Wool Hat: The Ballad of Mike Nesmith

So many great artists are buried by celebrity. I wrote recently about ‘paying the bills’; the idea that an artist can sometimes get stuck doing what he is popular for as opposed to what he likes to do or can do well. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Virtuoso guitarist Glen Campbell gets ‘stuck’ being a country singer. Michael Nesmith found himself in a similar situation at the start of 1967. An earnest songwriter and guitarist, Michael found himself on television playing a quiet country boy hanging out with three goofballs. He also found his name on a record that he said was the worst album in history.

Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas. When he was only four years old, his parents divorced. Bette Nesmith took Michael – an only child – to live near family in Dallas. Bette worked many clerical jobs to support her and her son before ending up at Texas Bank and Trust, eventually reaching the elevated position of executive secretary. Like many secretaries, she was constantly frustrated by the inability to properly correct mistakes made while typing on the typewriters of the day. Bette got an idea. She took some water-based paint with her to work one day and started using it to ‘paint over’ her mistakes. Some bosses gave her static about it but her co-workers used it and loved it and Bette carried on this way for five years. Eventually, she decided to market and sell her correction fluid as “Mistake Out” in 1956. She began a ‘factory’ of sorts in her kitchen and changed the name of her product to “Liquid Paper”. She was boss of her own revolutionary company until 1979 when she sold it to Gillette – for $47.5 million. Mike’s life was off to an interesting start.

Mike was an indifferent student and did not graduate high school before joining the Air Force. Once he got out, he began to focus on writing songs and performing in clubs. He moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and entered in to a publishing deal for the songs he was writing. One day, an associate brought in an ad asking for young men to audition for a television show centered around a fictitious rock band; “The Monkees”.

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Mike as ‘Mike’. And his green wool hat.

Now, I don’t know Michael Nesmith personally but, having been a fan of the Monkees for more than 30 years, I think I can make a few assumptions about his feelings about being involved in this fledgling television show. Maybe the same could be said for how Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork – the other Monkees – felt as well. Mike was a songwriter. He was a singer and guitarist who had been operating in the music business for a while. I will assume that his desire was to be allowed to make records; get a record deal, take his songs into a studio with a band, record them and put out records. But anyone can understand that as you begin to feel your way at the dawn of your career, you will take any opportunity that comes your way.

Mike found himself playing a wool-hat wearing, quirky country boy – a variation on himself – on a weekly television show. The intention of the producers all along had been to put out records under the name “The Monkees”. The original ad for the auditions did stipulate that successful candidates would have musical abilities; songwriting, singing, instrument playing, etc. so obviously the four boys who would make up the group would be utilized somehow when it came to making the records. The Monkees get a bad rap and are referred to as the ‘Pre-fab Four’. They are not considered a real band because they didn’t play their own instruments. But here’s the thing – it was common practice in the music industry at the time for producers to ‘create’ bands and then utilize session musicians to make the records. If you’ve ever heard of the Wrecking Crew than you know that this crack group of L.A. session musicians played on the bulk of the hit records released in the mid-1960’s. Fully functioning bands like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Grass Roots, the Association, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Paul Revere and the Raiders used these seasoned studio players to create music in the studio. Producers of the time wanted perfect recordings in the shortest amount of time possible – this meant bringing in the pros. It was not uncommon and it was not just the Monkees that employed session musicians. But because it was supposedly so obvious – I mean, it was a TV show, not a ‘real’ band – the Monkees had a stink on them from the get-go.

All this would have rankled a musician like Mike Nesmith. He was in the business to make records – NOT act on TV, playing air guitar to music performed by others. You can see from the outset, from the very first album, that Mike was doing his best to focus on his music as opposed to engaging in the hit-making combine that comprised songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and producer Don Kirshner. This is borne out by taking a look at the first album, “The Monkees”, released in October of 1966.

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Their first album went to #1 and stayed there for 13 weeks.

Micky Dolenz does NOT get enough love. He had perhaps the perfect voice and vocal delivery for the pop/rock of the day and was called upon to sing lead on the majority of the group’s hit singles. Such was the case with the first 45RPM, the #1 hit “Last Train to Clarksville”, released shortly before the first album. Mike is represented on the first LP by two songs. “Papa Gene’s Blues” perfectly exhibits Mike’s country/rock leanings. “Twangy”, you might say, or “jangly”. “Sweet Young Thing” is more of a rocker with the added touch of fiddle. Mike had been promised by the powers-that-be that he could have a modicum of control over his songs in the studio. What’s interesting is that, although Mike could be considered a neophyte, he was producing sessions featuring the Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians in the country. Also interesting; his two songs are VERY “Mike” and stand out from the rest of the tracks. In fact, Mike does not participate in any other song on the album. However, on his own compositions, that he produced, he utilizes Micky (vocals) and Peter Tork (guitars). Micky sings harmony with Mike on “Papa Gene” which started a pairing I love. Michael often would call on Micky either to sing lead on a song he had written or to sing some wonderful-sounding harmony with him. This tells me that, from the outset, Michael wanted to make his own music and to use the others in the group whenever possible.

The Monkees’ second album – “More of the Monkees” – was released January 9, 1967. It came as a complete surprise to the boys in the band. Svengali Don Kirshner had rushed the album out to capitalize on the Monkees’ massive success. The album being compiled and released without the band’s knowledge coupled with Kirshner’s liner notes, in which he praises his songwriters and producers before he mentions the Monkees themselves, confirmed Mike’s assertion that the boys were not in control of their own fate and sent a disturbing message to the other three guys. At a meeting in which the boys vented their spleen to the powers-that-be, Mike became so enraged that he punched a hole in a wall, exclaiming to the record company’s lawyer in attendance “that could’ve been your face!”. In the aftermath, Michael’s lobbying was successful and the boys were given artistic control of their next album. Don Kirshner was eventual fired. (He would go on to ‘create’ The Archies)

Mike was quoted in a magazine interview saying that “More of the Monkees” was “probably the worst album in the history of the world”. It’s apparent, though, that it was the state of affairs that made him feel this way about it. The album is better than their debut and fared even better on the charts. “More of the Monkees” displaced “The Monkees” in the #1 slot and the sophomore effort would spend 18 weeks on top. Mike’s contributions are again very “Mike” and very interesting. He sang lead and played steel guitar on “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”. He again produced the Wrecking Crew and the backing vocals feature all four Monkees. “Mary, Mary” is a great song and an example of one that Mike wrote but gave to Micky to sing. Peter plays guitar, joining the Crew in the studio. The song was eventually covered by Run-D.M.C. Again, Mike does not appear in any way on any other track on the album.

Their third album, “Headquarters”, was made by the boys operating as a proper band. Mike plays guitar throughout, bringing his soon-to-be-trademark 12-string electric sound to the fore. He also plays some great organ on “For Pete’s Sake” – co-written by Peter but, again, given to Micky to sing – which was used as the closing credits song during season 2 of the show. Mike wrote and sang the album opener, “You Told Me” and also “Sunny Girlfriend”. “You Just May Be the One” is quintessentially “Mike” and is one of his best songs. It’s another great example of how good Mike and Micky sound singing together, Micky again taking the harmony line. “Headquarters” peaked at #1 but was overtaken the very next week by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. They would be 1 and 2 in the land for the next 11 weeks. “Headquarters” is often cited as the only one of the Monkees’ albums to be considered “essential”.

I would be remiss to not mention what is maybe – with “Sometime in the Morning” – my absolute favourite Monkees song, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”. This song, released as the B side of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in March of ’67, is notable as being the first track that the Monkees took charge of themselves. They all played instruments and recorded the track alone in the studio with producer Chip Douglas, who also played bass. Michael wrote the song and took the lead on an early version. Another take was recorded with Micky singing lead and this became the master. It is perfect pop. Perfect pop. I tend to short shrift Peter Tork and his contributions to the band but he lays down some stellar harpsichord on this song. It is a gem.

Mike had a success outside the Monkees in the fall of 1967. A 2-year-old song of his, “Different Drum”, became the first hit of Linda Ronstadt’s career. Her group, the Stone Poneys, took Mike’s tune in to the Top 20. They had been rehearsing the song as a slow ballad but their producer, Nick Venet (credited as producer on the Beach Boys’ first two albums), re-envisioned it as baroque pop with prominent harpsichord. He wanted a specific sound and employed seasoned session musicians to play on the record. In the end, Linda was the only Stone Poney to perform on the recording. Sound familiar? It is interesting to note that this is what happened in the early days of the Monkees and supports the claim that it happened all the time to many different groups.

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The lads – in their “Monkee” shirts – between romps. Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike.

Their fourth album, I think, is just as good if not better than “Headquarters”. “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd.” was released at the end of 1967 and also reached #1. Mike’s lead vocal is featured prominently on this alum and it contains another gem from him although in this case it’s just a vocal and not a composition. Again, the opener goes to Mike although he did not write the song, “Salesman”. One of the best Monkees songs ever, “The Door Into Summer”, was not written by Michael but features his lead with Micky coming in to sing harmony. The two have never sounded better together. Mike and Micky give out with more of the same on the very next track, “Love is Only Sleeping”, written by the formidable team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Maybe the greatest “Mike” song in the Monkees catalog was not written by him but given to him to sing because of it’s country sound. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” is 3 minutes and 9 seconds of bliss taken at a rolling gait accentuated by banjo. Michael wrote the intriguing “Daily Nightly” but again turned the vocals over to Micky. Mike’s lyrics are a veiled commentary on the recent Sunset Strip riots and the song is one of the first rock songs to feature the Moog synthesizer. Micky was the third person to ever own one and he plays it on this track. By contrast, the next cut on the album is “Don’t Call on Me”, written and sang by Mike. It is a gentle track that starts off as a tongue-in-cheek lounge lizard number.

“The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees” was released in April of 1968. By this point, an odd thing had happened. After fighting to work together and alone and doing so on their last two successful albums, the boys decided they wanted to work separately from each other. Yes, they had proven the critics wrong and could do things well themselves – it’s just that they didn’t want to do them together anymore. Michael was still pioneering country/rock and also exploring psychedelia. His contributions to this album included the outstanding – if ridiculously titled – “Auntie’s Municipal Court”. A glorious guitar orchestra opens the track before Mike’s oft-chosen vocalist, Micky, comes in singing the lead. As a rarity, it’s Mike singing the harmony here to Micky’s lead. “Tapioca Tundra” was a far-out excursion on which Mike plays almost all the instruments including some typically stellar 12-string. “Writing Wrongs” is more of the same; only less so. “Magnolia Simms” was more experimentation from Mike, this time emulating a 1920’s sound. The album was very successful for the boys as it included the hits “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” but Peter Tork left during the making of the album and the three remaining were working – as often happens with bands – as three solo artists. Staying together though was somewhat of a necessity. Neither of the three were big enough to make it on their own but they were more than able to ply their individual trades under the umbrella of “The Monkees”. Michael’s songs were beginning to show signs of an eccentricity that would mark his music throughout the rest of his career.

The soundtrack to the Monkees’ movie, “Head”, was released near the end of 1968. The film defies understanding but the soundtrack contains some fine moments (Rolling Stone ranked it the 25th best soundtrack). Mike’s lone contribution was the energetic rocker “Circle Sky” on which he plays some excellent guitar and delivers some of the best grunts in rock history. The “Instant Replay” album is the first output of what could be called the Monkees’ ‘second phase’; the show was now off the air and this was the first record to be made after Peter Tork had left the group. Michael’s songs include “Don’t Wait For Me” which is VERY country and includes prominent steel guitar and was recorded and co-produced in Nashville with Felton Jarvis, who had only recently started working with Elvis Presley. “While I Cry” is absolutely devastating. One of the saddest songs you’ll ever hear, it is another example of Mike’s specific brand of fine guitar playing. The swan song of Mike’s initial period with the Monkees came with the next album, “The Monkees Present”. Released in October of 1969 into a music scene that had long since left the boys behind, it was another patchwork of songs from three individuals. The twelve tracks were divided up evenly, 4 a piece. Mike brought one more great track to the Monkees’ fold with “Listen to the Band”. Here Michael is producing crack session men in Nashville, taking them through a trademark Nesmith country/rock number with steel guitar again prominent. “Listen to the Band” was the last song resembling a hit from the original run of the group, charting at #63. Shortly after the release of this record, Mike announced he was leaving the group to start his own outfit called The First National Band.

Michael had released records before joining the Monkees under the name Michael Blessing. Also, in 1968, he released the hard-to-explain orchestral album “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings”. The instrumental album was made over two sessions in Hollywood with the Wrecking Crew and featured versions of lesser-known Monkees songs. With the First National Band, however, Mike Nesmith was stepping out for the first time as a solo artist with the cache of having been a Monkee and with all the attendant expectations.

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Red Rhodes, John London, John Ware and Mike: The First National Band. Photo courtesy of their Facebook page.

Finally out from under the umbrella of the Monkees – Michael paid out the remainder of his contract – Mike was now free to completely ply his trade as he saw fit. His trade was “country/rock”, a genre that he did not invent but you can certainly count him among it’s pioneers. Mike had built up a back log of songs during his time with the Monkees so much so that his new band was able to release three albums in an 18-month period. Mike teamed with steel guitar player Orville “Red” Rhodes who’s playing defined the sound of the First National Band. The group’s first album, “Magnetic South”, yielded the Top 40 hit “Joanne”, a surprise for the fledgling band. However, country/rock was not commercially viable and Mike was concerned not one bit with writing a “hit song” so after the First (and Second) National Band had petered out, Michael carried on, following his muse and releasing albums that virtually no one heard. Mike struggled to keep his career solvent and had difficulties with the IRS until a sad event helped him out. His mother, Bette, passed away in 1980 and Mike inherited half of her $50 million estate. This freed him up to pursue his next venture.

“The Monkees” television show had been directly inspired by the Beatles’ first film, 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night”. The idea of “The Monkees” was to have the manufactured band live together and get into adventures. But also there was records to be sold and the TV show could pump the music into living rooms every week. And while the record would play – as in “A Hard Day’s Night” – the Monkees would get up to a lot of zany antics: somersaulting through a park, running along the beach, chasing the bad guys around the house, etc. This all sounds like what would eventually become “music videos” and, indeed, Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles’ first two films, is considered a sort of ‘godfather’ of the music video. And rightfully so. But also the producers of “The Monkees” television show should also get recognition as pioneers as they presented these “clips” week in and week out for two years.

No doubt this experience was in Mike’s mind when he decided to make a “clip” to accompany his song “Rio” from his 1977 album “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing”. He began to explore the idea of “music videos” and of releasing his subsequent albums as “video albums”. Problem was that there was nowhere to show these “videos”, except for maybe on a late night talk show that Mike happened to be a guest on. Subsequently, Mike would find a home for his “music videos”. In 1981, he released an hour-long program called “Elephant Parts” which was made available on VHS and LaserDisc and was one of the first new programs made available for home viewing. “Elephant Parts” was a collection of comedy skits, commercial parodies and five full-length music videos for recent recordings of Mike’s. At the Grammys the following year Michael won the first ever award given out for a “music video” and the success of this innovation inspired Mike to take his music video idea further.

Many other artists began to make music videos and Michael came up with the idea for “PopClips”, a show that featured videos by some popular and emerging artists. Early videos shown on “PopClips” were for songs by George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and the Police – but also Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and Tycoon. “PopClips” ran on Nickelodeon – owned by Time-Warner – for one season. Michael then sold the show to Time Warner, who subsequently redeveloped the show into the “MTV” network.

Through the rest of the ’80’s and the 1990’s, Mike continued to release albums. He also started a production company responsible for music videos by other artists and feature films. He also continued to avoid returning to the Monkees. Mike did not join the boys for the Monkees’ 20th anniversary reunion but the four Monkees did get together in 1996 to release “Justus”, an album that harkened back to “Headquarters” in that it was completely written and performed by the four of them alone. (The lead-off track was a re-recording of “Circle Sky”) Starting in 2012 and continuing after the untimely death of Davy Jones, Nesmith toured with Micky and Peter although he did not join the two other remaining Monkees for the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2016. Also that year the band released “Good Times!”, a critically acclaimed album that featured one composition from Mike and three vocals.

In early 2018, Mike performed a handful of concerts with a revamped First National Band that included two of his sons and later in the year he hit the road with Micky for a series of shows billed as “The Monkees Present the Mike Nesmith & Micky Dolenz Show”. It seems that now, 52 years after the band’s formation, the death of Davy Jones and the apparent ‘retirement’ of Peter Tork, the Monkees has finally ceased to exist as an entity. Contrary to the perception that Mike Nesmith has ill feelings towards the Monkees and the ‘box’ the band put him in, Mike’s statement in 2012 about the experience wraps things up nicely: “I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place.”

Mike Nesmith’s legacy is an interesting one. In some respects, he never truly has emerged from under the umbrella of the Monkees. But, really, that’s OK. Some artists, as I’ve said, get trapped by celebrity; typecast, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe in the end these artists never get to spread their wings as they may have liked but the one role they played or the one group they were in are cherished by many people. Many people love and adore the Monkees; the show and the group’s music truly ‘mean something’ to many people. That is no small thing.

I think to understand Mike as a solo artist, it helps to look at his perception of his time plying his trade as one of the original country rockers with his First National Band. I have read that Michael “was agonized” when he heard the first album from the Eagles, a band that was recording music in the same vein as the First National Band. He has said that he was “heartbroken”: how are the Eagles moving so many units when my albums are invisible? I understand his pain but I have to say that the Eagles’ first few albums contain a wonderfully accessible sound. “Tequila Sunrise” and “Take It Easy” are infinitely easy to like. The First National Band was much more “country” than the Eagles and the FNB lacked the ability to deliver the gorgeous harmonies that Glenn Frey, Don Henley, et al. could deliver.

In my opinion, Mike’s music in general always seemed to lack that one final ingredient. That elusive something that makes the masses embrace an artist or an album or a song. And his persona was never easy to grasp. His intelligence and dry humour made him a challenge to “get”. If you were browsing the record shops back in the day and came upon an album called “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash” or “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing” or “Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma” you may have looked askance – it was especially hard to understand that the craziness of the titles was not reconciled to the music; the music on the records was not as crazy or avant-garde as the titles suggested. His was an eccentric talent, he was on his own path and the music he made and the persona he projected simply could not be easily processed by the average young person listening to his radio in his pick-up truck. That’s not to say that Mike was and is not possessed of innate talent and ability as a songwriter and musician. Mike Nesmith belongs in that rare group of artists that are greatly respected by the industry and those who “know” but that are misunderstood by the general, record-buying public: Lee Hazlewood, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and others. These are artists that ‘travel to the beat of a different drum’.

Michael was the true artist of the Monkees. He had the talent to write and record music himself. He didn’t need to join the group but he took the opportunity for the advancement it could provide. He battled for his artistic individuality while with the Monkees and then, when he left, he had a hand in pioneering country/rock. Later, his vision lead him to not create the music video but to become an early proponent of the concept of presenting videos in a regularly recurring format; indeed, the iconic “MTV Network” was based on an idea of his. And before any of this happened, his mother invented a product that virtually everyone in the developed world has used either in school or business. And yet it seems he will always be remembered as “Monkee Mike”, “Wool Hat”. And that’s OK.

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Papa Nez. Monkee Mike. Wool Hat. All of those things. And more.

The Best of Mike Nesmith: The Monkees and Beyond

Honourable Mention: “Different Drum” – the Stone Poneys — lovely song with a sweet vocal from a young Linda Ronstadt.

5. “Joanne” – the First National Band — surprise hit for the fledgling country/rockers. Nice vocal from Nez.

4. “You Just May Be the One” – the Monkees — nice strumming. One of the highlights of the Nesmith/Dolenz vocal tandem.

3. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” – the Monkees — not written by Mike but a very “Mike” sound. An exciting, banjo-laden trip south of the border.

2. “The Door Into Summer” – the Monkees — another one not written by Mike but a joyful jaunt. Micky shines again in his role as Mike’s vocal shadow.

1.  “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” – the Monkees — like I said: perfect pop. Mike was savvy enough to give the lead to Micky. They again sound great together. An absolutely delightful song.

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This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 3

I remember the day I bought the “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” boxed set. I was so happy thinking that now I had ALL of the songs Elvis Presley recorded in the 1970’s. Then I read the book that came with the boxed set. Seems that King recorded so many songs in the ’70’s that they wouldn’t fit on one boxed set. This was a real revelation to me and it also excited me. I was excited because now I knew that there was MUCH more Elvis music for me to discover. Even if you only own say, six or seven Elvis albums or compilations, he is the rare type of artist that can keep you interested even if you are only listening to the same 70-80 songs over and over. But learning that there was still some King songs that I could hear for the first time was thrilling. 

In time, I collected all of his recordings from the 1970’s and discovered many gorgeous performances. There were times I wondered how a song had flown under the radar all these years: “Pieces of My Life”, “For Ol’ Times Sake”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep”, “It’s Midnight”, “I’m Leavin'” and, y’know what, the list literally goes on. So many fantastic tunes that were new to me. This Top Ten list, however, is made up of songs I grew up with. Maybe a stunning song like “Pieces of My Life” just hasn’t traveled with me as long as, say, “Separate Ways” has. This just proves my point that, while the following ten songs may indeed be his best of the ’70s, you could easily come up with an alternate list that I couldn’t argue with.

It became harder for Elvis to have successful and comfortable recording sessions as he got older and his health failed him but there are still many great recordings from later in his life: “Hurt”, “It’s Only Love”, “Way Down”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, etc. You really should look these songs up to add some variety to your Elvis listening experience. As I’ve said in the two previous posts in this series, I’m focusing on the popular material King recorded through the years. In the ’70’s, Elvis recorded his second Christmas album that features excellent original songs. “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day” is no less than one of his very best recordings. “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas” (1971) also features Red’s “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and a stellar arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful”. 1972 saw Elvis release his last and best gospel album, “He Touched Me”. Our boy is in great voice here and the title track and “Reach Out to Jesus” are both moving and magnificent. “Bosom of Abraham” and “I, John” give us the kind of singing Elvis would do for hours ’round the piano with the fellas. Some of you sharp-eyed King fans will look through this list and realize that the bulk of the songs are from 1970’s “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is”, the soundtrack to his concert film of the same name. While this album may be lesser known to casual fans, I think it is his very best LP. His voice is the best it ever was and the material is contemporary, fresh and exciting. It was hard for me to leave any of the songs on this album off this list. Anyways, let’s run down The Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs: the ’70’s.

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He may never have looked cooler. In rehearsal, Las Vegas, 1970.

10. “Always on My Mind” (1972) — A chart hit for King in the winter of 1972-73. Significant in Elvis World due to the fact that it was recorded only weeks after Elvis and Priscilla separated. Of course, the lyric speaks of regret, of losing something the value of which you only fully appreciate after the fact. It may or not have been intended to be biographical but the fact remains that this recording is heartbreaking. There is video from the recording session that is interesting to watch as it shows solemnity in the studio as opposed to the usual lighthearted atmosphere of an Elvis session. Sad, sad song co-written by the man who gave us “Suspicious Minds”, Mark James. Willie Nelson did a great version in 1982 that was a huge hit for him. ITV television network in England conducted a poll in 2013 and it resulted in this song being voted Elvis’ best. Interesting. See? SO MANY different songs could qualify as his best.

9. “An American Trilogy” (1973) — The version referred to here is from the “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” concert and album. I taped this concert of off TV when it was broadcast for the tenth anniversary of Elvis’ death in 1987. I don’t have the words, really, except to say that this concert is like an old friend. Or more like part of my family. Literally. This concert represents the last triumph for Elvis Presley. This was the last time he was operating at the peak of his powers and it ended a 4-year run of staggering artistic proportions. There are one or two other moments from this concert I could have picked. “Steamroller Blues”, “What Now, My Love”, “It’s Over”. “An American Trilogy” is notable because it is the perfect example of a ‘showpiece’. Maybe not the final song of a concert but definitely a show stopper midway through a performance. The song itself is stunning and perfectly suited for Elvis in the ’70’s. Written by Mickey Newbury, it is a medley of traditional 19th century songs: “Dixie”, an anthem of the South, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, the marching song of the Union Army during the Civil War and “All My Trials”, a spiritual that traces it’s roots to the West Indies. When you think about it, it is an ‘American’ trilogy: the North and the South are both represented as is the black cultural contribution.  Sociology aside, this is a performance of staggering emotional intensity. If you know anything about Presley’s story, it is devastating to see this man sing “all my trials, Lord, will soon be over”. Presley tweaked the original version recorded by Newbury to heighten the intensity. You see him calling to the brass section. You see him looking back at the band as the timpanis begin to roll and you see him gesture to the Stamps to start singing. He comes in and rides the song out to an incredible climax. The note he hits at the end is magnificent.

8. “I Just Can’t Help Believin'” (1970) — The opening track of Elvis Presley’s greatest LP. The “That’s the Way It Is” concert film features this song being rehearsed ahead of a Vegas engagement. We get to see Elvis struggling to remember the words to this lovely song that was written by the legendary team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil that was a Top Ten hit for B.J. Thomas the same year. It’s just a gorgeous recording that showcases Presley in smooth voice.

7. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (1976) — A country and western song written in 1947 and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr. The song reached iconic status in 1975 when Willie Nelson recorded the song for his “Red-Headed Stranger” album. Both the song and the album played a big part in Willie’s ascendancy in the country music world. Elvis recorded it in the den (the ‘Jungle Room’) at Graceland in 1976 and it appeared on his “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee” album. Here is another example of his melding country and R&B. The song itself is pure country but Elvis’ delivery is a slow groove. The band is tight and keyboardist David Briggs particularly shines. Listen for his left hand running ascending lines and for his sparkling Fender Rhodes fills. And the four notes David and bassist Jerry Scheff play in unison before Elvis sings the title. It is notable as the last song Elvis was ever known to have sung. The day he died, he sat at the piano in the lounge area of his racquetball court and played and sang it. Every time I go to Graceland, I take a long look at that piano.

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The cover art and album titles were bland. The music on the records was sublime.

6. “How the Web Was Woven” (1970) — This song feels like it’s all mine. How does this gorgeous song remain so hidden? Why was it recorded and released on “That’s the Way It Is” and then that’s it? This is a transcendent recording with a passionate delivery from our boy. The song originally came out of England and has an interesting, Beatles-related history. It is a love song with a dark, dramatic theme that Presley nevertheless renders with a delicate touch. It has been called “perfectly pleasant”. Here’s a brief but interesting clip of King rehearsing it. (You may have to turn up the volume)

5. “Separate Ways” (1972) — Red West wrote better songs than many of Elvis’ regular contributors. This song was released as a single in ’72 and was a sort of emotional companion to “Always on My Mind”, which was on the B side – making it one sad 45. Red’s lyrics directly comment on the break up of Elvis and Priscilla. The tune starts with some gentle piano leading to Elvis singing what are literally some of the saddest words ever sung. “All that’s left between us are the memories we shared and times we thought we cared for each other. There’s nothing left to do but go our separate ways and pick up all the pieces left behind us. And maybe someday, somewhere along the way, another love will find us”. It is an absolutely heartrending song that finishes with some piano work that sounds as sad as the lyrics, piano that sounds like a man broken, taking his first steps down the road alone. Piano that sounds like closing credits after a devastating final scene.

4. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (1970) — This is the premier example in Elvis’ canon of him making a song his own. The “That’s the Way It Is” album was one of the first two or three Elvis albums I ever owned. At the time, I was also heavily into “oldies radio” and was very familiar with all the big pop hits of the ’60’s, including Phil Spector’s sparkling Wall of Sound gem, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers. When I heard Elvis’ version, I was thrown. It didn’t sound anything like the original. But I soon learned that that is what he did – he could put his stamp on anybody’s song and make it unique. (He didn’t always make the song better. Not even the King could improve on Little Richard’s seminal 1950’s recordings) In concert in Las Vegas, he would start this song with his back to the crowd and just a spot on his head. The eruption of the “Baby!!”‘s in this song are thunderous. He bites off the words of the title – “You’ve lost – that – lovin’ – feelin’!” – and breaks down into a stone groove for the bridge – “Baby, baby, I’d get down on my knees for you – if this suit wasn’t too tight!” – and the Sweet Inspirations behind him – “that’s how much I love you, sweet baby”. This is his wheel house. He takes the Righteous Brothers polished gem down into the earth, the soil, and adds heaping helpings of soul and gospel and heart. There are several different live recordings of Elvis’ version of this song out there. He never did it in the studio.

3. “Burning Love” (1972) — This tune is in a very small group of Elvis songs. Along with “Hound Dog”, it may be his most iconic recording. Unfortunately, people often equate “a-hunk a-hunk a-burnin’ love” with the worst of the Elvis Impersonators – sorry: Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs). But, fact is – again, like “Hound Dog” – if you can possibly listen to this song again and try to forget all that you think you know about King, you’ll hear an excellent, high energy, early-’70’s-style rock song. It starts off with some ringing guitar that has become for me an actually spell-binding sound that runs throughout the song. This guitar was played by the author of the song, Dennis Linde. Some pumping piano comes in and we’re off. There seems to be an echo to EP’s vocal that makes for an interesting sound. The song went to #2 and was his last Top Ten hit. Another great song from the fertile year of 1972, reinforcing the idea that 1969-1972 was indeed a stellar period in King’s career.

2. “Stranger in the Crowd” (1970) — And the casual Elvis fans are scratching their heads. Again I say that it is amazing to me that a song like this is so undervalued even in Elvis World. The prime example of what makes the songs from “That’s the Way It Is” so good, this song is captivating mostly because of it’s contemporary, middle-of-the-road pop sound. Yes, King’s wheelhouse, as we’ve seen, is rock ‘n’ roll or more accurately his unique blend of gospel, R&B and country. But I feel like had he pursued this sound further in the early ’70’s it may have lead to another domination of the pop charts and even a run of Grammy Awards. Tune starts off with some great strumming from John Wilkinson and gets in to a nice groove with a really smooth vocal from our boy and a beauty guitar solo from James Burton. And check out Ronnie Tutt on the drums near the end. This tune is just delightful and so terribly unique among Elvis recordings. “Stranger” leaves me feeling good. Here’s a clip of Elvis rehearsing the song. You should listen to the master of the song as it was released, too, as it is, obviously, more polished.

1. “Promised Land” (1975) — “Aw, get on it!” And with that we are off on maybe the most thrilling ride Elvis Presley ever took us on. The song was written in 1964 by Chuck Berry while he was in prison. The lyric is pure Berry. It’s the story of “the poor boy” who starts off in the backwoods and slowly makes his way to ‘the promised land’: the big time, Los Angeles. You can imagine an incarcerated Berry dreaming of the day of his release when he could get back to his career. Once again, in the hands of Elvis Presley, a song goes to another level. Presley’s version is an aggressive, driving, sonic juggernaut. One of my favourite instruments is the clavinet. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” starts off with the very best playing you’ll ever hear of this funky, percussive-sounding keyboard. King employed this instrument throughout the ’70’s and it gets things off to a flying start on “Promised Land”. EP then exclaims “aww, get on it!” and his drummer – the most underrated rock drummer in history – Ronnie Tutt, fires up the Greyhound and propels things down the interstate. Tutt is definitely ‘driving the bus’ on this tune that also features guitarist James Burton putting on a clinic. “Los Angeles gimme Norfolk, Virginia Tidewater four-ten-oh-nine…” Presley’s obviously enjoying himself and it is infectious. Recorded at the famous Stax Studios in Memphis, the song went to #14 on the pop charts. This is one of the 3 or 4 songs you play when you are trying to convince someone that Elvis is “cool”. Gotta hand it to Barry Sonnenfeld, director of “Men in Black”. When the script of that film mentions Elvis and depicts a car going incredible speeds he puts “Promised Land” on the soundtrack. Natch.

Up next: sometimes you really have to dig but there are some great songs in Elvis Movies!

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The King laying it down during his historic “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” concert. January 14, 1973.

**the images and media used in this post are not mine**

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 2

Our boy returned from the Army in early 1960 and the evil lord Colonel Parker put his plan into motion. Make no mistake, the Colonel’s plan to clean Elvis up in the studio and present him in family-friendly musical comedies was motivated by extreme avarice. However, his machinations and maneuvers when Elvis returned to the entertainment business resulted in EP being able to maintain his presence in the public eye with the movies while the music business changed around him. As I’ve stated in previous posts (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/elvis-week-2017-day-5-hollywood/) Elvis and the Colonel didn’t have the apparatus in place to compete in the changing landscape of rock music. Bands wrote and performed their own material – Colonel employed songwriters who’s sole attribute was their willingness to give up publishing rights to the Colonel’s business arm. Presley’s focus on films allowed him to bide his time until the landscape changed.

As early as 1965, Elvis began to bristle at his imprisonment in the Hollywood system and longed to find songs with more teeth to record. Some quality songs began to leak out and were placed on soundtracks when RCA were short on tracks to fill out the albums. Eventually, Elvis was able to maneuver himself back into a healthy studio environment when he ended up recording songs back in Memphis at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio. The house band at this studio was a crack group of young Southern boys who had recently backed other singers on successful recordings and were at the top of their game. Elvis and this band all instinctively knew each other and the songs they recorded there in January and February 1969 are nothing short of sublime. They contained a contemporary, Southern soul sound that perfectly showcased Elvis at his best. On display with these tracks is the quintessential and prototypical ‘Elvis Presley sound’, that unique blend of country, gospel and R&B. If you listen to them alongside a lot of mainstream music that was on the charts at the time there is no denying how distinct the sound is. 1969 began a three year run that – along with 1956-57 – represents the absolute pinnacle of the power, artistry and enduring style and charismatic vocalizing of Elvis Presley.

Elvis Presley’s recordings of the 1960’s were largely made up of movie soundtracks and they will be addressed in a later post. There were also two gospel albums; 1960’s “His Hand in Mine” and 1967’s Grammy-winning “How Great Thou Art”. The title track of the latter is legendary in “Elvis World” and the album also contains the stellar “In the Garden”, “Run On” and the incredibly moving and powerful “Without Him”. And recorded just after the sessions for “How Great Thou Art” was Red West’s stellar “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”. For this list, though, I’ve focused on the ‘pop’ music. Generally speaking, you can say that he recorded hit songs, great non-movie music, for a couple of years at the beginning of the ’60’s and then not again until the last few years of the decade. It’s from these years that I’ve built this list – The Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs: the ’60’s.

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Elvis poses with a Fender Bass in his living room at Graceland, mid 1960’s.

10. “If I’m a Fool (For Loving You)” (1969) — I see that six of these ten songs are from the sessions at American Sound. Truth be told, the songs from those dates are among his very best. This track is a bit of a sleeper. Never released as a single, it only ever appeared on the “Let’s Be Friends” LP from 1970. While I concede that it may only be a personal favourite, I will defend this song’s inclusion here. A lovely soft country arrangement and a delicate, personal and emotive vocal from the King.

9. “Power of My Love” (1969) — A true hidden gem. Another from American that may be the grittiest of all his recordings. This is a great tune to play to the uninitiated if you wanted to surprise them and show them how incredibly cool Elvis could sound. There really is no other song that he recorded that sounds like this one. It is fantastic. Ballsy.

8. “Gentle on My Mind” (1969) — In the wake of the death of Glen Campbell last year, we all became reacquainted with Jim Hartford’s wonderful composition. I love this song in all it’s versions: Glen, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. I’ve always said, though, that Presley was the only singer that plumbed the depths of the sentiment in the lyric. As he did throughout his career, he took this song that had been done many times and added another dimension, one of soul and emotion. This is a great example of what he did so well – blending the emotion of a country/rural lyric with a blue-eyed soul vocal delivery.

7. “Little Sister” (1961) — Great guitar on this track by Hank Garland who was a crack Nashville session guitarist that played on most of Elvis’ hits between ’58 and ’61. This is just a great-sounding rock track that sounds like it was recorded later in the decade – that big-sounding guitar stands out so much. EP revisited this track early in his Las Vegas appearances, quite often performing it in a medley with the Beatles’ “Get Back”.

6. “I’m Movin’ On” (1969) — Most everybody knows that at the core of the art of Elvis Presley is his ability to blend the best elements of country and western music with rhythm and blues. There is no greater or more obvious example of this than in his version of Canadian Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”. Recorded during his fertile and much-heralded stay at American Sound in Memphis, this track begins with some good-ol’-boy chicken-pickin’ guitar playing as Elvis runs through the first verse. Then, as Elvis declares “move on, son”, the band breaks down into Wilson Pickett territory with down and dirty funky southern soul music. Add some bold and strong female voices and you’ve got what we call a ‘stone groove’.

5. “Big Boss Man” (1967) — Written by the legendary blues man Jimmy Reed, “Big Boss Man” is a spirited blues work-out from Elvis and the boys that was a Top 40 hit for the King in late 1967. It is a significant recording in that it signaled a change in the material that Elvis was now determined to record. This track was the first indication that a change was coming and was followed by gritty readings of “Guitar Man”, “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” and “U.S. Male”. It’s great to hear what is still really Elvis’ “mid-’60’s voice” wrassle his unreasonable employer to the ground. “…you won’t let Big El stop”.

4. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — Another gem from American Sound. Two minutes of full-throttle rock ‘n’ roll. Everything about this track is exciting from the dirt road lyrics to the excellent guitar, the honking horns, the vocal interplay between Elvis and the girls backing him up. And Elvis himself sings with all the virility his voice had at it’s most commanding moments. Definitely a high point of his recording career. EP ran through this on-screen in his last dramatic movie, “Change of Habit”. On an episode of “Miami Vice”, Elvis fan Det. Stan Switek catches this film on the late show, much to his delight. Paul Oakenfold’s 2003 remix of this song was a hit throughout Europe.

3. “Stuck On You” (1960) — Here is King at his most polished. Yes, his late ’60’s recordings are Southern blue-eyed soul gems but here, fresh back from the Army, he gives us a smooth, piano-driven pop gem. It hit #1 on the pop charts in late April, went to #6 on the R&B charts and #3 in the UK. A fan favourite, this is a fantastic song with a great vocal and it is one of the first Elvis songs I ever remember hearing.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — This is my favourite Elvis song. At least I can say that I don’t think there is any of his songs that I like more than this one. The song represents a shining moment in the career of legendary session drummer, Hal Blaine. His drum fill that starts off this track is one of the most satisfying things I have ever heard in my life. Presley’s vocals and the lyrics themselves are the very epitome of “cool”. Written by Mac Davis and Billy Strange, the song appeared in the excellent Elvis film “Live a Little, Love a Little”. An historic remake was done in 2002 by Junkie XL. This version – get this – went to #1 on 14 different charts in various countries worldwide. It was Top Ten on 22 different charts. King’s original version of this song is near and dear to my heart and goes back to my earliest days as a fan. On top of that, I just think it’s outstanding.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — Speaking of outstanding. Maybe the classiest, most polished, stylish and contemporary sound in all of Elvis Presley’s catalog is this excellent recording of a Mark James song that Elvis almost wasn’t “allowed” to sing. When the song was brought to Elvis, his music publishers did their usual “stick ’em up!” routine and informed James that he would have to give up half of the royalties on the song. James, of course, bristled and things came to a stand still. Cooler heads prevailed and Elvis laid down this gorgeous song that would be his first #1 song in 7 years and the last chart-topper of his lifetime. Listen particularly to the interesting time signatures and the silky smooth guitar of Reggie Young. Rolling Stone Magazine calls it Presley’s “masterpiece” and ranks it at #91 on it’s list of the greatest songs ever.

Next: King’s most prolific and unsung decade of recording, the 1970’s…

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Elvis Presley on stage in Las Vegas. August, 1969.

(**the images and media used in this post are not mine**)

Dino 100: Part 2

Most students of mid-century culture are well aware of the story of the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, later known as simply the Rat Pack. (Frank hated the term and neither he nor anyone else in the later group ever used it. They preferred to call themselves ‘The Summit’ or ‘The Clan’) The semi-formal group of famous friends was founded – for lack of a better word – in the mid 1950’s by Humphrey Bogart. He and his wife, actress Lauren Bacall, brought like-minded friends together, friends who could not abide the typical Hollywood pretensions and dedicated themselves to drinking and keeping themselves apart from the social whirl. The members included, among others, David Niven, Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra idolized Bogie and after Bogie’s death in 1957 Frank became the leader. In 1959, Dean Martin had become a regular headliner in Las Vegas, as had Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. Often times they were appearing at various hotels in Vegas at the same time. Frequently, when Dean was in the middle of his show, Frank and Sammy would show up to join in a song or simply to heckle. The same would happen to Frank. Dean and Sammy would walk in and hilarity would ensue. Word started to get around Las Vegas and the entertainment world in general that these guys were hanging out together. This meant massive crowds of people flooded into Las Vegas with the idea that if you bought a ticket to see Sammy Davis, chances are you’d end up seeing Dino and Sinatra as well. Add to this the hype surrounding the guys coming together with Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop and others to film “Ocean’s 11” in the various casinos and you had a seismic event going on. The celebrity of Dino and his pallys reached dizzying heights. It was at this point that Dean Martin famously quipped “It’s Frank’s world. We’re just living in it”. This statement actually says a lot about the personalities of the two men. Sinatra was indeed the leader, which is how he liked it. Always headstrong and in charge, Sinatra cut a swath through virtually every environment he found himself in. Dino sat back and commentated. Frank Sinatra was head down, teeth gritted, wrestling perfection into submission. Dean Martin was heavy-lidded, shoulders slowly shrugging. Happy to be home in the evening with his wife, Jeanne, and their ever growing family, Dean was often in bed early to be up in time for an early tee time. There’s a telling scene in HBO’s “The Rat Pack” biopic starring Ray Liotta as Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Dino and Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr. The boys are all staying together in a swank Vegas hotel. The camera pans through their various rooms revealing all kinds of debauchery. When we get to Dean’s room, he’s lying alone on his bed with his putter watching the late show in the dark.

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As the 1960’s progressed, Dean Martin made many notable and successful films – with the boys and without: “Ocean’s 11”, “Sergeant’s 3”, “Four for Texas”, “Robin and the 7 Hoods”, “Kiss Me, Stupid”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”. He also pursued dramatic roles in films such as “Ada” with Susan Hayward and “Toys in the Attic”, which was based on a play and co-stars Gene Tierney. Dean’s way of “winking at the camera” came to full fruition when he portrayed suave secret agent Matt Helm in films based – very loosely – on the very serious novels by Donald Hamilton. Dino smirked, drank, sang and kung fu kicked his way through four Helm films starring alongside the likes of James Gregory, Stella Stevens, Cyd Charrise, Ann-Margret, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Chuck Norris. The films are delightfully ridiculous.

Dean Martin is at the heart of another wonderfully true Hollywood legend. In the early 1960’s, NBC began hounding Dino to do a weekly variety show. Martin was reluctant, due mostly to his desire to be free to accept movie and night club offers. But also he wasn’t keen on the work and discipline it would take to put on a weekly show. Heading into meetings with the network, Dino made some intentionally ridiculous demands including an overly high salary and, most significantly, that he need not show up for any rehearsals but only for the actual taping of the show. So, one day of work a week. You can just imagine Dino in that meeting. Must have been hilarious. What is even funnier though is that the network accepted! Reportedly, Dino went home to his family and dejectedly said ‘they went for it. I guess I have to do it’. So, Dean was ‘stuck’ with a highly-rated show that lasted for 9 seasons and featured absolutely EVERY major star of the day. The show also featured the Gold Diggers dancing girls, Dean singing – natch – with his pianist, Ken Lane and generally just Dino being Dino. His lack of preparation was played for laughs. He made no bones about the fact he was reading cue cards – his ‘winging it’ became the charm of the show. This is an example of Dino putting in no effort whatsoever – reading the cue cards and laughing during skits – and people eating it up. They loved to watch Dino be Dino.

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In 1960, Frank Sinatra was fed up with working for Capitol Records and so he, of course, started his own record company, Reprise Records. Over the course of the next few years, FS began drawing many of his recording artist friends into the fold including Keely Smith, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr. and our boy, Dino. Dean’s first couple of albums with Reprise reveal that the company wasn’t sure what to do with him. He started with “French Style”, an album of, you guessed it, French songs. And then there was “Dino Latino”, a set featuring…yep, Latin songs. Then they got on to something. Billed as Dean “Tex” Martin, Dino released two albums of country music. Now, we’re not talking real, sawdust, honky tonking Hank Williams exactly. This is what you might call “country crooning” in the vein of Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold. There seemed to be a good fit between Dino’s easy way with a song and these gently cantering country tunes. Soon after these two country albums, Dean recorded maybe the finest album of his career, “Dream With Dean”, a wonderful collection of quiet, intimate songs meant to be enjoyed late at night by the fire. During the recording session for this album, Dean’s pianist Ken Lane suggested Dean take a crack at a song Lane had written some 15 years before called “Everybody Loves Somebody”. Dean agreed and this gentle version appears on the album. Some time later, Dean was back in the studio and recorded the song again, this time with full orchestra. Reprise Records was excited about the recording and issued it as a single in June of 1964 – the height of Beatlemania. Traditional crooners like Dean were hard pressed to even place songs on the charts once the British Invasion hit. Remarkably though, Dean’s song not only charted but achieved the seemingly impossible – it went to #1, displacing The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”. “Everybody Loves Somebody” became Dean’s signature tune, eventually even being inscribed on his grave marker.

After the success of “Everybody Loves Somebody”, Reprise continued to team Dean with producer Jimmy Bowen who maintained the easy-loping country sound that seemed to fit Dean so well. A sort of “countrypolitan” sound, Dean still sounded like Dean – smooth vocals steeped in the tradition of the Great American Songbook and the recordings still featured full orchestras, string sections and female background singers – but the songs themselves were either actual country songs that had been hits for country artists or songs introduced by Dean that were obviously written in the country idiom. His Reprise catalogue provides a vastly different listening experience when compared to his Capitol recordings of the ’50’s. Recordings like “The Door is Still Open to My Heart”, “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On”, “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You”, “Houston” and, perhaps my absolute favourite Dean Martin song, “I Will”. Nine Top 40 hits in 4 years. Dean’s albums on Reprise are a delight. If somewhat nondescript, they are the perfect accompaniment to a lazy and warm afternoon. For me personally, they seem to transport me back to the late 1960’s and – although I wasn’t there – they provide for me a sort of snapshot of the era. They are very much of their time.

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The entertainment industry changed drastically in the 1960’s and most singers of popular song saw their fortunes decline as the decade went on and tastes continue to fluctuate. There were a handful – and Dean was certainly one of them – that had a sufficient amount of talent, celebrity and flat-out charisma to survive and even flourish by branching out into movies, television and live performances. Dean certainly enjoyed great success in the ’60’s. It could even be said that his career didn’t even hit it’s stride until the middle of the decade.

Elvis Week 2017: Day 7 – Thank You. Goodnight.

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'”.

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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.

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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.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 2 – SUN and SAM PHILLIPS

It’s Day 2 of Elvis Week 2017! The week long celebration of the 82nd anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley.

Day 2: SUN and SAM PHILLIPS – Those of us who spend a lot of time in Elvis World will be familiar with two quotes of his: “I sing all kinds” and “I don’t sound like nobody”. Memphis in the mid-1950’s was a melting pot of musical styles and teen-aged Elvis was taking it all in. Like so many other entertainers of the mid-20th century, he first sang in church and was enamored of the gospel quartets prevalent at the time. Indeed, it was his goal at the time to one day belong to one of the more popular quartets. He claimed throughout his life that he probably knew every gospel song ever written. He also was taken by the dynamic physical delivery of some of the more active preachers in the area. At home, he was exposed to the country music that emanated for the most part from nearby Nashville. He knew and loved these songs as well and they emerged constantly from the family radio. As a teenager in Memphis he also began to explore the burgeoning rhythm and blues scene for which the city is so noted. All of these parts added up to a sum that began to emerge on a summer afternoon when he went out to get a gift for his mama. Memphis Recording Service was run by Sam Phillips. Presley went there to record a song for his mother. He didn’t sound like much that day – or on subsequent days – but one thing’s for sure. He didn’t sound like nobody. Visionary Phillips heard something in this 21-year-old truck driver. But the kid couldn’t seem to relax. Ballad after ballad was tried but nothing clicked and frustrations were running high. During a break, Elvis and the boys tore through an amped up version of an old blues song, “That’s All Right”. Only it wasn’t blues. But it wasn’t country, either. No one was sure and the boys were just foolin’ but Sam Phillips sprang into action. He might not have known exactly what he was looking for – but he’d found it. A white man that sang like a black man.

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