It Was 42 Years Ago Today… The Loss Of The King… Elvis Presley. Where I Was…

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I can’t believe it was 42 years ago today, we lost the King. Elvis Presley died. I remember where I was when I heard the news.

I was a kid in junior high school. I played in a YMCA sponsored football league. We had already started practicing three times a week, with games on Saturday. My coach, Coach Taylor, who drove a blue Mercury, would come and pick me and my neighbor Jeff up. His son Paul was always already in the car. We must have looked like something else driving down the road in a blue Mercury. This older dude with big side burns driving a car full of helmets and shoulder pads.

Coach had just picked me up when the announcer on the radio came on and announced that “Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll has died at his Graceland home in Memphis.” The Coach was so shaken he had to pull the car over to the side of the road. He looked at his son in the passenger seat and then back to Jeff and I in the back seat as if searching to see if this was real. It was clear he thought he was in a bad dream. He stammered, barely verbal…”Elvis… gone… he was my age?”

It was a weird football practice. I remember running a lot. I don’t think Coach came out of the fog until long after that practice was over…

I remember the next few days watching all the mourners on television. There were so many crazy Elvis fans. I remember watching the funeral procession on TV. My parents, who were always more a product of the 50s than their younger siblings (who were clearly more influenced by the 60s), were very shaken. My father didn’t own many albums, but he had Elvis: Live From Hawaii and I remember that album being played quite a bit around that time.

I was just starting to get into music. The Stones and the Beatles and Zeppelin were more my thing. It took years for me to return back to the man who had influenced so many, Elvis Presley. He has so much brilliant music out there. Everyone should own any of the myriad greatest hits packages he’s got out there. From Elvis In Memphis should be required listening for everyone. If you can get your hands on his debut album on vinyl, Elvis Presley, do so immediately. Being older now, and realizing what a tragic, preventable loss this was really brings the tragedy home. A few years earlier, Barbara Streisand had asked Elvis to play the male lead in her version of A Star Is Born. The Colonel had Elvis turn it down. He was done in the movies…the Colonel was going to work him on a Vegas stage until he dropped like an old mule… I always wonder if taking that movie role might have turned Presley around. He’d have had to lose weight and ween off the chemicals. Sadly, we’ll never know.

As Americans we can argue about who should be President all day long… but I think we can all agree, especially on this anniversary of that sad day, there was only one King… Elvis.

It’s a long dark ride out there folks. Take care of each other. Especially someone suffering like Elvis did, hooked on opioids.

 

Review: Elvis Presley – ‘The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition’ – The Return Of The King

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My parents weren’t very musical. They didn’t even own a stereo until we moved to Kansas City when I was five. I don’t know why they even bought a stereo, they only owned a handful of albums. I never actually remember the stereo being turned on, other than once a year for Christmas music. Later, when I started collecting vinyl my father once asked me why I had so many different albums. Uh, there are different bands with different music on each record, dad. I don’t know what had happened to my father. When my dad was a kid, he collected a bunch of 45s that my brother, who was turned onto rock and roll long before I was, snatched up and probably still owns. There’s some cash in that little singles rack. But during my youth there was no evidence of my father’s early interest in music… sports had supplanted everything. My dad was one of those set-up-three-tv’s on New Years Day to watch every college Bowl game simultaneously kinda guy. Dad didn’t want to spring for cable.

My parents were very much a product of the 50s. My uncle who was three years younger and my aunt who was seven years younger than my father (I think), were very much a product of the 60s. Think of it this way: my parents were very Eisenhower, my aunt/uncle were very JFK. My parents are only moderately into music even now, despite having two music addicts as kids. Every once in a while they’ll add a Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison greatest hits album to their Christmas list. I shudder when I think about them dropping Roy in the CD player and attempting to dance and shuffle around in the basement on wobbly knees and bad ankles. At least no hospital has called me yet…”Sir, your parents have fallen victim to boogie fever.”

Of those handful of albums my parents owned (for their dusty and unused turntable), one of course, was Elvis. The thing that was mind boggling about it was that the lone Elvis album they had was Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, which, lets face it, isn’t Elvis’ greatest album. I mean, it was a live album. Don’t get me wrong, I still remember being huddled around the TV in 1973 to watch Elvis perform via satellite (which was unheard of technology back then) from Hawaii and being mesmerized…but an obscure live record for the King of Rock and Roll? No greatest hits album? They at least had the blue Beatles greatest hits album, entitled 1967 to 1970. I always preferred the red one, 1962 to 1966.

All that said, it’s clear my exposure to Elvis was fairly limited. It wasn’t until that fateful day in August of 1977 – when I was in the backseat of Coach Taylor’s car, on the way to football practice with two other guys on the team, when we heard Elvis had died – that I realized his impact. I remember Coach Taylor turning to us and saying, “He’s my age…” with tears in his eyes. NBC re-aired the original 1968 special, which had been dubbed “the Comeback” special and that’s when I was hooked. It didn’t hurt that the special broadcast was hosted by Ann Margaret. It was then that I circled back to my brother’s room and started listening to some of those early singles. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and of course, my favorite, “Jailhouse Rock.” It was during that sad summer of ’77 that I realized we may all disagree on who the President should be, but we could at least all agree there is but one King. Elvis brought us together in our grief. What a tale his was…

Elvis’ life was an epic story, worthy of being written by a Greek tragedian like Sophocles or Euripides or perhaps by Shakespeare. There was our Hero, who rose from the Mississippi Delta town of Memphis, Tennessee, the walking embodiment of all the music that had come before him: rhythm and blues, soul, country and of course gospel. And of course every tragedy has to have a villain, in this case it was Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis’ career began at the famous Sun Studios after being discovered by producer Sam Phillips. Phillips sold his contract to RCA and Col Parker, a two-bit concert promoter who stepped forward to take Elvis as his only client. From then on it was Elvis the artist controlled by the Colonel (our Iago in this story) who was driven by nothing more than commerce.

Presley was becoming a phenomenon in the south when his contract was sold to RCA… it was then that he broke nationally. The world had never seen success like Elvis’. From 1956 to 1958 he absolutely dominated the new American art form known as rock and roll. No one sounded like Elvis. Strip away the image and just sit and listen to those early records… what a voice… the voice of the Delta with a dash of gospel. And when he performed live, nobody moved like Elvis. Of course that caused some backlash from the prudes and puritans of the era. Then, inexplicably, (although it was probably to control him), Elvis was drafted into the Army. Colonel Parker, rather than have Elvis record a bunch of material to keep him in the public eye, released music only sporadically during the two years Elvis was in the Army ’58-60… It was John Lennon who said, “that was the end of Elvis, when he went into the Army.”

When he finally got back in early 1961, he apparently surrendered all control of his career to the Colonel. After the smash success of his first studio album, Elvis Is Back! the Colonel turned his eye to Hollywood. Why every rock star wants to be a movie star and vice versa is a mystery I’ll never unravel. Elvis even stopped doing live shows after 1961. From ’61 to ’68 Elvis was seemingly trapped in formulaic, crappy rom-com musicals. Each movie had the inevitable soundtrack. The movie drove people to buy the soundtrack and the soundtrack drove ticket sales for the flick… rinse and repeat. Eventually what had been a very profitable enterprise fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. When you think about ’61 to ’68, a lot of things happened in music. The Beatles and the British Invasion changed everything. Motown and soul had become very prominent. It appeared that the music scene had completely passed Elvis by. He was a has-been, marginalized. The King, it seems, had been dethroned.

It was then that NBC approached Elvis about doing a TV special. The Colonel wanted it to be a Christmas special. He wanted Elvis to do a Christmas album. Elvis steadfastly refused. TV producer Bob Finkel suggested to Elvis that the network would be willing to do whatever Elvis wanted to creatively… Suddenly, like in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf frees the King of Rohan from the evil machinations of Wormtongue, Elvis was freed from the Colonel, if only momentarily. He took complete control of the special, including the music. He did concede to the Colonel’s wishes to perform one Christmas song, “Blue Christmas,” which is one of the few Christmas songs I can actually listen to without screaming. The special was conceived as Elvis on a sound stage performing songs. While they were rehearsing and filming, the music producer on the special, Steve Binder went to Elvis’ dressing room where Elvis was sitting around with the musicians, goofing around and loosely jamming on some of his old stuff. It was so powerful and natural Binder realized, that a concert had to be a part of the show.

Immediately they decided to intersperse live concert footage of Elvis on a small, square stage surrounded by a small crowd in the special. The Colonel, who really was a fuckstain, was supposed to send out tickets to fans across the country but didn’t do so. There was a pretty small crowd lined up for the actual show, so the producers went across the street to a local diner and convinced some people to come over and watch Elvis perform. The Colonel was unhappy about it, but Elvis chose to wear fantastic, tight, black leather from head to toe. The Colonel always tried to down play Elvis’ powerful sexual charisma.  To make sure Elvis felt completely confident they brought back some of his early band, Scotty Moore on guitar and DJ Fontana on drums. The thought was to have Elvis come out and talk about the old days while he played in a real loose setting.

There was only one problem. Elvis wouldn’t come out of the dressing room. He wanted to cancel the concert scenes. He hadn’t been on a stage since 1961… his confidence was gone. The King had surrendered his throne. Binder insisted… Imagine being Elvis in that dressing room in that moment. He hadn’t performed live in 7 years, his confidence had been shaken. His last few records had flopped. The Beatles ruled the world now. He’d been hiding away in a Hollywood bubble… the self-doubt, the fear of failing. I wonder to this day what went through his mind. Finally, with a nod, Elvis agreed to Binder’s pleading and walked out on the stage… and something magical took place.

It’s a common trope in movies, especially bio pics, to have the hero rise, then fall and then rise again. This is that one uncommon case where it actually happened that way in real life. Elvis relaxed immediately upon taking the stage. He was sexy, he was powerful, he was self-deprecating (about his past, the Elvis the Pelvis stuff, about his movies) and it just worked. In one powerful performance, we as a nation witnessed not just rock and roll history, we witnessed a King retaking his throne. John, Paul, George and who? This was Elvis, baby, as big as America, as big as the fucking world.

The show was originally broadcast on NBC on December 3rd, 1968, exactly fifty years from tomorrow. While the concert footage is my favorite and the most powerful part of the show, the producers and writers had written a song specifically for Elvis to reflect how he felt about the world. America in 1968 was a tumultuous place… RFK and MLK had been assassinated. Elvis was particularly disturbed by MLK’s murder as it happened in his hometown of Memphis. Elvis was that rare breed of southerner who was completely color blind. He’d grown up listening to black musicians his whole life, including black church gospel. For me, the center-point of the special, beyond the concert stuff is the great, great track “If I Can Dream.” It’s a song meant to unify and bring people together and I believe it to be one of Elvis’ most towering achievements.

I heard Bruce Springsteen talk about the “Comeback Special,” as it has come to be known. He said the whole family was looking forward to watching it, but he confessed to being nervous. Could Elvis pull it off? Did he still have “it?” The answer, of course, is yes.

Now, on it’s 50th anniversary they’ve released The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition. It’s pretty spectacular. It’s everything. The original sound track is here. They even include the raw concert recordings. They even have the recordings of the rehearsals here. Everyone out there should own a copy of the Comeback Special in some format. It’s a really important chapter in the life of the King and in the story that is rock and roll.

After the success of the special, riding high, Elvis told the Colonel he wanted to get back on the road. He also decided to return to Memphis, his home to record there. The sessions from Memphis produced two landmark albums, From Elvis In Memphis and later Back In Memphis. It also produced the smash single, “Suspicious Minds.” You can easily find all the Memphis sessions combined on 1 or 2 CDs. I’ve always recommended The Memphis Record as the definitive one. After the special, the success of “Suspicious Minds,” and the album From Elvis In Memphis, the King had returned.

This new box set is likely the definitive version of the Comeback Special. I highly recommend it and the Memphis stuff recorded right after… I said earlier that we could all agree that Elvis was the undisputed King of rock and roll. When he was asked by a reporter at a press conference about being the King of Rock N Roll, Elvis shook his head and said, “I’m not the King, he is…” and pointed to Fats Domino who happened to be there. So I guess I can’t really say he was the undisputed King…

Long Live the King!

 

 

HBO’s Documentary, ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher.’ The Artist Behind the Myth

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*Image from the Internet and is likely copyrighted. Also, it upsets the Rock Chick because the King had blue eyes…

“Everybody get ready, lift up your glasses and sing, I’m standing on the table, I’m proposing a drink to the King.” Bob Dylan, “Summer Nights”

No matter who you are, no matter where you live – North or South, no matter what your politics – right or left, no matter what your party – Republican or Democrat, no matter who you think the President should be, I think there is one thing that all Americans, nay, all humans on the planet can agree on. There is only one King… Elvis Aaron Presley. There was no one who came before him like him and there will never be another Elvis again. I spent my Sunday watching the new exceptional HBO documentary, ‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ and I must say, I was extremely moved at this intimate look at the King. I won’t lie, after watching both Part 1 and Part 2, I felt very sorry for Elvis Presley. I will say, without reservation, this is the definitive documentary on the King.

The documentary is narrated by a number of Elvis’ friends, fellow musicians, associates, producers and collaborators. The narration was done by famous folks and not so famous folks. Amongst my favorites were Robbie Robertson (from the Band) and Bruce Springsteen. Although I must say, Springsteen’s comments were so overly intellectual at times they seem almost academic. He’s clearly thought a lot about Elvis. Better yet, Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife narrated a lot of the documentary and her narration allowed a more intimate view into what Elvis was thinking and feeling at different stages in his career, heartbreakingly so. I must say, my favorite of everyone involved was Tom Petty. Petty actually met Elvis on one of his movie sets in Florida when Petty was a kid and he was clearly a fan. Petty’s innate, for lack of a better word, Southern-ness provides unique insight into Elvis and how people thought about him. I love when Petty breaks down some of Elvis’s early vocals from a musician’s viewpoint and you can hear the awe in his voice as he describes Elvis sliding “up and down the scale vocally and having a blast while doing so.”

I fear it’s too easy, all these years down the road, to allow the myth of Elvis and the decline of his latter years with the drugs, the weight gain, the sequined jump suits to fog over what a enormous force Elvis was in rock and roll. It’s easy to forget what a true artist the man was. Sometimes that sad ending we all watched with our own eyes blocks out what we should be listening to with our ears. This documentary helps restore that picture, as Elvis as a singer and live performer. It’s divided into two parts.

The first part starts with Elvis’ birth and upbringing. Elvis’ rise was so seemingly meteoric, that a lot of people feel like he just appeared, fully formed. Nothing could be further from the truth. All during Elvis’ childhood, growing up poor, he was allowed to roam Memphis where he would seek out music – even in places white kids normally didn’t go, like black churches, black blues clubs on Beale Street. Memphis was a place where you could hear blues, R&B, soul music, but also country and bluegrass. Elvis spent all his time growing up acting as a musical sponge, but not only absorbing all those disparate sounds, but melding them together into something brand new. When he walked into Sun Studios, after driving by day after day, it was Elvis who was “looking for Sam Phillips, not Sam Phillips who was looking for Elvis.” Elvis had a musical vision, and Phillips helped him realize it.

After Elvis’ first few singles, which were almost instant hits regionally in the South, Elvis hit the road with his backing band from Sun, the amazing Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black slapping the stand-up bass, and DJ Fontana on drums. His backing band was so intuitive to what Elvis wanted… and Elvis seemed to funnel the music through his body and vocals… the band just sort of watched him and tried to follow along, both live and in the studio. They really had a great chemistry. It was those years on the road, in the south, that Elvis learned how to manipulate and control an audience. Watching the film of him in those early days is just spectacular.

Like all epic tragedies, be they Greek or Shakespeare, you need the hero and you need a villain. For every Othello there’s an Iago. In this story, that villain to Elvis’ hero is clearly Colonel Tom Parker, the Evil Dutchman. Colonel Tom knew how to merchandise stuff and sadly he ended up treating Elvis like “the merch.” We follow Elvis through leaving Sun Records and moving to RCA and making it big. He was always thankful to Colonel Tom for breaking him big, but the rest of the documentary, to me, really centers around the conflict of Elvis the artist vs Colonel Tom the money-guy. Elvis wanted to branch out musically, but Parker owned the publishing and made huge royalties off of Elvis. He rode Elvis up until the time Presley joined the army. John Lennon once said of Elvis, “He was done when he went into the Army.” I always wondered if the US Government drafted Elvis as an attempt to control him…Parker didn’t have Elvis tour or record while he was away, which dumbfounds me. When Elvis got out of the army, he wanted to be an actor, something akin to Marlon Brando. Colonel Parker pushed him toward lighter roles and continued to sign contracts for those fluffy, musical movies Elvis did. They made money, but as Petty says, “those movies were harmful to Elvis.” He was no longer the dangerous rebel, he was just that cheesy movie guy. While he was off in Hollywood from ’60 to ’69 music and the world itself changed. There’s a striking image of Coretta Scott King, marching after MLK’s assassination, passing a theater showing Elvis’ awful movie, ‘Go Away Joe.’ You can’t symbolize how out of touch culturally he was at that point…

As an aside, I did notice how, like Dylan with folk music and Hendrix with blues, when faced with tumultuous times, professional or personal, Elvis always returned to his “home,” and by that I mean Gospel music. Elvis doing “Peace In The Valley” brought back his memories of his mother and his childhood, singing in the church. It was the music that centered him… and nobody does it better. Even I, the biggest heathen you’re going to come across, was moved by the King doing Gospel, but I digress.

As the movies petered out, Elvis, in a rare show of independence lined up the 1968 Come Back Special. If you’ve never seen that show, you need to get the BluRay. Seeing the King shed his movie image, put on black leather and retake his crown is like watching Ali beat Frazier. The Comeback Special is really a lynchpin in the telling of this story. Afterwards, Elvis went into the studio and recorded one of his best albums, From Elvis In Memphis,. Instead of continuing to make music in that vein, Colonel Parker sent him off to Vegas for a residency. Elvis finally grew tired of that so Colonel Parker sent him out on a grueling, seemingly never ending tour because it made money. Elvis wanted to tour in Europe, but Parker, who wasn’t actually a US citizen couldn’t leave the States. So instead he put the insane pressure on Elvis of doing a world-wide, live by satellite broadcast of a concert from Hawaii. I still remember seeing that as a kid.

After that, Elvis just sort of surrendered or more appropriately, gave up. The central question of ‘Elvis Presley – The Searcher’ for me, is what Tom Petty asks early in the 2nd half of the documentary – “Why would Elvis continue to humiliate himself (in the movies) for this man (Colonel Parker)? What was this control Parker had on Elvis?” I get that Elvis was grateful for Parker “breaking him” world wide and making him the biggest star on the planet. My question is why would he allow Parker to snuff out almost every creative instinct Presley had afterward. Why continue doing the movies? Why continue to fuel the kitschy merchandise machine. Presley was a true pioneer, he was plowing in uncharted territory… I just wish he’d been able to break free of such horrid management.

In the end, as I said, Elvis just gave up. He was taking pills to get up for the show and then downers to sleep afterwards. His marriage to Priscilla crumbled. He became more and more isolated… which is what the Colonel wanted… it’s like Presley was an abused spouse. His weight ballooned. The Memphis Mafia was only too happy to enable Presley… The dead look in Presley’s eyes from his latter days will always haunt me. The fire, the joy was all gone. It’s easy to blame Parker, and let’s face it, I’m passionate about Elvis, but even I realize that the King had some culpability here. He could have stopped the merry-go-round at any time. But he didn’t… and we’ll never know why. I hate to think of Elvis as the “Porcelain Monkey” of Warren Zevon’s song.

This is a rich, detailed, fascinating look at Elvis the man and Elvis the artist. It gets beyond the myth and the legend and really focuses on the music. They should be showing this movie in high school music classes as required curriculum.

And while Elvis’ life ended tragically, (I can remember hearing the news in the backseat of my football coach’s car, driving to football practice with my three teammates), tonight, I’ll be standing on a table and “raising a glass to the King.”