Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Making of Frankie & Johnny

Frankie & Johnny and Elvis Now.

In November 1976, Pickwick Records reissued the Frankie and Johnny soundtrack album. Unlike the reissues of the RCA Camden compilations records, which featured the original artwork, it was updated with the same photo of Elvis as the one gracing the cover of the 1972 album Elvis Now. Also, the running order of the tracks were altered and three songs omitted. No one has ever told the story of how and why that happened. Until now.

[September 7, 1976]

The view from the executive office located in a corner of the Pickwick Records headquarters building in San Francisco is an impressive one. On a sunny day the big windows allows for an unobstructed panoramic view of the skyline and out into the Bay.

But the man sitting at the end of the long polished table couldn’t care less. Dressed in a three-piece suit and holding a cigar in his right hand, he has other things on his mind. He relights the cigar and stares at the album on the table in front of him.

“I mean, it’s great that we have an expanded mandate and can reissue this soundtrack album from the movie Frankie and Johnny, but look at the cover. Elvis looks overweight and the head is out of proportions. Almost as if it has been replaced with another shot.”

He glances up at his assistant sitting next to him and frowns.

“You know, my wife and I went to see him when he performed at the Cow Palace back in November 1970. That way something. Very electrifying. And I remember him wearing a cool white suit with a red belt made of snake leather. That’s what he should look like on an album cover.

The assistant, looking pretty cool himself in a brown and blue high collar paisley shirt and black striped pants, nods politely.

“Yes sir, I see what you mean, although I heard that he has gained some weight again. I actually have tickets to one of the two shows he will be doing at the Cow Palace this November, apparently they are already sold out. I guess I will see for myself then.”

“Yeah, well, but have you listened to the songs on this Frankie and Johnny thing? Not at all like the fast beat tunes he gyrated his way through when I saw him in 1970. They just don’t have the same energy or vitality. And three of them are downright horrible. I want them omitted from the album.”

He hands the assistant a handwritten note with three song titles listed: “Chesay”, “Look Out Broadway” and “Everybody Come Aboard”.

His assistant once again nods in agreement and in a moment of inspiration, gets an idea.

“Hey boss, why don’t we edit the album a bit by altering the running order of the remaining tracks?”

The man with the cigar looks at his assistant and sighs.

“That’s something I guess. And even if we can’t make it sound contemporary, we can always give it a more modern look. Remember that compilation album last year, the 2 LP-set Double Dynamite? It was a great idea using the same shot as the one on the Madison Square Garden album. It sold like hotcakes."

Double Dynamite and Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden.
He sweeps the original Frankie and Johnny LP away with a hand, revealing another album beneath it.

The assistant leans forward to get a better look.

Elvis Now,” he reads aloud. "Hey look, the Elvis logo even includes a rainbow, much like the Pickwick one."

“Obviously we can’t use that. But the picture is what I’m talking about. A real 1970s-era image of Elvis that will be perfect.”

He takes a puff on his cigar, looks straight at his assistance and smiles.

“Get on the horn with RCA and ask them if we can use it. And be sure to chop those three songs. They won’t be missed.”

Additional notes
The reissue not only featured a shot of Elvis from the 70’s on the front cover and a couple more on the back, the title was also slightly amended to Frankie & Johnny, replacing the “and” with a “&”. There was no indication anywhere that it was a reissued soundtrack album, and to my understanding, this was the last Elvis release by Pickwick. After Elvis death RCA reclaimed the rights to his Camden releases from Pickwick. And yes, the dialogue above is of course pure fiction, but it was fun to write.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

“Elvis had thrown a scarf towards us”

Not having blogged since August 16, 2017, there were over 15,000 comments awaiting moderation when I logged in to write my first post in over three years. As it turned out all of them except a few were spam, so why they had not been spotted as such I have no idea. Anyway, one of the real ones was a comment to one of the first posts I wrote, back in 2007, called “Where did the scarves go?” It went like this:

“I was five years old at the June 21, 1974 Cleveland concert in the front row with my mother and sister. After about 100 women broke through the police line my legs were folded up in one of the folding chairs on the floor. Just prior to that Elvis had thrown a scarf toward us. Once the crowd was contained when the police officers handed me a piece of that scarf it's only about 2 inches long but I'll never forget that. I keep that with the full-size program our tickets stubs and will be mounting it in my basement in a shadowbox.”

Reading this, I realized the show in question was one of the two concerts featured on the 7” FTD CD Sold Out! (On Tour 1974) released in 2013. Digging it out, I looked through the booklet, spotting an essay describing the Cleveland June 21 concert, a Friday show near the middle of Elvis’ third tour in 1974. Towards the end of the text, this is what I found:

“The show itself was as wild as in the old days but the security wasn't prepared for that. The stage was very low with a lot of policemen standing in front. At the end of the show, a hundred or so fans rushed to the stage from the left and overwhelmed the guards. While everyone was trying to keep the fans off the stage on that side, several people climbed on stage at the other side with one of them crossing the stage towards Elvis, only being stopped at the last moment by the bodyguards. It must have been frightening for Elvis when the bodyguard grabbed the woman and threw her off the stage. But throughout, Elvis was still bowing and throwing scarves and, for a brief moment, he was surrounded by fans on the edge of the stage. In a flash, his bodyguards grabbed him and he simply disappeared from view. Shades of the '50s: exciting, but also very dangerous.”

Confirmation, if needed, that this was the same event described by the person who had written the comment. I then played the CD and found myself enjoying a fine concert. Listening extra carefully towards the end when Elvis bids the audience “an affectionate farewell”, I heard some serious screaming taking place. Elvis actually stopped singing for a short while during the second verse of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Maybe he got distracted by a policeman tossing a fan off the stage. In my head I got a picture of Elvis catching a glimpse of what was happening and shaking his head in amazement.

Unfortunately the comment was posted anonymously (on August 16, 2017, no less), so I have no way to contact the person who wrote it. But I am grateful for him or her taking the time to share a very special Elvis memory, one that in turn led me to revisit Elvis on tour in 1974. And the comment did answer, at least partially, the question I posted back in 2007: Where did the scarves go? A person who at the age of five saw Elvis live on stage keeps a piece of one of them safe. What a treasure.

Further reading:

Friday, January 8, 2021

Pictures Of Elvis

I remember it took both time and effort to draw this back in 1985.

Not a day goes by without Elvis taking part in my life in some way or the other. Today, on Elvis birthday no less, I rediscovered an old drawing I made in the middle 80's, inspired by the RCA 50th Anniversary Series.

I don't know what it's like in other countries, but here in Sweden, each apartment usually has its own storage in the basement. Having moved to a bigger apartment last year, you can imagine what it looks like in our storage. Lots of boxes full of stuff.

Anyway, today I went down there because my four year old son was missing some of his children books I had retired, thinking he was a bit old for them. Finding them surprisingly fast, I then spotted a box containing books I had when I was a kid. Thinking there might be something there for my ten year old daughter, I opened the lid. Leafing through the books inside, I saw nothing she would be remotely interested in. 

But just as I was to put the lid back on I spotted a folder with some drawings inside. I recognized the top one right away and was transported back in time, remembering how I painstakingly had tried to draw not one, but five versions of Elvis, each one representing a certain point in his career.

I must have had a lot of patience when I was younger.

Together with the books, I took the drawing with me up to the apartment. Looking at it now, I think I nailed the jumpsuits pretty well (three of the five versions of Elvis were from the 70's as I thought that was the coolest period), and the hairstyles on the other two (from the 50's and the 60's) aren't half bad. But the faces on all five leaves a lot to be desired. Clearly, I couldn't get them right. Although the letters "ELVIS" and the 50th Anniversary-logo turned out ok. 

All in all, it was nice getting reacquainted with a drawing I did in 1985. Maybe I should have it framed?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Without A Song

Remembering Elvis Presley: January 8, 1935–August 16, 1977
"When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream that I ever dreamed, has come true a hundred times. I learned very early in life that:

Without a song, the day would never end;
 Without a song, a man ain’t got a friend;
 Without a song, the road would never bend;
Without a song...

 So I keep singing a song.”

– Excerpt from Elvis' acceptance speech at the ceremony for the US Jaycees 'Ten Outstanding Young Men' for 1970

Sunday, April 16, 2017

“I Tell You What, He Loved Gospel Music”

A magic moment: meeting D.J. Fontana in April 2006.

Eleven years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Elvis’ first drummer D.J Fontana. I was working as a reporter at a radio station, when, one day in April, 2006, a press release caught my eye. It announced that Fontana was touring Sweden as part of a Swedish group called The Cadillac Band that would be playing my home town that very night. As my news editor didn’t seem to understand the significance of this, I practically had to beg him to let me interview the drummer instead of doing the news piece he had in mind for me to do.

As luck would have it, I was planning a one-hour radio program titled Rock Me Lord dedicated to Elvis’ religious songs to be broadcast on Easter that year. Not only could I do a short news piece about Fontana coming to town, this would also be a golden opportunity to ask him a couple of questions about Elvis’ love for gospel music that I could use in the program.

So, off I went, first swinging by my apartment to pick up my Elvis Presley LP, so I had something D.J. Fontana could sign. I then met him and his wife Karen at his hotel before the show where he kindly answered all my questions. I found him very friendly, and he seemed to enjoy talking about his time with Elvis. Afterwards, he signed my record and his wife took a couple of photos of us together. It was a magic moment.

The program about Elvis’ religious music was broadcast nationwide a few weeks later, as planned on Easter, 2006. As only parts of the interview with D.J. Fontana were used, I later decided to include a transcript of the whole interview as a final bonus post in The Elvis Today Blog Volume 2 book that I released in November, 2012. And now, over for years later, it finally makes an appearance here on the blog in digital form: my interview with D.J. Fontana about Elvis and gospel.

Thomas: What did gospel mean to Elvis?

D.J. Fontana: I tell you what, he loved gospel music, that was his first choice of songs. Course, he couldn’t sing them all the time, you know, the RCA Victor wouldn’t go for that, but he cut three gospel albums, and that’s the only ones he won a Grammy on, the other stuff, not even a mention. But he loved gospel music, and if you listen to it closely, you can see the feeling he puts into his voice when he sings those songs, he almost cries, he does, he’s serious about it.

Thomas: He often played a lot of gospel before the recording sessions, didn't he?

D.J. Fontana: He did, we’d sit around maybe a couple of hours, just jam, he knew every gospel song that was ever written, I think.  He’d just go from one to another, maybe repeat one that he’d liked, it would maybe last a couple of hours. Now the big wheels, they didn’t like it, it cost them too much money, and the movie companies. But he didn’t care, he’d say, “I’ll sing when I get ready, and when we get ready to perform we’ll do it.”

Thomas: I read somewhere that once, I think it was during the Jailhouse Rock sessions, he got angry when he couldn’t play gospel.

D.J. Fontana: He did. We were sitting there, and the guys, the higher ups, the big wheels, they’d come up and say, “You know, tomorrow when Elvis comes in, guys, we’re wasting a lot of time and money, don’t sing with him, don’t play with him, don’t do anything.” So we’d say, “OK.” So he’d come in, sit down and start playing, and nobody moved, didn’t play, the voices didn’t sing. He said, “What’s the matter, guys, are you mad at me or something?” And we told him, the higher ups didn’t want us to play and sing. He said, “OK, so I got a sore throat, I’m going home.” So he went home. Once he had a sore throat or something wrong they couldn’t say anything to him, see. So they didn’t say another word after that. “Do what you want to do.”

Thomas: You played on many of his gospel recordings. Do you remember anything particular about it?

D.J. Fontana: No, they all run together after a while, after this many years, in fact. No, you go and you might cut five or six songs, maybe ten, and you hardly remember what you did from this minute to the last minute. It’s gone away. You do another song, you have to concentrate on what you do that moment, you know.

Thomas: I’m also gonna tell in the program that he sang “Peace In The Valley” on television, on the Ed Sullivan show.

D.J. Fontana: Yeah he did, yes, he told his mother he would do it. And it wasn’t Ed Sullivan at all, it was the producers and directors and all that stuff, they said, “No, you can’t sing it, we don’t have gospel on our show. So when Ed came in, he asked, “Mr. Sullivan, I told my mother I would do this for her” and he said, “Let the boy sing what he wants to sing.  That was Mr. Sullivan, he was pretty good about it, he let him sing.

Thomas: Do you like Elvis’ sacred recordings?

D.J Fontana: Oh yes, absolutely, I love them all. Like I said, he had so many, really. It’s hard to keep up with them all nowadays, you can’t do it. But I think if people would listen to his gospel, his religious tunes, they would fall in love with his religious side.

Thomas: Do you have any particular favorites?

D.J. Fontana: I like “Peace In The Valley” … what’s the other one? “How Great” [Thou Art]. Those are two of my favorites, yeah.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Give Us Something Hard To Find Like Elvis"

The story behind this flight crew patch has eluded me for years.
Nearly six years ago I wrote a post about the Elvis CAC 4 (Combat Air Crew 4) crew patch. This is an Elvis patch I bought many years ago at a store that sold military surplus stuff that I recognized as some kind of aircrew patch. When the patch resurfaced at a bottom of a drawer in my desk in 2010, I made a google search and found out the patch belonged to Patrol Squadron 45 (VP-45). I then sent an an e-mail to the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) of VP-45, asking about the Elvis patch and its history.

Not receiving an answer, I decided to try again one and a half year later, this time also contacting the Patrol Squadron 45 Association with the same question. The president, Buck Jones, responded quickly and sent me an e-mail the very next day, explaining  that the patch I had in my drawer wasn't an authorized VP-45 patch, but that all Navy Patrol Squadron's usually allow individual flight crews to wear unique crew patches on their flight gear. Unfortunately, he had no idea when a crew 4 wore the Elvis patch.

I never heard from the Public Affairs Officer, but last week, out of the blue, I found someone called Bill had commented my post from July 12, 2011. My excitement grew as I started to read, realizing this was a pilot who had worn the Elvis crew patch.
Hey there, little time late. Was doing a google search and saw the image of the first Elvis patch come up. Followed it here. I was one of the pilots on CAC-4 from 1989-1991 when we had the patches made up. Unfortunately we weren't too sure how well our pencil sketch of Elvis would translate to embroidery so we didn't want to overdue the order. We only had fifty made which came out to about four for each crew member. Once we started trading them at foreign bases in Europe, the Med and north Atlantic we realized how popular they were. Instantly we wished we'd made more. Shortly after our return home the crew members went on to other assignments or crews so we never had the opportunity to order more.

As you wrote in your post, when a squadron was getting ready to deploy overseas for six months each crew would make up a patch. Since we were sub hunters some common themes would have a knight in a suit of armor chopping a submarine in half or Bart Simpson with some attitude. We were looking for something different, a little less common. One day our Tactical Coordinator (TACCO) said "You know submarines are easy to find," (they're not) "give us something hard to find like Elvis." The rest is history.
I'd like to thank Bill for sharing his story about the Elvis CAC 4 crew patch. Thanks to him I finally have the story behind the patch I bought so many years ago and still have in my possession. I wonder if there exists a photo of him and his crew, all of them wearing the patch on their flight suits? If so, that's one cool picture I'd like to see!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What You Need Is A Change Of Habit

Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore in Change Of Habit.
Having learned that actress Mary Tyler Moore had died, I dug out my DVD copy of Change Of Habit. It's been a long time since I watched this, Elvis' last scripted film, in which he plays a doctor (John Carpenter) and she one of three nuns (Sister Michelle) seeking employment at his free clinic in a deprived area of New York.

I have always found Change Of Habit entertaining and well acted. Including such contemporary problems as racism, violence and loan shark operators it's a far cry from the stereotypical Elvis Presley movie. In fact, it's hard to understand that Elvis made films like Clambake and Speedway only two years earlier.

One of the strongest scenes is the one where Elvis, aided by Mary Tyler Moore, helps an autistic child. Doctor and nun sit side by side, holding the girl while she kicks and screeches, all the while telling her to let out her anger and repeating how much they love her. Not very realistic, I learned today thanks to the internet and the article Elvis and autism: An unlikely couple. But emotional, nevertheless.

The movie has some humorous moments, too. When a loan shark, The Banker, turns up at the clinic, Elvis greets him with a straight face and the line "I can't help you Banker, I'm not a veterinarian."Another memorable scene has Elvis playing a bluesy version of "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy" on piano, with no vocals, in the nun's apartment.

Speaking of the music, Elvis recorded four songs for Change Of Habit on March 5–6, 1969, but one of them, "Let´s Be Friends," never made it into the movie. Instead, "Rubberneckin'" from the American Studios sessions in January that year, was used in the film, meaning the entire soundtrack was awarded to songwriter Ben Weisman.

In his book Elvis Presley: A Life In Music Ernst Jorgensen has nothing positive to say about the soundtrack recordings, writing that "Elvis must have wondered what he was doing there." Meaning, I guess, that the songs were a far cry from the Memphis recordings, and that Elvis had his mind on his upcoming return to live appearances at the newly built International Hotel in Las Vegas.

That might be true, but I have no problem with most of the material. The funky title track works well over the opening credits, and I also like the gospel number "Let Us Pray" which is used to great effect at the end of the film. (And I love it when Elvis is belting out "Rubberneckin'" in Dr. John Carpenters apartment above the clinic.)

The scene in the park where Elvis is singing "Have A Happy" on a merry-go-round after a touch football game is another matter. It really is out of place and does nothing to promote Elvis image as an adult actor. Why it was put in the script in the first place is beyond me.

But that's my only complaint, and I'd like to end with a passage from Gerry McLaffertys' book Elvis Presley In Hollywood, in the chapter that deals with Change Of Habit:
In his physial prime and with potentially a whole new career ahead of him, Change Of Habit marked Elvis Presley's final acting role. The waste of talent was horrendous. Although many further offers came his way he would never again appear in a scripted film.