Friday, February 24, 2012

A Little More Conversation With Billy Strange

The sad news that song writer and guitarist Billy Strange died at age 81 Wednesday was picked up by the Swedish media as well. A telegram written by the news agency TT Spektra with the headline "Presley's song writer Billy Strange dead" has been published by all the major newspapers (here's one example).

The telegram mentions that Billy Strange wrote several songs for Elvis Presley with Mac Davis. Also, that the best known is "A Little Less Conversation," a song that only had minor success when released in 1968, but went on to become a worldwide hit in 2001 when it was remixed by Junkie XL.

In Ken Sharp's book Writing for The King Billy Strange tells the story of how he got to know about the remixed version of "A Little Less Conversation."
We got a call from the London Times and they sent a lady and a photographer and did four hours of interviews with me. She's the one that made me aware of the Nike commercial with the remix. Everything else that's happened since then has just been total amazement. [...] The success of "A Little Less Conversation" certainly validated the song for me. The treatment of the song was new enough that younger people got into it and they didn't when it first came out as a single in the late Sixties.
How right he was about that. I have no trouble recalling how excited I felt listening to the remix for the first time together with a couple of colleagues, and hearing them exclaim how great it sounded. The song was played on the radio day after day and quickly raced upp to the number 1 spot in Sweden (as it did in many other countries).

In his book A Life In Music, Ernst Jorgensen has this to say about Billy Strange while on the subject of the soundtrack recordings for The Trouble With Girls: "Having produced almost nothing successful or artistically significant, Billy Strange's relationship with Elvis Presley ended with these recordings."

Indeed, the book was written before the remix of "A Little Less Conversation" saw the light of day, but I still think the statement seems a bit unfair. Not only did Billy Strange co-write "A Little Less Conversation," he also produced the soundtrack session for Live A Little, Love A Little where it was recorded together with three other songs, among them the psychedelic "Edge Of Reality" and the beautiful ballad "Almost In Love." And let's not forget "Clean Up Your Own Backyard," another song he wrote with Mac Davis and produced for The Trouble With Girls.

Actually, all the songs I've mentioned can be found on the Almost In Love album release from 1970
.On it you'll also find "Charro," another Billy Strange-Mac Davis number. The last two songs they wrote togheter, "Memories" and "Nothingville," appear on the Elvis NBC-TV Special album. So I think it's safe to say that Billy Strange's relationsship with Elvis was a successfull one. And artistically significant.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Guest Blog: Bringing It Back (Elvis Today FTD)

In early 1975, despite Elvis' clearly fading desire to record new material (he hadn't recorded a new studio album since 1973), Elvis managed to step up to the challenge one more time. Little did anyone within the Elvis Presley circle know that when Elvis stepped into the RCA recording studios in Hollywood, CA. on March 10, 1975, it would be the last time “The King of Rock N' Roll” would record music in a proper studio setting. However, the results of this 3-day recording session produced arguably the most diverse album of Elvis' career – Elvis Today.

Elvis Today, released in 2005 by the Follow That Dream (FTD) Collector's Label provides fans with 2-CD's packed with all of the known material recorded between March 10-12, 1975 for the Today album. Disc one kicks off with the 10-songs included on the Today album, as it was originally released in 1975. As mentioned, the original 1975 album provides fans with a diverse listening experience into the effortless way Elvis could switch from a beautiful ballad to a classic cover to a rock n' roll original!

Following the original 1975 album on disc one, fans are treated to some outtakes from the recording sessions including the previously released (but still fun to listen to) “Tiger Man” jam, which gives the band a chance to let loose in between songs. Clearly the band and Elvis are having fun, which is a nice treat to hear considering the aforementioned hesitation Elvis had to returning to the recording studio once again.

Listening to Elvis work out the lyrics and timing of “Pieces Of My Life” (takes 2 & 3) is a real fly on the wall experience on disc one, along with Elvis announcing “you don't believe that s**t, do you?” prior to take 3 of “Susan When She Tried.” Beautiful outtakes of “And I Love You So” (takes 2 & 3) also highlight the outtakes of disc one.

Disc two of the Elvis Today FTD release starts with the 10 original songs from the album, but this time, we are able to hear the songs as they were originally recorded...without the post-recording session overdubbing that producer Felton Jarvis is so famous (infamous?) for. This section of the 2-disc set may very well be the true high point of this package! Fans get to hear the songs the way Elvis truly recorded them. Songs like “I Can Help,” “Woman Without Love” and “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” almost sound like different versions without the overdubs and it is a real treat to hear these “original session mixes”.

Rounding out disc two are more outtakes from the Today sessions, which were originally released on the 6363 Sunset FTD release in 2001. Although previously heard by fans, it is nice to finally have all of the Today session material gathered all in one place.

One could argue that the material on the Elvis Today album may not be his strongest, and of course that is left up to the judgement of each individual listener. Personally, while “Woman Without Love” and “Bringing It Back” are for me the two weakest songs on the album, I use the term “weakest” lightly. Certainly, Elvis' deliverance of the songs and the passion in his voice lift the material up from what may otherwise be considered as album filler. Other songs like Elvis' covers of the Statler Brothers “Susan When She Tried” and Tom Jones hauntingly beautiful “Green Green Grass Of Home” are proof that when given the right material, Elvis can make any song his own.

Then we come to the two highlights of Elvis Today in the opinion of this reviewer. The original rocker “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” provides clear-cut proof that, even in the last couple years of Elvis' life, he could still rock n' roll with the best of the best! Simply a fantastic song and a true Elvis rock classic! On the opposite side of the spectrum comes the simply stunning “Pieces Of My Life.” Some fans argue that “Pieces Of My Life” may very well be a musically autobiography of sorts for Elvis, but regardless, Elvis delivers an outstanding performance.

The music contained in the Elvis Today FTD release was mastered by Lene Reidel and she does a fine job with the material, giving the sound quality a much needed modern sound. Even the original album on disc one sounds much better than when it was first issued on CD in 1992.

The packaging of Elvis Today is fairly basic, with an up close concert photo of Elvis and the original back album cover art featured on the inside of the customary tri-fold cover and a plain black back cover with the album tracklisting. One complaint I have is the poor quality of the front cover photo. The picture of Elvis is very dark, almost as if the photo used is a copy of a copy. Also, if you look closely at the Today title, you can see where it appears that the artwork was cut out from another source and pasted onto the cover...very sloppy in my opinion.

The 12-page booklet included with the Today FTD is nicely assembled and fun to flip through while listening to the album. Inside the booklet, fans are treated to some photos of RCA documents and memos associated with the making of the album, along with some period concert photos and the usual In And Outtakes and Behind The Scenes sections which provide the listener with more details surrounding the recording of the material and the original release of the album.

In the history of music, has there been any other artist that could make singing a blues song, a country song and a rock n' roll song sound so easy? Perhaps yes, perhaps no...but listeners of the Elvis Today album are able to take that journey with Elvis. All in all, the double CD release of Elvis Today by the good folks at the Follow That Dream Collector's Label is a welcomed addition to the Elvis catalog and until recently, was my all-time favorite Elvis album...but that is a whole other story.

I would like to take a moment to thank Thomas for allowing me the opportunity to be a guest contributor for the Elvis Today Blog. As a fan of Elvis' music and of Thomas' blog, I am deeply honored to have been asked to do this. Many thanks Thomas and to the readers for taking the time to visit this fantastic site!!

/Mike Hermenet, Co-Moderator – TCB-World

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Valentine Gift For You

A Valentine Gift For You was the first of three "concept albums" from RCA to kick off Elvis' 50th anniversary in 1985 (the others being Reconsider Baby and Always On My Mind). Released in February in time for Valentine's Day it mixed lesser known romantic ballads with more famous ones.

The man behind A Valentine Gift For You was RCA's Greg Geller, who had this to say about it in an interview originally published in the record collectors magazine Goldmine.
That's his love songs, ballads, spanning the years '56 to '66. It uses cuts which have somewhat fallen by the wayside. Like "Tell Me Why," which was recorded in the '50s and never quite made any albums, never was released, came out as a single some time in the '60s, but was never highlighted. Another is "I Need Somebody To Lean On," from Viva Las Vegas, which I always thought was a great song, but is pretty obscure. I think it's a great album, one of my favorites we've done. Elvis loved to sing that kind of material.
Great album or not (it contained only previously released material), A Valentine Gift For You is a nice compilation of Elvis' love songs that makes for a smooth, romantic listening ride all the way. Personal highlights are "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," "Love Letters" and Greg Geller's favorite "I Need Somebody To Lean On."

Are You Lonesome Tonight
I Need Somebody to Lean On
Young and Beautiful
Playing for Keeps
Tell Me Why
Give Me the Right
It Feels So Right

I Was the One
Tomorrow is a Long Time
Love Letters
Fame and Fortune
Can't Help Falling in Love

This being Valentine's Day and all, why don't you give it a spin? And if you don't own a copy, maybe you can make your own playlist in iTunes including the songs from the album. It's time to get in that romantic mood!

PS: A Valentine Gift For You peaked at #154 on the Billboard 200 list on Mars 9, 1985.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hilarious Duke Bardwell Video

Elvis' bass player Duke Bardwell sure seems like a funny guy. I just watched a special YouTube video Duke recently recorded together with his trusty horse (!) to promote the April 2012 Original Elvis Tribute tour in Europe and especially the opening show at Vara Konserthus (Vara Concert Hall) on April 7.

It was Arjan Deelen, the tour manager, who sent me the link to the video. He also wrote that "Those of you who are fortunate enough to know Duke Bardwell (or ‘Unca Duke’ to his friends) will no doubt agree on the fact that he’s a big hearted guy with a wonderful sense of humor." And although I don't know him I'm inclined to agree. The video is hilarious.

Duke himself played bass on over 180 shows together with Presley back in the mid 70's. Looking back on his association with Elvis, he says in an interview from 2010: "It was the most magnificent thing musically that ever happened to me…"

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Putt Joins Elvis Presley In Concert Tour

A couple of days ago ElvisMatters reported that at least one show (the one in Slovakia) of the upcoming Elvis Presley In Concert video tour in Europe next month has been cancelled due to disappointing ticket sales ("an unconfirmed rumour off the record confirmed to us"). And also that a "second show in another country may be cancelled too."

As I've got tickets to the concert in Copenhagen on March 24 I was a bit afraid that was going to be that "second show." But according to an update from that I received today it's still possible to buy tickets to all the shows, including the one in Slovakia. So it looks like those unconfirmed rumours were false and I can put my fears to rest.

This will be the fifth time I see the video-projected Elvis reunited with his former band members live on stage, and though I'm not as excited as I was the first time, I'm still looking forward to it. Especially since Norbert Putnam, who played with Elvis' seventies studio band, has been confirmed as the bass player for the tour, replacing bass player Nathan East (who never played with Elvis), who in turn replaced regular TCB Band bassist Jerry Scheff.

As my brother is also going, I put forward the idea to bring along a big banner to the show, reading "Wake up, Putt!" (Elvis can be heard shouting this to him on "Merry Christmas Baby" recorded in May 1971.) As we got us seats on row 15, maybe there's a chance Norbert Putnam will notice it...

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Graceland Service

Tonight I attended a church service that was a little different. A couple of days ago my brother spotted a poster advertising a "Graceland service with songs by the King" in a church close to where I live (S:t Johanneskyrkan) and that sounded too good to miss. My brother joined me, as did my mother.

Soon the church was full of people. A woman playing the bass explained that she and the man that sang and played the piano had been doing the "Graceland service" since 2006, visiting different churches and performing together with the local church choirs.

Glancing at the program that was handed to me as I entered the church, I noticed that the songs weren't just religious ones. In fact, the whole service started with "Burning Love," followed by the more spiritual choice "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," where the audience was invited to join in the chorus.

After a prayer it was time for "I Want to Be Free" and then the actual sermon took place. "Crying In The Chapel" felt appropriate after that, as did "In The Ghetto" when people could approach the altar and light a candle. "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" was a surprise (after all, it's a home recording).

During the Holy Communion the choir and the band sang "Loving You" and "Can't Help Falling In Love," not exactly the choice of songs I would associate with that, but it worked well. As did "How Great Thou Art" where everyone in the church sang the chorus again.

After "Love Me Tender" and benediction it was time for "Amazing Grace" and then the service closed with "An American Trilogy." So ended the "Graceland service with songs by the King," and on my way home I thought once again how much Elvis' music means to so many people.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

“It Was All So Unneccessary…”

I've written quite a few posts about The Original Elvis Tribute, a production which features five of Elvis' original musicians. There are two reasons for this. The first one is that I will be attending the opening show in Sweden, at Vara Konserthus (Vara Concert Hall) on April 7. The second reason is that Arjan Deelen, who produces and manages the show, sends me copies of the e-mails he uses to promote the show, and they are often full of interesting information.

Yesterday I received the latest one, where one of the musicians, keyboard player Bobby Wood, remembers that fateful day 35 years ago when Elvis died. He also talks about his favorite memories of Elvis, one of them having to do with a "real cool looking ring." Here it is:
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley at the age of only 42 years. He died alone in his bathroom due to poly-pharmacy, a lethal combination of various sedatives that were prescribed by his physician Dr. George Nichopoulos.

Elvis’ keyboard player Bobby Wood (71), who played with Elvis on hits like ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘In The Ghetto’, still remembers that day well: “We were doing an album on R&B artist Joe Tex in Nashville when Elvis died, and Joe cancelled the sessions crying. He cried when he heard the news. He didn’t want to work anymore. We were all distraught… It was like somebody hit you in the stomach”.

Wood takes a dim view of the people that Elvis surrounded himself with, especially manager Colonel Tom Parker. “It was all so unnecessary. That was the worst of it all. He was so controlled by Tom Parker. Even though Parker helped him, especially in the early days, he also held him back as much as he helped him. The main thing about Elvis is… Elvis was a great artist that was mistreated by greed… Parker only cared about the money, at the expense of everything else”.

When asked about his favorite memories of Elvis, Wood answers: “Some of those times when we were kidding, just joking around in the studio. That was special for me. You know, this guy had the biggest heart in the world. I remember… I noticed a ring he was wearing when I was in the control room, and complimented him on it, saying that it was a real cool looking ring. He pulled it off and handed it to me. I was looking at it, and of course it was 14 sizes too big for me, you know. I handed it back to him and he said, ‘No, it’s yours’, and I said, ‘No, take it. Are you kidding, man? You’d have to cut half of it off to make it fit my hand!’. But there’s a lot of people that would have taken it, I’m sure. I just didn’t want to be one of those. I just thought too much of him to do that, you know. I really appreciated the gesture, and I know that that’s the way it was with Elvis”.
It will be nice to see Bobby Wood behind the keyboard again (last time was in Memphis during Elvis Week in 2005). According to Arjan Deelen there is only a few tickets left for the show in Vara, so it looks like it's going to be a full crowd. To quote a certain fellow fan from 1977: "I'm so excited, I just, oh, I can't wait!"