Elvis Presley

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Elvis Presley Pencil Portrait
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Latest update: 2/10/15

Despite urgings from family members I have temporarily resisted the temptation to draw Presley in one of his “infamous” white jewel encrusted jump suits, preferring instead to ‘capture’ him during the filming of his third motion picture Jailhouse Rock. He was 22, growing in confidence as an RCA Victor recording artist and working in Hollywood. The brycleem pompadour and that sneer cum smile of his seemed to epitomise the burgeoning teenage rebellion sweeping the land like a forest fire. Middle America hated him.

More than half a century on, he remains without contradiction, the single biggest solo star of them all if measured in worldwide record sales and yet for me it’s hard to instinctively remember a time when he was alive. I was eighteen when he died and curiously on a day that was notable for some rewarding A level results. The prospect of a foreign holiday loomed large in my mind, and life seemed good. Later that evening, lying in bed listening to Tony Prince on radio Luxemburg, the announcement of his death was shocking but in hindsight, totally unsurprising. Like millions of others, I was aware of protracted hospital visitations and press cameras being barred from concert halls. Elvis – fat and forty was the prevailing theme and a difficult one at that to fully assimilate in the light of constant re-screenings of his “travelogue movies” on the BBC and independent networks. His loyal fan base also ensured regular top ten appearances on the British charts. Surely all was well?

Sadly , his carefully contrived God fearing, non drinking, ‘respect for elders’ persona also carefully veiled the largesse of his private life – an addictive personality in all areas, a man who could barely make love to a woman once she had borne a child – admittedly a not uncommon problem in men – and an increasingly isolated depressive surrounded by sycophants. It’s an all too familiar recipe for disaster for time in memoriam will show that the King is always killed by his courtiers. Yet in 1968 it appeared as if he might finally take charge of his professional life and to control all aspects of it when NBC aired the “comeback special.” It might have been nothing more than a bland Christmas special if the Colonel’s original vision had been slavishly adhered to, but with suitable promptings from producer Steve Binder Presley cut loose to generate 76 minutes of thrilling prime time television. It all promised the start of so much, yet all roads led to the cul de sac that is Vegas.

As a result, Presley never toured the world, and professional atrophy subsequently set in. By 1977 the man who seemingly had it all had run out of possibilities. Perhaps by nature, Elvis was acquiescent, but I have always attempted to sift the available information further to understand such professional apathy.

It transpires that his manager was an illegal Dutch immigrant and bereft of official US citizenship Tom Parker would never have been permitted re-entry to the states had he accompanied Presley on a worldwide tour. This in turn would have inevitably led to a parting of the ways for the pair. Elvis in turn was fundamentally weak and rarely challenged his manager on career strategies. Why would this scenario have endured for so long leading to eight years of near “mindless formulaic” movies? Blackmail appears one less than obvious explanation. Just as J Edgar Hoover, Head of the FBI had dossiers containing salacious information on every US President Tom Parker would have been aware that Presley was (in all probability) having under age sex with his girlfriend and future wife Priscilla. He would have had no desire to destroy the “cash cow” that was feeding him (Parker’s managerial cut was reputedly 50% of Presley’s worldwide earnings – a scandalous amount) but there would undoubtedly have been an unspoken understanding of both the protagonists’ position in their power game. As it transpired, the “dirt” on Presley was ultimately revealed to a previously unsuspecting world just weeks prior to his death with the publication of “Elvis : What Happened?” co authored by three of his formerly most trusted bodyguards. I believe this theory of mine holds water. Had Presley’s relationship with Priscilla remained chaste this would have required on her part a suspension in logic of untold proportions in order to convince herself that her boyfriend/fiancée was living a monk life existence between the ages of 26-32. Would she have so readily given in to such self denial had the man involved been anyone but Elvis Presley? No, we can be sure Priscilla had her own agenda and that Tom Parker knew at least enough to manipulate business affairs to his own personal satisfaction. I can also perhaps suggest that compelling the world to visit Vegas in order to witness him in concert, may have appealed to Presley’s sense of self aggrandisement.

I see little point in dwelling too heavily on his addiction to prescription drugs. However, his appearance at the White House in order to obtain a Federal Narcotics badge from President Nixon whilst admonishing the anti Vietnam and pro drug brigade was hypocritical to say the least. He is reported to have singled out The Beatles for special attention which in turn may have led to the administration’s hounding of Lennon in the ensuing years when the ex-Beatle applied for a Green Card in order to remain stateside. The motivation for such criticism of fellow entertainers may have been nothing more than to differentiate Presley’s seemingly wholesome image from the prevailing drug culture and to manipulate the President into awarding him the highest recognised status symbol of police officialdom. Needless to say, Presley did not depart the Oval Office empty handed. The badge seemingly fuelled further machiavellian tendencies in an already stunted growth; first hand sources reporting that he spent many a happy hour patrolling the streets of his hometown in his fleet of limousines armed to the teeth with appropriate hardware whilst flashing his new acquired badge to all and sundry. He was known to shoot out television sets when suitably bored with an evening’s programming so anything was possible with an unpredictable nature suitably wired on drugs. As it transpired Presley ultimately only destroyed himself.

However he was also capable of great generosity with his time and money, loyalty to his truest of friends and fans and provided happiness to millions all over the world. He could be a withdrawn character and of course he had no-one to share the experience with. Heaven only knows what fame truly did to him. For those reasons alone his short life was a tragedy. His singing in the last few months of his life was near operatic, aided in no small part by his weight gain and it is not inconceivable that he would still have been performing and recording in his late 70’s had he lived. He was already searching for something deeper in his life by the age of thirty as any cursory investigation of his reading habits would reveal. Reportedly the book he had with him on the last night of his life was “The face of Jesus” by Frank Adams who based his description on three main manuscripts; Pontius Pilate’s letter to Tiberias Ceasar which pre-dated his meeting with Our Lord at his trial, a letter from Publius Lentulus to the Senate in Rome and a report by Gamriel, a jewish teacher to the Sanhedrin. The thought must have occurred to Presley that perhaps he was a messenger of sorts, so slavishly to this day do thousands flock to Graceland in what can only be described as a pilgrimage. For me personally, admiration can only extend to an individual’s professional abilities, as any perusal of my commentaries will so readily reveal.

Much of his singing career of course rested equally on his good looks, totally unique looks in fact, for I have never met anyone who closely resembles him. However he was already dabbling in cosmetic surgery by 40 (no entertainer looking after himself should require any procedure before 50 at the earliest), and so he may have ended up a grotesque parody of his youth. From our perspective, perhaps it’s best we never saw it.

Recommended listening

Elvis Presley (RCA Victor 1956)

His debut album with more than able support from Scotty Moore on guitar – an inspiration to more than just one generation of ‘axemen’ – and Bill Black on bass. The cover artwork has been much aped by other artists down the years.

The 2005 RCA release fleshes out the listening experience, by including six additional titles. Amongst them are Presley’s then current hit “Heartbreak Hotel” b/w “I was the one” and his next A side release “I want you, I need you, I love.”

The album’s eclecticism is down to RCA’s A & R man Steve Sholes. Unsure of his new signing’s obvious target market, Presley would be given full reins to plunder his vast music reliquary; only gospel tunes were excised.

Perhaps more by accident than design – RCA executives apparently had little faith in “Heartbreak Hotel” – Presley crafts a finished product that would kick start the whole rock’n‘roll revolution on a national scale, despite the absence of any obvious jukebox hits. It’s a thrilling ride, the collection including five unreleased Sun recordings produced by Sam Phillips – “I Love You Because”, “Just Because”, “Tryin’ to Get to You”, “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’),” and “Blue Moon” – in addition to seven new Sholes produced RCA sides. Aficionados may prefer the Carl Perkins original, but Presley’s interpretation of “Blue Sude Shoes” is the rock’n‘roll junkie’s ultimate shot in the arm, and a tour de force opener.

Essential – if you don’t own it, then you should. This is history, man. Things would never be the same again.

Elvis is Back (RCA Victor 1960)

A long player recorded soon after Presley’s discharge from the US army and the most cohesive collection of songs on any non soundtrack album release by the King.

From Elvis in Memphis (RCA Victor 1969)

If you wish to spend a little more money then try ‘Suspicious Minds – the Memphis 1969 Anthology.’ This compilation includes the supplementary material from “Back in Memphis” (1970), the follow up release which has been undeservedly overlooked perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the near universal acclaim attributed to the earlier release.

Elvis Country (RCA Victor 1971)

Presley seemingly never ‘bought into’ the intellectual conceit of concept albums, and in all fairness the very worst releases of this genre are deserving of such a dismissive attitude. In any event, whatever his feelings, one can only describe this album as conceptual because the album’s set of country songs is linked by snatches of The Golden Gate Quartet’s “I was born about ten thousand years ago.”

Presley of course didn’t write his own material, but the canny Colonel would invariably twist an aspiring writer’s arm to cede 50% of the publishing rights in return for his star recording the composition. Ceding half the control would have been tempting and understandable considering the potential financial rewards, but seeking to hijack such rights makes me personally very uncomfortable. Feeling likewise, certain music industry luminaries such as the country guitar virtuoso Jerry Reed left Tom Parker in no doubt what he could do with such a proposition; the extant studio tapes of the 1967 “Guitar Man” session indicating that the writer had additional leverage in the form of his gut string bending technique. Apparently several takes had been attempted at previous sessions, before everyone present in the studio realised that they would have to get “the man” in.

I recorded a version of “Guitar Man” in my studio in ’96. I realised in the end that Reed was using a dropped D tuning (this drone like effect is generated by detuning the bottom E string to D which then sounds an octave lower than the fourth string in D.) ‘So far so good’ or so I thought. Thirty six takes later I had a passable fingerstyle guitar overdub with a tempo that sagged slightly in two places. This is always a good moment for my family to stay out of my way, for the combination of battered ego and insecurity does not make me a pleasant person for an hour or so. Jerry Reed (1937-2008) of course – and unbeknownst to myself at the time – was also tuning the B string up a whole tone. Armed now with this additional information I might have another stab at this number one day, since I am afforded the luxury of being able to return to my master tapes whenever the inclination takes me. Additionally I have been heartened ever so slightly with the acquisition of the freely available session tapes currently in circulation. Jerry himself fluffs a number of takes -I’ll still concede that it was probably nerves only – and he was certainly no slouch in his time. I also admired him for his admission that “I never thought of myself as a Nashville recording musician ‘cause I was a stylist. I [could] only play my stuff and I wasn’t worth a damn playing all that other stuff.”

“Guitar Man” isn’t on ‘Elvis Country’ but the pursuit of quality material remained as ardent in 1971 as it had for the King four years earlier. This album deserved a wider audience than its 500,000 sales, for Presley is vulnerable on “Tomorrow never comes,” soulful on “I really don’t want to know,” playful on “I washed my hands in muddy waters,” and “kick ass” mad on “It’s your baby you rock it.”

Since Presley’s career was built on a succession of three minute high octane singles, his album oeuvre is patchy. In my opinion only the four individual album projects listed above succeed on a wholly satisfying level if the modern long playing record is to be considered some form of major artistic statement. That doesn’t mean everything else Presley recorded is moribund, far from it but he cannot boast a seminal collection of albums such as The Beatles legacy on EMI records, or the matchless series of releases Sinatra recorded for Capitol records between 1953 and 1961. So the listener must dig deeper and sift out the worthwhile material. If you’re prepared to do that then there is much to enjoy in the following box sets:

Walk a mile in my shoes – The essential 70’s masters.

This box set represents the essential repository of virtually all Presley’s A & B side single releases throughout this period plus a number of previously unavailable rarities. When this package was issued, I was forced to re-evaluate Presley’s output throughout the period ’70 – ’77, but I’ve avoided “From Nashville to Memphis – the essential 60’s masters.” If you already own ‘Elvis is Back,’ ‘From Elvis in Memphis’ and ‘Back in Memphis’ then this box set at full price is superfluous. Mind you it’s still worth a purchase at a knock down price for Presley’s output during the peak period of Beatlemania and the British invasion was spasmodic, but never totally redundant. His superb reading of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a long time” from May ’66 is a case in point

The King of Rock’n’roll : The complete 50’s masters.

The coffee table industry received a shot in the arm with the release of this original long box issue from 1992 containing all the Sun Records and studio master recordings from 1954-1959. It might not be “your musical bag” but these sides motivated a whole generation to take up the guitar. Lennon was incorrect but emotionally spoke well for his peers when he said “Before Elvis there was nothing.”

Anyway I like box sets – they appeal to the “anorak” in me. Annotated notes, recording session details, personnel line ups, session dates, reproductions of rare worldwide record sleeves before the industry became universally homogenised – it all enhances the listening experience. Downloads? – shove it. Give me tangible product any time of the day. The greatest compliment I have received from acquaintances in both my personal and professional life is that I am the only geek they know who doesn’t look like one! I can’t help it – I can sit in a bar all night with a single drink but resisting a box set, now that’s something else.

Recommended viewing

Elvis – The Ed Sullivan Shows

Ed Sullivan was Mr Showbusiness and his sunday night show was syndicated coast to coast.Elvis had established himself as an entertainer who could attract a large television audience and boost ratings, so it’s not surprising that after many rejections, the Colonel finally arranged for Elvis to appear on this highly rated, prime-time variety program.

Sullivan was averse to booking him because it was a family program. But ratings speak louder than scruples, and Sullivan dutifully backed down to engage the “Hillbilly Cat” for an unprecedented fee of $50,000 for three appearances on his show.

Elvis’ performance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ is cemented in the annals of rock music history because of the censors’ decision to shoot the volatile young singer only from the waist up. However, contrary to popular belief, this decision was not made until his third appearance.

Actor Charles Laughton – my favourite Captain Bligh from the 1935 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” – served as substitute host the night of Elvis’ first appearance because Sullivan was recuperating from an auto accident. In kinescopes and video footage of that performance, Elvis can be seen in full figure, crooning “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” then later belting out “Hound Dog” and “Ready Teddy.”

Elvis’ third and final appearance on Sullivan’s show on January 6, 1957, contains the legendary moments when the CBS censors would not allow his entire body to be shown. Seen only from the waist up, Elvis still put on an exciting show, singing seven songs in three segments. In one segment, Elvis and the Jordanaires sang “Peace in the Valley,” which Elvis dedicated to the earthquake victims of Eastern Europe.

But it was his rendition of such Presley hits as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” that stirred up the studio audience. Their screams and applause clued the television viewers in to what Elvis was doing out of camera range, almost subverting the censors’ intent. Once again, the interaction between Elvis and the studio audience added to the power of his performance. After Elvis’ final number, Sullivan declared him to be “a real decent, fine boy” — a rather hypocritical statement considering what he and the censors had just done to Elvis’ act.

For years people have wondered why Elvis was censored during his third appearance on Sullivan’s show. The simplest and most probable explanation is that Sullivan received negative criticism about Elvis’ earlier appearances. Other, more outrageous explanations include the theory that the Colonel forced Sullivan to apologize publicly for remarks he’d made about Elvis to the press the previous summer, and the waist-up-only order was Sullivan’s way of getting back at Parker.

The wildest explanation was offered by a former director of The Ed Sullivan Show, who said that during his second appearance, Elvis put a cardboard tube down the front of his trousers and manipulated it to make the studio audience scream. To avoid a repeated occurrence of that behavior, Sullivan supposedly insisted on the above-the-waist coverage for Elvis’ final appearance. None of these explanations offers any real insight into Sullivan’s motivations but all add to the folklore surrounding this event, thereby enhancing Elvis’ image as a notorious rock ‘n’ roller.

Whatever the reason this DVD box set compiles the three Sullivan programmes in their entirety. If you don’t wish to pre-programme the Presley segments into your own viewing menu then this collection affords the purchaser a unique insight into Sunday night entertainment during the Eisenhower era.

Elvis (The ’68 comeback special)

Presley was 33 and looked like a Greek God, tanned, slim, suitably attired in black leather before the buffoonery of the Vegas jump suits engulfed him permanently. He sang like a man possessed with a rawness previously undetected in his vocalising. Seventy six minutes that defined the Hillbilly cat for future historians.

King Creole (1958)

A fitting coda to the first phase of Presley’s career and one of (if not the very best) of his dramatic roles featuring a dynamite set of songs, a fine if slightly melodramatic storyline and the complimentary pleasure of watching Walter Matthau in the most unsympathetic role of his entire career as the vicious night club owner Maxie Fields. Carolyn Jones is ‘Ronnie,’ the whore with the heart of gold and Dolores Hart is Nellie, the virginal girl next door, in one of her last roles before taking up her true vocation in the church.

My own personal favourite scene is quite early in the film when Matthau enquires of Jones, “Who’s this guy Ronnie?” to which the vamp replies “How should I know?” Turning to Presley Matthau delves more deeply, “How come you’re so friendly with the lady?” to which our hero replies with sufficient insouciance, “Oh we met in Paris last year. The King of France introduced us.” The Presley character has no idea who he’s dealing with and his naivety shows.

Towards the end of the film there’s a poignant moment where Presley is temporarily torn between pragmatism and moral idealism, but Matthau relieves him of further anguish by killing Ronnie before his own demise, leaving our man free to resolve emotional issues with his father and to explore his feelings further for Nellie.

Flaming Star (1960)

Wild in the Country (1961)

Two more movies that hinted at the alternative direction his acting career might have taken.

Classic Albums – Elvis Presley (1956)

I’m biased towards this long running series. Its appeal is essentially limited to people who create their own multi-track recordings, and offers essential and revealing insights into the creation of many seminal works.

This documentary was hampered by a dearth of suitable footage to compliment the interviews and session tape rewinds, but it’s still fascinating stuff.

Recommended reading

Last Train to Memphis – The Rise of Elvis Presley

Careless Love : The unmaking of Elvis Presley.

Two volumes written by Peter Garulnick that don’t over sensationalise his private life but contextually place Presley’s contribution to popular music within the era in which he emerged and thrived.

Elvis Presley – A life in music (The complete recording sessions)

This is no ‘cuttings and paste’ job. Ernst Jorgensen interviewed many of the engineers/producers who were in attendance at Presley’s recording sessions in addition to sifting through extensive reels of RCA Victor master tapes. Not the sort of book to appeal to the casual browser but essential reading for those aficionados drowning in the wealth of material issued since the King’s death and trying to make some sense of it all. I might borrow from the library and take “Baby let’s play house – Elvis and the women who loved him” on holiday to compliment my heavier reading like “Stalingrad 1942,” but when it comes to parting with money this is the sort of book I buy and file in my recording studio. Presley’s fame rests on what he did in the studio and not the boudoir; an obvious point to make, but overlooked today by so many people panting for ever more salacious gossip about stars seemingly famous for simply being famous. When it comes to the modern world I really don’t “get it.”

Surfing

http://www.elvis-collectors.com

It should all begin and end with the music and for people like me it does. This website is the proverbial cornucopia of Elvis recordings from around the world. The pictorial gallery of jumpsuits is distracting and unmerited here but the collection of CD sleeves, details of specialist Presley recording books and fascimiles of actual Presley letters/documents will keep the descriminating fan occupied. For the unconverted it’s all a little overwhelming but you don’t have to stay forever!

http://www.elvisoncd.com/

is your one stop “landing” for the lowdown on worldwide Elvis compact disc releases including bootlegs.

Keith Flynn’s Elvis Presley Pages

http://www.keithflynn.com/

An impressive website with eye catching graphics. There’s a pictorial history of the “Elvis Monthly” fan magazine which ran for forty years with scans of every cover plus an impressive sessionography of live soundboard and studio recordings. The links section takes the Elvis surfer to a comprehensive website listing for any fan seeking arcane facts. The audio restoration process behind the Elvis Sun catalogue is informative and the presentational layout is first rate.“Rare Elvis” is a fully illustrated reference and price guide resource whilst

Youtube

Youtube – It’s virtually all here if you can tolerate MP3 compression!!! Audience home movies from 70’s concert tours, all the Tv appearances plus rehearsals and copious amounts of studio outtakes.