You can never have too much Elvis…
The story goes that Elvis’ domineering manager Colonel Tom Parker was a Dutch illegal immigrant to the States and that, once/if the authorities ever found out, he’d be extradited straight back to where he’d come from (“you can leave that phony made-up ‘Colonel’ title at the door, thank you very much, and you better get used to folk calling you Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk once again”). Consequently, poor Elvis never got to tour the world as a recording artist, the paranoid Colonel convinced that somewhere along the way his illegal alien status would be uncovered and the land of the brave and the home of the free wouldn’t let him back in. The only time Elvis saw anywhere other than the States was during his time in the US army based in Germany. But you knew that already.
Here in Ayrshire, any mention of Elvis is met with a slightly smug response. Prestwick Airport, just up the road from where I’m typing, is the *only British soil ever graced by the feet of The King, as he dropped past for a quick wave to his fans while his plane stopped to refuel between Germany and the US, and the folks of Ayrshire have quite rightly been dining out on this pop nugget ever since. For a long time, the airport was a tacky shrine to all things of a Presley persuasion, with his face/image/signature filling up much of the available wall space with all the faded glamour of a 1980’s Butlin’s burger bar. Disgraceland might’ve been a more apt name for it had they not de-Presley’d it slightly during a re-branding programme a few years ago.
*only British soil? Tommy Steele claims to have spent a day with Elvis in 1958, showing him the sights and sounds of the city of London. But, unlike the picture above, there’s no photographic proof that this ever occured, so here in Ayrshire we tend to gloss over the possibility. It ruins a perfect story. And it would be another costly re-branding exercise for our pokey wee airport.
Last weekend you may have caught the show on the telly featuring the nation’s favourite Elvis tracks. No surprises by any stretch of the imagination, but this got me thinking about those Elvis tracks that never get their time in the spotlight. For such a prolific recording artist, Elvis seems to have had his discography squashed and squeezed into an assortment of handy 20 track all-you-need compilations. Well, no. He’s never recorded the classic album, much of his output in the 60s was flowery soundtrack fodder and filler and his 70s material is almost considered a white jump-suited parody, but there’s more to Elvis’ music than you might think.
Who better to ask than pop scholar, member of St Etienne and author of Yeah Yeah Yeah (The Story of Modern Pop), Bob Stanley. I suppose this makes this feature a Six Of The Best of sorts….with Tupelo trainspotter Bob picking 10 rare-ish Elvis tracks and giving each one the briefest of moments in the spotlight. It’s by no means a definitive guide to the backwaters of Elvis (I’d have included Pocketful Of Rainbows and Stranger In This Town. You probably have others of your own,) but it’s a good springboard if you fancy diving into the murky depths of the Presley canon.
1. Blue Moon
Released in 1956, standard ballad Blue Moon was one of Elvis’ first recordings after leaving Sam Phillips and Sun Records for RCA.
Neither rock nor roll, country nor western, its eerie, distant, ghostly vocal and hillbilly clip-clopping rhythm sounds like some extra-terrestrial broadcast from a by-gone era. The fragile yin to Heartbreak Hotel‘s ferocious yang, Blue Moon is Elvis at his most unselfconscious and tender.
Elvis and his movies have always been a bit of a standing joke amongst ‘serious’ music fans who never really recovered from seeing their idol misdirected for a good decade or more through Colonel Tom’s none-too-subtle capitalistic urges in the chase for cold hard cash.
A shame, as there are some stone cold Elvis classics waiting to be discovered amongst the dusty grooves;
1958’s hit ‘n miss King Creole soundtrack included Crawfish, a southern gumbo of a duet between Elvis and Kitty White. Elvis and Kitty might sound like a pair of light opera singers high on hooch ‘n moonshine, but the sparse backing music is not a million miles away from anything Lux Interior would’ve been proud to add his name to. Crawfish also happens to be one of Joe Strummer’s favourite Elvis tracks.
3. Doin’ The Best I Can
Another from a movie, 1960’s GI Blues, Doin’ The Best I Can is perfect Elvis – the waltzing lilt, Scotty Moore’s subtle guitar picking, the brushed drums and The Jordanaires ethereal gospel doo-wop all coating the track in magic dust. The last track on GI Blues, it deserves a wider audience. Play it, love it as you will and pass it on.
4. Animal Instinct
Elvis released three (!) films each and every year in the 60s and Harum Scarum was one of 1965’s offering. Consider the pop landscape for a second – The Beatles were ingesting marjuana for breakfast and on the verge of becoming studio auteurs. Motown was in full four-to-the-floor swing. Elvis was out of touch releasing hokey films accompanied by what many consider to be his poorest musical output.
Harum Scarum (along with the previous year’s Roustabout) suffered the indignity of being ‘promoted’ without the release of an accompanying single. Animal Instinct was recorded for Harum Scarum and although it featured on the soundtrack LP, wasn’t actually used in the film instead. The track itself is a loungecore/exotica/rhumba hybrid, with a moody, kohl-eyed Elvis laying bare his sexual desires in none-too-dressed-up animalistic metaphors.
5. Please Don’t Stop Loving Me
From 1966’s Frankie And Johnny soundtrack.
Look out! Here come The Jordanaires and their measured pitch-perfect harmonies once again. The best sound in music, would you agree?
There’s a tinkling piano in the background and a ‘My Way‘ feel to the guitar riff (I think by Scotty Moore again) as Elvis gets down to full-on ballad mode and gives birth to a gazillion impersonators in the process. You were born… just to be…. in my arms…. in my arms…..your lips were made…just to be… kissed by me….kissed by me. Not a dry seat in the house, I’d wager.
6. Edge of Reality
From the soundtrack to 68’s Live A Little, Love A Little, Edge Of Reality was recorded at the same sessions as A Little Less Conversation. Whereas the latter’s throwaway lounge funk was designed solely for the displaying of the Elvis pelvis, Edge Of Reality showcases an Elvis vocal that verges on the edge of parody, all softly rolled ‘rs’ and a rich baritone croon that channels his inner Scott Walker. Edge Of Reality eventually found its way onto the b-side of If I Can Dream, although the loose-limbed Hal Blaine drum track and orchestral brass section wouldn’t sound out of place on an Isaac Hayes LP. Ain’t nothin’ like Hound Dog, that’s for sure.
7. I’m Leavin’
I’m Leavin’ is a little-known track from 1971. Released as a stand-alone single, you won’t find it on many of the more bog-standard compilations. As such, it’s something of an Elvis obscurity, not helped by it reaching the lowly chart position of 36 on its release. I’m Leavin’ is a masterful Elvis performance. No hysterics, no histrionics, for once he actually sings almost behind the musicians, showcasing his crack band of Nashville sessioneers for what they are. As the title implies, this is Elvis singing about love gone wrong, something he was experiencing in his own life at the time. Indeed, many of the tracks recorded around this era were as autobiographical as Elvis could get, considering he didn’t actually write them……
8. Patch It Up
Patch It Up is terrific – a staple of his early 70s Vegas shows (see That’s The Way It Is and it’s essential accompanying soundtrack), it’s a riot of fuzz bass, stinging James Burton guitar licks and warm Stax brass. This is larynx-loosening guttural grunt Elvis in full-on remorse mode. He’s wandered, he’s strayed and now he’s back telling the object of his affections that he loves her. Somewhat mirroring his home life with Priscilla at the time, this wouldn’t be the only time Elvis laid his soul bare for all to see, doing it to more dramatic effect on Suspicious Minds. Although, if you watched the telly at the weekend, you’ll know that already.
Trivial fact – One of those roof-raisin’ female voices in the background of Patch It Up is Darlene Love, who’d previously found success recording with Phil Spector.
9. True Love Travels On A Gravel Road
Recorded in Memphis at the duck-tail end of the 60s, True Love Travels On A Gravel Road was also a staple of the Elvis Vegas set. An RnB/country/southern soul hybrid, with a healthy sprinkling of female gospel singers, it’s one of the last great Elvis tracks. The record benefits from a terrific production and Elvis is restrained, soulful and passionate, the complete opposite to the bloated, huffing and puffing performer he could sometimes be at the time. Spare your ears, but I seem to recall a Shakin’ Stevens version doing the rounds sometime in the 80s.
10. Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues
In 1973, Elvis found himself recording at the world-famous Stax Records studio. Known as the home of southern soul, Stax gave birth to many great artists and tunes – Booker T, Otis Redding, Rufus & Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers….many of the artists that pop up regularly on this blog…..I could go on, but you’ll know them all yourself. A good few duds were recorded in his time at Stax, but Good Time Charlie.. isn’t one of them. An easy listening croon atop a backing that’s fluid and meandering and nothing at all like the Elvis of old, it was perhaps not surprising when it was considered flim flam by the record buying public at the time. However, the appreciation for Good Time Charlie has, like the Elvis girth of the day, grown to generous proportions.
An impressive list. Track them down and you’ve got yourself a good wee alternative Elvis compilation. Add the afore-mentioned Stranger In This Town and Pocketful Of Rainbows and you’ll have a cracker. And if you can add the full-on gospel rockin’ and God-fearin’ Milky White Way…..
…..you might just have yourself Now That’s What I Call The Best, Least-Heard Elvis Tracks In The World…Ever. Uh-huh.
Bob Stanley is currently out and about promoting his book. He might be coming to a town near you. You can check all things Bob-related here.
You can buy Yeah Yeah Yeah here, plus at all the other usual places. An ideal addition to your Christmas list.
Bob’s Blog, Croydon Municipal is here.