, Dan Penn’s “Nobody’s Fool” and “Stormy Monday Blues”. The piece appeared as a column in the Melody Maker. To my great satisfaction and amusement, the NME lifted the details and published them as a news story the following week.

      January 8, 2015
      • Richard Harris #

        Bruno Carr – Drums!

        I would have liked Elvis to have had a crack at the slow late night jazz/Sinatra genre. There’s a song on Viva Las Vagas where he edges towards this and amost makes it, esp on the out-take. And that’s the film that has a weird cameo from Pete and Conte Candoli. A pub quiz question for jazz nerds!

        January 8, 2015
      • Love that!

        January 8, 2015
  11. Paul Simpson #

    A delightfully eclectic list. I would have included I Need Somebody To Lean On from Viva Las Vegas too, along with Gentle On My Mind from 1969 Memphis sessions, For Old Times Sake (Stax), Mystery Train and his poignant cover of Tomorrow Is A Long Time. That said, I’m not sure which ones I’d omit from your list – which proves something I suppose.

    January 8, 2015
  12. This is simply a great list. I babble about Dark Moon, which I have the LP set A Golden Celebration, to anyone who will listen. If I manage to keep their attention, I go on to explain that Elvis was MUCH more than just the Sun Sessions. If You Talk In Your Sleep is another towering performance from the Stax sessions. Cheers.

    January 8, 2015
  13. I will always remember Ian Drury ( in a one off lecture to Goldsmiths College Music students in the late 80s on his musical influences) playing an unforgettably haunting version of ‘Blue Moon’ by … Elvis Presley.

    January 8, 2015
  14. John Blandford #

    A great list although I haven’t heard ‘Dark Moon’ before. But surely not correct to say that ‘Girl of My Best Friend’ wasn’t released as a single until 1976. It was originally the B-side of ‘Mess of Blues’ in 1960 but became so popular it ended up making the UK top 10 in its own right that same year.

    January 9, 2015
    • My memory told me something like that, but I looked it up and couldn’t find a chart entry for it 1960, in its own right. It did, however, make No 9 when re-released as an A-side in 1976. Are you sure you’re not confusing those dates?

      January 9, 2015
      • John Blandford #

        This sent me up to my loft! The answer is, it depends on which chart you take. The NME chart for w/e September 17th 1960 shows both ‘Mess of Blues’ at no 3 and ‘Girl of My Best Friend’ at no 6. The NME was my Bible at the time so that’s the one I remembered. The MM chart for the same week only lists ‘Mess of Blues’ at no 2. Presumably the NME allowed for both sides of a single being listed separately, whereas the MM didn’t.

        January 10, 2015

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