Elvis Presley | Elvis Is Back! (April 1960)
Rock and Roll / Rhythm and Blues – 31:54
“I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.”
There was a time that the surest way to end a prodigious cinematic career, you need to award the actor an Oscar. According to Hollywood legend, once you’ve been handed an Academy Award, then you would never be able to work again. Take such talent as Cuba Gooding, Jr. By the mid-1990s, he had been building up a wealth of roles that proved he had talent in spades. Boyz n the Hood had put him on the map and it was only a matter of time that he finally showed his true worth; in 1996, he finally achieved it, taking the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Jerry Maguire. The world was at his feet; finally he had the power to pick roles to match his talent. So what happened? A string of poor performances in terrible films: Pearl Harbor, Rat Race, Snow Dogs – he even took on a part in Daddy Day Camp, a sequel so awful that even Eddie Murphey had turned it down. The talent was clearly there; sadly, for Cuba, the parts were not.
Talent and quality do not always go hand-in-hand. No matter how good you may be – how great your gift may be – if the material isn’t there to work with, then you will always be limited. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot polish the proverbial. Many great artists have fallen by the wayside, simply because they were unable to find the right pieces to reflect their ability. You don’t even have to be an Oscar winner – or even a movie maker. There are plenty of examples of artistes across the board who failed to capitalise on their talent. And, as sacrilegious as it may be to fans of the King, among those who often seemed to squander what God had given them was Elvis Aaron Presley.
Elvis is one of those singers whose legend far outweighed anything else. We’ve already come across a few, but, in truth, the King led the way on this front. Even before his death, his following showed unwavering devotion; since his untimely demise, his stature has grown ever greater. But you only have to take a look at his back catalogue to find that the material given to him was not always of a high quality (the less said about many of his movie roles, the better). When it worked, there was nobody who could equal him; but he too often had to make the best of weak material. It seems particularly sad given how talented Presley was.
By 1960, Elvis fans had been without any new songs from the King for two years; Presley had been unable to record during his spell in the American army. The fans were desperate, to say nothing of the studio bosses at RCA, for him to begin releasing again. Despite the best efforts of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, to build the hunger further, RCA got its way and forced the singer back into the studio, along with a group of musicians who had previously worked with him. The idea was to get new material out as quickly as possible to feed the fans’ appetite. Rather than spend time slowly rebuilding the following, the idea was to provide exactly what the public wanted. The result was Elvis is Back!, an album that within less than a month had been pieced together from these sessions. And, as beautiful as his voice can be, this is one album that doesn’t always hit the mark.
Things start off with Make Me Know It, the first track to be cut and one which took numerous attempts to nail. It’s a jaunty number with a rocking piano background, brass and Elvis’ voice hitting all the notes. And, like much of the album which is to follow, it sounds…well…ok. In fact, this is probably the biggest criticism that can be levelled at Elvis is Back!; there is nothing here which stands out as a classic. There isn’t anything wrong with any of the songs: they are all performed competently. But after two years away, you would have hoped for something so much greater. Take the second number, a version of the wonderful Fever. It is an incredible song, one that has a sultry edge of danger to it. Elvis’ voice is smooth and full of desire – it sounds good. But no matter what he does, even Presley cannot compete with the definitive version by Peggy Lee. It says something when you are suggesting that the King’s take on a song is the second best.
By the third track, The Girl of My Best Friend, things start to look up. A fun pop classic, there is a reason why this is one of the songs which Elvis is always remembered for. It suits him well and he seems to know it, enjoying every moment of singing it. Interestingly, two of the most iconic songs he would ever record were part of these sessions – It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight? Tellingly, neither of them feature on the album. It was almost as if these were too good to include (although I admit the slower numbers which the King performed have never been my favourite; his voice worked best with the rockier tracks). Not much can be said about I Will Be Home Again other than the fact that it is one of the dreariest numbers that I have ever heard; it may only last for 2 minutes and 30 seconds but it feels ten times as long. Thank goodness for the wonderful Dirty, Dirty Feeling, a fast paced number that whizzes past and yet gets the shoulders pumping to every beat. It is what Elvis does best. It is something which is repeated throughout: for every strong number (Such a Night is a prime example), there is something which feels like it should be cut from the set list (Soldier Boy is particularly grating).
There is no doubt that Elvis deserved his status as the leading singer of his time; his voice possessed depth and soul which, when used with the right song, was something to behold. But he was forever let down by weak, badly-chosen material. Elvis is Back! is no exception; when it works, there is nothing quite like it. Unfortunately, for half the time, you wish the King had been a little more discerning in his selection of songs.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Elvis is Back! here:
Next time: Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba