Friday, March 5, 2021

From Elvis In Memphis Revisited

The last couple of days I have listened a lot to From Elvis In Memphis as well as outtakes from it. The reason for this: a great little book by Erik Wolfson about the album.

Erik Wolfson’s From Elvis In Memphis is the 150th paperback in the 33 1/3 series “Short books about albums” from Bloomsbury. Not only is it the first one covering an Elvis album in the series, it is actually the first stand-alone book about an Elvis album ever written.

Without a doubt, From Elvis In Memphis, released in June 1969 and recorded in January and February that same year, ranks as one of Elvis’ finest studio albums. Of course, this is something I have known for a long time. However, reading the book made me revisited the album and listen to the songs in a somewhat new light.

The main reason for this is Erik Wolfson’s style of writing. Like when he, early on in the book, explores the cover of the album by summarizing the 1968 television special (the image is from the opening segment) and then asks the question: “So where to go from here? Elvis went back to Memphis, where it had all begun.”

The reader then literally gets to follow Elvis into American Sound (“What a funky studio”) and meet producer Chips Moman and all the studio musicians, “The Memphis Boys”. This is cleverly done by describing them from the snapshots that exist from the day.

What really impresses me is the way Erik Wolfson describes the recording of the songs. This is how he paints the beginning of “Long Black Limousine,” one of the strongest tracks from the album:

“Bobby Wood’s sympathetic gospel piano weaves its way around Elvis’s melody, anchored by Bobby Emmons’s organ, lying low like a conspiracy. At first, Gene Chrisman’s drums do little more than keep time among the tolling bells, while bassist Mike Leech is not heard at all. The music coaches the singer as he watches the funeral procession, a long line of fancy cars in the little main street of his town. […] And then Chrisman hits a drum roll that shifts the song into an easy funk. Leech’s bass establish itself as the record’s secret weapon, its restless lines pushing the song forward without ever distracting from the proceedings. The music fuels Elvis’s uniquely American singer, a small-town man who uses simple words to conjure quick, clear images.”

After reading something like that, it is impossible not to put on a pair of earphones, turn the volume up and experience the song with new ears. Here is another telling example, this time the album opener “Wearin‘ That Loved On Look”:

“Elvis’s voice rings out strong and determined, with an edge of gruffness brought on by a cold he was fighting. ‘I had to leave town for a little while –‘ Reggie Young’s slick electric guitar bubbles around, answering his words, drenched in reverb. Gene Chrisman’s drums tumble in, setting the song’s funky rhythm, met by Mike Leach’s thumping bass. Only Bobby Wood’s piano waits in the wings, pouncing on the song’s breakdown in a gospel-style solo. The group plays cohesively, with Elvis stepping in the role of bandleader. RCA Records’ producer Felton Jarvis pays keen attention to Elvis’s mood; American Sound’s producer Chips Moman pays keen attention to everything else.

Each song gets its own chapter, and wisely, Erik Wolfson includes chapters for two songs not found on the album: “Stranger In My Own Home Town” and “Suspicious Minds.” By using many sources, he skillfully presents the context of each track, offering background information, the story behind other artists’ rendition of some of the songs as well as facts about Elvis and glimpses into his past. Although, in my opinion, the author stretches it a bit when he points out that “Only The Strong Survive” likely reminded Elvis of his mother’s wisdom, but who knows?

Speaking of “Only The Strong Survive,” Erik Wolfson also have this to say about the song, which is a thought for reflection:

“When Elvis sings that only the strong survive, the song seemingly casts him as a sage who lived through it all, but the truth is that he would be dead well within a decade of recording it. The song tells one thing, but the man who sings it tells another.”

The last song on the album and the first one, together with “Any Day Now,” to be heard by the public from the American Sound sessions is “In The Ghetto,” released as a single in April 1969. Like Erik Wolfson points out, “the song proved that Elvis still mattered – and that his music still had something to say.” In fact, that holds true for the whole album as well; it showed that Elvis was still relevant.

On the final pages of his book, Erik Wolfson summarizes From Elvis In Memphis by stating that “the result is a genuine artistic statement – the finest Elvis would ever make.” It is hard to disagree. From Elvis In Memphis is one of Elvis’ best and Erik Wolfson’s book a worthy companion. It comes highly recommended. 

Additional reading:

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Elvis: From Earth to Mars Via Perseverance

One of seven boarding passes with Elvis Presley's name on it.

Following the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars with great interest, I was pleased to read on the Elvis Information Network that Elvis Presley is among the nearly 11 million names of earthlings to ride along on the rover.

Wanting to learn a bit more, I visited NASA’s website and found this:
NASA’s "Send Your Name to Mars" campaign invited people around the globe to submit their names to ride along on the rover. And people did – with a grand total of 10,932,295 names submitted. Those names now sit on the surface of Mars, written on three fingernail-sized chips on board the Perseverance rover.
I also discovered that it is possible to retrieve a certain “boarding pass” if you fill in the name of that person. So typing ”Elvis Presley” I realized that no less than seven fans had submitted that particular name to be included on the flight to Mars.

But you know what? Elvis has landed on Mars before, on something called the InSight mission, that placed a single stationary lander on the Red Planet on November 25, 2018. Proof being a boarding pass that popped up for that flight as well (a total of 2,4 million names rode along).  

And not only that. On December 5, 2014, NASA’s Orion spacecraft made a first test flight, with nearly 1,4 million boarding passes submitted. And Elvis name was on two of those as well.

Finally, Elvis Presley also has two boarding passes for NASA’s next Mars mission (scheduled departure July 2026). And now I have one, too. So we will go there together, the King and I. Pretty cool!

Additional reading:

      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.