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The essential Elvis Presley

The essential Elvis Presley — How to find the greatest memorabilia amid the corn and hoopla

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In his early days, Elvis Presley was dangerous, and not just because he shook parts of his body that civilized people weren’t supposed to shake. He sang dangerously. He’d say he loved you, but a wild wind blowing through his voice left you breathless, sometimes afraid.

At the same time he was sweet; he approached the world with the perfect manners of the boy next door. Of course women screamed — he fulfilled every fantasy. He snarled like a devastating lover; he crooned like a tender, ideal husband.

Not that he understood any of this. He had no agenda, and let his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, steer him into profitable schlock. Yet there are moments, even in his dumbest movies, when his presence alone is electric; in Vegas, there were times when he’d stop singing and, while his band played on, laugh for minutes on end, maybe at himself.

On the 13th anniversary of Elvis’ death, a new, two-volume video, Elvis: The Great Performances, offers film, TV, and concert excerpts that show us how devastating he was at his best. But because he made so many careless records and empty films, finding him at his best can be hard. For those who want to remember or haven’t yet discovered why he was the King, here is a guide to the essential Elvis.


On the trail of Presley’s ”Great Performances”

Because the images come from a home movie, they blur slightly. Even slowed down they jerk around a little. But you can still identify Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. They look extremely young, and they should, since the four are backstage at a 1955 high-school concert in Lubbock, Tex.; Presley was only 20. ”When I took the pictures, they weren’t big,” says Ben Hall, 66, who also performed that night. ”I had an old 8-mm camera that somebody gave me in high school. It was a hobby.” Only now, 35 years later, will the public see Hall’s candid shots of these pre-legends, including an unself-conscious Elvis, in Volume One of the new home-video release Elvis: The Great Performances (see review,27, August 17). Here is Elvis before he was King, even before he was rockabilly’s Crown Prince. Here is Elvis before he became Elvis.

Today, 13 years after Elvis Presley’s death, it seems incredible that something new about the man could still turn up. No other recording artist — in fact, no other celebrity in history — has been anthologized, repackaged, documented, and analyzed the way he has. But Elvis: The Great Performances offers some astonishing tidbits of unseen or little-seen footage among its 30 musical numbers. The two-volume compilation includes home movies filmed by family members and associates, clips from mid-’50s TV shows that were aired only once, and Presley’s first screen test at Paramount Pictures. Perhaps the biggest revelation isn’t seen but heard: Elvis’ very first recording, a fairly obscure tune called ”My Happiness,” which was never released and was once thought lost.

”Finding this material was a matter of hard work and luck,” says Jerry Schilling, creative-affairs director for the Presley estate and producer of the new video. ”In the course of this project, we found seven rare pieces. We were hoping to find two or three.”

The makers of Elvis: The Great Performances may have found such treasures because they had hunted this territory many times before. Andrew Solt, the writer-director and executive producer of the tapes, worked on the concert film Elvis on Tour (1972) and the quasi-documentary This Is Elvis (1981). While he has also directed documentaries about John Lennon (Imagine: John Lennon, 1988) and the Rolling Stones (25 x 5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones, 1990), he kept coming back to Presley. ”He may have the greatest voice of the 20th century,” he says. On the two previous Elvis films, Solt worked closely with Schilling, a longtime Presley associate who met the singer in 1954. About three years ago, the two men decided to approach their subject from a different angle. ”We’d already told his biography,” Solt says. ”The aim here was to show his development as a performer.” Of course, there were commercial considerations as well. ”My job is to bring in new projects and make money for the estate,” Schilling says. ”It’s like personal management, only we don’t have a person.”

Elvis: The Great Performances draws heavily on early TV appearances and movie musical numbers, with some material from later Elvis specials and live concerts. ”I always thought he was more natural in front of a live camera than in the movie studio with retakes,” Solt says. Volume One includes the infamous June 5, 1956, appearance on The Milton Berle Show. Presley’s hip-twitching rendition of ”Hound Dog” provoked cries of outrage. (When Presley later appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show, he was shown only from the waist up.)

The Berle appearance, broadcast live before the days of videotape, had long been lost. ”NBC didn’t have a copy. Milton Berle didn’t have a copy, even though he’d been looking for years,” Solt says. But a collector in New Jersey did, and Solt immediately grabbed it.

The Paramount screen test was found only through a fluke. ”I spent 100 hours on the phone looking for it when I did This Is Elvis,” Solt remembers. Ten years later, the clip — which shows Presley mouthing the lyrics to ”Blue Suede Shoes” — turned up when Paramount staffers were cleaning out the office of the studio’s head librarian, who had recently passed away. Solt and Schilling received the footage just two days before they completed the project. Solt says, only half-joking, ”I think it was just a gift from Elvis.”

Solt and Schhlling say they have enough material for at least another volume, but they have no immediate plans to produce one. Still, considering the continuing strength of the Presley market, an eventual sequel seems likely. ”I would never have predicted that, 13 years after we lost Elvis, there would be this kind of demand,” Schilling says. ”But there is.”

NEXT PAGE: ”My Happiness,” the lost recording.

”My Happiness” The lost recording

Elvis Presley was a shy kid from a poor part of Memphis, his high-school pal Ed Leek remembers. But he had one burning ambition.

”All that boy wanted to do was sing,” says Leek, now a retired airline pilot. ”He’d sing for anybody. All you had to do was ask him.”

During the summer of 1953, nearly a full year before Elvis’ first single was released commercially, Leek encouraged him to make a demo single at a custom recording service operated by Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records. ”It took Elvis about six weeks to get up the nerve,” Leek says, but Presley eventually recorded ”My Happiness,” a 1949 pop tune that was a minor hit for Ella Fitzgerald, and another, still unreleased number. Because he didn’t own a record player, Presley took the single to Leek’s grandmother’s home to play on her phonograph. ”I thought it was great,” Leek says of his friend’s soft, crooning rendition. ”It still, to this day, puts the hair up on the back of my neck.”

After listening to the single a few times over the next couple of days, Presley never saw or heard it again. ”I tried to give it back to him,” says Leek, now 55, ”but he said, ‘Keep it. I’m singing rock & roll now. That’d kill me!”’ Until 1988, when Leek announced he had the disc, Presley scholars assumed the record had been lost. Last year Leek made a deal to license ”My Happiness” to Solt for home-video use and to RCA for a companion album. Why did he wait so long to let the public hear ”My Happiness”? ”I wanted to do it right,” Leek says.

NEXT PAGE: Elvis’ finest records

Elvis’ wax museum: his finest records

The excitement generated by the rediscovery of ”My Happiness,” Elvis Presley’s 1953 amateur demo recording, is a measure of the continuing intensity of Presleymania. Veteran Elvis fans have experienced all manner of soundalikes and record company hypes (remember 1974’s Elvis Having Fun Onstage?), so we approach any new artifact with cautious wonderment. Is it authentic? Is it good? Most of all: What did Elvis sound like before he joined up with producer Sam Phillips?

”My Happiness” is the real thing, all right, a fine, if halting, example of the Elvis ballad style that Phillips spurned in favor of the uptempo blues and country that Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black reworked into rockabilly. Typically, Elvis: The Great Performances (the audio companion piece to the video release of the same name), which includes ”My Happiness,” otherwise contains only familiar hits that every Elvis fan already owns in multiple variations. It isn’t a bad record, but for a full-price ”new album” RCA should have offered more than one new track. Unfortunately, that typifies RCA’s slipshod exploitation of Presley. Except for brief periods in the late ’50s, late ’60s, and early ’70s, Elvis churned out albums in which gold and dross were so deeply intermingled that all but the most ardent fans gave up trying to sort it out. Since he died, his estate and record company have treated Elvis’ legacy with little respect except for a few years in the mid-’80s.

That’s all the more reason to pay close attention to the art and craft of Presley’s music, the gold mixed in with the baser stuff. He was not simply a godlike icon and the biggest record seller in history; Elvis Aron Presley of Tupelo, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn., was the greatest white blues singer in history, and one of the half-dozen men who have legitimate standing as founding fathers of rock & roll. So, from the 68 albums in the Presley catalog, here are a dozen of his best, in order of importance.

The Sun Sessions CD
”I thought he was some kind of cat come out of the swamps…(It) was the first time I had ever seen a white singer who didn’t sound like he was imitating a black singer but sounded like he was doing it the way a black singer would do it. He sounded like it was completely natural,” songwriter Doc Pomus (”Viva Las Vegas,” ”Little Sister,” ”A Mess of Blues”) recently said of his first hearing of ”Mystery Train,” the fifth and last record Elvis released on Sun Records, the tiny, blues-based Memphis label run by Phillips.

Presley, Phillips, Moore, and Black created not just a series of songs but a sound, crafted out of Southern musical culture — black and white, secular and gospel — and the newfangled recording studio technology. The eerie ease with which Elvis guides and rides the beat, the luxurious grace of Moore’s guitar, the fluid thump of Black’s bass, and the spaciousness of the Sun Studio’s legendary, lavish echo add up to a sound that could not have been created on a stage. Elvis’ version of rock & roll was born and bred in the confines of a studio where electromagnetic tape let band and producer listen to playback after playback, until Sam’s dream combination (”a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel”) became a reality. Elvis, as finally issued, was really something new.

The 10 sides issued as Sun singles in 1954 and 1955, before Elvis’ contract and masters were sold to RCA, coupled blues tunes with country numbers. But on the other 18 1954-55 tracks collected here, they experimented with all manner of songs, ranging from Rodgers and Hart’s ”Blue Moon” to Lonnie Johnson’s ”Tomorrow Night.” These selections, compiled in 1987 (and including several developmental takes of ”I Love You Because” and ”I’m Left You’re Right She’s Gone”), are just what survived; Phillips has acknowledged that he recorded other singers over many other Elvis, Bill session tapes.

The Sun sound was born perfect and these performances, especially ”Mystery Train,” ”Blue Moon,” ”Good Rockin’ Tonight,” ”That’s All Right,” and ”Milkcow Blues Boogie,” are the greatest he ever did. A+

The Memphis Record
After 10 years of diddling around with lame movie music, Elvis finally entered the modern recording era in 1969 by returning to Memphis and working with producer Chips Moman and his funky white soul session band. The result was the first great music Presley had made in years, and a total if temporary revitalization of his career. You probably know the hits (”Kentucky Rain,” ”Don’t Cry Daddy,” ”In the Ghetto,” and the glorious ”Suspicious Minds”), but on everything he recorded here Elvis tested the limits of his style, especially as a neo-soul balladeer. Revisionists argue that he only aped black originators, but they’ll never account for the soul he puts into potent remakes of ”Without Love,” ”Stranger in My Own Home Town,” ”Any Day Now,” and ”Only the Strong Survive”; they didn’t eclipse so much as reinvent the originals by urban black soul and R&B singers Clyde McPhatter, Percy Mayfield, Chuck Jackson, and Jerry Butler. And ”Long Black Limousine” stands as a superb prophecy of glories and disasters yet to come. The best modern records Elvis made. A

His Hand in Mine
How Great Thou Art
Presley supposedly formed his rock & roll from country and R&B, but the actual recipe was much more complicated. For one thing, he first made his mark in Memphis at all-night gospel sings in the black Baptist church of the Rev. W.H. Brewster. His fascination with gospel harmony never ceased, and every gospel record he made had his full attention and total commitment. His Hand in Mine, recorded in 1961, features Elvis as a classic baritone quartet lead supported by the Jordanaires, his pop gospel backing vocalists. How Great Thou Art, from 1966, includes somewhat more elaborate arrangements, backing by both the Jordanaires and the Imperials Quartet, and the hit title single. This is the sweetest, most innocent music Presley ever made. A; A-

Reconsider Baby
Constructed by former RCA executive Gregg Geller to prove Elvis’ greatness and originality as a blues singer, this is the best of all posthumous Presley compilations, an end-to-end assortment of blues ranging from mid-’50s Sun sides (including a take of ”One Night” with uncensored lyrics and the stunning ”Tomorrow Night”) all the way through his 1971 vamp on Charles Brown’s ”Merry Christmas Baby.” Elvis’ blues were the deepest, scariest, most exhilarating part of the whole act. A+

Elvis-TV Special
Perhaps the most flabbergasting career reversal in show business history: After nearly a decade of grinding out third-rate movies, Elvis cranks out a TV special for Christmas 1968 (available on video as the Elvis: 1968 Comeback Special) and comes on like he cares. Not only that, he’s in fighting trim and he’s singing blues again. Great, great renditions of ”Lawdy, Miss Clawdy,” ”Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” ”One Night,” and ”Trouble” recapture past glory; obsessive rummaging through the clichés of his own history (”Memories,” ”Guitar Man,” ”Saved”) set the stage for his musical-comedy road shows of the ’70s, and ”If I Can Dream” stands everybody’s expectations on their head. Show-biz killer instinct brought to life. A

Return of the Rocker
Another masterful posthumous assembly by Geller, released in 1986, this time with such smoking early ’60s tracks as ”King of the Whole Wide World” (from which Bruce Springsteen borrowed part of ”Badlands”), the oft-imitated ”Little Sister,” and the accidental anthem ”Follow That Dream.” Don’t argue with anybody who tells you Elvis was worthless after he got out of the Army — just blast this disc in his face. B+

Elvis Presley
Elvis
His first two albums, released in ’56 and mingling Sun Studio outtakes, remakes of hits by his favorite R&B singers, namely Little Richard, and this and that: Otis Blackwell’s ”Paralyzed,” a revamp of ”Blue Suede Shoes” so powerful it nearly destroyed Carl Perkins’ career, ungainly pop tunes, and the sentimental folk song ”Old Shep.” The debut was Elvis Presley, with the cover art imitated by the Clash for their 1980 album London Calling. But Elvis, with the liner notes referring to the new sound as ”commercial folk music,” may have a slightly stronger song selection. A; A

Blue Hawaii
This 1961 companion to Elvis’ biggest-grossing movie was also his biggest-selling soundtrack (it spent 20 weeks at No. 1) and probably the best of that rather soggy lot. Most of it’s filler, program numbers all too typical of the schlock with which the rest of the soundtracks are crammed, but the title song has a certain charm and the big hit ballad, ”Can’t Help Falling in Love,” unquestionably ranks with his best. B-

A Golden Celebration
A multivolume boxed set assembled in 1984 as part of Presley’s 50th-birthday hoopla. Its most important inclusions are the soundtracks of his 1956 TV appearances on the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, and Ed Sullivan shows, and the full tape of the sets Elvis, Scotty, and Bill turned in at that year’s Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show back in Tupelo. And don’t miss the excellent outtakes from the ’68 TV special. B+

Elvis’ Worldwide 50 Gold Award Hits, Vol. 1
We live in an album-oriented world, but Elvis’ music epitomized the art of the hit single. This boxed set, originally issued in 1970, chronologically sequences every hit from ”Heartbreak Hotel” through ”Kentucky Rain,” and it’s where to turn for the bulk of what made him famous — and great. Not only the certifiable classics but such hidden gems as ”Playing for Keeps,” ”Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” ”Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” ”Good Luck Charm,” and ”Devil in Disguise.” If this isn’t the whole story, that’s because we could still use a set that contains ”U.S. Male,” ”I Got a Thing About You Baby,” ”Hurt,” and other half-forgotten gems whose memories haunt Elvis obsessives. But the outline of what Elvis achieved resides here. To measure it, consider: It’s only an outline. And they had to put it in a box. A

Dave Marsh

NEXT PAGE: The best books about the King.

Read ’em and weep

Like the King in his later years, the most immediately impressive thing about Elvis literature is its sheer bulk. Books in Print lists 65 Elvis-related titles, with new books appearing monthly. It seems as if everyone who entered the gates of Graceland has decided to share his or her story with the world — Elvis’ nurse (I Called Him Babe), Elvis’ maid, and Elvis’ hairdresser-psychic have all published their essential observations. (The Boy Who Would Be King, by his cousin Earl Greenwood, will be available this fall from Dutton.) But there are moments of brilliance amidst this absurd banality. Elvis has inspired some of the most insightful, impassioned writing about pop music in existence. Some of the best is in shorter essays: Lester Bangs’ half-crazed but emotional, moving screeds (several are included in his Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung collection) and Jon Landau on a 1971 ”comeback” show, which can be found in It’s Too Late to Stop Now. Among the longer texts, here are the critical writings — required reading for Elvis Studies 101.

Mystery Train
Greil Marcus (1975)
The finest examination to date of American popular music takes its title from Elvis’ greatest early recording. Its 50-page centerpiece, ”Elvis: Presliad,” is the most illuminating analysis of Presley’s work as both a product and guiding force of American culture. Concentrating on the legendary Sun Records recording sessions, ”Presliad” is a heady and complex look at Elvis’ myth and art. A

Elvis
Dave Marsh (1982)
A coffee-table photographic history, including a critical biography by one of the most celebrated of rock critics. The pictures are copious though uneven, with distractingly haphazard layout and tinting. Marsh’s analysis of The Sun Sessions owes a good deal to Marcus, but his generous reconsideration of Elvis’ much-despised ’60s recordings is fascinating. A

Elvis
Albert Goldman (1981)
This much-publicized ”tell-all” from the same poison pen that went after Lenny Bruce and John Lennon is still as mean and tawdry as it seemed when it first appeared. Goldman has nothing but disdain for the South and the poor. So intent on debunking the Presley myth is he that he shows no sympathy or respect for his subject as a human being or an artist. And even his lurid chronicle of Elvis’ ”perversions” contains little that’s new or even truly shocking. D

Elvis & Me
Priscilla Beaulieu Presley with Sandra Harmon (1986)
As his wife, Priscilla Presley may have been closer than anyone to Elvis, but her story is not nearly as insightful (or as juicy) as we might hope. This is a fond, forgiving portrait of the domestic Elvis. It fills in the details of their courtship — it’s still amazing that Presley’s pursuit of a 14-year-old girl didn’t draw more attention — and includes some sweet anecdotes, but Priscilla is discreet, almost coy about their private life. C

Alan Light


The Selling of Elvis

Not every Elvis artifact is a performance or recording. The American market seems to have an insatiable appetite for objets d’Elvis: ashtrays, lampshades, paintings on velvet — a veritable avalanche of kitsch. Many of these are sanctioned by the Graceland estate, which peddles over 2,000 Elvis keepsakes in its eight stores as well as through wholesale and mail-order. Graceland’s licensing unit fields about 60 ”great ideas” per day from would-be makers of official Elvis knickknacks. Manufacturers who don’t go through channels should beware. Graceland aggressively ferrets out infringements on the name, image, and likeness of Elvis Presley, firing off about 1,000 cease-and-desist letters each year.

According to Carla Peyton, Graceland’s director of merchandising, the estate will veto products that are ”tacky, pornographic, or associated with ‘Elvis is alive’ rumors.” Consistently rejected ideas include ”I Saw Elvis Alive” T-shirts, Elvis Sweat, and Elvis Underwear. Graceland hasn’t decided whether to relicense the fabled Elvis booties, fuzzy blue slippers adorned with scary little Elvis heads.

Jack Barth

NEXT PAGE: Elvis in the movies and on the small screen

The agony and occasional ecstasy of Elvis on-screen

It seems almost every appearance Elvis Presley ever made before a movie or TV camera is now available on video, including all 30 feature films. The problem is that for every astonishing live performance or incandescent movie moment, there’s also a load of dreck that could only be appreciated by a French film critic. Still, the highlights of Presley’s video oeuvre form a fascinating record of his talent, both as a singer and, surprisingly, as an actor. While almost everything Presley appeared in is interesting on some level, if only as an indication of how tragically his talent was squandered, here are the crucial tapes revealing Elvis as he ought to be remembered.

Loving You (1957)
Fictionalized version of The Elvis Presley Story, with the future King playing himself as a naive country boy who becomes a rock sensation under the tutelage of predatory Lizabeth Scott. The script, alas, is strictly from Squaresville, with lots of corn-pone condescension to its blue- collar hero. But the songs (mostly by Leiber and Stoller) are top drawer, and the production numbers are well staged. One truly amazing scene has Elvis lip-synching a jukebox version of ”Mean Woman Blues,” then punching out a heckler in time to the music. Overall, with all its flaws, it’s Presley’s best film. A

Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Elvis — playing a thinly disguised version of himself again — is an ex-con who’ll stop at nothing in a quest for music-business success. The picture is unconvincing on the dramatic level but has spectacular moments. The title number (Elvis choreographed it himself) is as good as its legend suggests. Even cooler is a poolside rendition of ”Baby I Don’t Care,” in which director Richard Thorpe anticipates MTV by about a quarter of a century and Presley displays enough charisma for a dozen movies. Best lines: She (after kiss): ”How dare you use such cheap tactics on me!” He: ”That ain’t tactics, honey, it’s just the beast in me.” A-

King Creole (1958)
A major director (Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz), a good cast (Walter Matthau as the heavy), and a strong pulp story (featuring juvenile delinquency, Oedipal conflicts, and lots of Leiber-Stoller rock & roll songs) add up to the Elvis picture for people who hate Elvis pictures. And guess what? The kid really could act, although after this he had very few chances to prove it. A

Flaming Star (1960)
A grim, violent Western about racial prejudice, directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) with his trademark panache. The script isn’t half as good as it should be, but Elvis, surrounded by solid pros on all sides, gives a thoroughly convincing nonmusical performance. He might have given Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood a run for their money if only Colonel Parker had let him try. Unlike anything else in the Presley canon. A

Wild in the Country (1961)
Elvis in Brando-land. With a script by heavyweight playwright Clifford Odets, this was clearly intended as a ”serious” picure. And with Elvis just back from a stint with dramatic coach Lee Strasberg, parts of it do recall such Method acting monuments as The Fugitive Kind. But it’s written with a tin ear for Southern patois, and in the end it feels like a glorified Sandra Dee-Troy Donahue vehicle. Still, Presley’s long, nearly wordless love scene with Hope Lange is as well played as anything done at the Actors Studio. B

Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Elvis plays a race-car driver (for the first of three times) who comes to the world capital of show-biz kitsch for an encounter with the pneumatic Ann-Margret. Viva Las Vegas garnered respectful reviews when it was released, but viewed today it seems as dumb and formulaic as any other Presley vehicle of the ’60s. Oh well, at least A-M is decorative. C+

Elvis: 1968 Comeback Special (1968)
Elvis returned from Hollywood purgatory and delivered a soul-cleansing ”Up yours!” to the ’60s in one of TV’s most famous specials. The elaborate production numbers in the show’s second half haven’t aged terribly well, but the opening rockabilly jam session, with the energized star resplendent in black leather, stands among the finest music of the man’s career. A-

Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii (1973)
A post-comeback live show originally seen via satellite by a worldwide audience of more than a billion (!) people. This is Elvis at the height of his Roi Soleil Las Vegas period, before the terminal rot set in but with a hint of the bloated self-parody still to come. This phase of his career is a matter of taste, but the voice remains compelling and El’s band makes nice noises. B

This Is Elvis (1981)
As codirected by Andrew Solt, this is Elvis documentary as Greek tragedy, beginning with the singer’s death, flashing back to staged recreations of his early years, cutting to the genuine article in full ’50s-early ’60s glory, and climaxing with the ghastly psychodrama of the singer’s final drugged-out performances. Best scene: Elvis and a contemptuous Frank Sinatra stare across the generation gap while singing each other’s signature songs. A+

Steve Simels