Sunday, March 30, 2008

Elvis On Screen: Loving You (1957)

Directed with real panache by the very able Hal Kanter and featuring one of the best soundtracks of the fifties, the first proper Elvis Presley Vehicle Loving You would set the stage for not only the rest of his cinematic career but also the rock n’ roll film genre itself.
Kanter got his start in the late forties as a writer for a number of television variety shows and series including Ed Wynn’s show as well as Amos n’ Andy. Loving You marked the first time Kanter had stepped up to the plate as director though and he redeems himself quite nicely, delivering a colorful and exciting film that knew exactly what it was and it played up to it brilliantly.

The writer turned director had initially been a little hesitant to work with the controversial rocker but early on in their collaboration he felt himself won over by Presley’s charm, wit and most importantly seriousness. Hal Kanter saw what few others saw early on in Elvis’ career, namely that he had the talent to become a serious actor.

Loving You wouldn’t be the film to take Elvis to the places he needed to go as a top of the line actor and Kanter knew it, but it was a major step towards placing Elvis among the top and most charismatic screen stars of his or any other time.
Loving You centers on a very Presley like character named Deke Rivers who quickly finds fame as a traveling rock and roller after being discovered by a shrewd promoter and manager (played intriguingly by Lizabeth Scott). If the plot seems contrived and predictable today, that is just because it has been copied so many times. Loving You practically invents a genre in its 100 minute running time and if the imitators have taken some of its boldness away that is perhaps the inevitable drawback to being so influential.

Surrounding Elvis in this eye popping color production, shot by legendary Oscar winner Charles Lang, is a really special cast filled out by a number of veteran actors and a couple of really fresh faces who would soon become stars in their own right.
Lizabeth Scott is best remembered today for her appearances in a number of top film noir productions of the forties, including the great 1947 Humphrey Bogart vehicle Dead Reckoning. Not a traditional beauty, Scott managed to carve quite a place for herself for a while in film with her rather hypnotic intensity and mystery. She is really splendid in Loving You in a part that would have typically been played by a man and her scenes with Elvis are very nicely done.

Other well known cast members include prolific character actor Wendell Corey, talented James Gleason (who tragically passed away just a couple of years after production on Loving You wrapped) and scene stealer Jana Lund who claims her place in history here as one of the first rock and roll groupies ever presented on film.

Lots of other familiar faces pop up as well including future television actress Yvonne Lime and many folks Elvis fans will recognize including his parents in a crowd scene. The real story of the film though is young Dolores Hart, who makes her feature debut as Elvis’ sweet love interest, Susan Jessup.

Chicago born Hart was nearing her twentieth birthday when she shot Loving You for Kanter and it would marked one of two very memorable roles opposite Elvis (the other being 1958’s King Creole) and she is simply smashing in the both parts, projecting the kind of warmth and goodness most actors wouldn’t even be able to come close to. Hart would become quite close to Elvis during the production and some endearing home movies exist of the two of them palling together after it wrapped. She would shock everyone less than ten years after Loving You when she abandoned an incredibly promising screen career to be a nun. Her role as Susan here is one of her finest and her scenes with Elvis mark some of the best in his entire canon.
Loving You is at its best during the many song sequences and the legendary soundtrack is astonishing. Songs like the title track, "Mean Woman Blues" and "Teddy Bear" seem a part of our national collective conscience but even better are the lesser-known tracks like the exciting "Got A Lot Of Livin To Do", "Party" (a favorite of the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney) and the eerie "Lonesome Cowboy"(one of the film’s original titles) mark some of the finest studio work Elvis did in the fifties. Anyone who has ever stated that all of Elvis soundtracks songs are bad have either never heard the Loving You soundtrack or are completely deaf when it comes to great music as every cut on here is a killer.

Kanter directs the film and its musical sequences with a lot of style and inventive drive and it’s a shame his directorial career wasn’t more prolific. Loving You is almost a complete success for the first time director and with perhaps a little tightening (especially in the latter half) it could have been one of the truly great musicals of the fifties.
The future great actor in Elvis that Kanter predicted doesn’t appear here but what is in its place is no less incredible. Gone are the jitters of Love Me Tender as Elvis appears totally at ease and he has already nearly mastered the relaxed on screen charm and charisma that has gone on to influence everyone from Kurt Russell to Vince Vaughn. Loving You is one of the great early chapters in Elvis’ career and one that has never fully gotten its due.
The film is available on a decent widescreen DVD with virtually no extras, although thankfully a wonderful book called Inside Loving You is out that details the film's production.. Adding insult to injury, it is surprisingly one of the hardest to find with online vendors being the only real prerogative as very few stores seem to stock it. Pity, as Loving You is one of the best films in Elvis ‘ catalogue and one of the most delightful and underrated Rock films of the fifties.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Overlooked Gems: "So Glad Your Mine"

Our man recorded this gloriously down and dirty Arthur Crudup track in the late January session of 1956. Bristling with a delightfully decadent burlesque feel, this ode to a girl shaped like a ‘cannonball’ is one of the best Elvis tracks of the fifties, and is highlighted by a menacingly smooth vocal by EP as well as some unforgettable piano work by Shorty Long. A real masterpiece and one of the best tracks off the fabulous second LP.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Elvis Week Memories: Celeste Yarnall Talks about Elvis and Martin Luther King

One of my great memories of Elvis week is seeing Celeste tell this moving and important story. I am grateful to the person who recorded and posted this...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Elvis On Vinyl: Elvis Presley (1956)

Elvis Presley’s self-titled first LP is unarguably one of the most important albums in rock history. Not only is it the first album by the genre’s most successful and influential figure but it is also the first genuine smash LP of the rock era. Its success in the spring and summer of 1956 would signal that it would be the long player and not the single that would come to dominate the sixties and onwards.
The album itself, featuring one of the most famous photos in Rock history on its cover, is actually a grab-bag affair consisting of a handful of left over Sun sides and a half dozen or so newly recorded RCA tracks. The famed singles from those initial sessions in the early part of 1956 ("Heartbreak Hotel" and the B-Sides "I Was The One" and the stunning "My Baby Left Me" among them) would not be included on the original album although they are included on the regular CD releases and the deluxe Double FTD set.
The album, featuring Elvis’ regular sidemen Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J Fontana joined by ace session men Chet Atkins, Shorty Long and Floyd Cramer, would be recorded in two marathon sessions that lasted over several days in January and February of 56. While not his most consistently great album, the tracks Elvis recorded in these sessions have gone on to influence everyone from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones, to The Clash to The White Stripes.

The album gets off to a roaring start with Carl Perkin’s vicious ode to non-conformity, "Blue Suede Shoes" (a song that helped define Rock and Roll as much as any other). Featuring a go for the throat vocal take by Elvis and the band in absolutely pulverizing form, "Blue Suede Shoes" is a searing classic with Scotty Moore’s charging and inventive guitar licks leading the way.

That stomping opening is followed by one of the most underrated ballads of Elvis’ early career, Don Robertson’s "I’m Counting On You". Elvis delivers such a subtle and genuine vocal here that it is near impossible to imagine anyone else singing it. Featuring some wonderfully expressive Cramer piano fills and the backing vocals of Gordon Stoker, "I’m Counting On You" is a devastating reminder to how many hidden gems are in Presley’s huge catalogue.

The disarming "I’m Counting On You" is followed by a cover of Ray Charles’ "I Got A Woman", one of Elvis’ favorite songs and another one of the great rock records of the fifties. I have always imagined this song as less a confession of adultery and more a last minute attempt at keeping a lost love with the fabrication of another. While perhaps lacking the passion of Charles’ original, Elvis vocal is still fiery and totally believable and is highlighted by some speaker destroying drumming by Fontana. The burlesque ending is also absolutely inspired.

"One Sided Love Affair" follows and it is admittedly one of the album’s slighter moments, but in its own way it is one of the most charming. Featuring Elvis’ trademark (and underrated) propulsive rhythm guitar playing and some more stunning Cramer chords, Bill Campbell’s song becomes a tongue in cheek church like revival affair that is incredibly fun to listen to.

"I Love You Because", a Sun Side written by Leon Payne, shows Elvis at the very dawn of his career. His vocal is all heart here and he hasn’t yet perfected his unmatchable style. Still, the song is a beauty and hearing Elvis this raw with Moore’s subtle and sweet guitar playing right next to his vocal is chilling stuff.
Another Sun track follows and it is one of the great ones. Cow-Punk twenty-five years before anyone called it that, Bob and Joe Shelton’s "Just Because" is a sneering and angry barrel of venom and Elvis delivers it perfectly. Moore’s playing is inspired again and the trio of Presley, Black and Moore (no drums on this one folks) sounds like the opening chapter to X’s Wild Gift almost thirty years before they recorded it. It’s a masterpiece of fire, spit and simplicity.

Little Richard’s "Tutti-Frutti" is up next and to my ears it is one of the weakest moments on the record. Featuring none of the erotic feverish drive of the original nor none of the crazed power, Elvis’ version just isn’t all that inspired although it does contain a sweet guitar break just past the minute mark.

Yet another Sun track is up next, but who’s complaining as "Trying To Get To You" is one of the great Fifties track from Elvis or anyone else you care to name. Heartfelt, aching and soaring, Charles Singelton's and Rose McCoy’s driving ballad is one of the most moving and masterful in all of Elvis’ catalogue. He knew it too and he would return to it time and time again, most notably in the fateful years of 1968 and 1977.

Joe Thomas’ "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry Over You" had originally been recorded by Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride in 1955 and this two minute studio cut is solid if not up to par with the best tracks on the album. Atkins and Cramer really take over here and it is pleasant enough listen although it lacks the fire of the rest of the album.

Jim Wakely’s "I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin)" is another echo drenched Sun track and it's spine tingling in its execution and meaning. Elvis sounds near possessed in how lost he gets in the track in the first half which makes the surprising tone shift near the end sound almost shocking.

One of the great moments in recorded sound follows with the Sun side "Blue Moon". This Rogers and Hart standard that has been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Jack White is, to quote Elvis Costello, “Positively supernatural” in Presley’s hands. It’s hard to imagine anyone doubting the genius of Elvis Presley after hearing this numbing and sublime track. Director Jim Jarmusch would use it to devastating effect three decades later in his Mystery Train, one of the best films of the eighties.

The album closes with Jesse Stone’s "Money Honey" and the journey from Sun’s Hillbilly Cat to RCA’s fiery Rock and Roller is complete. Elvis is at is hiccupping and snarling best here, with the song sounding like a sizzling hot house of sin, sweat and salvation all neatly wrapped up in a two minute plus grinding burlesque classic. Moore’s guitar is particularly menacing and Elvis’ confidence explodes from the speakers…a stunner.

The album would have a massive impact and it would only be improved upon with Elvis, the more cohesive and powerhouse follow-up. The Clash would famously lift the cover photo for their mammoth London Calling double platter in 1979 and Joe Strummer would speak of his love for Elvis Presley up to his untimely and tragic passing several years ago.
Elvis Presley is best heard on the Double set FTD release that includes great re-mastering, a terrific booklet, all the singles and a ton of outtakes. The stand alone CD is solid as well and more reasonably priced for the casual or new fan.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Elvis Still Watches Over Graceland

A haunting image taken by the Graceland cam late last year...

Elvis Week Memories: 2007 Elvis Week Reaction

***Here are some of my memories that I posted just after I returned from Elvis Week 07, one of the biggest and best ever. Excuse any typos...this proved to be one of the hottest Elvis Weeks in history and I was exhausted when I wrote it. I am also including a few rather blurry shots from the fabulous Insider's 07 Conference as well****

I have been attending Elvis Week now for more than five years and I must say that this one was among the very best so far. Although the temperature in Memphis was unbearably hot and kept me feeling exhausted, the events the EPE staff came up with were extremely exciting. Here is a rundown of some of the events I attended, a few honest criticisms and a few random thoughts.

One of the first things my Mom and I always do upon arriving is to peruse all of the shops around Graceland to see the new merchandise, and to just begin to soak up the atmosphere in general. The newer products this year were for the most part well done. The T-Shirt designs are typically pretty superb and I try to overlook certain things that have been licensed that I don’t find all that appealing. There wasn’t anything overtly offensive that I saw this year, such as the dreaded Elvis Duck heads that have popped up in the past few trips.

I am continually disappointed by what is happening to Elvis’ music selection in the shops. The "Good Rockin Tonight" music shop should be just that, and there is no excuse for it to not be fully stocked with all of the FTDs as well as all of the currently available BMG products. T-Shirts and souvenirs are fine but in the end it should be about the music and a new fan walking into this store would have trouble knowing what to get. I think a total overhaul of the store is in order, with not only getting all the music in stock but also some sort of interactive guide (and a knowledgeable staff) that could help newcomers with their collection. Each year Elvis’ cds seem to be pushed further and further back which is a real disservice to the man and his legacy.

Our first big event this year was the annual A CELEBRATION OF FANS and that was a very well organized and fun time. It is always a pleasure to see and hear Jerry Schilling and his presence along with the wonderful display of charity made by the fan club presidents was inspiring.

The ELVIS EXPO that ran for three days was also fairly well organized. Most of the booths set up were very respectful and the people for the most part were extremely friendly. It was difficult to get the Insider’s guests autographs during the conference due to time and the crowds but I think EPE handled this as well as they possibly could.

August 12th brought the beginning of THE ELVIS TRIBUTE ARTIST CONTEST. We did not attend this and I find EPE’s embrace of this to be the most disappointing decision they have ever made. While some of these ‘artists’ are talented and love the man, overall they have done more to hurt the legacy of Elvis Presley more than anyone else. I refuse to have anything to do with this and I am really saddened by EPEs sanctioning of such an event. That said, outside of the usual jump suited idiots walking around Graceland, we were free of having to see any of this.

The Sunday night scavenger hunt was a serious blast as always and this is a great event that the staff of EPE obviously work extremely hard on. It is a great way to see the mansion, have fun, learn about Elvis and maybe even win some prizes.

Monday was Day One of The Insider’s Conference and it was pretty solid although it wasn’t as memorable as some past Insider’s Conferences. The highlight of the day was the spirited Mary Ann Mobely who seemed very friendly and obviously happy to be there. The Maxine Brown-Joanne Cash segment would have been in serious trouble had the always reliable and personable Host Tom Brown not have been there to come between the two of them. The co-stars talk between Darlene Tompkins, Chris Noel and Cynthia Pepper was okay but they had such limited time with him that I kind of wished for something a little more substantial for the thirtieth anniversary. I won’t say much on the Colonel Parker segment. I appreciate that Loanna Parker is looking out for her late husband’s best interests but no amount of revisionism will make me forget many of the things Elvis sacrificed artistically because of his very greedy manager.

The first ever concert on Graceland’s lawn was held that night and while I had mixed feelings about it, it turned out okay. It started late and not being a Nascar Fan I was a bit baffled by the whole Dale vibe, but a lot of people really got into it. The Dempsey’s performed a fairly spirited set and Andy Childs group did a solid, if not totally memorable, job. The restored print of "Viva Las Vegas" was then shown and it looked fantastic.

Day Two of The Insider’s Conference was a real triumpth and was easily one of the highlights of the whole week. We were treated to fascinating conversations by the TCB Band, The Sweet Inspirations and The famed American Studio Memphis Boys Band. All of these segments were fascinating and everyone was obviously very excited to be there and their passion for Elvis was infectious. The real highlight was Jerry Schilling’s talk with Priscilla. She is so much more personable, friendly and open in person. At one point Jerry tried to stop and she asked to continue. She was obviously enjoying being there and her talk was a really special thing to see.

Night Two on the lawn was also much better than night one. We were treated to a very fitting gospel show featuring The Stamps, The Imperials and The Sweets and then were shown "That’s The Way It Is." Hearing this wonderful music in front of Graceland as the sun went down was really special and it seemed like everyone there felt it. I still have mixed feelings about so many people about being on the lawn, drinking, eating and most likely littering but it was still a nice event.

Wednesday the 15th was of course The Vigil. There isn’t too much I can say about that. It was moving, it was hot, it was packed. The floral displays this year were really incredible. We attended three film showings at the Malco Theatre earlier that day and that was loads of fun. Seeing "Girl Happy", "Charro" and "Live A Little, Love A Little" on the big screen was amazing. "Charro" especially was spellbinding and the staff of the Malco is always great. It is a fine event and I can’t understand why more fans don’t go. There has been a misprint two years running in the Elvis Week newspaper guide regarding the directions to the Theater and I wonder if that has caused some to miss the event.

We slept in on Thursday after the Vigil, missing both the Jerry Osbourne talk and George Klein memorial, in preparation for the two concerts. The Fed-Ex concerts were incredible, mind-blowing events and were both unforgettable. The TCB band as well as the backing groups were all smoking (particularly in the much looser second show) and the filmed opening was chillingly great. I can’t imagine how emotional it must have been for Jerry, Joe and George to film that. Lisa-Marie’s duet on "In The Ghetto" and seeing her get down with Myrna Smith on stage was worth the ticket price. I have a few reservations about the video but I realized that it was done in a rush, and the song was so great that I can forgive any shortcomings. Highlights of the first concert, outside of the opening and the duet, was the second half where the band really locked into gear and by the time "An American Trilogy" started everyone was on their feet. The second show was perhaps even better. Starting out with a killer orchestrated version of Bill Conti’s "Gonna Fly Now" from "Rocky" and then brief opening sets from The Sweets and Imperials; the TCB band hit the stage roaring. "Pola Sald Annie" was especially jaw dropping with Jerry Scheff doing some of the most intense and dirty bass work I have heard in a long time. Both shows were stunning.

We spent our last day touring the mansion and I must say the heat and the crowds finally got to us and I think we were both suitably exhausted by the time we got ready to go.
Despite the heat, this was one of the best Elvis Weeks ever. Thanks to all the EPE staff, especially Scott and Angie who are always so incredibly friendly, for putting so much work into making the week special. It was an amazing trip I will never forget.

Elvis Week Memories: August 2007 Elvis Expo

Here are a few images from the great August 2007 Elvis Expo where I got to see and meet the Sweet Inspirations, James Burton and Jerry Schilling among others again. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Overlooked Gems: "I'm Counting On You"

Recorded at Elvis’ first RCA session just before he cut I Was The One, this lovely Don Robertson ballad is a little overlooked classic that was included on album number one. Even though you can still hear Sholes and Ferris attempting to ape the Sun sound, Elvis delivers a sweet and subtle vocal punctuated by Floyd Cramer’s beautifully simple piano playing and some lovely guitar fills from Chet Atkins. A real winner.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Elvis On Screen: Love Me Tender (1956)

Kentucky born Robert D. Webb got his start in Hollywood in his mid thirties as an Assistant Director on Henry King’s Lloyd’s of London, an acclaimed Historical drama from 1936 starring Freddie Bartholomew. While perhaps better known as a director, it would indeed be as an Assistant Director that Webb would garner his first and only Oscar, for 1938’s In Old Chicago. Webb finally graduated to the director’s chair less than a decade later with the mostly forgotten thriller The Caribbean Mystery (1945) and continued to work steadily until the late part of the sixties.
Love Me Tender (1956) would mark Webb’s ninth film in the director’s chair and it is probably his most famous one even though, truth be told, it isn’t among his finest works.
20th Century Fox’s Love Me Tender started out life as The Reno Brothers, a short treatment from prolific Western writer Maurice Geraghty. Originally thought of as a vehicle for up and coming star Robert Wagner, the direction of the film changed course when 20 year old singing sensation Elvis Presley was cast in the supporting but pivotal role of Clint opposite popular Fox contract players Richard Egan and lovely Debra Paget.

Golden Globe winner Egan was born in San Francisco in 1921 and had begun acting for the camera in his late twenties in such productions as The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Ruggedly handsome and talented, Egan quickly became a reliable force in many Fox films throughout the fifties and would eventually make quite a splash in television in the sixties and seventies.
Paget was almost a decade younger than Egan but she had been no less prolific and had actually made her film debut a full year before her co-star with 1948’s Cry Of The City. Easily one of the prettiest and most charismatic Fox players of the fifties, the fresh faced Paget offered a nice counter to Fox’s biggest star of the day, Marilyn Monroe. Paget could also act and viewing her work today it is surprising that she didn’t become a bigger star than she did.
Love Me Tender is a fairly simple Civil War based western that would probably have been forgotten by now if it wasn’t for the debut of Elvis, who holds his own fairly well with his much more seasoned co–stars even though he is obviously inexperienced and is a bit awkward at points.

In a very profound way Love Me Tender serves as an interesting foreshadowing to some of the major film work Elvis would do throughout the next decade. The film, much like King Creole (1958), Flaming Star (1960), Wild In The Country (1961), and Change Of Habit (1969), was clearly meant to be a straight drama before Colonel Tom Parker got his hands into it and forced songs into the mix. Sometimes, as in King Creole, this worked incredibly well but more often than not, it hurt and cheapened what were otherwise very serious minded films. While Love Me Tender is not at the level of say a Wild In The Country or Flaming Star the forced songs do hurt it as bad, which isn’t to say the songs are not good (they are actually quite smashing), but they don’t have any place in the film. They have obviously just been added to appeal to Elvis’ music fans and the film suffers for it, with the title track excepted as it only plays during the opening and closing credits.

The film itself is a decent production that is mostly let down by the pedestrian screenplay that feels more wooden than anything else. It is a lovely looking film though, itself an accomplishment as this was a modestly budgeted production, and it benefits greatly from the photography of legendary cinematographer Leo Tover. Prolific Oscar nominee Tovar always did splendid work and his black and white photography here is very striking and Love Me Tender is never less than gorgeous to look at. Famed composer Lionel Newman’s score is also worth noting and he particularly does a great job weaving the haunting main theme throughout the film.

The cast does the best it can with the script, especially Paget who is really believable in the film as a woman torn between two brothers. Keep an eye out for future Bewitched star Dick Sargent in a bit part as a soldier and legendary future Sam Peckinpah actor L.Q. Jones makes an early appearance in a very small but noticeable un-credited role.
It is finally all about Elvis though and like I said he really is quite good here for the most part. He hasn’t fine-tuned his underrated acting style yet but the camera, which is in love with him from the first scene on, already captures his natural charisma completely here. He grew incredibly quickly as an actor, which is not noted often enough, as his first starring role a year later in Loving You shows him giving a much more accomplished and energetic performance. It all begins here though and despite the fact that Love Me Tender is not a great film, it is an important one.
The film would have a huge opening and would become one of Fox’s biggest moneymakers of 1956. It is currently available on a sharp widescreen special edition DVD that features a short documentary and an engaging commentary by Jerry Schilling.

Elvis Week Memories: Various Autographs

Here are some of my favorite autographs that I have collected during past Elvis weeks. Please click on each for a larger view if you would like.