Happy Birthday to Elvis Presley! The King was born 82 years ago today and that makes this Day 7 of Elvis Week 2017.
Day 7 – Thank You. Goodnight: Elvis Presley enjoyed more acclaim than almost any other single person in history. He remains one of the most revered and loved entertainers ever. And yet his story is a sad one and it is a story – unbelievably – of unrealized potential. But generally when we celebrate the anniversary of his birth I like to keep it positive, so let me get this out of the way: Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, knew many different ways to make barrels of money out of a concert tour. Parker was also right in his element when he would show up the day before in a town Elvis was scheduled to play and promote his boy and make sure everything was in place for the coming show. So, for the Colonel, the ’70’s were great. Unfortunately, for Elvis the ’70’s was an endless succession of concert tours that contributed to his eventual physical decline. But enough of that…
The 1970’s are a complicated era in Elvis World. The main thing that people remember of course is the effect on his appearance that his failing health had. But, truth is, King released some excellent music between 1970 and 1977. I myself grew up largely unaware of the bulk of the music he recorded during this decade. Indeed, years ago when I bought the CD box set of his ’70’s recordings I assumed it contained ALL of the recorded output of the ’70’s but the liner notes informed me that he recorded too much music during this era to fit on a regular-sized box set. This intrigued me. In exploring the songs from the last 4+ years of his life, I discovered a lot of excellent recordings. Most of them would probably be new to most casual listeners. However, 1972’s “Burning Love” is – along with “Hound Dog” – maybe his most recognizable song.
As a matter of fact, the ’70’s got off to a great start. The excellent documentary “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” was released to theaters. The film is a great document of a season of shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. There’s great footage of King rehearsing and hanging out backstage. The songs he was recording at the time are unknown today but they have a unique, contemporary pop/rock sound. It has even been suggested – by Troy Yeary (check out his blog at https://pastimescapes.com/) – that “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” is Elvis Presley’s greatest single album. Fantastic songs on the album include “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights”, “How the Web Was Woven”, “Stranger in the Crowd”, “Mary in the Morning” and a stunning live version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”.
In 1971, Elvis released “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas”, a collection of Christmas songs including some amazing original material such as “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas (Without You)”, “On a Snowy Christmas Night”, “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and a song that may be among his 10-12 best recordings ever, “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day”. Then a year later Presley released the Grammy-winning gospel album “He Touched Me” featuring excellent recordings of the title track, “Reach Out to Jesus”, “I, John” and “The Bosom of Abraham”. In that same year, in one particularly fruitful three-day session in Hollywood, Presley recorded songs that rank among his best of this decade: the heartbreaking “Separate Ways”, “It’s a Matter of Time”, “For the Good Times” and “Always on My Mind” as well as one of the most identifiable Presley songs, “Burning Love”. Throughout 1973, Elvis spent time at the legendary Stax Studios in Memphis, home of the Stax record label and the great Memphis Soul sound. His prolific work here yielded outstanding recordings that go a long way to establishing his identity as a recording artist in this era. The great soul/funk and country titles include: “If You Don’t Come Back”, “I Got a Thing About You, Baby”, “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body”, “It’s Midnight”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and perhaps his most energetic recording – probably in his top ten best songs ever – “Promised Land”. The songs have a depth and maturity. The funky ones are a stone groove and the country sides are clean and polished. His last sessions in a proper recording studio took place in Hollywood in 1975. Some great tracks from these dates are the country tunes “Susan When She Tried”, “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and “Bringing It Back”. Notable in Elvis World are the songs he recorded for his last two albums at home in Graceland. Elvis and the band set up in the den known as the ‘jungle room’. Elvis was in poor health at this point and you can hear that in his vocals. But the tired, deeper, throatier sound of his voice on these tracks adds to them a weariness that enhances the quality of the recordings. Highlights: “She Thinks I Still Care”, “Moody Blue”, “Hurt”, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, “Way Down” (his last chart single) and “He’ll Have to Go” (the last song he ever recorded). While they are certainly not his most recognizable recordings, there are many tracks from this era that are spectacular and they are a quality addition to his already formidable catalog. The ’70’s songs are definitely ‘ear-opening’ and add another dimension to what you think you know about his recordings.
And then there’s the aura. King throughout the ’70’s had a grandiosity about him. Everything was larger than life. In a fashion sense, the ’70’s in general were over-the-top and Presley took it to another level. A head of thick, jet-black hair, massive mutton-chop sideburns, ruffled shirts with high collars, coats with similarly high collars, rings on every finger, necklaces (among others, a Star of David and a Cross because, he said “I don’t want to miss out on heaven on a technicality”), a cane and his trademark sunglasses (he suffered from glaucoma). On stage, the jumpsuits became yet another trademark. Based on a karate suit, they were one piece which allowed him to move around on stage easily – but that may have been negated by the number of rhinestones affixed to the suits, the belts and the capes. Certainly what he wore on stage in the ’70’s is an iconic and instantly identifiable look. It’s well known in Elvis World that he loved Captain Marvel as a child and this ’70’s look is largely patterned after that superhero. Also, an album was released recently on a collector’s label called “Prince from Another Planet” and that title really fits his appearance at this time. This is yet another thing that made him totally different from any other performer in history.
He loved law enforcement officers and firearms and never went out without a couple of revolvers on him. Most are aware of the infamous story of his visit to the White House to see then-President Richard Nixon. Out of the blue he traveled to Washington – by himself, something he NEVER did – and somehow was able to talk his way into the Oval Office for a sit-down with the President. The story is even more remarkable when you consider that Elvis was undoubtedly armed but was ushered in to meet with the Commander-in-Chief anyways. Only Elvis. He was also often seen bombing around Memphis in one of his many cars or astride one of his numerous motorcycles. His excessive lifestyle was always on display one way or another.
Bono says you can’t fully understand Elvis Presley without the ’70’s. They are a part of the story. Most people scoff at the era partly because of the absurdity and the parody of some Elvis impersonators. His look in this era has often been played for laughs. But there’s nothing funny about a hard-working entertainer still wanting to feel a connection to his audience, still making good music, still keeping many around him employed by touring constantly and trying to get some fun out of life, wearing and doing whatever he wanted. The ’70’s are not all about decline for Elvis. They indeed are an essential part of the story and, if you look into them, an entertaining part.
Well, that’s it. But it’s not. There are so many aspects of Elvis Presley’s life and career that we haven’t touched on this week. I encourage you to pick up a good book on him. It’s an interesting story. I’m Gary Wells. Thank you and good night.
Fantastic ending to a great series, Wellsy.
I especially appreciate: “The ’70’s are not all about decline for Elvis. They indeed are an essential part of the story and, if you look into them, an entertaining part.” Well said.
While the Elvis story ends in tragedy, there are many triumphs along the way – including in the 1970s.
Thanks! I struggled when I started on the final years because they usually make me sad and angry. The ‘what could have been’ and the ‘I wish he would’ve done this differently’ scenarios kick in. But when I decided to celebrate the ’70’s I found it was easily done because of the recordings, yes, but also the man, the aura, etc. This has been fun!
I’m enjoying discovering some of your earlier articles.
I think your point about Elvis being a working entertainer, right up to the end, is a key aspect that is often missed in the general myth making. He was earning a living, and needed the money. I think by late ’75, the windfall from the sale of the pre-1974 back catalog to RCA had run out. RCA were releasing retrospectives and greatest hits packages – for which Parker and Elvis now derived no benefit other than some limited merchandise licensing – and these were vastly outselling any new material. The only way to keep the money rolling in, and maintain their lifestyles, was to go on the road. As Robbie Robertson once said; “It’s a goddamned impossible way of life.”
I’m also a fan of the original cut of That’s the Way it Is, for reasons we’ve already discussed. (The Vegas-Album-Loving-Cat , and the sinister dude in the blue cardigan and thick glasses). The behind the scenes documentary aspect showing the logistics of managing the showroom, allocating seating to stars and corporate clients etc I thought was fascinating. Its a wonder anyone’s nerves lasted a month of twice nightly shows.
As to his later material, I’m in agreement about your selected highlights. Loving Arms is another favourite of mine, I think from the Stax sessions. But Moody Blue I think is a great signature tune of the caliber of Suspicious Minds, but we’ll never know how it might have fared in its own right, had Elvis continued to work and record.
When I hear people suggest he should have “just quit” I get ticked; that would have been SO much easier said than done. Think of the number of people – and not just the Mafia – that derived at least a part of their income from King. Not to mention the legal entanglements with Col Parker.
Ideally, someone will make a “mash-up” of both versions of “TTWII” so we could have a 3-hour version!
I wrote an article here somewhere listing the best songs of the 70s but it was pretty premature – I should have waited until I was more familiar with the bulk of the 70s material. Great Stax sessions and tunes like I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body and Pieces of My Life. I used to imagine myself coming into King’s orbit in the mid-70s and steering him away from Colonel. I always think he would stick with country music in a more stripped down setting.