music, rock 'n' roll

Stayin’ Alive: Little Richard

Little Richard Penniman is 84 years old. Recently, I scored his first album, “Here’s Little Richard”, mainly because I had heard so much about this record by the man a lot of people would say was the most dynamic performer of the 1950’s. I looked up some info on the album, as I’ll often do when an artist/album/movie attracts my attention. Reaching #13 on the pop albums chart, it is Little Richard’s highest charting album and it contained two of his biggest hits: “Long Tall Sally” and “Jenny, Jenny”. The lead-off track, “Tutti Frutti”, is a legendary recording that has since landed on many lists of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll recordings of all-time. The album ranks #50 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums and “Tutti Frutti” comes in at #43 on their list of the top 500 songs of all-time. Impressive. So, all this made me want to read up on Little Richard. Or should I say re-read up.

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I was 13 or 14 years old when I read the definitive Little Richard biography, “The Quasar of Rock” (30 years later I’m still not sure what the title means). At that time, it was the biggest book I’d ever read. So, all these years later I found myself going over his life story again and I was looking for anything that really stood out that I could maybe build a post around, something I thought you people should know. His is an interesting story, for sure. An admitted gay man, (I was shopping for Little Richard t-shirts and saw one that said “The Real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a Gay Black Man from Macon, Georgia”) he was an absolute wild man in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, scoring many hits with songs that are nothing less than definitive of the genre. After several years of hits, he – like Jerry Lee Lewis – became convinced that he had been called into the ministry and (unlike Jerry Lee) Little Richard quit rock ‘n’ roll to be a preacher and release albums of gospel music. After several years of this, he returned to secular music and excelled in live performances but was never again a factor on the charts. He had trouble maintaining record contracts and was embroiled in litigation over monies owed him by his original record label, Specialty Records. All this is pretty common stuff. Where his story gets truly remarkable is when you consider the impact he had on some of the greatest artists ever and on the evolution of many genres of popular music.

In general, his style was influential. He was loud, flamboyant and possessed of a raspy, shouting singing style that was soon to become a hallmark of rock. Two of soul music’s pioneers – Sam Cooke and Otis Redding – stated that Little Richard had contributed greatly to soul’s development. Redding had also spent time in Little Richard’s band. James Brown was quoted as saying that Little Richard and his band, the Upsetters, were the first to inject funk into their rhythm and a biographer added that their music provides a bridge between ’50’s rock and ’60’s funk. Ray Charles said in 1988 that Little Richard was “a man who started a type of music that set the pace for a lot of what’s happening today”. Bo Diddley called him “one of a kind” and said that he influenced so many in the music business. Many of his contemporaries covered his music including Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley. Notably, Presley once told Little Richard publicly that his music had influenced him and that he was “the greatest”. Pat Boone noted that “no one person has been more imitated than Little Richard”. Ike Turner once claimed that most of Tina Turner’s early vocal delivery had been based on Little Richard. In high school, Bob Dylan played Little Richard songs with his band and stated in his year book that his ambition was “to join Little Richard”. In 1966, Jimi Hendrix said “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice” (Jimi also took to emulating Little Richard’s pencil-thin mustache). Bob Seger and John Fogerty were influenced by him, Michael Jackson said that, prior to “Off the Wall”, Little Richard had been a major influence on him and it was often pointed out that Prince adopted a physical appearance that was almost identical to Little Richard’s – right down to the colour purple. It is well known that the Beatles were heavily influenced by him. Paul McCartney idolized him and channeled him when he wrote rockers such as “I’m Down”. Indeed, “Long Tall Sally” was the first song Paul performed in public. Perhaps most significantly, during the Beatles acceptance speech at their Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, George Harrison made it plain when he said “thank you all very much, especially the rock ‘n’ rollers. Little Richard there, if it wasn’t for him…it was all his fault, really”. And when John Lennon first heard “Long Tall Sally” he said he “couldn’t speak”. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both profoundly influenced by him with Jagger adding that Little Richard was his first introduction to R&B and referring to him as “the originator and my first idol”. David Bowie went even a step further. He called Little Richard his “inspiration” and stated that when he first heard “Tutti Frutti” that he “heard God”. The band Bluesology once opened for Little Richard and the band’s piano player, Reginald Dwight, was inspired to become a rock ‘n’ roll piano player and changed his name to Elton John. As a teenager, Farrokh Bulsara performed covers of Little Richard songs and went on to find fame as Freddie Mercury. Little Richard inspired Lou Reed to “go to wherever that sound was and make a life”. John Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin, was fooling around one day emulating the pounding drum intro to Little Richard’s “Keep a-Knockin'”. Jimmy Page jumped in and the iconic “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was born. The late Bon Scott, original front man of AC/DC, idolized Little Richard and aspired to sing like him and guitarist Angus Young decided to take up the guitar after listening to Little Richard. It has also been said that recent performers including Andre 3000 and Bruno Mars have channeled Little Richard in many of their recordings and performances.

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And here’s a couple of bonuses for you: in 2010, Time Magazine ranked “Here’s Little Richard” at #2 on it’s list of the most influential albums of all-time, the highest ranking rock album on the list. He was ranked 8th on a Rolling Stone Magazine list of the greatest artists of all-time. That’s huge. I mean, look back at the names listed above. I find it interesting that those who say they owe Little Richard a debt are the most influential and world-shaking artists ever. All the big hitters – Presley, Dylan, the Beatles, etc. – have pointed to Little Richard and have publicly stated their debt to him, that he inspired them, that he made them want to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s crazy that on that list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time everyone supposedly ranked ABOVE Little Richard says they were influenced by him. Every one (except Chuck Berry) have said ‘Little Richard is the man. He started me on the road to where I am now. He’s the greatest’. And yet they’re ranked HIGHER than him. Makes you wonder if Little Richard gets all the respect he obviously deserves. Maybe the real king of rock ‘n’ roll really is a gay black man from Macon, Georgia.

Little Richard In Concert At Epcot Center

 

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Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry: The Proof is in the Covers

 

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Chuck Berry has died at age 90. I was happy to see tributes to him all over the internet because here is a performer that has become a true legend with almost no peer in the history of rock music. As I’ve said before, to fully understand where you’re at at any given point in time, you need to understand and appreciate where things have come from. There may be some degrees of separation, yes, but Chuck Berry is at the heart – at the absolute core – of popular music as we know it today in the 21st century.

To track the origins of “rock ‘n’ roll”, you have to go back to the early 1950’s to records like “Sixty Minute Man” and “Rocket 88”. Then, in 1954, you had Bill Haley and His Comets recording the immortal “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s first record, “That’s All Right, Mama”. In these four instances you had 1) black rhythm and blues groups having success and getting noticed by white high school kids and 2) you had country boys channeling a “black sound” while still exhibiting a southern look (Haley) and/or a decidedly southern sound (Scotty Moore’s guitar). When you add in the gospel flavour of an artist like Ray Charles, you have all the ingredients for what would become known as “rock ‘n’ roll”, the first music that was made specifically for young people. So, here you have the foundation of the music. But let’s consider this: there’s a difference between blending R&B, gospel and country to make rock ‘n’ roll and actually making rock ‘n’ roll. In the spring of 1955, Chuck Berry took the results of the ‘experiment’ that Bill Haley and Elvis Presley had been conducting and added certain key things. The result of the additions he made emerged as nothing less than the blueprint of rock music. In fact, he was the first to combine all of the necessary elements that are essential to rock music. These elements include showmanship, for starters. Chuck played the guitar and the very fact that his instrument was strapped to him allowed him to move around while playing it and therefore engage in the type of showmanship rock ‘n’ roll is known for. Another main element is the guitar itself. Because the guitar was his instrument, he, of course, featured it in his songs, starting most of them off with an energetic ‘riff’ taking both the guitar and the riff to the forefront of this new music. He also established, two years before Buddy Holly, the singer performing songs he himself had written. And then there’s the subject matter of these songs. Something else he was the first to popularize was singing with humour about teen life, often telling a story in his songs.  He wisely considered the audience for this new music consisted of kids so he wrote joyful, happy songs about cars, about school, about getting out of school, about getting in your car and going to the local hang out and pumping dimes into the jukebox. He sang about being a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, about taking this music with you as you grew up, got a job and got married. He was like a reporter, reporting on kids’ lives while they were happening. From 1955 into the early 1960’s, Chuck laid the foundation for what rock music would become.

The proof is in the covers. Chuck’s story is told, for the most part, by looking at who covered his music. Suffice it to say that any group of guys who got together and plugged in in the garage were following Chuck Berry’s lead but when you look at the artists that have covered a Chuck Berry song you understand the immensity of his contribution. It’s interesting to note that you cannot name me one significant cover of an Elvis Presley song. There are no other notable versions of “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock”. Those songs are so indelibly connected to EP that no one else dared to attempt them. The wonderful thing about Chuck is that his songs were really for everybody. Every important rock artist after Chuck had to try their hand at one of his songs. If for no other reason than to make it clear what their intentions were: if you cover “Johnny B. Goode”, it tells the world what kind of band you are.

The connection may not be readily apparent but we’ll start with the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson may be the most successful songwriter ever who was least influenced by black music but Brian, his brother, guitarist Carl and their cousin, lead vocalist Mike Love were all enamored of doo wop and – mostly Carl, natch – Chuck Berry. Brian Wilson enjoyed Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” so much that he took the melody and changed the lyrics to include popular surf spots across the country. Initially, the songwriting credit listed only Wilson. Then it was changed to credit Berry only. I remember, when I was 12, owning the popular Beach Boys compilation “Endless Summer” and noticing that it listed Chuck Berry as the writer of “Surfin’ U.S.A” which was a real head-scratcher for me. Nowadays, both Wilson and Berry are credited. It’s always been published by Chuck’s Arc Music publisher. Chuck was a major influence on Carl’s playing and the Beach Boys released an early tribute to Chuck and others called “Do You Remember?” in 1964: “Chuck Berry’s gotta be the greatest thing that came along. He made the guitar beat and wrote the all time greatest songs”.  Then, in the 1970’s, the Beach Boys emerged from a creative valley with the album “15 Big Ones” that featured, as it’s lead-off single, Chuck’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. The single went to #5, which was their highest charting single since the landmark “Good Vibrations” in 1966.

Like every other beat group that emerged in England in the early 1960’s, the Beatles were heavily influenced by rhythm and blues. If you had seen them in pre-stardom days on stage in Hamburg or at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, you would have seen a gnarly bunch of greasers crunching their way through a set list loaded with covers of their favourite records. Chuck Berry loomed large. Their raucous cover of Chuck’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was featured on their second album, 1963’s “With the Beatles”. This track of Chuck’s was a favourite of the boys’ since even before they were called “the Beatles”. Just as exciting was their cover of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. This track appeared on “Beatles For Sale” in ’64 and features an excellent, frenetic vocal from John. Another litigation episode involves the Beatles. The Beatles’ 1969 song “Come Together” was targeted by the owner of the copyright to Chuck’s tune “You Can’t Catch Me”. The owner claimed the two tracks were similar musically (they aren’t) and that the first two lines of the Beatles song – “Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly” – was too close to a line of Chuck’s: “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”. They settled out of court with John promising to record three future songs that were controlled by the same copyright owner. The result was Lennon recording “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Ya Ya” for his excellent 1975 album of covers “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (his “Stand By Me” is spectacular).

Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. I mean, that’s it, right? The two legends together are probably the most influential artists in rock history. EP covered Chuck in early 1964. Presley was experiencing  his first dry spell on the charts and he had latched on to Chuck’s “Memphis, Tennessee” for his next single. Memphis, after all, was Elvis’ hometown and he worked hard on getting just the right sound for his recording, a recording Presley believed would restore his standing on the pop charts. At this time, Elvis and his buds were living in Elvis’ Los Angeles home and when they were not at the studio working on “Memphis”, they were kicking it around in the living room and talking excitedly about the track. Hanging around the house at the time was singer Johnny Rivers. Elvis biographers and many ‘Memphis Mafia’ books report that Elvis felt betrayed when, after sharing his hopes about the song with the boys with Rivers in attendance, Rivers himself released a version of “Memphis” of his own and watched it rise to #2. Elvis was deflated and felt that releasing his version now would just seem exploitative. Rivers and Chuck Berry himself have claimed that the move by Rivers was not malicious but simply orchestrated by Rivers’ record label. No matter. Johnny Rivers became persona non grata with Elvis and the boys and is a minor villain in ‘Elvis World’. Presley went to Chuck again for a track that easily ranks among the top ten Elvis Presley recordings of all time; 1973’s “Promised Land”. In terms of energy and flat-out, driving, pedal-to-the-metal power, it’s hard to find an EP recording that tops this. Adding to the coolness level of this recording is the fact that it was recorded at the famed Stax Studio in Memphis and features some stellar clavinet. It’s hard to do justice in words to Presley’s recording of this track; you have to listen to it. A lot. Interesting to note that Berry wrote this song while incarcerated in 1961-62 for violating the Mann Act. He has said that while writing the song he wanted to study an atlas to confirm some of the lyrics but one wouldn’t be provided. It may prove too helpful in planning an escape route.

There’s been many other fantastic covers of Chuck’s songs. They make for great listening because when you’ve got a well-written rock song and an artist who wants to pay homage and at the same time sink his teeth in and put his own stamp on a song, the results quite often are good. Cases in point include the Animals and their scintillating “Around and Around”, Electric Light Orchestra’s soaring version of “Roll Over Beethoven” and Rod Stewart (back when he was cool) tearing a strip off “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”, with the help of a rabid dog. I’ve tried here to provide details on some of the earliest stand-out covers of Chuck Berry’s songs. The three artists we looked at here are as big as you get and it’s telling that they’ve all notably – NOTABLY – tackled Chuck Berry’s music with interesting and exciting results. But the list of other artists to cover Berry is extensive. And varied. Everyone from Wyclef Jean to Uriah Heap. From Tanya Tucker to Peter Tosh. I haven’t even touched on the Rolling Stones’ fantastic Chuck run-throughs in their early days and gritty bluesman George Thorogood’s devotion to Chuck’s songs. But if you check the lists of artists who have covered Chuck, you’ll see that his music has been visited most by three of the biggest artists in music history. What does that tell you?

Thanks, Chuck.

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Your Guide to Winter Movies

I find that my viewing and listening habits are quite often tied to the calendar. I gravitate to certain movies and types of music depending on what time of year it is. For instance, springtime always makes me want to listen to oldies or Huey Lewis and the News. In the summer, I want to watch Beach Party movies. It comes down to wanting what I’m watching, listening to or reading to compliment the time of year. I find I simply get more ‘out of’ jazz in the fall, for example. I don’t always like to lock myself down to this sort of thing (it’s November. You must watch James Bond movies!) but then again I can’t deny that I do enjoy certain things more at certain times.

Every winter time, there are many things I find I turn to for entertainment. A lot of these things come from personal experience and history. Western movies, for example, are not specifically tied to the winter but for me they are. During the winter of 2003-4, I came down with double environmental pneumonia and spent a lot of time in bed. So, I watched movies and, not wanting to get up and change the movie for a long time, I chose one of the longest movies I owned at the time, “The Alamo”. Ever since then, I feel like watching westerns in the winter. I’ve also found that there are a handful of movies I love that happen to take place in the winter. I really enjoy watching these in January and February and here’s the main reason why. When my family and I are ‘suffering’ through a cold, snowy winter, I feel the need to watch other people struggling, too. I like to see how other people cope. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. Watching certain movies shows me you can still have fun in the winter, get in adventures, dress sharp and not only survive your environment but master it, as well. In addition, most ‘winter movies’ just don’t go down the same in the dead of summer. Sometimes it seems flat out wrong. There are also a handful of movies I enjoy during winter because they depict characters who escape inclement weather and head to sunny climes. These are a bit of a cheat, though, as the bulk of the movie generally takes place in the sun but it’s still enjoyable to see people do what you’d like to do – jump in the car and escape to the sunny south. So, January and February become a cozy, hide-in-the-basement season, watching hockey and winter movies. What follows is basically a guide to some of the best movies to enjoy during the first two frigid months of the year. I’ve sort of ranked them in terms of their ‘essential winter viewing’ status.

“THE PINK PANTHER” (1964) The glory of this film perhaps has become skewed over the years due to the sequels and their depiction of the forever bumbling French Detective Jacques Clouseau. Throughout the ’70’s, Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers made these films in a forever broadening slapstick style, with the outrageously inept Clouseau being continually surprise-attacked by his sidekick, Kato. But the original film was quite different. The first installment was actually planned as the first of a series of films featuring the adventures of Sir Charles Litton, the famous cat burglar, portrayed by David Niven. The unbilled star of this film, though, is Cortina d’Ampezzo, a tiny ski town in the Italian Alps. Most of the movie takes place here and the scenery is gorgeous. Instead of slapstick, this first installment of the series is a straight-up cocktail movie. Apres ski, as they say. Great shots of the mountains and skiing, dreamy scenes by the fire with Henry Mancini’s gorgeous soundtrack playing, and great looking men and women in sweaters. I always say when I watch this movie: “If it has to be winter, why can’t it be Cortina?”

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“THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS” (1967) Perhaps the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, this film has gained a reputation as one of the ‘worst’ films in history. It’s outlandish dialogue and over the top soap opera plot have garnered it many bad reviews, parodies, one bad ‘sequel’ and the disdain of the critics. As often happens, though, at the same time this movie has gained a faithful following of ardent fans who love it. Most of them say that it’s so bad it’s wonderful and they love it although they know it’s ridiculous. I can see their point and I tend to agree but every time I watch this movie I come away saying that there is some real depth in the story it tells and it really packs a lot of entertainment value. Quickly, the story tracks the lives and careers of three women. Their ups and downs, successes and failures, their men and their ‘dolls’ – the prescription drugs that they all indulge in to varying degrees. The winter aspect comes in to play in a very significant way. One of the girls, Anne Welles, is depicted as coming from a rural New England home, a home that has known many crippling winters. Her dreams lead her to New York City and from there she ends up in sunny California, successful, wealthy but unhappy and addicted to ‘dolls’. Here’s the thing: to ‘cleanse’ herself and reset her life, she goes home. Home where it’s full-on winter and to me that speaks to the idea that winter can represent comfort and home, childhood, family and a wholesome, safe lifestyle. To me, it’s an intriguing and sensitive theme to show up in a film like this. As a side note, I researched the filming locations for this film and found that Anne’s house in “Lawrenceville” is actually the Samuel Jarvis house in the pictuesque historic town of Redding, Connecticut. The house dates from the 1790’s. I got some help on this from the fine folks at the Redding Historical Society.

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“BEAUTIFUL GIRLS” (1996) A rural “Swingers”, this movie, of all the movies I’ve loved in my life, is the only movie I’ve ever watched for the first time, then rewound and watched again. The late Ted Demme (nephew of director Jonathan Demme who directed “The Silence of the Lambs”) directed this story of a group of friends navigating the pitfalls of adulthood in small town Minnesota in February. As I said in my opening, here’s a great example of a depiction of characters coping well with winter weather. Some of the boys run a landscaping business so falling snowflakes means going to work with the plows. They hang out indoors – even engage in some video game hockey a la “Swingers” – and bundle up and spend some guy time in an ice fishing hut.  A great wintertime location shoot combines with a great cast here.  Matt Dillon, Timothy Hutton, Lauren Holly, Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Uma Thurman, Sam Robards and David Arquette. Great movie. Funny.

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“GRUMPY OLD MEN” (1993)  A delightful comedy for the whole family. Pretty much. Aimed at the senior citizen set, this film stars legendary film actors Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Buck Henry and Ossie Davis as senior citizens coping with getting older and being alone in the fictional town of Wabasha, Minnesota. This film is wonderful on so many levels not the least of which is the delightful Jack Lemmon wearing nice thick sweaters and relaxing in his ice fishing shack. A great story with charming characters and another depiction of people living happily in the snow during the winter. And not only are they surviving the winter but they are enjoying it. There’s just something comforting about watching people put on a toque and mitts and shoveling out their vehicles. And this is another film on this list that makes ice fishing look awfully nice.

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“NOBODY’S FOOL” (1994)  The legendary Paul Newman garnered yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sully, a “spry ne’er-do-well” living in snowy North Bath, New York. This is a film of the highest quality with a good cast including Melanie Griffith and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Also stars Jessica Tandy who passed away before this film was released and also an uncredited Bruce Willis. This was at the time in his career when Bruce was reinventing the ‘cameo’ and working without a credit was something he did a couple of times at this junction. He was not involved in the promotion for this film due to his action star status.  It’s R rated, this film, and I must admit that winter does not play a major role here but again it’s cold and snowy and that makes for good watching when it’s 40 below.

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“DEATH HUNT” (1981) A renowned film that most guys of a certain generation have seen and have fond memories of. Charles Bronson heads up a great cast and portrays Albert Johnson – “The Mad Trapper” – a real-life Canadian fugitive who was hunted by the Canadian Mounties in the early 1930’s. Filmed partly in Alberta, this film – like “Nobody’s Fool” – is of the highest quality. The film, also, is a great depiction of life in the ‘Yukon’: the dogsleds, the mountains, the cabins, the barren wastelands. Also starring Lee Marvin, Carl Weathers, Angie Dickinson and Andrew Stevens.

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“THIN ICE” (1937)/”HIT THE ICE” (1943)/”LOST IN ALASKA” (1952) Here’s a great classic movie triple feature, perfect for snowy afternoons. “Thin Ice” is a charming film starring Olympic skater, Sonja Henie and handsome Tyrone Power. Lili is a skating instructor in the Alps and starts hitting the slopes with Prince Rudolph who is traveling incognito! “Hit the Ice” is a vehicle for the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In this film, the boys get mixed up with some bank robbers and flee to a lovely mountain resort. Costello saves the day by becoming a human snowball! And then Abbott and Costello are back and they are “Lost in Alaska”. In this episode, they team up with a gold prospector to help him get his girl back. All the family friendly laughs center around the frozen north: igloos, polar bears, avalanches, the works

“NORTH TO ALASKA” (1960)/”THE FAR COUNTRY” (1954) Here’s a couple of great films from mid-century that have similar Technicolor looks to them. Both take place in the Yukon. “North to Alaska”, really, doesn’t have a lot of snow on display despite some scenes shot in the Yukon. The plot does deal with some gold mining and life in general at the top of the globe. The film itself is excellent. John Wayne stars and is surrounded by a fine cast featuring Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs and Fabian. “The Far Country” also stars a Hollywood legend, James Stewart. Shot partially in Alberta, it is another great story of the gold rush. Stewart drives a herd of cattle up to Dawson and ends up in the gold business. Although he tries hard not to, he gets in deep trying to purge a town of corruption and lawlessness. Some great scenery, some romantic entanglements and another quality film.

“SKI PARTY” (1965)/”WINTER A-GO-GO” (1965) Here’s two for fans of the wonderfully corny beach party movies. In these two, the gang leaves the beaches of Malibu for the snowy mountain slopes. “Ski Party” features the gang from the actual beach party movies from American International Studios. Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman star as guys who go undercover in an effort to figure out the opposite sex, represented here by Deborah Walley and Yvonne Craig. All this lunacy takes place on the slopes of gorgeous Sun Valley, Idaho. Great scenery – indoors and outdoors – some actual comedy, mostly supplied by Aron Kincaid, and a couple great songs. James Brown and His Famous Flames make an appearance in what I’m sure are the whitest surroundings they ever performed in. You should watch just to see the Godfather of Soul’s legs move. “Winter a-Go-Go” is just as dumb and just as delightful. It stars James Stacy and William Wellman, Jr. as two good looking young guys who inherit a ski lodge in Heavenly Valley (actually Lake Tahoe and El Dorado National Forest in eastern California) and stock it with a bunch of hotties. Some good skiing sequences and lots of great sweaters. Musical acts include the Nooney Rickett Four (love that name). And keep an eye out for Paul Gleason among the extras. He’s young here but you’ll recognize him from his role as the mean teacher Mr. Vernon in “The Breakfast Club”and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in “Die Hard”. Cute film that actually ends with a wedding; rare for one of these teenybopper movies.

“GIRL HAPPY” (1965)/”WHERE THE BOYS ARE” (1960) We wrap up the list with a couple of cheaters. These two films actually represent an entire different sub-genre that require their own post: the ‘escape movie’. By that I don’t mean prison escape, like “Shawshank” or “Escape from Alcatraz” but films that portray characters escaping the winter and inclement weather. These movies are great to watch late in February when winter is nearing it’s end and you’re ready to leave the snow behind and pivot towards the spring. Here’s two pleasant and simple escape movies. “Girl Happy” is one of the better Elvis Presley movies, one of three he made with his favourite co-star Shelley Fabares. This is the only King Movie in which you see snow (in fact, there’s only four or five of Elvis’ movies that show inclement weather at all). Elvis plays Rusty Wells and he and his buds (including Gary Crosby, Bing’s son) leave snowy Chicago and head to Fort Lauderdale to keep an eye on Shelley, a gangster’s daughter. Some great scenes here in whatever is passing for Fort Lauderdale and – like most of Presley’s films – this is an easy-going, fun watch. Ditto “Where the Boys Are”. There’s a little more meat to this plot as a group of kids head to Fort Lauderdale and learn hard lessons about sex – consensual and not so much – and making the move to adulthood. This film begins with our pretty female co-eds Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Stevens struggling to get to class in a blizzard. They all agree to take Connie’s car and escape for Easter Break in Florida. While there, they run into an amorous trio of guys played engagingly by George Hamilton, Jim Hutton and Frank Gorshin. Unlike “Girl Happy”, here we see some great locations in actual Fort Lauderdale including the famous “Elbo Room”, a bar that still exists. There’s something really delightful in watching people do what you’d sometimes like to do; go from battling the wind and snow of a fierce winter and get in your car and drive south. “Where the Boys Are” provides that and also throws in a lovely, coming-of-age story.

Like Bing Crosby said: “looks like a cold, cold winter”. So, head to the basement and light up a nice, smelly candle and escape with one of these cozy, fireside treats.

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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 yielding 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 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 6 – Comeback

It’s Saturday of Elvis Week! Day 6: Comeback – Elvis Presley began to climb out of the rut his career had gotten into on September 10, 1967 when he recorded a cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”. This marked the beginning of a determination on Presley’s part to get back to being a recording artist. Someone who sought out and found good songs that he wanted to put his particular stamp on and make them his own. Into 1968, Presley began to put his energy into recording non-movie songs. These quality tracks returned Presley to the top 40 on the charts and began to give people the indication that a change was afoot.

Like so many other things in his career, it was simply called “Elvis”. It was an NBC TV special that was sponsored by the Singer sewing machine company. Col. Parker, putting forth yet another bad idea, wanted it to be a program of Christmas songs. But Elvis had other things in mind. It helped that the TV special was being produced by Steve Binder, a man who was determined to use this special to return Presley to relevance. The legend goes that, before starting work on the special, Binder took Elvis out onto Sunset Blvd. and had him walk around a bit. No one recognized the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Whether or not this is true, Elvis’ ‘street cred’ had suffered and he was serious in his preparation for this special and he looked better than he had in years. The highlight of what came to be called “the ’68 Comeback Special” was the time that black-leather-clad Elvis spent sitting ‘in the round’ with some of the boys jamming, banging out some of the old songs. The raw, gritty ferocity Presley displayed was a revelation to the rock press and to the record-buying public. There are two or three ‘moments’ in Elvis Presley’s career that are ‘definitive’. The ’68 special is one of them.

With a new fire in his belly, Presley made the decision to hold his next recording session back home in Memphis. With young, hip session musicians and a savvy producer in Chips Moman, King turned out some of his best recordings at American Sound Studios in Memphis in 1969. With a mature, contemporary, blue-eyed soul sound, records like “Kentucky Rain”, “In the Ghetto”, “Don’t Cry Daddy” and particularly “Suspicious Minds” not only returned EP to the top of the charts but brought him back to respectability.

Into the 1970’s and King is riding high, enjoying chart success, a freedom from Hollywood and looking and sounding maybe better than he ever had. Keep in mind there was a time when Las Vegas was a respectable and lucrative place for entertainers to set up shop. At the dawn of the ’70’s Presley brought his shows to the hotels in Vegas and set and/or broke attendance records in the desert. Then in January of ’73 a concert in Hawaii was broadcast via satellite and beamed around the world. Presley performed definitive versions of some ’70’s concert staples and it was another pinnacle of his career. Even the new arbiter of all that was hip in music – Rolling Stone Magazine – lauded his efforts. The King had reclaimed his crown.

And then the Colonel’s dark specter loomed once again.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 5 – Hollywood

Day 5: Hollywood – Released from the Army in 1960, Elvis Presley found himself right back in uniform. King went straight to Hollywood to play Specialist Tulsa McLean in “G.I. Blues”. This film is actually a great example of what is good and what is bad about King Movies. “G.I. Blues” is probably his most comedic film that features one of his best comedic performances. Presley breezes through the film with confidence, sings some great songs, and looks fantastic. The cast is pretty good and King interacts with them well and delivers some funny lines with impeccable comedic timing. On the flip side, however, there are some key things wrong with the film that unfortunately became part of the ‘formula’. The bulk of the film takes place in Germany but of course Presley never shot any scenes there. He’s acting up against a screen for some scenes and for others a stand-in is used. The cast, as I said, is not bad but some of the actors are the goofy, lightweight type that we will see ad nauseam in the films to come. Along with the great songs are some lame ones and the soundtrack ‘features’ a lullaby sang to a baby. His next two films were serious dramas, both excellent: “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”. They weren’t received well and performed relatively poorly at the box office so he found himself back in a playful romp, the greatest of all King Movies and my favourite film ever, “Blue Hawaii”. This film featured an exotic locale, pretty girls and 14, count ’em, 14 songs and became Presley’s most successful film. So, the die was cast. People didn’t want to see Serious Elvis. They wanted Fun Elvis. And that’s the paradox: you know “G.I. Blues” and “Blue Hawaii” became the blueprint for every derivative and lightweight film to follow and you wished he would make more serious films. But, man, Fun Elvis is so enjoyable!

The films of Elvis Presley deserve to be studied at length. Presley’s time in Hollywood needs it’s own book or website – I’ve been making notes to this end for years. There is a general and widespread misconception regarding them. Not about their quality, unfortunately, but about the level of enjoyment they – and many other ‘bad’ movies, for that matter – can provide. As I say, there is a paradox at work here: you find yourself frustrated with the lack of quality of most of the films while at the same time you are enjoying them immensely. Again, it’s so hard to accurately and thoroughly report on this area of Presley’s career in such a short space. I think it can be summed up thusly: the years Elvis spent in Hollywood are the years when Col. Tom Parker did the most damage to his client’s reputation. It’s also the time when Parker’s business practices reached the height of thievery and the pinnacle of abuse of power. In a nutshell, basically every deal Parker made in Hollywood for ‘his boy’ succeeded in benefiting himself more than Elvis and showed a blatant disregard for the effect that releasing a succession of family-friendly, light comedy films overloaded with poor songs would have on the reputation and legacy of his only client. Elvis’ acting ability was undervalued and commerce was not only valued by Parker over art but was held up as the only reason to be in Hollywood.

Now the good news. Elvis Presley’s 33 films are infinitely enjoyable. From a strictly critical standpoint, they are hard to defend. They are the very definition of ‘guilty pleasures’. Elvis Presley loved to go to movies as a young man and when the opportunity came to go to Hollywood to make his own films he jumped at the chance and had aspirations of following in James Dean’s footsteps. He wanted to make serious films with no singing. His first four films showed promise: these four showed him in his natural, untamed state, the songs he was made to sing were, for the most part, good – some even great – and he was surrounded by quality actors. Also, keep in mind that in one of them he shoots his brother and in two others he kills men; one he kills with a switchblade in an alley. They were gritty, vibrant and two of them were the best dramas he ever made. But the evil colonel’s plan went into effect when Elvis returned from the Army. And so began a cycle of film contracts that benefited Elvis, yes, but the Colonel even more, box office hits mostly bereft of any artistic quality and songs so asinine that, taken out of the context of the films they were used in, they are slight, ridiculous tripe. It’s even baffling to me that this is what qualified as an album release by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1960’s. Soundtracks. Eight to twelve tracks from the movie with maybe a spare leftover song from the past to flesh it out. The Colonel’s theory was that the films would sell the records and the records would sell the films. For financial reasons, the Colonel had his own stable of songwriters and they filled the movies with songs about fat men overeating, songs about shrimp, about how hard it is to dance in a small vehicle and lullabies sung to babies and small children. They were plot devices not songs. The movies gradually began to feature poor casts and ridiculously claustrophobic studio and back-projection filming techniques. And yet…and yet. Much like Cary Grant and John Wayne, Elvis Presley exuded a natural charisma and a magnetic personality that allowed him to basically play himself in most of his films. And it’s this charm above all other things that makes them so enjoyable. As for the soundtracks, as ridiculous as some of the songs are, Presley’s voice, his style of singing and his way with a song makes a lot of them more-than-listenable. It also helps that there are some genuine gems to be found in these films. The movies are wonderful as ‘comfort viewing’. Often they feature great photography of some beautiful locales, great looking female co-stars, they feature scenarios and lifestyles that any young (or young at heart) person would love to find themselves in and they feature Elvis being Elvis.

By 1967, though, Presley had had enough. He wanted – needed – the exhilaration of live performance again. So, the wheels were set in motion to stop making movies and get back to making records and back to the concert stage. Author Alana Nash has written a mesmerizing book on Col. Tom Parker and his relationship with EP. In this book, she puts forth an astounding notion. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. As previously stated, Parker had a stable of songwriters who were not affiliated with Elvis because they were great songwriters but because they were willing to give up a large percentage of their portion of the profits gained from songwriting to Colonel Tom. These songwriters simply did not have what it took to write songs with a style or a quality to rival the output of Bob Dylan, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Therefore, Elvis spending the bulk of the 1960’s in the vacuum of Hollywood and the family-friendly musical comedy served to preserve his celebrity and keep him visible during this turbulent, political era. Talent and charisma aside, the notion is put forth by author Nash that Presley did not have the apparatus in place to stay relevant during the music scene of the ’60’s. The movies kept him alive in the industry until the time was ripe to bust out of the celluloid prison he was trapped in.

When he emerged, he embarked on a season of artistry that rivaled the significance of his first years. His timing was perfect. Yet again.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 4 – Private Presley

Welcome to Day 4 of Elvis Week 2017! It’s the week-long celebration of the 82nd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth. Today’s episode…

Day 4: Private Presley – It was 1958. Elvis Presley had revolutionized the music business and much of society. It’s hard to overstate the historic and cultural changes that began to take place in the mid-Fifties that EP was at the forefront of. By this point, he had bought Graceland and was at what some would say was his artistic peak. That was when Uncle Sam came calling. A two-year hitch in the Armed Forces was required of American young men at that time and King was no different. They allowed him the time to finish his finest film containing one of his two best dramatic performances – “King Creole” – and then it was off to Germany where he was stationed. Col. Tom Parker thought this was great publicity. He refused to have ‘his boy’ in the Special Services and thought it would be great for Presley’s image to have him simply soldiering with the rest of the fellas. Elvis’ hitch in the Army was major news at the time and his induction and most of his movements getting over to Germany were heavily scrutinized by the media. And Presley was worried. Worried what condition his career would be in when he got out. Two years away in the entertainment industry of the 1950’s, in particular, was a long time. Parker held back recordings to be doled out at particular intervals to maintain the flow of new material while Elvis was away. But Presley wasn’t the only one worried. Gladys Presley was terrified by the prospect of her boy getting hurt or killed while in the Army. This worry was only slightly quelled when Elvis’ parents and grandmother, Minnie Mae, were relocated to a house near where Elvis was stationed in Germany. Unfortunately, Gladys began to gain weight and to experience a decline in her health. She was diagnosed with hepatitis and her condition gradually worsened. She died in August of ’58. Elvis was devastated. We talked on Day 1 about how close Elvis was to his mother. Her death was a major blow to him and one wonders if the rest of his life and career would have been different – perhaps more stable, grounded – if she had lived. This is a huge element of his story to consider. Again I have to say that there are so many facets of the life of Elvis Presley to explore that it’s hard to do it in so short a space. Consider his hitch in the Army alone. While in the Armed Forces, his mother died, he took up karate, he experienced international travel for the only time in his life, he was introduced to amphetamines and he met his future wife, Priscilla. All of these could be dissected in detail. Yet another huge element arising out of this time in Elvis’ life is the plan the Colonel came up with for his one and only client’s career when he emerged from the Armed Forces. While Presley had been in the Army, rock ‘n’ roll had suffered an extreme watering down. The Colonel thought it only logical that now was the time for his boy to reinvent himself as an entertainer for all ages. The edgy rebelliousness of rock might fall out of favour with the bulk of the record-buying public. It was risky. But someone who made wholesome films the whole family could enjoy? Now, that seemed like a sure thing.

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