40 Years Ago Today, Elvis “Left the Building” for the Last Time – Part 1

Yesterday was the day Scottish kids went back to school but 40 years ago we went back to school on today’s date, the 16th August. I remember it well as it was my senior year and we took a picture of me in my Prefect’s uniform. I also remember it because it was the day Elvis died.

I have written about Elvis a fair bit since starting this blog as I used to be a massive fan of both him and those films he starred in between the late ’50s and early ’60s. I had a friend who felt the same way and as teenagers, whilst our peers were heading off out at night with their boyfriends, we could often be found at the local fleapit, watching oft repeated showings of old Elvis movies.

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Crowds at the gates of Graceland following the death of Elvis

Elvis is also special to me however because “Elvis Sings Flaming Star” was the very first album I purchased with my own money. I wrote about it last year (link here) and some of you may have read that post already, but an appropriate day to re-share it I feel.

It wasn’t until after I finished that “first album” post however that I did a little more digging and the story of how I came to acquire it, all started to make a bit more sense. We didn’t actually get to see the now legendary ’68 Comeback Special on television in the UK until about a year and a half later. I could only have been about 9 or 10 when it aired but I still remember that evening clearly. I had been asked to go down to our local village shop, which stayed open late on a Friday – All the ladies at the counters were really excited about going home to watch Elvis later on that evening and were asking all the customers if they would be tuning in. I must have mentioned this to my family when I got home and thankfully we did watch this piece of television history. Elvis was clad in black leather, was looking good, singing well and turned in an amazing performance as only he could. He resurrected his career after years of being holed up in Hollywood, churning out what were often thought of as lacklustre movies and dubious soundtrack albums.

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Elvis clad in black leather for the ’68 Comeback Special

The sponsor of the NBC television special was the Singer Sewing Machine Company (yes really) and the company had put together an album called “Singer Presents Elvis Singing Flaming Star and Others” (all very confusing) as a promotional tie-in for retail outlets that sold their machines. In March 1969, after the success of the special, it was re-issued internationally for normal retail outlets as “Elvis Sings Flaming Star”, which is when I must have come across it. Wouldn’t have known any of this back story at the time but just goes to show how fascinating rock and pop trivia can be.

So, nearly fifty years on from the infamous Comeback Special and exactly forty years on from his death, which song should I feature from his vast back catalogue? It occurred to me that only last week I had mentioned the song An American Trilogy as part of my Glen Campbell tribute post. Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1972 and it became a bit of a showstopper for him when performed during the massive event that was “Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii” broadcast in 1973. Three 19th century folk songs had been melded together and given the full jumpsuited-Elvis treatment and even today I can’t think of anyone better suited (no pun intended) for the song. His poverty-stricken southern roots, his close affinity with black music and his subsequent elevation to all-American global superstar.

An American Trilogy by Elvis Presley:

This was a more mature Elvis, now in his late thirties, but sadly this would be one of the last times we would see him turn in a performance like this. Later on that year his divorce from Priscilla would become final and he started to become increasingly unwell, his addiction to prescription drugs really starting to take their toll. 

In some ways I am glad Elvis didn’t make it to old age – He would have been exactly the same age as my mum and although the life she leads in her retirement complex suits her well, I cannot contemplate an octogenarian Elvis being suited to a similar life (with all the issues it can throw up). Best to remember the man as he was, the “star” of Flaming Star, the leather clad Comeback King and the jumpsuited maestro of those Global Event concerts broadcast around the world.

RIP Elvis, RIP The King.

An American Trilogy Lyrics
(Song by Mickey Newbury)

Oh, I wish, I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away, look away Dixieland

Oh, I wish, I was in Dixie, away, away
In Dixieland I take my stand to live and die in Dixie
For Dixieland, that’s where I was born
Early Lord one frosty morn
Look away, look away, look away Dixieland

Glory, glory, Hallelujah
Glory, glory, Hallelujah
Glory, glory, Hallelujah
His truth is marching on

So hush little baby, don’t you cry
You know your daddy’s bound to die
But all my trials, Lord will soon be over

Glory, glory, Hallelujah
His truth is marching on
His truth is marching on

 

Elvis, “If I Can Dream” and the ’68 Comeback Special

Since writing about Elvis Presley last time, and how it came about that the first album I ever bought was one of his, I have done a lot more reading about “The King” and how he re-emerged in 1968 as one of the world’s most electrifying live performers – Hard to believe that prior to the ’68 Comeback Special he had not performed live since 1961.

The thing with Elvis however, and I absolutely understand that he is not for everyone, is that when you watched him perform, you could really tell that he “felt the music” like no other. The reason he got into such bother in the 1950s with his pelvic rotations and thrusts, was simply because couldn’t stop himself! The music he developed with his band was a hybrid, particular to him and his Mississippi roots, of hillbilly, gospel, country and rhythm & blues.

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So, when he performed live over ten years later, in the intimate setting of the the Comeback Special studio at Burbank, you could really tell he was not just singing these songs he was “feeling them” with ever fibre of his being. In some of the Las Vegas shows, there are close-up shots where you can see the small muscles in his face move in time to the nuances of the music. None more so than during the sweet Bahamian lullaby segment within An American Trilogy – This song wasn’t actually written specifically for him but I cannot think of any artist for whom it could have had more significance, thus his obvious empathy with the music, lyrics and drama of the piece. I love watching him sing that one and I’m not even American so goodness how you guys across the pond must feel.

But the song I did want to write about was actually If I Can Dream from the ’68 Comeback Special. For some reason it was not until I re-visited the DVD last year after a friend and I at work had been discussing our love for old Elvis movies, that I really sat up and took notice of this song. It was the very last one of the show and he was dressed all in white, very much the southern gentleman. Now this is not one of those really popular songs that everyone will have heard of, and it wasn’t a big hit when it came out in the UK in 1969, but I was totally blown away by the lyrics and the passion with which he sang it. It had apparently been written just two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King who is directly quoted in the song. There was a definite gospel quality to his performance and whatever your beliefs, this was a powerful message coming from the man in the white suit.

After watching the clip numerous times, I was so blown away with the song that I decided to share it with my Facebook friends. As I said above however he is not to everyone’s taste and when I got no feedback, I took the post down. Imagine my delight therefore when before Christmas last year, a new album was released called “If I Can Dream” featuring vocal recordings of Elvis accompanied by orchestral arrangements from our very own Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. My new favourite Elvis song was the title track. Must have been one of those serendipitous things where I stumbled across something earlier in the year that would become the big hit of last Christmas. Over 47 years had elapsed since the song was written but (sadly) it was now as relevent as ever, if not more so. Probably why it resonated with the buying public so much.

I don’t know which version is best (perhaps Harry Hill could help with that one) but personally I still like the original as it is more purely Elvis. Great idea for an album however and meant that he is now back on top, being the artist with the most No. 1 albums ever in UK chart history. Not bad for someone who passed away 39 years ago.

If I Can Dream Lyrics
(Song by Walter Earl Brown)

There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true

There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away
All the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear

We’re lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We’re trapped in a world
That’s troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly

Deep in my heart there’s a trembling question
Still I am sure that the answer gonna come somehow
Out there in the dark, there’s a beckoning candle
And while I can think, while I can walk
While I can stand, while I can talk
While I can dream, please let my dream
Come true, right now
Let it come true right now

First Albums, Elvis Presley and Flaming Star

Last week I wrote about “bad boys” in film, and Elvis Presley’s name had cropped up. Now I have always been an Elvis fan, and am proud to admit it, so it  seems disloyal to call him a bad boy when we all know he had impeccable southern manners and respected his elders. There is no denying however that he caused a furore in the middle-class homes of America when he started appearing on television in the mid 1950s. So much so that he could only be filmed from the waist up, his pelvic rotations proving too animalistic and vulgar for viewers to handle! It seems laughable now but a letter from the Catholic church was sent to FBI director J Edgar Hoover warning him that “Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States – His actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth”. So you see where I am coming from when I say that he was branded a “bad boy”.

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It makes me really sad now to think that many people only remember Elvis as the bloated, jumpsuited, cabaret singer who forgot the words to his songs and rambled incoherently during a performance (a lot to do with the sheer number of pretty appalling Elvis impersonators out there). I fortunately, have chosen to erase those Elvis images from my mind and remember mainly those great films from the ’60s, derided by the critics but loved by his fans. If you were a 10-year-old girl living in cold and windswept Scotland, to watch an Elvis film set in Hawaii, was joy personified. My dad and I were great fans of musicals and during the long winter months when there was no gardening or outdoor chores to be done, we spent many a Sunday afternoon watching Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and of course Elvis, sing and dance their way across our television screens.

And so it came to pass, that the first album I ever bought was an Elvis one. I am highly sceptical of those people whose supposed first purchase was something really cool like Pink Floyd. It is much more plausible that like me, their first purchase was something bought as a child with Christmas or birthday money from a relative, whilst accompanied by a parent. I remember that back in the late ’60s/early ’70s, the best place to buy records was Boots the Chemist’s music department (sounds strange I know but true) and the 10/- (ten shilling) postal order given to me as a present by an aunt was converted to pre-decimalisation cash and then used to buy “Elvis Sings Flaming Star” which was a compilation album released in 1969. An unlikely choice considering he had so many great film soundtrack albums to his name, but I am pretty sure the main reason was that it was a new release based on the success of the ’68 Comeback Special and was on sale for the special price of 9/6 (nine shillings and sixpence) so fitted my budget. I was happy however as the album was full of great Elvis songs including Flaming Star, the title track to the 1960 film of the same name.

Flaming Star by Elvis Presley:

I am pretty sure I had watched that film at some point with my dad, but it was one in which Elvis had a straight acting role with no songs. He desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and turned in one of his best performances to date. Sadly, due to poor box office success compared to his previous films, where he always had a singing role, he was persuaded by his mentor and manager “Colonel” Tom Parker to return to the former. I wonder now how things would have turned out if he had been allowed to carry on with straight acting roles. It is often cited that his Hollywood years were his unhappiest – He knew the films received little or no critical acclaim but he was heavily controlled by those around him whose livelihood depended on them continuing. Generous to a fault, he did what was expected of him, and that hastened the start of his decline, as his dependence on prescription drugs ramped up a gear to cope with the relentless lifestyle.

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Since buying my new turntable I have revisited the album but have just worked out today, when listening to the song again in the clip, that the key change I always thought happened half way through, must have been a scratch on the record causing the needle to jump. Only took me 45 years!

Flaming Star Lyrics
(Song by Sid Wayne/Sherman Edwards)

Ev’ry man, has a flaming star
A flaming star, over his shoulder
And when a man, sees his flaming star
He knows his time, his time has come

Flaming star, don’t shine on me, flaming star
Flaming star, keep behind me, flaming star
There’s a lot of livin’ I’ve got to do
Give me time to make a few dreams come true
Flaming star

When I ride, I feel that flaming star
That flaming star, over my shoulder
And so I ride, front of that flaming star
Never lookin’ around, never lookin’ around

One fine day, I’ll see that flaming star
That flaming star, over my shoulder
And when I see, that old flaming star
I’ll know my time, my time has come