ELVIS MUSIC FAQ
All that's left to know about the King's Recorded Works
By Mike Eder (Backbeat books, 2013)
Over the years, there has been a good number of insightful and thought-provoking essays and books about the music of Elvis Presley. Names that immediately spring to mind are Peter Guralnick, Ernst Jørgensen, Greil Marcus, Colin Escott and Dave Marsh. Their works have given us revealing insights and fresh information about Elvis and his music.
Although I was not familiar with the author, I was looking forward to this new book by Mike Eder. I was curious to see whether he had anything new or different to add to the overall picture. The book's introduction promises that within its pages, "the personal artistic vision of Elvis Presley will be restored, as will his creative reputation". That's quite a claim to make, certainly in light of the aforementioned earlier works. Eder adds that readers "will get a fresh perspective that will breathe new life into the recordings they have long treasured". Hmmm, sounds good. Eder himself seems to have a somewhat dim view of the books written about Presley, and notes fact that "so few offer anything of value on his music. Most of those that do are dry reference books, and many of the others let Elvis' personal story intrude far too much on the authors' assessment of his creative work". A rather bold statement to say the least, certainly in light of the brilliance of a book like 'Elvis Presley: A Life In Music' by Ernst Jørgensen (St. Martin's Press, 1998), which intelligently chronicles Presley's music-making process with many fresh and hitherto unknown facts & insights.
In view of Eder’s goals for the book, I was quite surprised by the fact that there are plenty of references in it to Priscilla, the divorce and Presley’s abuse of prescribed medication. There’s even a whole chapter in the book about the drugs, with Eder chronicling year-by-year how Elvis’ life and career spiralled out of control because of them. Mind you, I'm not saying that this didn't happen, but this certainly seems at odds with what he writes in the introduction.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only time that Eder contradicts himself. He writes that he wants to correct the view of Elvis as a performer “who went on instinct rather than intellect”, but nevertheless the book paints the picture of a lazy artist who left nearly all of the crucial decisions involving his music and the way it was marketed and presented to his manager and the record label. The author himself is generally highly critical of the often haphazard way that Colonel Parker and RCA Victor released Presley's music, and yet, oddly enough, he writes that “going back to his original records reveals the pure intent of his (Elvis') musical vision in a way that most compilers or latter-day critics cannot seem to grasp”.
Eder asserts that 'Elvis Music FAQ' will "attempt to extinguish the misguided view of Presley as a malleable or opportunistic entertainer”, and yet the book seems to confirm the notion that Elvis' career was ruled by money and opportunism. Writing about the March ’72 RCA Hollywood recording session, Eder surmises that “Separated from Priscilla, Elvis was in the mood to record ballads about lost relationships” (p. 273). That sounds pretty opportunistic to me! It's worth noting though that in an interview with Ken Sharp, bodyguard Red West (and writer of ‘Separate Ways’, which Elvis recorded during this session) Elvis said: “Man, you’re killing me with these songs”. That certainly doesn't sound like someone who was "in the mood to record ballads about lost relationships".
Getting to the ’meat’ of the book, one of the first thing that struck me is that Eder’s writing style is fairly simplistic. He just doesn’t have the creativity of a Greil Marcus, nor the authority of an Ernst Jørgensen. Now, I realize that we can’t all be literary wonders, but his vocabulary does seem limited and certain words are repeated ad nauseam (e.g. ‘iconic’). At times the book feels like you’re reading a high school essay, and not a particularly good one. Eder gets a few song-titles wrong, which in my view is inexcusable in a book dealing with the music (‘I Feel That I’ve Known You Forever’ p. 157, 'I Hear You Knockin’' p. 204). It gets a bit problematic when the meaning of what he is trying to say is unclear, which happens on more than one occasion. To give an example, in his praise of ‘Until It’s Time For You to Go’ he writes that “it’s a classic love song because it’s realistic” (p. 260). What exactly does that mean?
The main body of the text deals with the author’s own assessment of Elvis’ music. Given his grand claims in the book’s introduction, I was surprised that Eder doesn’t really add anything new to the picture. He’s a bit kinder about the music from Elvis’ final years than the aforementioned authors, but that’s about it. It’s all been said before by writers that are far more skilled and knowledgeable than Eder. And while I certainly don’t want to deny Eder the right to express his own viewpoints, some of the ones he expresses about Elvis' 70s output are written with rose-tinted glasses firmly in place. He calls the ‘Raised On Rock’ album (1973) “his best latter-day LP” and its title song “fantastic” (p. 302). He describes ‘Find Out What’s Happening’ from that album as “cocky Elvis getting strongly into the groove”. I’ve always regarded that album as one of the weakest in Elvis’ catalogue, with his vocals on the latter song being particularly pathetic. I also can’t agree with his assertion that the best tracks on ‘Elvis In Concert’ (1977) represent “something of a triumph” (p. 346). In fact, I find these recordings quite sad. As for ‘It’s A Matter Of Time’ being “virtually as artistically rewarding as ‘Burning Love”… In what universe?? There are many more examples from this era where Eder seems to lack the proper historical and critical perspective, and for the most part just sounds like an overzealous fan. Not very helpful if his goal truly is to make more people aware of the quality of Elvis' work, a certain critical distance being necessary in order to be credible. Even when reviewing loose rehearsals like ‘I’m Leaving It Up To You’ and ‘Portrait Of My Love’, Eder goes totally over-the-top. About the latter song he writes: “… is but one of the times he proved that emotion could elevate a song far beyond a performance with mere technical perfection (…) … an example of what his personal vision made possible” (p. 134). Erm, are we even talking about the same recording here?
Eder chose a year-by-year approach for the book, reviewing the music as it was released originally on singles, EP’s and LP’s. This can be a bit problematic due to the way it was released at the time. To give an example, if you want to read his assessment of ‘Tell Me Why’ from 1957, then you will have to look for it in the chapter about 1965, because that’s when RCA Victor finally released it. Because of this approach there’s also a lot of unnecessary duplication in the book. I believe that a session-by-session assessment would have worked better, and would have resulted in a more cohesive work. Between these year-by-year chapters, there are random chapters that for the most part have little to do with the main text, like the one about Elvis’ drug intake. It’s baffling that Eder chose to do it like this, because it's another factor that undermines the continuity of his main text. In my opinion, these “insert” chapters add nothing to the book.
Some of these chapters are inoffensive but bland. There’s one about cover versions of Elvis’ songs, one about his gospel music, one about some of the other SUN artists, one about the Colonel, one about Elvis’ EP’s… so far, so good. There's also one about discards/rejected songs that seems a bit illogical, and oddly enough it lists stuff like ‘Cattle Call’, ‘Happy Birthday James’ and ‘School Days’.
The one chapter that I do have a real issue with is the one about Jimmy ‘Orion’ Ellis, the masked Elvis wannabe who took part in various ‘Elvis is alive’ scams. Eder writes about Orion with a great deal of affection and is rather complimentary about his recordings. I’m a little surprised that Eder chose to dedicate an entire chapter to this dubious character whom many Elvis fans hate with a passion. Orion simply does not belong in a book dedicated to Elvis' music, and the fact that he is featured prominently in this one, raises serious questions about the credibility of this work as a whole. As if that chapter isn’t enough, there are also various references to him throughout the book, including the introduction, where Eder refers to Orion as “a performer who clearly got the essence of where Elvis was coming from creatively”. Oh puh-leeze...
But it gets worse. You would think that the final chapter would be an intelligent overall assessment of Elvis’ music. But, you would be wrong. Instead, we get a chapter detailing the other Elvis wannabes & leeches who capitalized on Elvis’ demise with fake releases that were supposedly done by a still-living Elvis. I thought that all this nonsense was behind us by now, but here they all are again: Sivle Nora, Spelling On The Stone, the wacky Major Bill Smith.. Really, why devote space to these imbeciles in a book that’s supposed to be a serious critique of Elvis’ music? To make matters worse, Eder is actually fairly complimentary about them and even ends the book with the words: “Sivle is the one act that won’t die”. 'Bizarre' doesn't even begin to cover it...
There’s quite a few errors and misinterpretations in the book. I will list a few of these:
· On page 223, he writes that Elvis did somersaults on stage in 1969. This has been disputed by those who saw him on stage during that engagement. Also, these shows were not 90 minutes in length as Eder writes (p. 223), but 60 minutes.
· On page 229, he describes the March 20, 1974 version of ‘Blueberry Hill’ on the Memphis live LP as “unexpected, off-the-cuff”. As a matter of fact, he had been doing it since the January / February ’74 Las Vegas engagement.
· It’s a bit of a stretch to call Elvis’ lost version of ‘Satisfied’ a “master” (p. 181), when it reality he just sang a one-minute fragment of it between takes of another song.
· Eder writes with great certainty about a lost tape of Elvis singing together with the Golden Gate Quartet (p. 184). Some experts seriously doubt whether this tape ever really existed, and Eder should have mentioned that fact.
· On page 185, he claims that Elvis’ version of ‘How Great Thou Art’ was based on the version by the Statesmen, but in my interview with Charlie Hodge he stated that it was based on the version by the Sons of the Pioneers.
· Was ‘You’re The Boss’ really “too hot for the sensibilities of 1964” (p. 123)?
· Likewise, was ‘Crawfish’ really edited due to "the racial sensibilities of the era” (p. 75)?
· Eder writes twice that Parker was sued and removed from the scene by Priscilla (p. 32 & 283). It was actually Judge Joseph Evans who ordered the estate to sue Parker.
· He claims that Elvis’ dislike for ‘Burning Love’ is "a myth" (p. 273), but Jørgensen’s ‘A Life Of Music’ clearly details Elvis’ reluctance about this song and him having to be convinced by friends and musicians that this was a good song for him.
· On page 289, Eder writes that Elvis “put more thought into his Aloha set”, but according to Charlie Hodge, Elvis left the set-list of the show up to him and Red West while Elvis went in and took a nap (my book 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes', page 61).
· He asserts that ‘Welcome To My World’ was “never performed live before or after the Aloha special” (p. 290), but Elvis did sing an impromptu version of it in Las Vegas, NV on December 13, 1975.
· On page 231, Eder refers to the ‘Elvis In Concert’ versions of ‘Fairytale’ and ‘And I Love You So’ as “uncommon”, and on page 344 again as “otherwise professionally undocumented”. Why? He’d already recorded them in ’75 for the ‘Today’ album, and both were a regular part of his show in ’77.
· Dan Penn did not play guitar on the American sessions (p. 243).
· Writing about the 2nd Memphis '69 album, Eder fails to note that this release was never originally envisioned by the American crew and that producer Chips Moman was furious about its release. This information really should have been in the book.
· While I appreciate its rarity factor, I don’t agree with Eder’s assertion that ‘You Can Have Her’ was “the highlight of the May '74 tour” (p. 296). It didn’t really work, and that’s why Elvis took it out of the set-list after one try-out.
· Writing about the ‘Desert Storm’ closing night performance on September 2nd, 1974, Eder writes that “the most interesting musical inclusion was a 3-song showcase for Voice” (p. 298). Actually, I find those performances the LEAST interesting part of that show. He also writes that Elvis started adding long monologues about karate, his jewelry and the movie magazines to his programme, because he felt that it would add “a fresh dimension” to his shows and that it would be “interesting to fans and the curious”. Lawd' have mercy…
· I don’t have much time for Parker, but I don’t agree with Eder’s viewpoint that he “took great pains to hide his ancestry” (p. 25). After all, when his brother Ad van Cuijk visited him in ’61, Parker introduced him to many of his associates, including Elvis and his entourage. Moreover, several Dutch fans have fond memories of talking to the Colonel in their native language in Las Vegas in the 70s. Therefore, it would have been more appropriate to state that Parker in general was not very forthcoming about his past.
· On page 27, he writes that the Colonel tried to discourage Elvis from working with his original musicians because they had “begun to get too involved with Elvis’ sessions”. That doesn’t make sense. The sole dispute back in ’57 came about because Scotty and Bill felt that they weren’t getting enough money and recognition, and actually had difficulty paying their bills while Elvis was making millions.
· Parker rejecting ‘A Star In Born’ is placed in the 1961 era (page 29), but in reality this took place in 1975.
· Eder seems to blame Parker for RCA Victor adding intrusive echo to the SUN recordings, releasing wrong alternates like ‘Doncha Think It’s Time’ and editing the ending to ‘Mystery Train’…. There’s many legitimate things that we can blame the Colonel for, but these examples don’t make much sense to me. If Eder wants to blame anyone, blame Elvis. He could easily have taken more responsibility for the way his work was presented, and I don’t think Parker or the record label would have objected. Eder writes time and again that Parker and RCA Victor let Elvis down, but my own feeling on the matter is that Elvis let his audience down by seemingly caring so little about his own recorded work.
· “Elvis never stole or copied his style from anyone…” (p. 18)… ho ho ho! Elvis did copy and absorb the stylings of many artists, most notably Jake Hess, Dean Martin and Roy Hamilton.
· Jerry Scheff was not overdubbed on ‘Today’ as Eder writes (p. 313), Norbert Putnam and Mike Leech were.
· I feel a little uncomfortable with Eder’s various references to some of Elvis’ early recordings as “rockabilly” (e.g. ‘Just Because’ having a “cute rockabilly sound”, p. 61), when in reality Presley probably wasn’t even aware of the term. Some of his contemporaries have stated that they first heard the term in the 70s. On page 147, Eder writes that the “German fans preferred hard rockabilly..”. Back in 1960, they probably didn’t even know what it was! Likewise, Elvis’ mid-70s live version of ‘Big Boss Man’ is not “rockabilly pop” (p. 175) as Eder writes. Presley himself would have probably referred to it as R&B.
Anyway, enough of this. Eder and his editor should have done this work, and not me.
Especially in light of the grandiose claims in the introduction, this book is a big letdown. Summing it all up, it would be hard to know where to start... I’m just wondering what Eder was really set to do with this book. If he genuinely believes that it “restores the personal artistic vision and the creative reputation of of Elvis Presley” as he writes in the introduction, then he is very misguided, delusional even. I honestly don't understand why he didn't just focus on what he set out to do: write a measured appraisal of Elvis' recorded works. It's unlikely that this would have saved the book, but it would have been a start. But the book was doomed from the moment that Eder made the decision to include Orion and those other bloodsucking parasite wannabes in it. Talk about the proverbial nail in the coffin! Still, you can't get away from the fact that even without those elements it's a rather weak and uneven book. Moreover, the mistakes and misinterpretations distract from what Eder is trying to convey. Furthermore, he does not provide documentation for his statements, there's no notes, the index is really minimal (no song index though)... but I guess it's just as well. If you're going to make a stinker, then you might as well go all the way. And this is a bonafide stinker.
Reviewed by Arjan Deelen (Denmark)