Red West: One of the Good Ones

Robert Gene “Red” West died this past July, aged 81, of an aortic aneurysm. He had “pains” in the afternoon and, by evening, he was dead. Red is probably best known as a longtime “bodyguard” of Elvis Presley. They met in high school and formed a bond that lasted until 1977, the year Elvis died. As this month we mark to 40th anniversary of Presley’s death, it’s timely to take a quick look at the interesting life of Red West.

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Red and Elvis boxing, June 14, 1956

Red was born is Memphis and attended Humes High School with his cousin, Sonny West, at the same time Elvis did. Red was a strapping, red-headed athlete and knew Elvis only by sight when he came upon a group of toughs hassling Elvis in the boys bathroom. Quiet Elvis, with his slick hair piled up in a pompadour and guitar slung over his shoulder, was regularly the brunt of teasing. Famously, Red confronted the gang and managed to extricate Elvis from the situation. A friendship was born. Red went on to occupy a unique position in “Elvis World”. Never a sycophantic ‘yes man’, Red was something unique to Elvis: he was his friend. That’s not to say that their relationship ran smoothly. Far from it. But through it all I think it can be seen that Red’s motives were pure in his relations with Elvis even though Red was strong-willed enough to go toe-to-toe with his boss at times. Also, as we’ll see, he was more than capable of operating and earning outside of just working for Elvis. Keep in mind that “working for Elvis” meant a lot of good things but it also meant that you never had money of your own.

Red West was nothing if not a “good, ol’ boy” and he and Elvis hit it off instantly when they met. It floored Red when he heard his buddy on the radio and it was soon after that Elvis decided he wanted Red around so Red began driving Elvis and his band to dates. Red also tackled the challenging job of simply getting Elvis from the car to the stage door which became increasingly difficult as Elvis’ publicity soared and the girls that went to these concerts began to grow more and more demonstrative. As we’ve discussed, Red was big, strong and hot-headed. Simply put, if you stepped to him it was lights out for you. On the eve of Elvis heading to Hollywood to make his first movie, Red got into another fight. Elvis’ father, Vernon, was petrified of bad publicity and had the first of his shouting matches with Red, telling Red he was not going to make the trip to Hollywood. Red, mostly disappointed that Elvis did not have his back, blew a gasket and said he was quitting to join the Marines, which he did. Already we see Red’s “no BS” policy in effect. While many would endure anything and toe the line to ensure a free ride through life with Elvis Presley, Red wasn’t having it and quit.

Two years later came the event that perhaps is the most significant in “Elvis World”; the death of Elvis’ beloved mother, Gladys. Months before her death, Red showed up in Memphis on a two-week leave from the Marines. He learned that Elvis was in Hollywood but stopped by Graceland to pay his respects to Mrs. Presley. Before he left, Gladys implored him – as indeed she did any and all of those in EP’s circle – to “look after my boy”, indicating plainly the anxiety and worry that had plagued her since her only child had become famous. Red called Elvis from Memphis and King flew Red out to the coast, Red arriving on the set at Paramount a “crew-cut hick” in his Marine uniform. He spent the rest of his leave hanging out with Elvis in the California sun and then headed back to camp in Virginia. In August of 1958, Gladys Presley died and Elvis was beside himself. As soon as Red heard of his friends’ distress, he asked for leave from the Marines and was denied. However, later that same day, Red learned that his own father was gravely ill and was heading home to be with him when he received word that he had passed. He was unable to attend Gladys’ funeral but was dumbfounded when Elvis appeared at the funeral for Red’s father. Elvis, only two days removed from laying his beloved mother to rest and still overcome with grief, almost had to be helped over to Red where the two wept together. Elvis lamented the fact that just two days earlier he had been in the same funeral home for Gladys’ services  and now he was joining his friend in his sorrow over his father. At this moment was born a unique bond between Red West and Elvis Presley; they each had lost a parent on the same day.

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Margit Burgin, Elvis and Red, Bad Homburg, Germany, October, 1958

Elvis was in the Army going through his basic training when Gladys died. Shortly after, still mourning the loss of his mother, he prepared to ship out to Germany. On the eve of his departure, Red, fresh out of the Marines, came to say goodbye. On a whim, Elvis asked Red to come with him and he did. Mostly, Elvis desperately needed people with him; his friends, people from back home who ‘knew’ him and that would have been reason enough to have Red in Germany with him. But there was more than that. Red – and others – have been called ‘bodyguards’ but they had to do much more. There was always plans to be made and details to look after and Elvis never actually traveled with a ‘staff’ so ‘the guys’ looked after things. But protecting Elvis from overzealous fans could be a full-time job and Red did it well. Red was sometimes VERY aggressive when carrying out his duties and there was often fights. Once again, Elvis’  father, Vernon, would be sick with worry over the potential of bad press and would get into screaming matches with Red. And, once again, Red got fed up and quit.

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Red and Elvis jam on the set of “It Happened at the World’s Fair”, 1963

Returning Stateside, Red traveled to Hollywood where he looked up people he had met through Elvis, people like Nick Adams and Robert Conrad both of whom had their own TV shows. Robert Conrad was making “Hawaiian Eye” and later “Wild, Wild West” and Red was able to find regular stunt work on these and other television shows. When Elvis returned from Germany in 1960, he tracked down Red and they renewed their friendship. It wasn’t long before Elvis was heading to Hollywood to start his movie-making machine throughout the ’60’s. He used Red often and the sharp-eyed can spot him in the films. He was usually the first guy to attack Elvis when the fight broke out. Interesting when you think of actors back then and the way they liberally used stunt men for even the most innocuous looking scrap. But here was Elvis and Red, a couple of redneck hillbilly boys, getting paid to do on camera what they had always done for kicks down at Graceland. Sometimes Red even got to say a few lines. He portrayed Elvis’ brother in “Wild in the Country”, for example. One of the many interesting things about Red West was that even with his athletic prowess and his proficiency as a street fighter, he was also a songwriter. He began to make inroads in the music industry by writing songs, making a demo recording featuring himself singing and then shopping it around to see if someone would record it. Quite often, he would present these songs to Elvis and the King recorded many of them: “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”, “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and the incredibly heartbreaking “Separate Ways”. This means that Red West, a “bodyguard”, wrote better material for Elvis than some of the professional songwriters writing songs for Elvis’ movies. Red’s involvement in EP’s recording career went even deeper. Often times Elvis could not be bothered to appear at the recording studio to decide on and record songs for his movies. Red was often recruited to go to the studio, sift through AND CHOOSE the songs that Elvis would sing in the movies. Once the songs were picked, Red would record them with the band, singing them in the way he knew Elvis would. He would then take the recordings to Elvis so Elvis could learn them before going in to record them properly. Red also joined Elvis in his passion for karate, sparring with Elvis and for a time running a karate school in Memphis. When Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla was on the rocks, she took up with renown karate instructor Mike Stone. Elvis was enraged. He was determined to have Stone killed. Who did he turn to? Red West. West recalls he felt he was in a daze while he arranged the weaponry and prepared to carry out any instruction Elvis gave him. Finally, Elvis cooled down and said ‘forget it. It’s too heavy’. Red breathed a sigh of relief.

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Sonny West, Elvis and Red, Atlanta Georgia, June 5, 1976

It’s common knowledge that the 1970’s saw a general decline in Elvis Presley’s health. A lot – but not all – of this was due to his use of pharmaceuticals. Red was especially persistent in trying to steer Elvis away from this lifestyle. Elvis always maintained that he knew what he was doing. He was not addicted and he knew how to use prescription drugs responsibly to relive his many ailments. In this negative atmosphere, with many close to Elvis becoming increasingly concerned with the changes in his habits and his sometimes violent reactions, everyone was on edge. In the mid-1970’s, there were a couple of instances when Elvis had his life threatened and his security staff had to be particularly vigilant. Quite often, certain lines may have been crossed in dealing with unruly fans. It was undoubtedly hard to tell, in the heat of the moment, who was a homicidal maniac and who was simply an excited fan. Again there were fights, beatings. Vernon – always petrified of being poor again and trying vainly to curb his son’s extravagant spending – continually questioned Elvis’ need of such a large ‘staff’ and when lawsuits started to mount up due to Red’s and others physicality, Vernon pushed through the idea of firing many employees. Three security men – Red West, his cousin and long-time Elvis associate Sonny West and newly arrived Dave Hebler were let go. By Vernon. Red West was hurt and angry. 22 years with Elvis and fired by Vernon without a word from Elvis. Here’s where the big debate regarding Red that polarizes many Elvis fans begins. Red is suddenly and cruelly expelled from the life of his long time friend. He is left without a job (although working for Elvis NEVER actually PAID much). He is angry, sure, at the way he’s been treated but also at the way Elvis is killing himself. In an effort to make money but also to hopefully prompt Elvis to right the ship, Red writes a book. Together with his cousin Sonny and Dave Hebler, they publish the infamous “Elvis: What Happened?”. The book is published in the summer of 1977, two weeks before Elvis dies. Knowing what we know about Elvis’ dependence on pharmaceuticals it’s tough to remember that, before Red’s book was released, the general public had no idea that anything was amiss in Elvis World. The book shocked the public and devastated Elvis. Red took a lot of flak over exposing many secrets as “silence” had long been the mantra of the Memphis Mafia. But let’s face hard facts: Elvis’ intake of prescription drugs was mammoth and – although he did indeed have legitimate health issues – over-prescribing himself was killing him. It has been suggested that Red, Sonny and Dave were the only ones of the inner circle who actively pestered Elvis to get his act together and this could be one of the reasons they were dismissed. Also, as I’ve explored in previous posts, Elvis’ father could never enjoy his son’s success as he lived in fear of one day being poor again. The Memphis Mafia were nothing but hangers-on according to Vernon and he NEVER wanted ANY of them around and this presents an obvious reason why the boys were fired. The debate rages in Elvis World: was Red motivated solely by greed or was he legitimately trying to help his friend by exposing his foibles? No one can say for sure. However, I’ve learned that analyzing the life and career of Elvis Presley is a massive undertaking.  There is so little black or white in his tale and so much room for conjecture. I have found that you need to have all the information. Consider many different accounts from many different sources. Mostly I think what you have to do is accept that Elvis was human. He was an incredibly charismatic man who lived a life that had no blueprint – NO ONE before him had trod a similar path. But he was human and, like all of us, heavily flawed. So when you take the case of Red West you have to look at the facts. Before Elvis was anything but an outcast, really, Red stood up for him – even though the two high school kids barely knew each other. He helped Elvis in the early days but then left to join the Marines. Elvis opened doors in Hollywood for Red, yes, but Red walked through most of them himself and built his own career and reputation in film. Red worked for Elvis through the ’60’s but also found success working with other artists and wrote some high quality material for Elvis. Three prominent members of Elvis’ inner circle wrote a massive book on their lives with the King. In it, they agree that Red wrote his book to make money – naturally. After all, he had a story to tell that many people would want to hear. But they also all agree that NO ONE was closer to or loved Elvis more than Red West. And, while we’re facing facts, most of the claims in Red’s book have been proved accurate. In the summer of ’77, a shocking book is published with hard-to-believe allegations about Presley’s drug use – allegations that had NEVER been raised before. Then TWO WEEKS after this ‘outrageous’ book is published, Elvis Presley dies a drug-related death. You really have to look up the facts and draw your own conclusions.

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The infamous book, released two weeks before Elvis died.

 

After Red’s life with Elvis came to a close, he became a full-time actor earning a recurring role in Robert Conrad’s series “Black Sheep Squadron”. He also made guest appearances in many television shows throughout the 1980’s. He is perhaps best known to audiences for his role in the classic Patrick Swayze film “Roadhouse”. He also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”. Unbeknownst to just about everybody, he gained his first starring role in the 2008 independent film “Goodbye Solo”. Roger Ebert called it “a masterwork” and the New York Times hailed it as “a near-perfect film”.

A major player in the life of Elvis Presley has died this year, the 40th anniversary of the death of the King. The Memphis Mafia is never included in official family business in Memphis during the annual Elvis Week marking the anniversary of his passing but this year Red and his wife of 56 years, Pat (Red met Pat when she was a secretary for Elvis) were going to be involved in some events with longtime Elvis associate, disc jockey George Klein. Unfortunately, that won’t happen now. It’s this Elvis fan’s opinion that Red West gets a pass. He gets the benefit of the doubt. There really is too much evidence to support the deep love that flowed between Red and Elvis. They went back too far together and Red had too many more options outside of Elvis to make any of Red’s actions purely mercenary. One of the many sad parts of Elvis’ story is the people he left behind. People who lost a son, a grandson, a father and a friend. Many people were left behind to suffer with sadness, frustration, anger and guilt. Red West was one of these people. And he was one of the good ones.

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Vernon Presley, Elvis and Red, Chicago, 1972

 

 

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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 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 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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Elvis Week 2017: Day 3 – 1956

Elvis Presley was born 82 years ago this coming Sunday. That makes this Elvis Week! We’re looking back on his life and career in seven all-too-brief segments.

Day 3: 1956 – Sam Phillips called it. History has venerated him as the man who first heard the potential in Elvis Presley. Not only that but he knew that this was the performer and this was the time and place for a new and energetic sound. The sound began sweeping the nation and Sam Phillips’ record label – Sun Records – released five records by EP that were successful in the south in late 1955. But then Sam started to quiver financially under the weight of promoting the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll star and when the opportunity arose to sell Presley’s contract to RCA Records for $35,000, he sealed the deal and spent the money building up the careers of other singers that got their starts at Sun: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others. So, at the dawn of 1956, Elvis Presley had a new record deal and a new manager. He began to go national. In January, he began appearing on variety shows of the day and he would literally tear those television studios apart. Any and all young people in the audience were beside themselves with glee watching this young man sing and play music that they were just beginning to appreciate. And then there was the effect that his inability to stand still while he sang had on the audience. Middle-aged people were sure it was some sort of a gimmick but the kids were drawn to everything about him. The music he played and the way he played it, the clothes he wore, the way he moved. In March, his eponymous debut album was released. It featured covers of some black R&B tunes but unlike some other white artists of the time, when Presley covered an R&B tune he didn’t water it down. Quite the opposite. The cover of this album featured Presley in wild abandon with a guitar strapped around his shoulders. This image played a crucial role in putting the guitar front and center of this new music. He recorded some his most recognizable songs early in the year among them “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”; the latter of which he performed which such ‘vigor’ on the Milton Berle show that his performance touched off a powder keg of criticism regarding his singing style and ability and mostly his unbridled enthusiasm and gyrations when he sang. Steve Allen had Presley on his show and made a big deal of how he was presenting a “new Elvis”, dressing EP in a tuxedo and tails and having him restrain himself as he sang. That night Allen beat his biggest rival Ed Sullivan in the ratings. This forced Sullivan to have Presley appear, even though Sullivan had said he wouldn’t have Presley on because his was “a family show”. Elvis’ first appearance on the Sullivan show was viewed by 60 million people – a record 82.6% of the TV audience. It was this appearance that really put him over the top. His second album was released in October. It went to number one. In November, he appeared in his first film, “Love Me tender”. I have found in writing this that it is very difficult to fully appreciate the impact Elvis Presley had on the public during the year 1956. Literally everything began to change because of the exposure and the success he had during these twelve months. The year ended with a front page article in the Wall Street Journal that reported that $22 million worth of EP merchandise had been sold that year – on top of record sales. Also, at RCA – one of the biggest record labels in the business – Presley had accounted for over 50% of the label’s singles sales. We have to end with the words of historian Marty Jezer to put 1956 in perspective: “As Presley set the artistic pace, other artists followed. … Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture.”

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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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