‘ELVIS IS BACK’
When was the King’s finest moment?
When he was ‘The Memphis Flash’ at Sun Records?
Or the acclaimed 1968 TV come-back concert?
Or maybe it was this first post-Army album?
ANDREW DARLINGTON considers the evidence
From a twenty-first century perspective, it seems absurd that this was only Elvis’ fourth studio album. To rationalise, when he was recording his first sides for ‘Sun’ records, they were issued as five singles, which were subsequently repackaged in various formats once acquired by RCA, along with a number of previously unissued songs and alternate takes that leaked onto vinyl across subsequent years. There were a couple of movie soundtracks, ‘Loving You’ (1957) which only yielded the awkward eight-song ten-inch album format which proved somewhat troublesome for future reissue projects. And the full ‘King Creole’ (1958) soundtrack LP, with Elvis as Danny, ‘a mixed-up kid who exchanges the trials of high school for the violence and thrills of the New Orleans underworld,’ as the sleeve-notes helpfully explain. His two other pre-Army movies – ‘Love Me Tender’ (1956) and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957) both only resulted in neat little extended-play mini-albums – EPs, of four and five tracks respectively.
Eager to capitalise on the stunning success of “Heartbreak Hotel”, and the nationwide TV exposure that followed, the first full-length twelve-inch vinyl LP was ‘Elvis Presley’ (March 1956, RCA LPM-1254). It was retitled ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (HMV CLP 1093) for its UK release, with an amended track-listing, but shares the same iconic black-&-white cover photograph of Elvis brandishing his big acoustic guitar, with the pink lettering ‘ELVIS’ descending from the left and the luminous green ‘PRESLEY’ horizontally along the lower edge. It’s a much-imitated and instantly-recognisable design that howls in no uncertain terms that this is different, this is raw, primal and tasteless. This is everything that good god-fearing parents, schoolteachers and local preachers condemn. It’s also the first-ever Rock ‘n’ Roll album to reach the US ‘Billboard’ no.1 position, and the first to sell a straight million copies. It announces, in no uncertain terms, that the rules have changed, from this moment on, things would be different. It was everything that the later Rolling Stones or Sex Pistols could ever hope to be.
Writing the liner-notes, Bob Dawbarn (of ‘Melody Maker’) proclaims Elvis ‘the Jazz phenomenon to end all phenomena’ and ‘the record-breaker to end all record-breakers is a slim six-footer from Mississippi, USA,’ yet in fact, the album was something of an uneasy hybrid of recordings. Five of the tracks arrived at RCA complete, as part of the package acquired from ‘Sun Records’ – including the frenetic “Trying To Get To You” and his eerie echo-laden “Blue Moon”, which were then matched with seven new recordings from a session at the RCA Nashville studios (10 and 11 January 1956) and then in New York (30 and 31 January). The new tracks were a grab-bag of songs that Elvis was already familiar with through performing them live as part of his set – such as Clyde McPatter’s “Money Honey” and Ray Charles “I Got A Woman”. A third was “Tutti Frutti”. On TV Elvis introduced it as ‘a song by my friend Little Richard. I’ve never met him, but he’s my friend,’ and in truth even Elvis could not match the incandescent thermonuclear blast of the original, recorded in New Orleans September 1955. But the gesture, extended across segregated racially-divided 1950s America, was very much what the healing force of Rock ‘n’ Roll was all about.
So, in a sense, it was the second album, issued later that same year – imaginatively titled ‘Elvis’ (October 1956, RCA LPM-1382), and usually known as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll no.2’ in the UK (HMV CLP1105), that was the first to be conceived and recorded as a complete package. Although Steve Sholes is listed as producer the song-selection and treatment was very much down to Elvis, recorded across the first three days of September at the Hollywood Radio Recorders studio – but for one track, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s “So Glad You’re Mine” which was remaindered from the January sessions. With the reliable team of Scotty Moore’s guitar, Bill Black on stand-up bass, DJ Fontana on drums, and the Jordanaires vocal back-up, there were no less than three songs from the Little Richard catalogue. Elvis himself plays piano on “Paralysed” from Otis Blackwell who’d already scored “Don’t Be Cruel”, alongside power-ballad “Love Me” – from the Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller team, which was spun-off as plug-track of the EP ‘Elvis Vol.1’ (RCA EPA-992) which reached an unprecedented ‘Billboard’ no.2 position as a non-single. And for those who lay claim to the superiority of Elvis’ pre-Army work, among the sprinkling of Country songs on that second full-length album there’s the appalling sentimental weepie “Old Shep”, included only because the surly young Elvis had won second prize at a Tupelo fair for performing the Red Foley song aged ten years old!
Which means the third studio album, and third US no.1 LP, was the opportunistic festive cash-in ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ (October 1957, RAC LOC-1035). At Elvis’ invitation, there’s a gutsy Leiber-&-Stoller “Santa Claus Is Back In Town”, plus regular Elvis writer Aaron Schroeder contributing “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)” as well as future single “Blue Christmas” (a UK no.11 in December 1964). But the second side has a core of four religious tracks from the ‘Peace In The Valley’ EP (April 1957, RCA EPA-4054) drawing on Elvis’ deep gospel roots. The obvious sincerity of Elvis’ performance of “Peace In The Valley” on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ 6 January 1957 did much to placate the moral outrage of parental Middle America, while “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is moving enough to melt the soul of even this most implacable atheist.
Which, for such an iconic artist at such a vital phase of his career, was effectively ‘it’ – until his return from the conscription years. Possibly his status as ‘entertainer’ could have provided grounds for exemption from the US Draft Board, or there was the soft option of enlisting in priority Special Services by performing concerts for the troops. Instead, Paramount Pictures obtain a two-month call-up deferment in order for Elvis to complete filming ‘King Creole’, until at 5pm, 24 March 1958 he opted to be sworn in as grunt Private 53310761. From induction at Fort Chaffee to basic training at Fort Hood in Texas, then to serving in Friedberg, West Germany, it was the last time in his life when Elvis could be considered just ‘one of the guys’.
Of course, albums continued. The UK edition of ‘Elvis’ Golden Records’ (March 1958, RCA LPM-1717) was issued in a lavish full-colour book photo-sleeve, gathering “Hound Dog”, “All Shook Up” and “Heartbreak Hotel” as well as four tracks previously-unavailable in the UK. It was also the first album I ever bought. The American ‘For LP Fans Only’ was given an amended track-listing for UK release, and imaginatively retitled simply ‘Elvis’ (February 1959, RCA RD-27120) – no liner notes, simply a big grinning full-face front, and an Elvis in uniform with peaked cap on the reverse. ‘A Date With Elvis’ (July 1959, RCA LPM 2011, UK RD-27128) has a cover-shot of Elvis in uniform at the wheel of a car, with reverse-art that consists of a 1960 calendar countdown to his demob date (March 24)! Both of them valuably collect and reshuffle electrifying earlier sides going back to the ‘Sun Records’ period, providing convenient hop-on points for newer fans. ‘Elvis’ Golden Records Vol.2’ (November 1959) uses the famous gold lamé suit cover photo, the frequently-spoofed blurb ’50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong’ and gathers subsequent hits including those issued during his army exile, “I Need Your Need Love Tonight”, “A Big Hunk Of Love”, “A Fool Such As I” and “I Got Stung”.
It’s only then, following his Army discharge, that sessions for his fourth studio album begin.
Issued in April 1960 ‘Elvis Is Back’ was a pivotal album in the ‘King’s career, the key moment of transition from his earlier Rock ‘n’ Roll rebel years into the more mainstream domination of the Pop charts that would follow. During his much-publicised stint in the US Army the music scene had undergone significant changes. Chuck Berry was facing jail over his alleged sexual misdemeanours. Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was in ruins following revelations over his marital complications. Little Richard had found the Lord. The wild Rockers were gone. They’d been replaced by a newer sweeter teen-beat generation. Could Elvis retain his supremacy against such competition?
There were times in his career when Elvis could be complacent. With the realisation that fans would buy just about anything he recorded, he didn’t need to try. And because he didn’t need to try, he didn’t. He was content to coast. But there were a few significant points when his formidable abilities were totally focussed. With his reputation at its absolute nadir, he made the remarkable TV ‘1968 Comeback Special’ which turned his profile around and regenerated his star status anew. ‘Elvis Is Back’ was the other vital moment. He had a lot at stake. He rose to the challenge, offering an album that crossed options and offered new pathways, while staying true to his southern blues roots. He was in a position to take advantage of the cream of Nashville A-Team session players, and what was then considered to be state-of-the-art recording technology. It is a unique album. He’d never venture into such diversity again.
With his regular team of Scotty Moore on guitar and DJ Fontana’s drums, there was Floyd Cramer on piano and Boots Randolph saxophone. The bass-line was supplied by Hank Garland on electric bass reinforcing Bob Moore’s stand-up double-bass. Bill Black had declined to attend due to the success of his own ‘Bill Black’s Combo’ which, among a string of hits, charted in the US with his own instrumental take on “Don’t Be Cruel” (no.11 in October 1960, and used as the theme for the weekly Radio Luxembourg ‘Elvis Presley Show’). With Chet Atkins and Steve Sholes in the producer-chair the sessions were quickly and efficiently conducted through just two days in March and April 1960.
His first album to be issued in stereo, it was packaged in a gatefold sleeve, opening up to reveal a portfolio of ‘Bonus GI Snapshots For Your Collection’, photos of Elvis in uniform, driving a jeep, sitting inside a tank, climbing out of a troop-carrier, wet-shaving. Fifteen photos arranged in three lines. Women love a guy in uniform, don’t they? All the way down to Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’. And Elvis would replicate that demob moment in movie sequences a number of times to come. I remember seeing that album sleeve, my nose pressed up against the plate-glass of the record-shop display window down Whitefriargate in the Hull old town. Elvis with that lazy surly half-smile. Twelve new songs.
This is an album that tells a story… the story needs to be told.
‘ELVIS IS BACK’
(1) “Make Me Know It” (Otis Blackwell). 1:58-minutes, recorded 20 March 1960. The album countdown commenced with an all-night session at Nashville’s RCA Studio B on the third Sunday in March. Right up until the point that the chartered Greyhound coach was parked and instruments unpacked, the musicians were under the impression they’d been booked for a Jim Reeves session. A subterfuge intended to thwart fans gathered outside who knew full well who was coming in. Recorded in nineteen takes, the play-in groove to the album opens with Floyd Cramer’s piano and ‘Doo-wop Doo-wop, Doo-wop Doo-wop’ vocal back-up from the Jordanaires, into a fast easy ‘uh-huh huh’ Rocker. Hearing’s deceiving he accuses her playfully, seeing’s believing. There are some informative failed-start outtakes as Elvis misses the cue – a low whistle, then take ten, he apologises, ‘my goof’, before hitting it for take eleven.
In his later career, around the Las Vegas period, his voice took on an exaggerated straining-for-effect quality, as though he was deliberately projecting for emotional content. Here his voices oozes with natural confidence, even the near-operatic climax of “It’s Now Or Never” does not seem to be forced beyond his range. As the companion ‘B’-side of “It’s Now Or Never” (45-RCA 1207), this track entered the ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.1 – 5 November 1960, where it sat for nine straight weeks! Once the copyright problems over its “O Solo Mio” origins were resolved, and “It’s Now Or Never” was cleared for UK release, it had amassed a staggering advance order from record dealers of almost half-a-million – the largest ever known at the time. Its immediate no.1 entry was only the third time that had happened in chart history, and Elvis’s second having achieving the feat with “Jailhouse Rock”. Such was the demand during the first week of sales that at least one London store simply closed for normal business and just concentrated on selling huge stocks of “It’s Now Or Never”. By 13 December the single had achieved another industry first by passing the million-sales figure inside of six-and-a-half weeks.
(2) “Fever” (John Davenport and Eddie Cooley). 3.31-minutes, recorded 3 April 1960. The October 2015 CD ‘If I Can Dream’ was curated by Priscilla Presley herself and conjured in the London Abbey Road Studios, it digitally remasters and reconfigures Elvis tracks with new arrangements augmented by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It includes “Fever” as a ‘duet’ with Michael Bublé. Inevitably the album debuts at no.1. Bublé is associated with the slick new Swing thing. “Fever” is a song previously associated with the jazzy inflections of Peggy Lee. Frank Sinatra had initially attacked Rock ‘n’ Roll as infantile, and its performers ‘cretinous goons’. Yet he hosted the 1960 ABC-TV ‘Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis’, filmed in Florida during a break in the album sessions, and broadcast 12 May 1960, in which Elvis sings a few lines of “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling”, then they duet on Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”. If the slinky finger-popping album arrangement of “Fever”, with the sound of twin percussionists (DJ Fontana with Buddy Harman) split across two stereo channels, constitutes a calculated shot at broadening the Presley fan-base into a more adult demographic, then Elvis acquits himself well, and what a lovely way to burn.
(3) “The Girl Of My Best Friend” (Beverly Ross and Sam Bobrick) 2:21-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. The first vinyl 45rpm record I ever owned was Elvis’ “The Girl Of My Best Friend”, on the black RCA label, with its silver lettering. I’d just turned thirteen, and I was entranced. Even when I hear that song now – shuffled unexpectedly on my iPod between the Ramones and Prodigy, I still love it, from the Jordanaires opening ‘aah-aah aah-aah-aah’ into the honeyed-smooth first line. As a track on what many consider to be his finest album, it wasn’t even intended to be a single. In the USA it wasn’t. The American follow-up to his lubriciously suggestive hit “Stuck On You” was “It’s Now Or Never” c/w “A Mess Of Blues”, but when copyright complications due to its “O Solo Mio” origins held up the song’s UK release, there was a commercial vacuum that needs filling. Hence “A Mess Of Blues” was promoted from ‘B’-side status while “The Girl Of My Best Friend” was lifted from the album to accompany it. Marketed as a double-‘A’ (RCA 1194) it hit no.2 in September 1960 (beneath the Shadows “Apache”) – appropriately close to my birthday. I’d heard it on the BBC Light Programme, the ‘bumper-bundle’ most-requested record of the week on Brian Matthew’s must-listen ‘Saturday Club’.
So I bought it. I still have it, although I also have subsequent CD and mp3 versions too. It was what critics of the time termed a rocka-ballad, written by Sam Bobrick and Beverly Ross, first recorded in 1959 for Warner Bros by Charlie Blackwell. But listen to Blackwell’s original vinyl, and it’s an awkward charmless thing. Then check out the various Elvis outtakes on YouTube as he fumbles through different takes, moulding the contours of the simple song into an irresistible Pop gem. How did he work such alchemy? By intuition? Until it sounds somehow right? A thing of instinct?
Elvis sound-alike Ral Donner took the song into the US charts, to no.19 as an ‘Elvis Is Back’ cover. Johnny Burnette, and much later Bryan Ferry also rework it. But at a concise 2:27-minutes, Elvis’ assured vocal control takes it up several notches. It consists of fairly routine love-triangle subject-matter, recycling ‘the way she walks’, with ‘the way she talks’ – a rhyme used so frequently in Pop it’s almost a joke. Elvis gives its triteness an achingly empathic sincerity. He’s caught up in a romantic dilemma, ‘I want to tell her how I love her so,’ but he’s wary that ‘what if she got real mad and told him so?’, then he ‘could never face either one again.’ So he watches ‘the way they kiss’ and ‘their happiness’, with a jealously-pained secret that can never speak its name. Will his aching heart ever mend? Even its title is a little grammatically clunky, cut-up and reshuffled more efficiently by the Cars into “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend”. Whoever said Pop was rational?
Many years later, when it was reissued as an ‘A’-side in its own right, in a chart full of Abba, Demis Roussos and Tina Charles, it reached no.9 in October 1976. Odd to think it might also have been the first vinyl 45rpm purchase for fans of that generation too.
(4) “I Will Be Home Again” (Bennie Benjamin, Raymond Leveen and Louis C Singer). 2.33-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. It sounds like dual-tracking, but it’s not. It’s a close-harmony duet with Army buddy and voice-coach Charlie Hodge, formerly of the Foggy River Boys, who would become part of the ‘Memphis Mafia’. Hodge also cameo’s in a couple of movies and co-wrote “You’ll Be Gone” with Elvis (‘B’-side of “Do The Clam” in February 1965). Originally recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet “I Will Be Home Again” is a yearning song of separation, with obvious inferences to absent soldiers. National Service in the UK, or the American draft was a baptism of fire experience common to all young males at the time. While the lot of their wives and girlfriends was to wait hopefully for their return. Credit for the sound quality here was due to the meticulous engineer Bill Porter. As he’d only been with RCA for six months, this was the first time Elvis had worked with him, and his rigging of a Telefunken U-47 vocal mic, to such pristine results.
(5) “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). 1:35-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. A fast return to what Elvis does best, a jerky guitar-propelled Rocker with sharp jumpy guitar solo, and dubious tongue-in-cheek lyrics ‘I’ll drag you home with me girl, I’m gonna chain you to the wall.’ There’s a story that Leiber & Stoller had written the song for the ‘King Creole’ soundtrack, but – although it was passed over, Elvis had taken note. By 1965 the ‘Elvis movie’ had become something of a joke. Worse, they weren’t even doing good box-office anymore. The budget for the embarrassingly poor ‘Tickle Me’ (1965) did not even extend to new soundtrack songs, the Allied Artists studio was in financial trouble, so instead they agreed to delve into earlier album material – including a dance routine around Elvis lip-syncing to “Dirty Dirty Feeling”, with the final low-down ‘gone’ voiced Mr Ed-style by a horse! Again, there are various studio outtakes collected onto the extended ‘Follow That Dream’ series ‘Tickle Me’ double-album (2020, LPM 6465), that travelogue its take-by-take recording.
(6) “Thrill Of Your Love” (Stan Kesler). 2:59-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. Working from a commercially unissued demo cut by Carl McVoy – Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin, and written by the ‘Sun’ session-player responsible for co-composing “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” (with Charlie Feathers), Elvis follows Floyd Cramer’s dramatic piano play-in, and the cooing Jordanaires backing to make his pledge of eternal love. There’s a soulful gospel feel as his voice floats and soars, no sacrifice is too much for him to make, a tremble of vibrato, and perfect pacing. As well as playing the top Nashville session piano – with Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, Everly Brothers and Patsy Cline credits, Floyd Cramer had instrumental hits of his own, with his “Last Date” kept off the ‘Billboard’ no.1 position only by another record he’d played on, Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.
(1) “Soldier Boy” (David Jones and Theodore Williams Jr). 3:04-minutes, recorded 20 March 1960. A sweet doo-wop ballad, with attractive chorus key-change, and an obvious theme for this post-Army album, while he’s away ‘o’er sea or land’ she’ll be waiting for his return. According to Presley-ology this was recorded for girlfriend Anita Wood who was waiting in Memphis while Elvis was meeting Priscilla in Bad Nauheim. There are slower-pace outtakes. During the mid-sixties the Elvis Presley Fan Club produced a part-work ‘El-Cyclopaedia’ compiled by David T Cardwell, it says ‘for the chicks, this is a swell number, not one the guys would go for.’
(2) “Such A Night” (Lincoln Chase) 2:58-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. A song that recalls a memorable one-night stand. Much later, August 1964, this would be lifted as a UK single (RCA 1411), and would climb to no.13 in a Beat-Group chart dominated by Manfred Mann, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night”. Very much earlier than that, ‘Melody Maker’ journalist Bob Dawbarn had insisted in his liner-notes to Elvis’ debut album that ‘despite the denials of Presley himself and many of his faithful followers it is equally obvious that he has been influenced by Johnny Ray.’ For, in the years immediately prior to the Rock ‘n’ Roll explosion, Johnny Ray had been one of the world’s biggest Pop stars, with a ‘crying’ style attributed to his deafness. Morrissey wore a hearing aid for a Smiths ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance as a tribute, while Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit “Come On Eileen” opens with ‘poor old Johnny Ray, sounded sad upon the radio, moved a million hearts in mono.’ Ray’s original “Such A Night” was no.1 on the ‘New Musical Express’ chart for May 1954 when it incurred BBC radio-play displeasure due to its supposedly obscene grunts and gasps. Although Elvis might equally have been familiar with the even-earlier R&B version by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, he amplifies the sizzling sexual buzz as he indiscreetly relates the memory of how he gave his heart to her in sweet surrender, Boots Randolph adds raw sax, and there’s wild drumming that continues into the run-off groove followed – a space later, by a ‘whoo’ of pure pleasure.
(3) “It Feels So Right” (Fred Wise and Ben Weisman). 2:09-minutes, recorded 21 March 1960. This is Elvis at his snazzy, jazzy, dirty post-Army best, from the pen of Ben ‘The Mad Professor’ Weisman who wrote more songs for Elvis than anyone else, clear through to “Change Of Habit” in 1971. With a burning sexual urgency powered by sharp electric guitar, if it feels so right, he urges, how can it be wrong? ‘The El-Cyclopaedia’ says ‘Elvis sings this in strained voice from beginning of deck to end of groove. It sounds very difficult and I bet Elvis’s tonsils played hell with him for days afterwards. But I like it.’ Rightly collected onto the 1984 compilation ‘Elvis Sings The Blues’ (RCA NL 89169, reissued on CD in 2012), it also became ‘B’-side to 1965 single “(Such An) Easy Question”, and was another song resurrected for the ‘Tickle Me’ soundtrack where it’s way too nasty for such a silly film. Onscreen he lip-synchs unconvincingly in a club scene where Red West sits at one of the tables. A High School friend and member of the Memphis Mafia, Red was fired and later wrote ‘Elvis: What Happened’ (1977) which warned of Elvis’ hazardous prescription drug-dependence. But that still lay very much in the future.
(4) “Girl Next Door Went A-Walking” (Bill Rice and Thomas Wayne). 2:12-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. Jostling easy-jogging rhythms on a light song brought into the session by Scotty Moore as a Thomas Wayne (Perkins) demo, cut for Scotty’s own Fernwood label, and recorded in just ten takes. There’s a hint of double-tracking to streamline its smooth tight delivery. It demonstrates how Elvis had the ability to take an essentially flimsy song and weave it into something quite magical. Moral conformity was strict and uncompromising at the time, why does ‘the girl’ know that going a-walking wasn’t right? because she comes home – half-past-ten, lay-yate every night. But now the two are married, settled down for life… which makes it kind-of OK.
(5) “Like A Baby” (Jesse Stone). 2:38-minutes, recorded 3 April 1960. The album closes on two stratospheric highs of lubricious Blues-laden intensity. When the sessions reconvene two Sunday nights after the first, saxophonist Boots Randolph was added to the line-up. The unprecedented results include Elvis’ next two no.1 million-selling singles, “It’s Now Or Never” – at least in part inspired by Elvis’ affection for Tony Martin’s 1949 hit “There’s No Tomorrow”, and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” – recorded at Col Tom Parker’s instigation, plus the nine tunes needed to complete the LP. Here, Elvis plays acoustic rhythm-lead on his Gibson Super-400 guitar – on one outtake he complains ‘Hold it! Caint think of two things at once!’ Written by Jesse Stone who also wrote (under his ‘Charles Calhoun’ alias) “Shake Rattle And Roll” and “Flip Flop And Fly” which Elvis recorded and performed, this captures Elvis at his most emotionally charged, his voice cracks at the break – ‘the day I found how you lied, I broke down and cried’, and soars in the ‘Whoha-Whoha-Whoha-Whoha’ bridge, with thick slurs of dirty Boots Randolph brothel sax.
If the twentieth-century tells the story of the creative culture clash between black and white musics, Elvis is located at its turbulent mid-century nexus. He was what Sam Phillips had already identified as the ‘white man who sang like a black man.’ A seismic elision he captures to perfection on “That’s Alright Mama” at the very ignition-point of his career, and which he effortlessly snares on these tracks. Years before the advent of the Rolling Stones or the Animals, Elvis Presley was the blackest white voice on the planet. Black Velvet in a slow southern style. He does it here, he does it in the three-chord single “I Feel So Bad” which charted in both the Pop and the ‘Billboard’ R&B Top Tens, and c/w “Wild In The Country” it was a ‘NME’ no.1 (23 September 1961). James Brown later recorded his own version of “Like A Baby”, issued January 1962 on his ‘Tour The USA’ (King 5710) album, which – dare I say, is less tensely raw and wired than the Elvis interpretation.
(6) “Reconsider Baby” (Lowell Fulson). 3:39-minutes, recorded 4 April 1960. If you’ve only ever seen the costumed impersonators, and wonder why Elvis is held in such high regard, crank this up, it says everything you need to know. This was a track that set my teenage self back on my heels. There are albums I can play in my head without missing a single beat, grunt or slurred intonation. This is one of them. The last of twelve songs recorded into the early daybreak hours of 3-4 April, this plea for her to ‘give yourself just a little more time’ is sleazy as a greasy quiff, his voice roughened with lurid suggestion. Again, Elvis is on guitar, inviting ‘play the Blues boys, play the Blues’ urging one of Boots Randolph’s finest bordello solos. Elvis returns to the song 23 August 1969 onstage at the Las Vegas ‘Intercontinental Hotel’, with James Burton taking the solo, and he sings it with faithful respect to the 1960 take. Earlier that same year he’d been jamming around American Studio sessions that would form the basis for the ‘From Memphis To Vegas/ From Vegas To Memphis’ album – in a 17 February 1969 X-rated outtake of Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town”, which has a similar melodic progression to “Reconsider Baby”, he playfully jams ‘I’m going back down home to Memphis, I’m gonna start driving that motherfuckin’ truck again,’ and his voice hits all that rich gut-bucket dirt again, which is missing from the cleaned-up official issue. Despite all the frivolous throwaway movie songs, there were moments when Elvis could still reach into the soul. This is one such moment. Boots Randolph meanwhile had his biggest solo hit with “Yakety Sax” – which Benny Hill later used as his comedy-chase theme!
By 1971, for the ‘Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old)’ album, Elvis block-booked five days at the Nashville ‘RCA Studio B’, and recorded some thirty-five tracks, songs drawn from whatever caught his ear from whatever he happened to be listening to at the time. He then left it to the producer and the label to sort them and divide them up into album and singles form. There’s an impression that his approach to ‘Elvis Is Back’ was altogether more deliberate and thought-through. This album was important to him. He took time to make the correct calculations. It was rush-released days after its completion, and any doubts about Elvis’ ability in the studio after more than two years in Germany were set aside forever. Issued in the US 8 April 1960 in reached no.2 on the ‘Billboard’ chart, initially shifting 300,000 copies, and easily topped the UK album lists, nudging the ‘South Pacific’ soundtrack LP aside.
Following the album came the ‘GI Blues’ (September 1960, RCA LPM/LSP 2256) soundtrack album – revisiting Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes”, and topping the chart for eleven straight weeks. Then came the very personal religious project ‘His Hand In Mine’ (November 1960, RCA LPM/LSP 2328). The next studio album proper would be ‘Something For Everybody’ (June 1961, RCA LPM/LSP 2370), made up of new all-original songs divided into two sides – the first of slow, sentimental ballads, then flip it over for more up-tempo Rocking material, including one, “I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell”, salvaged from the soundtrack of the movie ‘Wild In The Country’ (1961). So the mix of songs that make up ‘Elvis Is Back’ remain a unique one-off never-to-be-repeated experiment.
I visited RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville where Elvis recorded the album. Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers also booked studio time there, despite being signed to other labels. While Gentleman Jim Reeves did most of his recordings there. Floyd Cramer’s original piano is there, in the corner of the studio. The one he played on Presley’s sessions for “Mess Of Blues” and ‘Elvis Is Back’. Elvis installed his own mood-lighting. It’s still in place. He would use red lighting for up-tempo sessions. Blue lighting for slow ballads. But neither worked when he was trying out for the first takes of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. Until he decides to fade the lighting way down, and record the song in intimate darkness. Here, now, they fade the lights down to darkness, and fade the track in, Elvis’ voice resonates spookily, here, where he stood to record it. It’s impossible not feel a chill of frisson. This is a moment of extreme dislocating weirdness. I’m not afraid to admit it had me choking up.