To truly understand the musical career of Elvis Presley- the sheer brilliance that was all too often overshadowed by blatant mediocrity- one needs to pick up a 45 from 1964.
The A-side features "Kissin' Cousins," the title track to his most recent movie. Like the film itself, the song was the perhaps the worst Presley had done to date with idiotic lyrics, a generic go-go backing and totally out-of-place accompaniment from the Jordanaires. It hit #12 on the Billboard chart.
The B-side, which wasn't featured on the album or in the film, was a ballad co-written by Charlie Daniels called "It Hurts Me." Elvis's finest performance in several years, since the dual successes of Elvis is Back and His Hand in Mine and classic singles such as "Are You Lonesome Tonight," "Little Sister," and "It's Now or Never." It wasn't marketed or promoted in any way. Still DJs around the country must have recognized it's greatness and as a result it reached #29 on the charts.
To make things worse, a new sound was coming to rock and roll, a style of music Elvis had popularized just a decade ago. The Beatles visited Elvis at his Palm Springs mansion the week his film Fun in Acapulco was released and one has to wonder what was going through his head at the meeting. Here were four guys from halfway around the globe who had been impacted by his music and were taking the genre to new levels artistically, while he was tied up with movie contracts for the foreseeable future.
He'd made his first movie back in 1956, a low budget but respectable Western called The Reno Brothers. He came to Hollywood idolizing guys like Marlon Brando and James Dean and, certain that he could someday become a serious actor on that level, he was excited to be able to display his acting chops. Only before the release four songs were added into it at awkward intervals and it was renamed Love Me Tender. He made several very good films in the '50s, culminating with Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. In 1961, he was allowed to try his hand at two serious roles with Wild in the Country and Flaming Star, a classic Western directed by Don Siegel, who would go on to make Dirty Harry. The only thing keeping the film from the upper echelon of the Western genre is the inclusion of two cheesy songs which both Presley and Siegel fought to have removed from the film to no avail.
Nevertheless, Wild in the Country and Flaming Star were box office flops and films like G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii were smash hits. Colonel Tom Parker believed in following the money, never stopping to think that the money was really being made in the studio with the two classic albums his boy had just recorded. So Elvis was stuck in Hollywood making B-movies. His music was on the back burner. The dream of being Brando was dead and he wouldn't get to try his hand at a dramatic non-singing role until 1969's Charro and by that time Elvis was sick of Hollywood and Tineseltown felt the same way. He was just fulfilling a contract he never should have signed.
In short, the King of Rock 'n' Roll had left his castle unguarded and the British were coming. Literally.
The Comeback Begins Secretly
Fast forward two years to 1966. RCA, who had nothing to do with the production of Elvis's films and were probably as upset with his recordings as he was, were desperate for something-- anything-- by Elvis Presley that could keep him relevant in the minds of young music fans while slowing down his descent into punchline territory.
In a somewhat risky move, they released a single that had been recorded six years earlier. "Crying in the Chapel," an outtake from the gospel album His Hand in Mine, reached #1 in Great Britain, #1 on the easy listening chart, and #3 on the Billboard Top 100. Not bad for a guy who was starring in movies like Harum Scarum and Paradise Hawaiian Style.
Here was the problem. There was no album to go along with the single. So, in May of 1966 Elvis Presley entered the studio to record something other than soundtrack material for the first time in over four years.
The idea was to record a gospel album and a Christmas single. Mission accomplished, but Presley had a temporary freedom from Hollywood and he was going to make the best of it. He recorded the pop standards "Love Letters" and "You'll Never Walk Alone," the Hawaiian number "I'll Remember You," the '50s R&B hit "Down in the Alley," and, last but not least, "Tomorrow is a Long Time," a song Presley had learned from the album Odetta Sings Dylan and which Bob Dylan himself later called his favorite cover of one of his songs.
Two of the five songs were released as singles and the additional three were issued as bonus tracks on the soundtrack to Spinout where they stuck out like a sore thumb among material such as "Smorgasbord" and "Beach Shack."
Still, the real reason for the sessions had been the gospel album and that is where Elvis really proved that he still had it. Released in 1967, How Great Thou Art was Elvis's third and best gospel release, following 1957's Peace in the Valley EP and 1960's His Hand in Mind. Elvis took full control of the session, proving his worth as an arranger as well as a performer and he walked away with a much-deserved Grammy for Best Sacred Performance.
But play time was over. Time to go back to Hollywood and make Double Trouble and sing such classics as "Old Macdonald." Ironically, the soundtrack for the film was released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.
But even the Colonel knew which way the wind was blowing. He knew Elvis couldn't make it on soundtrack material alone and in September of 1967, he arranged a session in Nashville where Elvis could record bonus tracks for the Clambake LP, a session which would prove to be phase two of the comeback.
Here, with a band supplemented by Nashville pros, Elvis brilliantly tackled country standards such as "You Don't Know Me" and "Just Call Me Lonesome" and the Jimmy Reed blues classic "Big Boss Man." He also really dug a song called "Guitar Man" that he had heard on the radio, but nobody in the studio could seem to get the guitar part exactly right. That's how Jerry Reed came to the studio to play guitar on his own song.
He would join Elvis at another session in January 1968, where they recorded Reed's "U.S. Male" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business."
Then Elvis packed his bags for Hollywood again to make the movie Speedway. But he had already proven that when he had the right material and the right people, he could still be a great artist. Sure, few people heard it, but those who did remembered it and by the end of the year, the world would have know doubt that Elvis was back once again.
Elvis in Burbank
In early 1968, Colonel Tom Parker negotiated a contract with NBC for Elvis to appear in a Christmas-themed TV special. Unfortunately for the Colonel and all of the Christmas music fans out there, NBC hired Steve Binder to direct the special. Binder, a young director who had cut his teeth on the rock-themed Hullabaloo and the seminal rockumentary The T.A.M.I. Show wasn't about to turn the King of Rock 'n' Roll into Perry Como.
The idea he eventually settled on was several production numbers, as well as sequences where Elvis would be seen performing in front of an audience, something he hadn't done in seven years. They brought in Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, the original guitarist and drummer in Elvis's band, and three members of the Memphis Mafia to accompany him. And on June 27, 1968 Elvis Presley sat down on a small stage in a TV studio, dressed in black leather, electric guitar in hand, and made the best music of his career. He proved that his music still had an edge to it and that he had the same sense of danger and mystery that had made him public enemy #1 to America's parents a decade earlier.
When the show eventually aired in December, it was the highest-rated TV program of the year.
At the end of the TV special, Elvis is seen alone, clad in a white two-piece suit and looking more like a minister than a rock star. After an hour of jogging the viewers memories with energized versions of his past hits, Elvis proved that he was more than a nostalgia act. The song was called "If I Can Dream" and it had been written in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Elvis poured his heart into the elegy-like lyrics that were mournful and subdued, but ultimately hopeful.
Then he looked straight at the camera and said, "Thank you. Good night." It was all that needed to be said. He was back with a vengeance.