18 February 2009

Elvis Presley (Part Two)

Fun In Acapulco
Pan-American Elvis

 Kiss Me Quick!
The Latin Soul of Elvis Presley
by Donny Jacobs

For your listening and dancing pleasure, here are fifteen more pieces of vinyl evidence that Elvis could've sung anything Xavier Cugat might've thrown his way.  Not only that . . . dude would've sung the menudo out of it!

Flaming Star

Flaming Star

 (Sherman Edwards, Sid Wayne)
Hollywood never could get the sound of Native American music right. What their music directors came up with always sounded contrived, and there was usually some kind of inappropriate syncopation in the arrangements. It was hardly authentic, but it made for good production numbers. Wayne and Edwards' theme to Flaming Star isn't authentic Indian music either, but it's a wicked infectious dance number. Elvis and The Jordanaires get deep down in the groove of this reservation rhumba; no doubt lots of listeners got into it with them!
Produced by Urban Thielmann and Elvis Presley
recorded 7 October 1960

Indescribably Blue

 (Darrell Glenn)
This track was cut at the same session that produced "I'll Remember You". It's not as beautiful, but the wrenchingly sad interpretation that Elvis laid down tagged the song as a potential showstopper. You can easily imagine torrents of tears being unleashed as the King performed it live on stage. Too bad he never made this Rock 'n' Roll bolero part of his regular concert repertoire.
Produced by Felton Jarvis
recorded 10 June 1966

Do The Clam

Do The Clam
(Dolores Fuller, Sid Wayne, Ben Weisman)

If a poll were taken to determine which Elvis Presley movie song Rock critics hate most, "Do The Clam" might take top honors. "In The Ghetto" it definitely ain't!  The song is unabashedly frivolous, obviously written to justify a production number (in this case, for Girl Happy). But hey, who says the King of Rock 'n' Roll can't have fun with an occasional throwaway dance tune? Before you throw it away, be sure to open its clamshell and dig the smokin' sax and bongó break on this extended rhumba workout.
Produced by Georgie Stoll and Elvis Presley
recorded 12 June 1964

Rock-A-Hula Baby
(Dolores Fuller, Sid Wayne, Ben Weisman)

What does an actress do after starring in '50s cult films like Bride Of The Monster and Glen Or Glenda? Dolores Fuller moved to New York, signed to Hill and Range Music, and began churning out movie songs like "Do The Clam". She also co-wrote this unforgettable number. Equal parts Hawaiian ceremonial music and Spanish Harlem pachanga, "Rock-A-Hula Baby" was Elvis' gift to twist-crazed teenagers during the Christmas season of 1962. The Surfers, fronted by the late Alan Kalani, join The Jordanaires in frenzied background shouts and chants.
Produced by Joseph Lilley and Elvis Presley
recorded 23 March 1961

I'll Be There
(Bobby Darin)

The Habanera Rock craze had waned long before Elvis scheduled his historic first sessions at Memphis' American Studios. However, bonafide habaneras lay hidden beneath the melodies of some of the songs he cut there. Tupelo, Mississippi's pride and joy poured a honey-sweet, Gospel tinged vocal over "I'll Be There", making this Bobby Darin Country ballad a hidden treat for fans to discover. First, though, they had to get past formidable session mates the calibre of "In The Ghetto", "Don't Cry, Daddy", "Rubberneckin'" and a superb tango rocker called "Suspicious Minds".
Produced by Chips Moman and Felton Jarvis
recorded 23 January 1969

Devil In Disguise
(Bernie Baum, Billy Giant, Florence Kaye)

Like "Witchcraft", this song is afflicted with Itchy Tempo Disease! It can't decide whether to be a staid tango or a wild samba, so it tries to be a little bit of both. Such musical schizophrenia didn't intimidate Elvis fans in the least; they bought "Devil In Disguise" in huge numbers and made it a solid smash on both sides of the Atlantic.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 26 May 1963

Kissin' Cousins

Kissin' Cousins
(Randy Starr, Fred Wise)

Kissin' Cousins is a truly execrable musical comedy, but it's almost redeemed by this boss theme song. Singing dentist Randy Starr disregarded the movie's rural theme and wrote an itchy twitchy pachanga to play under the opening credits. Hooks come at you from every which way; "Cousins" puts the dancin' in your feet like no other Elvis waxing before or since. Hands down, this is the most discotheque-ready number he ever committed to tape; just sitting still and listening to it is freakin' impossible! Some part of your body's gonna start movin' when you hear DJ Fontana and Buddy Harmon hammer out that insistent beat.
Produced by Gene Nelson, Fred Karger and Elvis Presley
recorded 31 September 1963

Let Yourself Go!
 (Joy Johnston)
A fabulous '60s-style production number accompanies this selection from Speedway, the Memphis Marvel's 1967 co-starring vehicle with Nancy Sinatra. "Let Yourself Go" is a sleazy boogaloo, not so different in attitude from Nancy's own hits; it might've made an ideal duet for her to sing with Elvis. Not that the King needed any help getting the job done here; he sharpened his cue, took cocksure aim, and put this eight ball of a tune squarely in the pocket.

Produced by Jeff Alexander and Elvis Presley
recorded 21 June 1967

(Buddy Kaye, Phil Springer)

Country musician Gary Kirkland brought our staff's attention to this lilting faux-Mexican ballad. Fans found it on the flipside of Elvis's remake of The Drifters' 1954 stomper "Such A Night". Apparently, "Never-Ending" has become a cult favorite among acoustic guitar players; despite its Brill Building pedigree, it could easily pass for a folk song.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 26 May 1963

Kiss Me Quick!
(Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)

It's no accident that nearly all of Elvis' finest Latin Pop records bear a Pomus and Shuman credit. Mort Shuman was an avowed Cuban music addict who incorporated habaneras into new compositions every chance he got. For that reason, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller came to favor Pomus/Shuman material for their Drifters sessions. Nashville's studio cats had one Devil of a time mastering the sometimes driving, sometimes skipping tempo of "Kiss Me Quick!", but the King was 100% sold on its south-of-the-border swing. He insisted on take after take, and after twelve tries, they finally nailed it. Three years after the fact, RCA Victor slapped "Kiss Me Quick!" on the back of a Gold Standard pressing of "Suspicion"; deejays flipped the single over, and it scored a surprise Top Forty hit. This happy occurrence prompted Terry Stafford to cut an equally tasty version for his Suspicion album.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 25 June 1961

Gonna Get Back Home Somehow
(Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)

This moody rhumba would've made an ideal follow-up to "Heartbreak Hotel". It sizzles over an intense flame lit by Grady Martin's angry fuzz guitar and the relentless tandem drumming of Fontana and Harmon. ¡Picante!
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 18 March 1962

It's Now Or Never/O Sole Mio

 (Eduardo DiCapua, Giovanni Capurro, Wally Gold, Aaron Schroeder)
Was Elvis an opera fan? His willingness to record rewrites of "Torna A Surriento" and "O Sole Mio" certainly raises that possibility, not to mention his Mario Lanza-inspired singing on "Surrender" and "It's Now Or Never". The Old World flavor you'd expect from such recordings was wisely downplayed in favor of delicious new Habanera Rock arrangements. Prior to the release of this worldwide million-seller, an inferior English translation of "O Sole Mio" called "There's No Tomorrow" was in circulation. Tony Martin scaled the charts with his 1949 version, and there were '50s recordings by Dean Martin, Jim Nabors and Connie Francis, among others. After the overwhelming success of "It's Now Or Never", though, it all but vanished from public memory. No big loss!
Produced by Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins
recorded 3 April 1960

Slowly But Surely
(Sid Wayne, Ben Weisman)

Here's yet another Elvis track that was covered by sound-alike act Terry Stafford (who later abandoned his career as a Presley imitator to pursue a successful Country music career). "Slowly But Surely" features a pronounced habanera rhythm wrapped in several layers of fuzz guitar adornment. A bonus track on the Fun In Acapulco soundtrack album, it's one of those early '60s records that anticipate the Latin boogaloo; others include The Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown", Bob and Earl's "Harlem Shuffle" and "School Is Out" by Gary US Bonds.
Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 27 May 1963

You'll Be Gone
(Charlie Hodge, Elvis Presley, Red West)
Anybody who still doubts the Memphis Marvel's affinity for Latin material should hear this track from his 1962 album Pot Luck. It's the only song that carries a legitimate Elvis Presley co-writing credit, and it's not a Blues or a Country tune. It's an unambiguous rhumba sung with unbridled passion. Like it or not, Latin music was an essential part of Elvis's artistry, much like it was an essential ingredient in the creation of Rock 'n' Roll.

Produced by Steve Sholes
recorded 18 March 1962

Viva Las Vegas

Viva Las Vegas
(Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman)

What's so special about this movie theme? It's only the most famous Rock 'n' Roll samba ever recorded! Pomus and Shuman outdid themselves with an unforgettably evocative ode to the flashiness, the sexuality, the excitement and the danger of Nevada's Sin City. "Viva Las Vegas" also captures the reckless adventurousness of the American spirit, and no artist was more qualified to sing it than Elvis. Who could've been more reckless and adventurous than the man whose eyebrow-raising mix of Black, White and Latino influences turned the music world upside-down?
Produced by Georgie Stoll and Elvis Presley
recorded 10 July 1963

These 32 sides hardly represent the full extent of Elvis's Latin-oriented work. Even if you include the aforementioned singles "Hound Dog" b/w "Don't Be Cruel" and “Suspicious Minds”, selections from the King Creole and Fun In Acapulco soundtracks, home recordings of Latin standards like "Allá En El Rancho Grande", live performances, and assorted movie songs, LP tracks and flipsides such as “Spanish Eyes”, "All That I Am", "Singin' Tree" and "For The Millionth And Last Time", you still won’t have found them all! Finding examples totally devoid of Latin influence would probably be more of a challenge. These fusion sides are as much a part of Elvis Presley’s Rock n' Roll legacy as any of his covers of Blues and Country classics.

El Vez Boxing

Unbeknownst to him, the King also left behind a Latin legacy, which we find in the colorful, cutting-edge person of El Vez! Performance artist and cultural historian Bobby López created the Mexican Elvis in tribute to the authentically Latin expression he found in both Elvis Presley's music and visual image. As my staff prepared to mount this special show, I asked El Vez what platters like "Fun In Acapulco", "Bossa Nova Baby" and "Viva Las Vegas" mean to him. His answer was nothing if not provocative. He told me he considers them examples of "a White man trying to add the Brown element . . . (those songs were) handed to (Elvis) by the Pop Machine. Even a machine knows it needs to make something swing from time to time! But this time, it was time for Elvis. Luckily, he could (bring) those tunes alive with his powers that be."

He firmly believes that the King's feeling for Latin music was inborn and not acquired. "You know, his mother used to say she was one-sixteenth Indian. (An) Indian from the south of Texas, (formerly) the north of México. Mexicans! Need I say more?" El Vez concludes: "You cannot (make) something from the machine (come) alive unless you have an element of the 'real', even in the fake." The Mexican Elvis speaks from personal knowledge! He and his lovely El-Vettes specialize in making what's fake real. They do it every time they take the stage and prove they're a legitimate Rock 'n' Roll revue instead of an Elvis impersonator novelty act.

It may be true that Pop songwriters of the 1960s were trying to inject a "Brown element" into Rock 'n' Roll. If so, then their efforts were redundant: That element was already there! Tin Pan Alley didn't need to artificially impose an Hispanic sensibility. Latin rhythms throb throughout the early Rock canon, regardless of whether you're listening to a record by Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba"), Bo Diddley ("Bo Diddley"), The Everly Brothers ("Cathy's Clown"), Roy Orbison ("Only The Lonely"), Robin Luke ("Susie, Darlin'"), Johnny Otis ("Willie And The Hand Jive"), Ray Charles ("What'd I Say?") or Elvis. Habanera Rock isn't some quaint offshoot of the real thing. It is the real thing! That's no doubt why attendees of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival responded to Santana's music with so much enthusiasm: They recognized the real thing when they heard it!

With so much Habanera Rock to be found in Elvis's catalog, it's hard to understand why Rock critics continue to deny its importance. Could it be that the high quality of these recordings is a factor in their denial? As session men at the "Kiss Me Quick!" recording date discovered, it takes hard work to play this music right. Skilled musicianship is anathema to some people, though; they believe Rock 'n' Roll ought to sound amateurish and unrehearsed. If they decide it isn’t “Punk” enough, they’ll cop a contemptuous attitude.

Such people are babosos! Elvis Presley didn't build his stellar reputation off of records that made him sound like an amateur. He built it on well-crafted releases: Damn good singing! Damn good playing! And as often as possible, memorable songs like the Latin-tinged selections showcased here. Millions of devoted fans appreciated him all the more for doing so. We still do. One thing you can count on: Long after the pitiful efforts of today’s Punk Rock poseurs have faded from memory, future generations will be groovin’ to Elvis’s Dixieland tangos, rhumbas and pachangas. ¡Vaya!

Viva Las Vegas DVD

Extra special thanks to Bobby López,
the Mexican Elvis.

Enjoy Elvis Presley's Latin-flavored Rock 'n' Roll on these releases:
From Nashville To Memphis: The Essential '60s Masters
(RCA/BMG Music, 1993)
Command Performances: The Essential '60s Masters II
(RCA/BMG Music, 1995)
Elvis Latino!
(RCA/BMG Music Argentina, 1997)
Fun In Acapulco
(Follow That Dream Records/BMG Music UK, 2004)


Jerry Maneker said...

I can't tell you how impressive this is!!!! How you know all this material, and the new insights that I received about Elvis' music are remarkable! The posters are beautiful as well! Thanks so much for presenting this insight into Elvis' music! I've profited so much from your many gifts! Thank you very much!

Jay Viviano said...

Really great stuff. Very interesting and enlightning. I'll be sharing and passing along.