18 February 2009

Elvis Presley (Part One)

Fun In Acapulco
Pan-American Elvis

Kiss Me Quick!
The Latin Soul of Elvis Presley
by Donny Jacobs
Elvis Presley, a Rhumba King? The very suggestion is enough to draw hoots of derisive laughter from most Rock historians. However, this concept is hardly as absurd as it sounds. Elvis starred in a Latin-themed movie musical in 1962, Fun In Acapulco, and critics agree that it produced one of his best soundtrack albums. That film wasn't the King's first foray into South American territory, either. He'd begun making Latin excursions as early as 1956. Some of the "Dixieland Rock" selections from his 1958 film King Creole have Cuban influence (particularly "Crawfish", his duet with Kitty White). Cha-cha beats are detectable in the rhythm tracks of some of his most popular '50s Rockabilly cuts: "I Beg Of You", "I Got Stung" and "Paralyzed", among others. Most notably, both sides of Elvis's biggest hit single of all-time, "Hound Dog" b/w "Don't Be Cruel", shake, rattle and roll to the undulating habanera. They're essentially tangos!

King Creole

So Elvis was giving his fans a taste of salsa early on, but only a taste. That changed after he was discharged from the US Army in 1960. Suddenly, he began placing heavy emphasis on Latin rhythms. Why did this occur? Well, while the King of Rock 'n' Roll was away serving his country, writer/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had initiated a Habanera Rock craze via their work with The Drifters. Of course, Elvis had worked with Leiber and Stoller on material for Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, and "Hound Dog" had come from their songbook; however, a dispute over publishing rights had brought their collaborations with him to a premature end. There's no evidence that they had any direct influence on his newly Latinized repertoire.

RCA Victor's A & R men were certainly aware of current musical trends, so they probably had a lot to do with the change. The same goes for the Aberbach brothers of Hill and Range Music, which distributed Elvis's publishing concerns; they would've been the main ones bringing Latin-tinged songs to Elvis's attention. The tastes of his Nashville session crew (including guitarists Scotty Moore and Grady Martin, bassist Bob Moore, drummers DJ Fontana and Buddy Harman, keyboard master Floyd Cramer and sax wizard Boots Randolph) might have had an influence, too. Even his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, may have played a role.

We should also remember that Elvis was highly eclectic in his own listening habits. He didn't limit himself to Country music, Gospel and the Blues. Is it inconceivable that a man fond of spinning Dean Martin and Mario Lanza records might also have favored the occasional Xavier Cugat or Pérez Prado side? In any case, he made the final decision; his recording contract gave him creative control. When his recipe for Rock 'n' Roll began to increasingly include rhumba, samba, pachanga and tango rhythms, nobody but the King himself approved the choice of ingredients. If he hadn’t liked Habanera Rock, you can be sure that none would have been released under his name. Muchísimo Habanera Rock was released under his name.

A stream of Latin Soul runs through Elvis's music alongside the much celebrated Gospel and Blues currents. It's been almost completely ignored, but that situation is about to change! The Pop Culture Cantina invites you to listen to Elvis Presley's catalogue with an ear primed for Pan-American rhythms. Once you do, we promise that you'll start thinking of Elvis (and Rock 'n' Roll, for that matter) in a whole new way.

I Feel So Bad
 (Chuck Willis)
When a Blues song marries a rhumba, what an exciting marriage it is! Boots Randolph's gritty sax solo and Floyd Cramer's stuttering piano licks damn near upstage Elvis on this great revival of Chuck Willis's 1954 R & B smash.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 12 March 12 1961

A Big Hunk O'Love

 (Aaron Schroeder, Sid Wyche)
This was Elvis's first rock-a-rhumba hit. Presley session historian Ernst Mikael Jorgensen describes "A Big Hunk O'Love" as "steamy", and the man sure ain't jivin' . . . the potent mix of screaming vocals, percolating piano and wailing guitars played at breakneck speed must've raised the temperature in RCA's Nashville studios at least ten degrees.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 10 June 1958

No More/La Paloma

 (Hal Blair, Don Robertson, Sebastian Yradier)
"La Paloma", written circa 1865, was the first Latin song to catch on big in the United States. Don Robertson and Hal Blair, two of Elvis' regular song sources, adapted Sebastian Yradier's melody for inclusion in the movie Blue Hawaii. This hip-swaying ballad performance marked the first time the King of Rock 'n' Roll blended South Sea island music with a Latin sensibility. He evidently liked the result, because he subsequently made a habit of doing it.
Produced by Joseph Lilley and Elvis Presley
recorded 21 March 1961

(Dave Bartholomew, Pearl King)
On the flipside of "Bossa Nova Baby", you'll find this whirling rock-a-tango number that abruptly shifts into double-time tempo. As he did on "I Feel So Bad", Elvis steps aside momentarily in order to showcase the frenzied sax blowing of Boots Randolph, who also plays percussion on this track. "Witchcraft" was originally released by The Spiders in 1955.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 26 May 1963

Bossa Nova Baby
 Bossa Nova Baby
(Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller)
This Leiber and Stoller composition inspired one of Elvis's coolest Latin-themed production numbers, featured in the movie Fun In Acapulco. While it purports to be a bossa nova, Elvis, his Hollywood session crew, and guest background vocal group The Amigos interpret it as a wild samba with strong mariachi flavorings. A Top Ten Pop entry, it all but obliterates the restrained original version cut the previous year by Tippie and The Clovers.
Produced by Joseph Lilley and Elvis Presley
recorded 22 January 1963

His Latest Flame

 (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)
First appearing as a Del Shannon album track, Pomus and Shuman's "His Latest Flame" is quite overt in its rhumba orientation: every instrument is heard playing the Cuban clave beat. Frankly, the song isn't such a great showcase for Elvis's voice, but he locks into the angst-ridden lyrics and manages to turn in a classic performance all the same.

Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 25 June 1961

I Gotta Know
 (Paul Evans, Matt Williams)
"I Gotta Know" is a peppy rock-a-tango from the pen of singer/songwriter Paul Evans. The Jordanaires' doo-wop backing vocals are very prominent in the mix, and bass man Hugh Jarrett holds forth on harmony. His controlled thunder strikes a nice blend with Elvis' lead.
Produced by Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins
recorded 3 April 1960

Girl Of My Best Friend
 (Sam Bobrick, Beverly Ross)
Sam Bobrick is known today for his screenwriting and production work on TV series like “Get Smart”, “Gomer Pyle”, “Bewitched” and “Saved By The Bell.” Once upon a time, though, he was a freelance songwriter. Bobrick lucked out when Elvis cut his very first composition, "Girl Of My Best Friend". It’s the kind of gently-rocking tango that was guaranteed to have the King’s female fans swooning in ecstasy. A year after this original waxing appeared on the Elvis Is Back album, the tune was covered by Ral Donner, who scored his first chart single with it. Donner's take is very hushed and dramatic, while Elvis sings it in a more lighthearted style. Both versions are worth hearing.
Produced by Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins
recorded 3 April 1960

Blue River

 (Paul Evans, Fred Tobias)
Although this snippet of a rhumba speeds by in a flash, it leaves a lasting impression on you. It's another nifty number from the Paul Evans songbook, with Boots Randolph again handling percussion duties.

Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 27 May 1963

Fun In Acapulco

 (Sid Wayne, Ben Weisman)
The title track of Elvis's 13th film swings to an old-fashioned habanera, the kind often heard in Latin-themed movie musicals from the 1930s. It gives you a good idea of how Mrs. Presley's baby boy would've sounded had he been one of Xavier Cugat's featured vocalists.
Produced by Joseph Lilley and Elvis Presley
recorded 23 January 1963

Little Sister

 (Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)
The electric guitars on this track slash like switchblades, and Elvis's leering vocal cuts just as deep! When they discuss it at all, Pop music historians tend to characterize Habanera Rock as lightweight fare, best suited to Adult Contemporary sensibilities. "Little Sister" proves that such assessments aren't always accurate.

Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 25 June 1961

Pocketful Of Rainbows

 (Ben Weisman, Fred Wise)
Terry Stafford's 1964 revival of this tune was almost excessively bouncy, a far cry from the King's laid-back original. Of course, this version from the soundtrack of GI Blues necessarily conformed to the low-key mood of the sequence it was written for. As fun as Stafford's cover is to hear, it must be said that Elvis gets more vocal mileage out of a slow tango treatment.
Produced by Hal Wallis, Joseph Lilley and Elvis Presley
recorded 28 April 1960

(Dory Jones, Bunny Warren, Ben Weisman)
The Latin boogaloo was born on the East Coast, but its funky strut was tailor-made for '60 Rock and Soul artists. "Rubberneckin'" topped the UK charts when reissued in 2003, and its Northern Soul appeal is so strong, you don't wonder why. You do wonder why the reissue took 30 years! With suggestive gasps and sighs overdubbed at strategic points, this record anticipated Donna Summer's "Love To Love You, Baby" by five years. Darlene Love and The Blossoms sing background on the version heard in the film Change Of Habit.

Produced by Chips Moman and Felton Jarvis
recorded 21 January 1969

Fountain Of Love

 (Bill Giant, Jeff Lewis)
Some of Elvis's Latin/Rock fusions weren't fusions at all. "Fountain Of Love" is an example: It's a Latin music performance as authentic as anything you'd hear in a México City nightspot. Rather than what was going on in the contemporary salsa scene, these waxings tended to evoke the 1930s rhumba craze; but when Retro Latin is done as well as Elvis did it, who can complain?

Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 18 March 1962

I'll Remember You

 (Kui Lee)
Here's another marriage of Latin and Polynesian music. Although "I'll Remember You" sounds like an outtake from the Blue Hawaii sessions, it was recorded seven years later. Later still, it surfaced on the Spinout soundtrack album. Elvis was recovering from a throat infection when he tracked the vocals, but that didn't stop him from laying one of his most beautiful readings ever on this warm slice of island melancholy. Subtle Spanish guitar accents and Spectorish backing voices frame his silken delivery like water lillies framing a pool of placid water.
Produced by Felton Jarvis
recorded 11-12 June 1966

Surrender/Torna A Surriento
(Ernesto DeCurtis, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)
You can't call this refugee from an overwrought silent movie score anything but campy! You might even call it corny. Just don't forget to call it an artistic and commercial triumph. A rhumba update of the Italian standard "Torna A Surriento" was going to be either a triumph or a disaster! Baring his operatic yearnings for all to see, Elvis wrings every last drop of drama out of this fiery seduction song. He does it in less than two minutes, too.

Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 30 October 1960

Kiss Me Quick

(Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)

Terry Stafford's cover of "Suspicion" is one of the classics of early '60s Rock 'n' Roll. Amazingly, it has managed to eclipse Elvis' original version, which you almost never hear on American oldies radio. The original waxing scored the bigger hit in foreign territories, though; its fidelity to the spirit of the tango might be one of the reasons why. As you'd expect, Elvis sings upstart Stafford under the table, too. While the latter's single may be more commercial from a strictly musical standpoint, his vocal performance sounds like a bad warm-up compared to the Memphis Marvel's effortlessly authoritative reading.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 19 March 1962

Fun In Acapulco DVD

"Kiss Me Quick!" 

continues with Part Two.


Michael said...

GRACIAS for including "I Gotta Know" in your list. It's always been one of my very favorites. It's a flip side and not always acknowledged when speaking about Elvis' 45's. It's a super cool tune I never tire of. One of the first 45's I ever bought!

janitox said...

hunk ,good song.