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Schism between Elvis' stage and studio work

Fri Jun 24, 2005 8:20 am

Before he became Bruce Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau wrote an excellent review of Elvis' stage show, he titled "In Praise of Elvis Presley". In the piece, Landau made an interesting observation about Elvis' stage show. Unlike an artist like Dylan who pleased the audience by pleasing himself, Elvis pleased himself by pleasing the audience. It was just an observation not a value judgement and I think both approaches work.

I do think it was a true statement. As much as Elvis exercised some demons on stage with songs like "You Gave Me a Mountain" and indulged some personal passions with "How Great Thou Art", the stage show was for the crowd from the 2001 opening, to the majority of tried and true material to the elaborate costumes to the scarves and the kisses. You could see back as far as 1956 the way that "Hound Dog" belongs to the crowd. When Elvis gives the songs cryptic introductions like as "a great philosopher once said" or goes into a false start, you can sense his pleasure in playing with the crowd's anticipation of his most popular song.

Later on when Elvis walking through his '50s classics, the only reasons they remained in the show was because- walk through or not- they were what the audience wanted to hear.

A prominent example of the impact an audience could have on Elvis' stage work was the August 1974 revamp that lasted only a few shows because of audience indifference. Perhaps an even more telling story is of the night Elvis gave away jewelry to the first few rows in the audience to turn the crowd into a frenzy.

What makes this approach to stage performance so fascinating to me is that Elvis had almost the exact opposite approach in the recording studio. From Sun records on, he beat walked to his own drum putting a record out there and letting the chips fall where they may. Think of that first single. "They'll run us out of town," said Bill Black listening to a playback. There really wasn't a lot to lose there but you see the point.

Move ahead to "Heartbreak Hotel" one of the weirdest most intense songs to ever make the Top 40. More importantly it sounded like nothing he had done to that time therefore risking the alienation of his audience. Later that year he did record the by popular demand "Hound Dog" but in a radically different rendition than he did on TV. Months later, the king of the beat put out a single with no beat at all in "Love Me Tender".

When he returned from the army, instead of following the teen idolish "Stuck on You" with another soft rocker (very popular in that day) or rocking out like the old days, he does a slice of Neopolitan cha-cha-cha with operatic overtones. Then he comes through with a slice of parlor balladry in "Are You Lonesome To-Night?" Some fans must have seen it as grandpa music. This was such a radical left-turn against audience expectations that fans are still debating it 40 years later.

In '63, it would have been easy to just dump a vocal rendition of "Memphis" on the market in the wake of Lonnie Mack's massively popular instrumental. Yet Elvis insisted on tinkering until he found the sound in his head. He wound up losing the hit to Johnny Rivers' much more pedestrian version.

Later in the decade, Elvis dumps "You'll Never Walk Alone" on the market as his latest single despite the fact that the song was only recently a Top 40 single for Gerry and the Pacemakers. Why? Because he liked it.

"American Trilogy" was even more extreme. The Mickey Newbury version hadn't been out of the Top 40 six months when Elvis put his record out. Not only that, it was extremely long (for the time) and had no real pop hook. Yet, he believed this was his best shot and that's that.

Another rocker would have been a natural followup to "Burning Love" but Elvis put out the divorce record because that's what he was into and he kept putting them out for the same reason. Further many of his greatest performances of the 1970s like "Promised Land" came out of Elvis simply singing for his own entertainment.

In all of these cases, Elvis is asking his audience to come to him. This is something he never really did on stage.

Again I'm not judging, as the please the audience approach made Elvis' show in many ways an unforgettable spectacle.

It's just an interesting dichotomy and makes Elvis' work all the more interesting. I think there are logical reasons to explain the difference in approach. One, of course, is the direct impact of the audience. That applause can be addicting. Another is the unpredictable nature of the record industry. While formulas work on stage, they often wear thin on record buyers. Plus, without the direct contact with audiences it is hard to know what they want. You only find out if something works after it is done.

Still though other artists have faced some of the same challenges and approached it differently or in a more consistent manner. It goes to show that Nick Tosches got something right when he said: "I don't think Elvis Presley will ever be solved."

Fri Jun 24, 2005 8:26 am

thought provoking post, thanks

Fri Jun 24, 2005 2:12 pm

GPLTB (Great post likethebike) is now an official acronym in the Oxford dictionary. :wink:

Schism I had to look up. :D

One question though. Do we know that Elvis was solely responsible for his singles choices? He was obviously contracted to provide a certain number of albums and singles a year but was the choice of single his? As you point out several single releases may appear a strange choice when compared with the previous one. One example is when 'Clean Up Your Own Backyard' was sandwiched between 'In The Ghetto' and 'Suspicious Minds'. I've never been able to understand that. Whilst CUYOB is a fine song it's strangely out of place in that series of single releases. Wouldn't the preferred option be to release another single from the American Sound sessions? Or perhaps Parker wanted something to promote the 'Trouble With Girls' movie?

On a similar theme, who decided the album content after a marathon recording session? Was it Elvis who picked the 12 tracks that would comprise the 'From Elvis In Memphis' album? Or someone at RCA? Similarly after the Nashville sessions the following year. Someone decided what tracks would go on what album and what would be singles. I wonder how much input Elvis really had here?

Single releases

Fri Jun 24, 2005 3:06 pm

I read somewhere (I think it was in A Life In Music), that Elvis was always the one who - after a session - decided what would be the A and B-side of his next single. He'd leave it to RCA to choose songs for the album.
When more singles were required or a movie had to be promoted I guess Parker or some executives at RCA decided which songs would be on it.

Theo

Fri Jun 24, 2005 3:52 pm

Del -
My understanding is that, as far as non-movie material goes, Elvis picked his singles.

Clean Up your Own Backyard was actually Parker's choice. He thought the somewhat topical lyrics would appeal to young people. But this was also a movie tune, and they needed a single to promote the movie.

For the most part the selection of songs for non-soundtrack album's would've fell largely to Felton, although RCA and Parker had their fingers in that pie.