What I’ve Been Listening To: Elvis Presley/Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite

1973 concert showed Elvis at his last peak as the world around him started to crumble

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After recently watching the excellent two-part HBO documentary The Searcher, I’ve gained new appreciation for Elvis Presley. He was my music idol as a young kid; I even tried to impersonate him. Then I discovered The Beatles and other artists, and quickly realized there was more to music than Elvis. While I didn’t start to dislike him, it’s fair to say he slowly faded away in my mind.

Although Elvis was called the “King of Rock & Roll,” he didn’t invent rock & roll, but similar to Chuck Berry, I believe classic rock & roll would have been different without him. In the case of Elvis it was the interpretation of the music, and how he mixed rock & roll with other genres like country, gospel and R&B. He was also an ace vocalist and to me one of the best performers of all time, especially during the early part of his career in the ’50s. Nobody was moving like Elvis.

Elvis Presley 1956

Of course, one cannot think about Elvis without acknowledging the mediocre movies, in which he appeared during much of the ’60s and for which he was asked to perform mostly forgettable songs. Much of that had to do with Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker, who had full control over Elvis and clearly didn’t care much about him. Luckily, Elvis stood up to Parker when it came to the 1968 NBC special, where Parker wanted him to perform Christmas songs in a Santa suit. Instead, Elvis embraced the vision of producer Steve Binder to sing his old hits and play with his old band.

While the NBC special was a big success and marked the beginning of a comeback for Elvis, Parker continued to exert major influence. Elvis had always wanted to perform abroad, but Parker without his knowledge turned down lucrative offers for international tours. That is because Parker actually was an illegal immigrant and was concerned his status would be exposed when traveling abroad. And, no, Parker wasn’t Mexican or came from a “shit hole country,” he was a white man born in the Netherlands.

This brings me to Aloha From Hawaii. A concert to be broadcast worldwide via satellite conveniently allowed Parker to tell Elvis it would give him a chance to perform for the entire planet without having to travel to other countries. While Parker’s plan succeeded, fortunately, Elvis once again listened to the event’s producer Marty Pasetta, who suggested various ideas how to make the show more engaging. By the time Elvis stepped out on stage on January 14, 1973, he had shed 25 pounds and was a confident man, even though the world around him already had started to crumble and would rapidly deteriorate after his divorce from Priscilla Presley had become effective in October that year. Time for some music.

First up: Burning Love. Written by country songwriter Dennis Linde and first recorded by country and soul artist Arthur Alexander in 1972, it was covered by Elvis the same year. It became his biggest hit since Suspicious Minds in 1969 and his last top 10 single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 2.

You Gave Me A Mountain shows the soulful side of Elvis. The tune was written in the ’60s by country singer-songwriter Marty Robbins. While the lyrics aren’t autobiographic, you cannot escape the pain in these words and wonder what Elvis must have felt singing the tune. When I listened to it this morning, I have to say it really touched me.

Elvis’ rendition of Steamroller Blues is one of the highlights of the show. In fact, I knew this version a long time before I listened to the original by James Taylor. Taylor originally recorded the tune for his second studio album Sweet Baby James, which appeared in February 1970.

Another standout is Fever, which Elvis initially included on Elvis Is Back!, his tenth studio album from April 1960 and the first record after his discharge from the U.S. Army. The song was co-written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell and first recorded by American R&B singer Little Willie John as the title track for his 1956 debut record.

Suspicious Minds remains one of my favorite Elvis songs to this day. It was written by American songwriter Mark James who also recorded it in 1968. But it became a flop and was given to Elvis, who released it as a single in August 1969. His version became a major hit that topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada, and peaked at no. 2 in the UK.

The last tune I’d like to call out is A Big Hunk O’Love. Co-written by Aaron Schroeder and Sidney Wyche, the rocker was cut by Elvis in June 1958 and released as a single a year later. It was the only recording session Elvis did during his two-year service in the Army.

Aloha From Hawaii aired in over 40 countries across Asia and Europe. Notably, it wasn’t shown live in the U.S., since it coincided with the Super Bowl. So NBC waited until April 4, 1973 before broadcasting an edited version of the concert.

The worldwide audience for the show was estimated between 1 and 1.5 billion – more people than watched the moon landing. At $2.5 million, it was the most expensive entertainment special at the time.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

 

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 27

I know there is a certain degree of arbitrariness to look at happenings throughout rock music history on a specific date. But even as I’m putting together this 28th installment of the recurrent feature, I’m still intrigued with it. I guess in theory this leaves me with 337 remaining dates to explore – but one step, or perhaps I should say date, at a time!

1956: Heartbreak Hotel, one of the coolest tunes by Elvis Presley, was released as the first single on his new record label RCA Victor. Credited to him, Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden, the track climbed to no. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100, Cashbox Top Singles Chart and the Country and Western Chart. It became Presley’s first million-seller and one of the most commercially successful singles of the year. I always loved the double bass and the guitar solo in that tune. Here is a nice clip.

1964: The Beatles, or “Les Beatles” as they were called in France, played their 11th date at the Olympia Theatre in Paris as part of a residency in the French capital at the time. According to The Beatles Bible, the set list included eight tunes: From Me To You, Roll Over Beethoven, She Loves You, This Boy, Boys, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Twist And Shoot and Long Tall Sally. Unless the video below is mislabeled, I Saw Her Standing There was part of the set as well. This would make sense, since the song was one of The Fab Four’s concert staples.

1971: David Bowie visited the U.S. for the first time. While he wasn’t allowed to perform due to work permit restrictions, his record label had urged him to go there on a publicity tour to support his latest album The Man Who Sold The World, which had come out in November 1970. But not all of America was ready for the androgynous image Bowie was cultivating at the time and the dress he was wearing. A post on Live For Live Music quotes him as recalling, “In Texas, one guy pulled a gun and called me a fag. But I thought the dress looked beautiful.” Sadly, one could picture the same scene these days.

David Bowie In Dress

1973: Superstition, one of the defining songs by Stevie Wonder, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by him, it was the lead single from Talking Book, his 15th studio album released in October 1972. It also topped the soul singles chart and became his first no. 1 single since Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours in August 1970. The tune’s signature funky riff was played by Wonder on a Hohner Clavinet C. Jeff Beck, a great admirer of Wonder, came up with the cool opening drum beat. Here’s a nice clip from a live performance on the German TV show Beat-Club. While I love the horns on the studio recording, I think the backing vocalists do a great job singing the part!

Sources: This Day In Music.com, This Day In Rock, Songfacts Music History Calendar, The Beatles Bible, Live For Live Music, Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: October 7

1951: John Mellencamp, one of my longtime favorite music artists, was born in Seymour, Ind. He started his recording career in 1976 with Chestnut Street Incident, an album of mostly covers, released under Johnny Cougar. The stage name was imposed by his manager at the time, who felt the name Mellencamp was too hard to market. The record flopped anyway. But luckily Mellencamp soldiered on and has released 22 additional studio albums to date. The first record credited to his given name instead of John Cougar Mellencamp, the name he used on most of his ’80s albums, was 1991’s Whenever We Wanted. Starting with the excellent Lonesome Jubilee (1987), Mellencamp gradually moved away from straight rock to more stripped down roots-oriented rock. Here’s a clip of Cherry Bomb from the 1987 album. Happy Birthday!

1960: Elvis Presley recorded Flaming Star, the title song to the soundtrack for his 1960 motion picture. Written by Syd Wayne and Sherman Edwards, the track was also included on an EP in February 1961. It peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. While Presley starred in numerous, mostly mediocre movies, this Western film is considered to be one of his best acting performances. I used to be a huge Elvis fan in my early teens and Flaming Star was one of my favorite tunes. While I’m no longer as crazy about Elvis, I still think he had a great voice and was a terrific performer, especially in his early days.

1963: The Rolling Stones recorded I Wanna Be Your Man, which became their second single released November 1, 1963. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this Beatles song was primarily written by McCartney. The Stones’ cover, which appeared prior to the release of The Beatles’ version, climbed to no. 12 on the British chart, giving them an early hit. The tune’s characteristic features are Brian Jones’ slide guitar and Bill Wyman’s driving bass, giving it more pep than the original.

1967: American music producer and promoter Sid Bernstein, who had first brought The Beatles to the U.S. in February 1964 and also was involved in their first Shea Stadium appearance in August 1965, tried to get them back for a third time, offering one million dollars. But The Beatles had grown tired of Beatlemania and decided to retire from touring in late August 1966, so they rejected the offer. It’s a reassuring example money can’t buy everything.

Sidney Bernstein

1969: The Youngbloods’ version of Get Together was certified gold. Composed by American singer-songwriter Chet Powers, the Kingston Trio originally recorded the song as Let’s Get Together in 1964. Jefferson Airplane included a cover on their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, released in August 1966. But the best known and most successful version was recorded by The Youngbloods and first released in July 1967. Initially, it only became a minor hit for the band. Things changed when the tune was used in a radio public service announcement from the National Conference of Christians and Jews calling for brotherhood. The song was reissued in June 1969 and climbed to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, This Day in Music, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: September 9

1956: Elvis Presley appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show, together with his backup group The Jordanaires. They played three songs: Don’t Be Cruel, Love Me Tender and Ready Teddy. The performance became legendary, not only because it was watched by about 60 million viewers, a record 82.6 percent of the U.S. TV audience, but also because of what TV watchers weren’t allowed to see – Presley’s gyrating hips that Sullivan deemed too offensive for a family audience. So the cameras only showed Presley from only the waist up. Before launching into Don’t Be Cruel, Presley said: “This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life. There is not much I can say except if it makes you feel good, we wanna thank you from the bottom of our heart.”

1965: The Rolling Stones were at no. 1 in the U.K. with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, the band’s fourth chart-topping single there, and their first no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. The song’s iconic signature riff came to Keith Richards in a dream in a Florida hotel room. He got up and quickly recorded a rough version on a tape recorder, using an acoustic guitar. When he listened to the tape the next morning, there was about two minutes of music and 40 minutes of snoring. I suppose this must have been of Richards’ sweeter dreams!

1968: The Beatles were working on Helter Skelter at Abbey Road Studios in London. On July 18 of that year, they had recorded three takes. During the September 9 session, they transformed what was initially a slow blues into what perhaps became their most frantic song. The tune was included on The White Album, which appeared on November 22, 1968. The following evening, The Beatles added additional overdubs to the track. Commenting on the September 9 session, technical engineer Brian Gibson told Beatles book author Mark Lewisohn, “The version on the album was out of control…Everyone knew what substances they were taking but they were really a law unto themselves in the studio. As long as they didn’t do anything too outrageous things were tolerated.” Oh well, the times of neat suits and ties were definitely long past.

1972: British rockers Slade topped the U.K. single charts with Mama Weer All Crazee Now, scoring their third no. 1 there. Written by lead vocalist Noddy Holder and bassist Jim Lea, the tune also was the lead single from the band’s third studio album Slayed? 

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day in Music.com, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: July 1

It’s hard to believe today is July 1st and here we are in the thicket of summer – a good occasion to pause and take a look back at what happened on that day in rock & roll history.

1956: Elvis Presley appeared on NBC’s Steven Allen Show to perform Hound Dog, one of the countless great classic rock & roll tunes written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Initially recorded by Willie Mea “Big Mama” Thornton and released in 1953, Presley came out with his version in 1956, turning it into his best-selling song. But what’s memorable about his above show appearance isn’t the tune but the fact that he sang it to a visibly excited dog. While no animals were harmed during the infamous performance, Elvis’ appearance drew mixed reactions. I recall reading somewhere that he himself thought the whole thing was pretty stupid – I couldn’t agree more! Well, I suppose the good ole’ days weren’t always as good after all, whether in TV or elsewhere!

1963: Of course, no look-back on rock history would be complete without The Beatles! On that day in 1963, John, Paul, George and Ringo were at Abbey Road’s studio 2 to record She Loves You and I’ll Get You, the two sides of their fourth UK single. As usually credited to Lennon-McCartney, She Loves You went on to become their best-selling single and is ranked no. 64 on Rolling Stone’s April 2011 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. According to The Beatles Bible, producer Sir George Martin recalled:

“I was sitting in my usual place on a high stool in studio two when John and Paul first ran through the song on their acoustic guitars, George joining in on the choruses. I thought it was great but was intrigued by the final chord, an odd sort of major sixth, with George doing the sixth and John and Paul the third and fifths, like a Glenn Miller arrangement. They were saying, ‘It’s a great chord! Nobody’s ever heard it before!’ Of course I knew that wasn’t quite true!”

The Beatles_She Loves You_Single

1968: The Band released their debut studio record Music From Big Pink. The album’s recording followed The Band’s backing of Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour as The Hawks. The album’s cover artwork is a painting by the maestro himself. Among others, the record includes The Weight, a gem written by Robbie Robertson, and Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. While the record didn’t sell well, initial reception from the music critics was positive, which doesn’t necessarily say much; oftentimes, I feel these guys don’t get it right, but they did in this case! The album is ranked no. 34 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time from 2012.

The Band_Music From Big Pink

1975: 10cc hit no. on the UK Singles Chart with I’m Not in Love, which is perhaps one of the most epic 70s ballads. Written by band members Eric Stewart (local vocals, electric piana) and Graham Gouldman (electic guitar, bass, backing vocals), the tune was the second single from the band’s third studio record The Original Soundtrack. It was the second of the band’s three no. 1 UK singles and their international breakthrough hit. I still do vaguely recall hearing it on the radio in Germany all the time, where it peaked at no. 8 on the charts. In the U.S., it climbed all the way to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day in Music, The Beatles Bible, Rolling Stone, YouTube