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Did Elvis dumb down his material?

Wed Jun 22, 2005 7:31 am

The recent piece posted here recently about Elvis not being a racist had an aside about the deterioration of Elvis' music by 1958. This same idea is also touched on in the work of Greil Marcus and the recent essay by Will Friedwald. Marcus dismisses "Elvis: Gold Records Vol.2" as the period where "Elvis sold out to girls. He stopped threatening and started pleading." Friedwald comments that because Elvis' material appealed strongly to the teenaged market, some of his material was dumbed down to appeal to that market and only that market. This is a very interesting and somewhat natural perspective because people distrust popularity. However, I think it is somewhat of a flawed and misguided theory uninformed by an understanding of the facts of Elvis' life.

There is no question that there was a downgrade in Elvis' material right around 1958 and this downgrade continued at a slow but steady pace into the late 1960s. I don't think even a hardcore fan would admit that tracks like "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck", "I Need Your Love Tonight", "I Beg of You", "I Got Stung" (Many would also include the sanitized "One Night" in here but Elvis' performance obliterates any lyrical compromise.) are up to the standards set by "Heartbreak Hotel", "Hound Dog", "Jailhouse Rock", and the pop classics "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up". There's a silliness and element of parody to these tracks as written and performed, a lack of edge. The lyrics in particular are burdened by period and teen references like "Hi fi" and "going steady" and call on too many self-conscious mannerisms. Though they remain exciting records because of Elvis' brilliant performances (if they are parodies they're great parodies); they are a step down.

I don't think though that it was a conscious attempt to pander to the teen market. For one thing, unlike Chuck Berry or Ricky Nelson, Elvis never recorded any song- save the movie filler "Steadfast, Loyal and True"- that specifically mentioned teenagers or high school. Even more, unlike those artists, Elvis' records were constant hits. The dark and brooding "Heartbreak Hotel", the sexually anxious "Don't", and the savage "Hound Dog" or sold millions upon millions without any overt concessions to the teen market. Teens responded in droves to the emotions expressed in those songs but it was an organic connection between kindred spirits rather than a marketing exercise. So, for Elvis there was no reason to be overtly "teen friendly". Interestingly, his sales actually suffered modestly with these less intense records.

I think Elvis' slide in material came from the fact that some of the lesser songs including even "Teddy Bear" came from older writers who weren't really conversant with the new style. From the outside, they saw that teenagers enjoyed the music and basically came up with an approximation of rock and roll that consisted of piano triplets and teen lyrics. When Parker and his cronies ousted L&S, Elvis didn't really hook up with writers conversant with the new material until Pomus and Shuman came on board in 1960.

When Elvis did return home from the army, I think he blew away any considerations of dumbed down material. This was the case at least on his singles-his highest profile work. While the lyrics of "It's Now or Never" may not have been the most literate in the world, as a piece of music it was very challenging for Elvis' fans as structurally it bore no relation to any previous Elvis record. "Are You Lonesome To-Night?" was even more challenging with its out of date lyric, its spoken passage and its bare bones instrumentation. It's worth noting that in the US, where Elvis had a say in his singles, the cutesy "Wooden Heart" was not released as a single. If you look into 1961 Elvis gets even more and more adventurous with "I Feel So Bad" one of the bluesiest pieces to ever go Top 40 and "Can't Help Falling in Love" a deadly serious love song with an almost spiritual theme.

In some ways, RCA later on would desperately hop on and promote any Elvis song resembling a trend like "Do the Clam" or "Rock-a- Hula Baby". He was not a trend hopper.

So, while Elvis' material did decline for business considerations, it was never an attempt to speak down to his audience. The intent to make quality work was there as was the faith in the audience. However, a changing industry, a manager's greed and Elvis' isolation obscured this noble intention.
Last edited by likethebike on Wed Jun 22, 2005 10:08 am, edited 1 time in total.

Did Elvis dumb down his material?

Wed Jun 22, 2005 10:37 am

A couple of thoughts in response: I am old enough to have bought all the singles from Golden Hits Vol. 2 (I was 12 in 1958) when they were first released (and I did!) and do NOT think any less of them than the ones from 1956-1957.
Secondly - if I recall correctly - all of the tunes from Golden Hits vol. 2 were recorded and released in a very short time period (half of them were b-sides!).
Thirdly - they were probably not performed - and perfected - before an audience.
Fourthly - not much time was avialable to find and practice many songs at that time so he had to grab them on the run, so to speak.
Weren't all of them recorded in just 2 different recording sessions? I don't have the album's song list in front of me but I can't be too far off.
One more thing - in 1958 the top tunes were starting to all be of a lighter nature - and sound - then in the previous 2 or 3 years.

Wed Jun 22, 2005 11:57 am

likethebike,

I have to agree with Carolyn - another interesting, thought provoking piece.

What sticks out is that this is the period where Elvis moved towards recording songs recorded by professional songwriters. He was not re-interpreting old R&B numbers or recording material produced by those with a rich background in rock n roll and R&B, i.e. Lieber and Stoller, Otis Blackwell, Little Richard etc, but material produced by career songwriters who sat in their offices trying to fill their songs with the 'teen' references you mentioned, purely to sell their product. In a way it hints at what was to happen in the 60s for Elvis whereby he was handicapped by the fact he was relying on career songwriters (as opposed to performers) who were churning out sons to fit gaps in low brow films still filled with 'teen' references. As the trends in music moved away from 'love' and 'angst' towards the 'political' and 'psychodelic' Elvis was left in a bit of a no-mans land.

To anwer your question; i don't think Elvis himself dummed down the material i think he was presented with less and less 'threatening' material. however, while a phrase like Big Hunk O'Love sounds very teen orientated the performance belies any dumming down and is a true classic.

Wed Jun 22, 2005 4:36 pm

Kudos as usual, 'Bike. Still, most trace the fall to 1960, or the induction into the Army. All too often, Elvis' post-Army material was seen as even more of a betrayal from his "King of Rock'n' Roll" founding father status:

"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" - an antique from 1927. (I recall my surprise as a kid in the late '70s when I was playing Elvis' version when my grandmother - a former "flapper" born in '04- told me she remembered the '20s original version by Al Jolson! .)

"It's Now Or Never"? Neapolitan torch song: not rock...

"Can't Help falling in Love" ? An song sang to a grandmother ....in a movie...in Hawaii...

So the "all-cool," all-oppositional stance of the Rolling Stone '60s rock generation really grows tiresome, doesn't it?

Anyway, only recently have critics caught on to the brilliance of "Elvis is Back" and the Nashville to Memphis studio sides presented on the '60s box, and even then I wonder how much of it has popularly penetrated, given RCA/BMG's slide in focus with repeated "love song" and "Christmas" and "gospel" retreads...

The old "he died when he went in the army" idea still is very much out there, as well as the "and then he went to Vegas...and got fat, sang schmaltz, etc."

Finally, I do concur about those late teen-bubble gum '50s songs on Volume 2 being a bit lightweight, if still pretty phenomenal, particularly "Big Hunk of Love" which rocked as hard as anything at Sun Records in my book when I first discovered it as a kid.

But to answer your question, "did he dumb down his material?," undoubtedly yes.
Last edited by Gregory Nolan Jr. on Fri Jun 24, 2005 4:35 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Wed Jun 22, 2005 6:52 pm

I don't really think there was any significant drop in quality or 'dumbing down' in 58. I see A Big Hunk O' Love as an extention or elaboration of Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock. Elvis is just as raucous vocally. Another raucous track from '58 is Hard Headed Woman, and that's really an extention of both Blue Suede Shoes and Mean Woman Blues.

Even with the watered-down lyrics One Night is arguably his raunchiest vocal. I would also add that the magnificent Trouble was a 1958 track.

I see I Beg of You as very much in the same vein as Don't Be Cruel.

I Need Your Love Tonight is Elvis doing a Buddy Holly-ish performance/song.

My Wish Came True is a very ambitious ballad, and Don't is in my view right up there with Love Me as Elvis' best 50's ballad performance.

I would also submit that on the torchy beat ballads such as Don't Leave Me Now; Don't Ask Me Why; I Need You So; and New Orleans Elvis is vocally better and more assured than on the earlier one's like I Was The One or I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, or (especially) I'm Counting On You.

Wear My Ring Around Your Neck is about the only real concession to teenage fare, and it's still a rockin' and fun track.

So, again, I don't buy that there was a drop in quality in '58.

Wed Jun 22, 2005 7:11 pm

Pete Dube wrote:Wear My Ring Around Your Neck is about the only real concession to teenage fare, and it's still a rockin' and fun track.

So, again, I don't buy that there was a drop in quality in '58.


Depends on my mood, Pete and you are persuasive.

Still, "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck" and "I Got Stung" always struck me as somewhat derivative but that's comparing to Elvis' own outstanding track record at Sun and RCA just a few years earlier.

If he had only recorded these two rock singles, people would still be thinking "who is that guy!?"

And I go back to it: Elvis from '60 to '68 is regularly panned as a drift from rock'n'roll and a turn to "bad" movies, and pretty much everything after TTWII (if they even remember to give that a nod) is panned as "bloated...Vegas....bejeweled...'70s stuff" etc.

And how wrong - or at least simplistic that is.

Alas, the same old hit comps from RCA/BMG/ Sony just reinforce this.

Wed Jun 22, 2005 7:33 pm

hi-fi ?

Maybe he should have changed that to "Victrola" to appeal to the older generation.

:roll:


I got the hi-fi high and the lights down low
is a great lyric.

Thu Jun 23, 2005 12:58 am

I also noticed the sidebar that you mentioned in the racism article posted by Greg, and had the board not been so slow at the time I surely would have commented on it. I found it especially ironic that the author was trying to dispel a common myth about Elvis in his article, but then perpetuated the heavily flawed idea that Elvis in the late sixties was musically and culturally irrelevant (he mentions 1969; the year that saw From Elvis In Memphis, for crying out loud!).

I also disagreed with his statement that Elvis had sold out in 1958, or that “there was a downgrade in Elvis' material right around 1958,” as you put it. As much as I love his music from that time, I think it’s hard to argue that the songs in 1956 were very sophisticated in the first place. Elvis often gave incredible performances, but compared to his later work, the songs themselves were very basic in terms of structure and lyric. I don’t think this had changed significantly between 1956 and 1958.

The first thing you mentioned were the lyrics. Indeed, there wasn’t a song as deep and serious as “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1958, but that hardly means that the lack of a proper sequel was the result of dumbing down for the public. “One-Sided Love Affair” on Elvis Presley is a great bouncy tune, but its lyrics aren’t any more sophisticated than, say, “A Big Hunk O' Love.” Compare:

If you wanna be hugged,
Well, you gotta hug me, too
Oh yeah, if you wanna be hugged,
Well, you've gotta hug me, too
Yeah, 'cause I ain't for no one-sided love affair


To:

Don’t be a stingy little mama
You’re ‘bout to starve me half to death
Well, you can spare a kiss or two and
Still have plenty left,
No, no, baby, I ain’t askin’ much of you
Just a big-a big-a hunk o’ love will do


Also consider that “Got a Lot O' Livin' to Do!” came out on Loving You in July of 1957. I really don’t think “Livin’” is any more serious a take on Rock & Roll than “Big Hunk” or “Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby.”

Then there’s the music and performance. A performance like the one on “New Orleans” (a soundtrack selection, even!) was unique, and it’s hard to find anything pre-1958 that even comes close to matching that build-up and release found within that single song. There also seems to be this idea that Elvis had strayed somehow from his roots, but he did record “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” that year. Also, a song like “Don’t” isn’t any more pleading than “Love Me Tender” had been two years earlier. As you already mentioned, Elvis’ roaring performance on “One Night” proved that he could rock just as hard as he had two year earlier.

By 1958 Elvis had grown tremendously as an artist, and his sound, now richer and fuller, had only improved exponentially since his start. He could do all that he had done before – sing a ballad like “Don’t,” rock on “One Night” or “I Got Stung,” and release great pop like “Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby” – while still expanding sonically like on King Creole.

1958 saw the release of Golden Records (March), King Creole (August), the Christmas with Elvis EP (December), and he recorded the material for Gold Records, Vol. 2 (December, 1959), which was one of the best Rock albums of all time. Hardly a decline, I’d say.

Thu Jun 23, 2005 2:21 am

I find the entire premise here flawed.......Let's say the material in 58 was weaker (I don't believe it was personally, but I posit this for the sake of develpoing the argument).The material was not really the crux of the issue. Let's take a look at a little of what he recorded during his most celebrated period......SUN.

Can anyone really hold the opinion that "Milk Cow Blues" is lyrically or compositionally superior to "Big Hunk Of Love"?? How about "comparing "Blue Moon Of Kentucky " to "Hard Headed Woman"?? The issue, it seems to me, is what Elvis INFUSED into even very pedestrian material. The pre-58 material WERE mostly yawners until they got "the treatment" from Elvis. Anyone heard the originals??? HE made them shine, and very often in spite of the composition.

In fact, he overhauled this material to make it over in his image. Turn these tracks over to Pat Boone and they sink like a stone......mercifully. Elvis simply experimented with his interpretations of material, adding nuance and subtlety and a broader range of expressions post 57. Much of the later material would have suffered from the treatment he gave his earlier work.

That is why Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton are so damn annoying......every song receives the same bombastic vocal pyrotechnics whether the sensibilities of the song merit it or not. Just because you CAN belt out every song, doesn't mean you SHOULD.

The earlier recordings were generally all in the same vein, and the songs therefore could be handled in very much the same manner vocally. On the later recordings he was provided with a far broader range of material, and he let the sensibilities of the song dictate his delivery. He was exploring his musical range, and when he found that range nearly limitless he kept pushing the limits.

He could still rip the hell out of a song that called for such treatment .He could still evoke the sly fun and subtle innuendo of the past ("I ain't greedy baby, all I want is all you got"). But he was experimenting with style and expression on much more varied material, and simply because the newer material didn't always demand that the song be chewed up and spit out vocally doesn't equate to inferiority or "dumbing down" to me.
Last edited by Scatter on Sat Jun 25, 2005 2:44 am, edited 1 time in total.

Fri Jun 24, 2005 3:59 am

Bravo, Scatter! Elvis' versitility, creativity, innate sensitivity to his material - ANY MATERIAL given to him - gave him an ability to project exactly the right shadings of meaning with a delicacy (and/or strength)that was exactly right, which is why he is still being discussed and listened to today. I don't think he thought about it, he just did it, naturally.

Fri Jun 24, 2005 7:37 am

I pretty much agree with the majority of the posts as my original post was a defense of Elvis' work. I do think that there was a dropoff in '58 though. As unsophisticated as "One Sided Love Affair" was, it refrained from a lyric like "pow pow don't run away." The interesting thing I find about Elvis in '58 and in part of '57 is that his movie material was actually more challenging than his studio stuff. This had to be the only time in his career where that was the case. Of course there is a basic quality, detractors would say crudeness, to all of Elvis' early material. This is one of the reasons that not only his music but all of rock and roll was dismissed by the jazz snobs (normally sympathetic to blues based music) and the music establishment in general. It is a good point about the performance level upping the material. It was Elvis' generation that established the dominance of performance over composition.

My point about the dropoff is that the material was more self-consciously teen oriented in 1958 and only had tangential roots to country, gospel and R&B. As I said in the original posts, I do not think this was a deliberate choice but just the way things worked out as Andrew J pointed out largely due to the influence of professional songwriters.

That is an interesting point Scatter about the teen records being an attempt to branch out. I have always thought "Girl of My Best Friend" was an attempt to slap the Bobby Vees, Fabians and Frankie Avalons and Bobby Rydells of the world back into place by showing how it should be done. Perhaps the '58 records prove that point as well.

"Blue Moon of Kentucky" though is a great song as written and it was brilliant in Bill Monroe's original as well.

Fri Jun 24, 2005 4:49 pm

LTB -
How is "Pow wow don't run away" any sillier than "A wop bop aloo bop alop bam boom"? I believe you'd agree that the latter is from a bonafide 50's rock & roll classic.

Fri Jun 24, 2005 5:11 pm

Scatter,

I like your writings and input,
but may I suggest you should hit enter key every so often
to break that big block of words into nice bite-size paragraphs

Makes it easier to read and digest.

:wink: constructive criticism.

GG

SINGERS?

Fri Jun 24, 2005 5:17 pm

I quote Scatter:

"That is why Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton are so damn annoying......every song receives the same bombastic vocal pyrotechnics whether the sensibilities of the song merit it or not. Just because you CAN belt out every song, doesn't mean you SHOULD."

I LOVE THIS. That's what's wrong with many songs on the radio these days (man, I sound old). Every song sounds the same -- long held notes, hitting 'highs' at every opportunity, in spite of a tender rendering perhaps being much more effective.

There is just so much variety in Elvis' voice, I still do not tire after all these years -- it's not all bombastic, but he certainly could when he wanted to.

Fri Jun 24, 2005 5:21 pm

Pete Dube wrote:LTB -
How is "Pow wow don't run away" any sillier than "A wop bop aloo bop alop bam boom"? I believe you'd agree that the latter is from a bonafide 50's rock & roll classic.



Pete, it's charming the first time around, later, it sounds emptier and more derivative. It's as simple as that.

Frankly, even the best of early rock has a bubble gum (read: disposable) quality that doesn't always taste good on when it's what we used to call "A.B.C." gum...

I'm glad Elvis moved away from it toward darker and more gusto material as he matured in the '60s and '70s.. Maybe I'm just older, but "It's Midnight" or "You Gave Me A Mountain" moves me as much or more than say "Ready Teddy" or " I Got Stung" - my mood being a major wild card....

Fri Jun 24, 2005 5:32 pm

Gregory Nolan Jr. wrote:
Frankly, even the best of early rock has a bubble gum (read: disposable) quality that doesn't always taste good on when it's what we used to call "A.B.C." gum...


Greg, that was the point I was trying to make to LTB. A lot of 50's rock & roll - including some bonafide classics - had silly lyrics or nonsense syllables.

Gregory Nolan Jr. wrote:I'm glad Elvis moved away from it toward darker and more gusto material as he matured in the '60s and '70s.. Maybe I'm just older, but "It's Midnight" or "You Gave Me A Mountain" moves me as much or more than say "Ready Teddy" or " I Got Stung" - my mood being a major wild card....


Ditto!

Fri Jun 24, 2005 7:32 pm

That said, I think the first "chew" was the best, therefore, any of the '56 stuff is more explosive than anything at the end of the '50s, save "Big Hunk Of Love," which tore the house off. I do agree with LTB's point that a certain self-consciousness crept in on some of those Volume 2 hits, sort of like, "now's the time when we 'do a rocker' "

Still, it's "apples and oranges." Elvis' '50s stuff was phenomenal.

Sat Jun 25, 2005 2:15 am

Graceland Gardener wrote:Scatter,

I like your writings and input,
but may I suggest you should hit enter key every so often
to break that big block of words into nice bite-size paragraphs

Makes it easier to read and digest.

:wink: constructive criticism.

GG


GG......point taken . I am usually involved in at least one other thing while I post, and my sentence structure suffers. Unfortunately , so does my logic, comprehension, and grammar. I'll work on it :)

Sat Jun 25, 2005 5:13 pm

The main difference between 1956 and 57-58 is that in '56 Elvis recorded a lot of cover songs in the r&b or early rock&roll genre: Blue Suede Shoes; I Got A Woman; Money Honey; My Baby Left Me; So Glad You're Mine; Lawy Miss Clawdy; Hound Dog; and the 4 Little Richard tunes. These songs had all previously been hits for other artists, and in most cases the artist was also the songwriter.

Starting in '57 there was more of an emphasis on songs written by Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. And while All Shook Up (recorded in '56) and Jailhouse Rock are great songs, Too Much and especially Teddy Bear aren't in the same class.

I would argue that the best of the King Creole soundtrack (the title song; Hard Headed Woman; Trouble; Dixieland Rock; New Orleans) equals - if not exceeds - the best of the Loving You and Jailhouse Rock soundtracks.

Two of Elvis' most raucous vocals came from 1957: One Night and When It Rains, It Really Pours. And two 1958 tracks, Big Hunk and the underrated Ain't That Loving You Baby are terrific rock & roll performances.

So all things considered, I just don't really see any comedown from 1956 in 57-58.