Elvis: The Ultimate Live Top Ten Hits (Part 4)

This is the finale of a four post series covering Elvis Presley’s best officially-released live recording of each of his US top ten hits.

[Read Part 3]

Released as a 2-LP set in 1987, The Top Ten Hits contained all 38 of Elvis’ top 10 hits on Billboard‘s key US charts. Other than a few outliers that failed to make the top 10 and are not on the set (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Blue Christmas,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “My Way,” and “A Little Less Conversation”), it includes all of his most famous songs for the general public. Indeed, outside of boxed sets, The Top Ten Hits remains one of the most comprehensive Elvis releases to date when it comes to mainstream songs.

Today’s post will feature hits included on Side D of The Top Ten Hits, most of which were studio recordings on the original album.

01. Return To Sender (hit version recorded 1962)
Ultimate Live Version: August 1, 1976, Hampton Roads, VA, New Haven ’76
Per request, Elvis performs “Return To Sender” off the top of his head at a concert in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Included as a bonus track on New Haven ’76, this is the only officially released live version of the song. Considering it was recorded in 1976, the nadir of Elvis concert years, it actually isn’t horrible.

02. Devil In Disguise (hit version recorded 1963)
Ultimate Live Version: None available
It is unfortunate that Elvis never performed live in the mid-1960s. This song would surely have resulted in a classic rendition at that time.

03. Bossa Nova Baby (hit version recorded 1963)
Ultimate Live Version: None available
A medley of “Return To Sender” and “Bossa Nova Baby” might have been fun in his 1969 live shows to acknowledge a couple of hit songs from his 1960s movies.

04. Crying In The Chapel (hit version recorded 1960)
Ultimate Live Version: None available
Voice-wise, 1968 probably would have been the best time for Elvis to have performed “Crying In The Chapel” live. I don’t see where it would really fit in any of his four shows captured for the ELVIS special, though. August 1970 probably would have been a good vocal opportunity for it, too. I would love to hear the Blossoms or the Sweet Inspirations backing Elvis on this instead of the Jordanaires.

Elvis Presley performs “The Wonder Of You” at the August 13, 1970, Dinner Show, in Las Vegas, Nevada, captured for the ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT IS documentary film (MGM)

05. In The Ghetto (hit version recorded 1969)
Ultimate Live Version: August 26, 1969, Dinner Show, Las Vegas, NV, From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis [Elvis In Person]
Elvis’ live versions of “In The Ghetto” never quite lived up to the studio versions. While he usually performed it strongly, he never seems as “into” the song. A stripped-down version, with just Elvis and an acoustic guitar would have been ideal.

06. Suspicious Minds (hit version recorded 1969)
Ultimate Live Version: August 25, 1969, Midnight Show, Hot August Night
An apparent mistake is actually what gives this live version of “Suspicious Minds” an edge over other stellar versions recorded in the same concert series. After James Burton’s opening guitar solo, Elvis fails to begin singing, so Burton continues the solo. Overall, this live version is even better than the studio master.

07. Don’t Cry Daddy (hit version recorded 1969)
Ultimate Live Version: February 18, 1970, Dinner Show, Las Vegas, NV, Greatest Hits, Volume One
While I love “Don’t Cry Daddy,” it does not work as well in a live concert setting, and I can understand why Elvis dropped it by 1971. That said, this live version is top-notch.

08. The Wonder Of You (hit version recorded live, February 18, 1970, Midnight Show, Las Vegas, NV, On Stage)
Ultimate Live Version (after hit recorded):
August 13, 1970, Dinner Show, Las Vegas, NV, The Way It Was
I have found that time behaves inconsistently in certain situations and for certain people. Elvis’ entire career, for instance, was compressed into about 21 years, yet he left a wealth of material behind that continues to forge his musical legacy. Elvis released his February 1970 live version of “The Wonder Of You” as a single in April 1970, and it peaked at number nine on June 27, 1970. Less than two months later, during one of the concerts captured for the MGM documentary movie Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, he introduces this August 1970 live recording by stating, “I had a record out last year that–-this year . . . this year, wasn’t it?–-that did pretty good for me. I’d like to sing it for you.” In this case, two to four months in “Elvis time” was like a year in normal time.

09. Burning Love (hit version recorded 1972)
Ultimate Live Version: April 18, 1972, San Antonio, TX, Close Up
Featured in the documentary movie Elvis On Tour (MGM, 1972), this rockin’ version of “Burning Love” exceeds any other live renditions released thus far. The March 1972 studio master remains the best, however.

Well, that about wraps things up for our look at Elvis’ best officially released live recordings of his hit songs. Over 43 years after his death, Elvis Presley concert recordings continue to surface. With that in mind, we may have to check in on these live hits again in a few years.

Thanks for reading.

Your Conductor,
TY


“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.”
John 14:1

Elvis: The Ultimate Live Top Ten Hits (Part 1)

Elvis Presley rocks “Heartbreak Hotel” during taping of 1968’s ELVIS special (NBC)

I was 13 years old during Spring Break of 1988. At that point, I had about a half dozen Elvis Presley albums to my name. At the record store that week, I bought my first 2-record set. The Top Ten Hits was part of an “Elvis Presley Commemorative Issue” series that marked a decade since his 1977 death. I eventually obtained all four of the albums in the series, though I never did mail away for the special bonus album (a future eBay purchase, no doubt).

I had been collecting Elvis records for about a year at that point, and The Top Ten Hits certainly firmed up the foundation of my new obsession by containing all 38 of Elvis’ top 10 hits on Billboard‘s key US charts. These are what I now call mainstream or “general public” Elvis songs in that they are his most famous songs. Back then, these were the ones that various radio stations would still play.

The only two general public Elvis songs that failed to make the US top ten and, thus, this album were “Blue Suede Shoes” (peaked at #20) and “Viva Las Vegas” (peaked at #29). If we include posthumous releases, 1977’s “My Way” (peaked at #22) and 2002’s JXL Radio Edit Remix of “A Little Less Conversation” (peaked at #50) are also general public Elvis songs that are not present on this 1987 release. Except for those few titles and maybe “Blue Christmas,” everything else is here from a mainstream audience perspective. Outside of boxed sets, which really belong in their own category, The Top Ten Hits remains one of the most comprehensive Elvis releases to date when it comes to the general public.

I wore this record out in my 7th and 8th grade years, to the point where many of these songs became boring to me for a time. I will at some point cover this and the other Elvis Presley Commemorative Issue albums as part of my ongoing Vinyl Elvis series. Today, however, I want to use The Top Ten Hits as a jumping off point for a series of four posts covering Elvis’ best live performance of each of his hits. As is the norm here on The Mystery Train Blog, the focus will be on officially released recordings. No bootlegs.

Today’s post will feature hits included on Side A of The Top Ten Hits, all of which were studio recordings on the original album.

01. Heartbreak Hotel (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 29, 1968, 6 PM Show, Burbank, CA, ELVIS-TV Special
Recorded in front of small studio audience for Elvis’ 1968 NBC television special, ELVIS, this version of “Heartbreak Hotel” rocks more than any of his other takes on the song. It is unfortunately a shortened version, though, due to being part of a medley with “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up.” I once created a splice with the June 27, 1968, 6 PM Show version of “Heartbreak Hotel” to partially rectify this (inspired by and in the same vein as the “Blue Suede Shoes” splice on the This Is Elvis album, except starting with the June 29 “stand up” show version and ending with the June 27 “sit down” show version).

02. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 5, 1956, Los Angeles, CA, A Golden Celebration
As performed on the Milton Berle Show, following a skit with the host.

03. Hound Dog (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: December 15, 1956, Shreveport, LA, Young Man With The Big Beat: The Complete ’56 Elvis Presley Masters
The finale of one of Elvis’ greatest recorded concerts, this version of “Hound Dog” is not to be missed.

04. Don’t Be Cruel (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: January 6, 1957, New York, NY, A Golden Celebration

Credit: The Ed Sullivan Show channel (YouTube)

After Elvis released “Don’t Be Cruel,” he caught an act in Las Vegas that was doing a number of his songs. The lead singer was Jackie Wilson, and Elvis liked his version of “Don’t Be Cruel” better than his own. When Elvis performed the song on his third Ed Sullivan Show appearance in 1957, he incorporated some of Wilson’s upgrades to the song. What I love about this story is that Elvis inspired Wilson, who, in turn, inspired Elvis. Incidentally, this is the infamous “from the waist up” Sullivan performance where TV cameras were ordered not to show Elvis’ hips and legs – which, of course, only added to his legend. Watch it above or over on YouTube.

05. Love Me Tender (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 29, 1968, 8 PM Show, Burbank, CA, ELVIS-TV Special
This live version, recorded for the 1968 ELVIS special, far exceeds Elvis’ original studio recording of the song from 1956. His voice is like velvet.

06. Love Me (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 27, 1968, 6 PM Show, Burbank, CA, Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special
This was a close call with the August 12, 1970, Midnight Show, version of “Love Me,” but I slightly prefer the raw sound of the 1968 version.

07. Too Much (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: January 6, 1957, New York, NY, A Golden Celebration
This is the only live version officially released of “Too Much,” to my knowledge, so it wins by default. A decent if sloppy version, performed on the Ed Sullivan Show and broadcast from the waist up.

08. All Shook Up (hit version recorded 1957)
Ultimate Live Version: August 26, 1969, Midnight Show, Las Vegas, NV, All Shook Up
The earliest available live version of “All Shook Up,” which is closer to the arrangement of the studio recording, is March 25, 1961, but the performance is tepid compared to his 1968 and 1969 versions.

09. Teddy Bear (hit version recorded 1957)
Ultimate Live Version: January 26, 1970, Opening Show, Las Vegas, NV, The On Stage Season: The Opening And Closing Shows 1970
This live version of “Teddy Bear” was a pleasant surprise on one of my favorite FTD releases.

10. Jailhouse Rock (hit version recorded 1957)
Ultimate Live Version: June 29, 1968, 8 PM Show, Burbank, CA, ELVIS-TV Special

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

As with a few of the others on today’s list, this incredible live version of “Jailhouse Rock” was captured for the 1968 ELVIS special. It almost equals the flawless studio recording. Watch it above or over on YouTube.

If only some of Elvis’ 1957 concerts had been recorded. Perhaps ultimate live versions of “Too Much,” “All Shook Up,” and possibly even “Jailhouse Rock” would have been among them. Every now and then, new recordings are unearthed. I maintain hope that a 1957 concert will eventually see the light of day.

I pray all of you are doing well and staying healthy. Drop a note in the comments below about some of your favorite live versions of these Elvis classics.

Blessings,
TY

[Read Part 2]


“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”
James 1:2-4

Tmydee scares away the competition in Elvis Trivialities #17

Tmydee not only won Elvis Trivialities #17 yesterday, but did it in record time! Steve’s 17-minute response time had stood for over nine years, but Tmydee has established the new standard – 15 minutes! It took me longer than that to write the post, Tmydee.

Tmydee receives a Halloween treat bag full of bragging rights of every flavor and a spot among The Mystery Train’s Night Riders, legendary Elvis trivia masters.

And the answer is…

1.) “Blue Moon”
2.) “Witchcraft”
3.) “Mystery Train”
4.) “Devil In Disguise”

are the Elvis songs represented by the following scrambled characters:

1.) ULBE MONO
2.) HICTRTWACF
3.) YTYEMRS RNTIA
4.) VEIDL NI GSUDEISI

As mentioned yesterday, in our universe, Elvis never had a Halloween album. In 1963, he did have two spookier-themed singles in a row, though. In June, he released “Devil In Disguise” b/w “Please Don’t Drag That String Around.” “Devil In Disguise” went to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In October, he released “Bossa Nova Baby” b/w “Witchcraft.” The A-Side went to #8.

If only “Devil In Disguise” had been paired with “Witchcraft” instead, and Elvis would’ve at least had a Halloween single!

Over on the For Elvis CD Collectors Forum, film expert Greystoke spotted that Vevo recently released an official music video for “Devil In Disguise.” For an Elvis video, it is a little out there, even though it takes the lyrics quite literally. It is certainly fun on Halloween and worth checking out.

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)


The Mystery Train’s Night Riders

  • October 30, 2020: Tmydee (0:15)*
  • October 7, 2020: Sammy (3:18)
  • June 14, 2013: Alec (0:18) | Honorable Mention: Wellsy (3:01)
  • February 22, 2013: Thomas (13:36)
  • January 11, 2013: George Millar (4:19)
  • December 23, 2012: Thomas (0:36)
  • October 9, 2012: David (14:38) | Honorable Mention: John (22:06)
  • February 4, 2012: Thomas (13:52)
  • February 3, 2012: Thomas (2:18)
  • December 21, 2011: Wellsy (2:37)
  • October 31, 2011: Thomas (17:32)
  • October 1, 2011: Jimmy Cool (1:01)
  • September 9, 2011: Steve Brogdon (0:17)
  • August 6, 2011: Thomas (2:26)
  • July 9, 2011: Thomas (5:26)
  • June 23, 2011: Fred Wolfe (0:18)
  • June 22, 2011: Ty stumps the train (no winner)

*Record time


“Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”
from 2 Corinthians 11:14

Gospel Elvis #1: “I Believe”

Today, I am beginning Gospel Elvis, a new, occasional series on The Mystery Train Blog. Gospel Elvis will examine songs of faith and inspiration that Elvis released during his lifetime. To be clear, each song won’t necessarily be “strictly” Gospel, but “Gospel Elvis” has a better ring to it than “Songs of Faith and Inspiration Elvis.” While I decided to start in 1957 for this first post, we won’t necessarily go in chronological order, either.


Elvis Presley in LOVING YOU (1957, Paramount)

Kicking off his first session of the new year, Elvis Presley recorded “I Believe” on January 12, 1957, at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. It was his first formal recording of a song of faith. The same session also produced the smash hit “All Shook Up,” which ruled atop the Billboard Top 100 chart for eight weeks to become the number one single of 1957.

RCA first released “I Believe” on the Peace In The Valley Extended Play (EP) album in April 1957. The song made its Long Play (LP) album debut on Elvis’ Christmas Album six months later. In October 1970, RCA released a reconfigured version of Elvis’ Christmas Album on its budget Camden label, leaving out “I Believe.” Instead, a reissue of “I Believe” appeared on the March 1971 Camden LP You’ll Never Walk Alone – one of the best of the Elvis budget releases.

Take a listen to Elvis’ recording of “I Believe” below or over on Youtube.

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Ervin Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl, and Al Stillman wrote “I Believe” in 1952 for singer/actress Jane Froman. The most popular version, however, belongs to Frankie Laine‘s 1953 recording.

Elvis’ interpretation of the song did not seem to draw from Laine, however. Elvis named Roy Hamilton among his influences, and he no doubt had Hamilton’s 1955 version of “I Believe” in mind when he recorded it. Check it out on Youtube or below.

Credit: Roy Hamilton – Topic channel (YouTube)

What strikes me when listening to Hamilton’s sublime recording is that I can hear not only the influence on Elvis’ “I Believe” in particular, but also on Elvis’ vocals in general. Elvis had many influences, but most of them I do not hear as directly as that of Hamilton.

Now that we have heard two versions of “I Believe,” I want to attempt personally to interpret a couple lines of the lyrics within a Biblical context.

“I believe for everyone who goes astray, Someone will come to show the way.”

The truth is, as humans, all of us go astray. Jesus died so that our sins would be forgiven, however, and Heaven would still be available to us. He already paid for all of our sins, but our contribution to the admission ticket to Paradise is belief in Him (see John 3:16), for Jesus is literally the “way” to Heaven.

“Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.'”
John 14:6 NLT

Early Christians were even called “followers of the Way,” including in Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

“I believe above the storm the smallest prayer can still be heard.”

I was surprised to discover in the course of research for this post that there is actually some debate among Biblical scholars about whether God truly hears every prayer. To be clear, I do not claim to be a Bible expert. Though I have read it cover-to-cover four times, and currently working on two more read-throughs, the Bible is a dense work. However, in my humble opinion, there is no debate here. Of course God hears every prayer. He’s God! He’s omniscient. Does he grant every request? Of course not, but that’s a whole other discussion.

[Side Note: An interesting oddity about the Elvis version of “I Believe” is that he sings “the smallest prayer can still be heard” whereas the other half dozen or so versions I listened to by various singers for this post, including Hamilton, sing, “the smallest prayer will still be heard.” As this is The Mystery Train, I naturally used the Elvis version of the lyrics.]

One of the wonderful aspects of prayer is that you need not shout for God to hear you. He does, indeed, hear the quietest voice. In fact, you need not speak your prayer at all. You can think to God at any time, and He hears you. For believers, this is taken even a step further. If we can’t pray or don’t know what to pray, the Holy Spirit even steps in and prays for us (Romans 8:26-27).

In life, all of us encounter many storms. As a follower of Jesus, I now find comfort in Him through any such disturbances. I went through multiple life-changing events last year, for instance, many of which could have turned into tumultuous storms, but I approached each of them with much prayer, and Jesus brought me peace (John 14:27) and calm.

“The ropes of death entangled me; floods of destruction swept over me. The grave wrapped its ropes around me; death laid a trap in my path. But in my distress I cried out to the LORD; yes, I prayed to my God for help. He heard me from his sanctuary; my cry to him reached his ears.”
Psalm 18:4-6 NLT

My first exposure to “I Believe” was probably Elvis’ You’ll Never Walk Alone album. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, my family and I were on vacation somewhere or other. Anytime we went to a different place, I would always scour any store we happened to visit for Elvis items not available at home. At a Kmart or similar store, I found a cassette tape version of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

By this time, I had my first Walkman. This was about the third pre-recorded Elvis tape I ever owned. I would go on to acquire less than a dozen total, as my focus was on records and, later, CDs. Tapes were usually either releases I couldn’t find on record or gifts from others. Of course, I probably made well over a hundred Elvis mix tapes for my own use, which was the real appeal of cassette decks.

Anyway, I knew nothing about You’ll Never Walk Alone when I bought it. I just saw it had a lot of song titles I didn’t recognize. It was actually the first Elvis gospel album I ever owned. I can remember playing it on my Walkman in the car ride home from that vacation. Headphones allow for such an intimate listening experience, and they were perfect for You’ll Never Walk Alone.

I didn’t have any Elvis reference books at the time, so I thought the songs were all recorded around the same time. It sounded like a coherent album. In reality, the compilation included songs from throughout the range of 1957-1969. Elvis’ gospel and Christmas songs from various decades mix together better than his other music.

“I Believe” kicked off Side 2 of the cassette. As with many other songs on that release, it became a favorite. What I love about Elvis’ version of the song is how his voice eases back and forth effortlessly between gentle innocence and assertive conviction. I should note that I believed in God for as long as I could remember, but I was more skeptical about the Jesus aspect. However, I would explore and encounter Him in different ways over the years, including through Elvis’ many gospel recordings. It wasn’t until 2018 that all the puzzle pieces came together for me, and I was led to Jesus.

At that point, as a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), I began to experience the world in fresh ways. For instance, I was never an “outdoors” person. Now, I am often drawn to it. Walking in parks has become a favorite activity.

Music I had heard for decades began to take on new meanings. Suddenly, Elvis’ catalog of gospel was not just a collection of beautifully performed songs, but the most compelling and personal statements of his entire career.

My best friend taught me something she calls, “finding signs of Him.” What she means by that is taking a few minutes to stop, breathe, listen, look, and find God. There are signs of Him everywhere. “I Believe” understands this as well with the lyrics, “Every time I hear a newborn baby cry or touch a leaf or see the sky, then I know why I believe.” Evidence of God literally surrounds us.

To conclude our look at “I Believe” today, I want to sign off with my favorite version. This is Mahalia Jackson, 1953. Listen to her voice, surely evidence of God.

Credit: Mahalia Jackson – Topic channel (YouTube)


“And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.”
Hebrews 11:6

Sammy takes all the chips in Elvis Trivialities #16

A trickily-worded question did not fool Sammy, and he became a first-time winner when he correctly answered Elvis Trivialities #16 yesterday.

And the answer is…

Elvis Presley included the song “What’d I Say” from Viva Las Vegas, his 1964 movie with Ann-Margret, in 1969 concerts at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.

Elvis’ take on the Ray Charles tune was the B-Side of “Viva Las Vegas.” As for the A-Side, Elvis never once performed “Viva Las Vegas” live in Las Vegas or anywhere else, as far as has been documented. He did reference the movie title on occasion during his career monologues in his 1969 shows.

Ann-Margret and Elvis Presley in VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964, MGM)

For whatever reason, “What’d I Say,” the B-Side of the 1964 single, got slightly more traction, though it was inferior to the A-Side, “Viva Las Vegas.” “What’d I Say” hit #21 and “Viva Las Vegas” unfortunately only made it to #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Viva Las Vegas” and “Blue Suede Shoes” are probably Elvis’ best-known songs that failed to become top ten hits upon initial release.

Sammy takes home a big bucket of chips from the bragging rights table. He also becomes a member of that esteemed group of certified Elvis trivia experts, The Mystery Train’s Night Riders. Congratulations to Sammy!

You never know when the next Elvis Trivialities question will arrive. Will it be in seven minutes? Seven days? Seven years? Hedge your bets now by subscribing to The Mystery Train Blog. Then, you will be notified whenever there is a new post. “All you need’s a strong heart and a nerve of steel” to win Elvis Trivialities.


The Mystery Train’s Night Riders

  • October 7, 2020: Sammy (3:18)
  • June 14, 2013: Alec (0:18) | Honorable Mention: Wellsy (3:01)
  • February 22, 2013: Thomas (13:36)
  • January 11, 2013: George Millar (4:19)
  • December 23, 2012: Thomas (0:36)
  • October 9, 2012: David (14:38) | Honorable Mention: John (22:06)
  • February 4, 2012: Thomas (13:52)
  • February 3, 2012: Thomas (2:18)
  • December 21, 2011: Wellsy (2:37)
  • October 31, 2011: Thomas (17:32)
  • October 1, 2011: Jimmy Cool (1:01)
  • September 9, 2011: Steve Brogdon (0:17)*
  • August 6, 2011: Thomas (2:26)
  • July 9, 2011: Thomas (5:26)
  • June 23, 2011: Fred Wolfe (0:18)
  • June 22, 2011: Ty stumps the train (no winner)

*Record time


“Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD.”
Psalm 27:14

Thank You, Mac: The Last Verse

I want to pause a few moments to celebrate entertainer Mac Davis, who passed away on Tuesday. The songwriter/singer/actor/musician was 78.

Among Elvis fans, Davis is best known as the writer of the hits “In Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy,” both of which Elvis recorded at his 1969 American Sound Studio sessions in Memphis. Standing with “If I Can Dream” (1968) as one of the few socially conscious Elvis songs, “In The Ghetto” broke Elvis’ four-year drought of top ten hits when it made it to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1969. “Don’t Cry Daddy” made its chart debut later the same year and eventually peaked at #6.

As a teenager in the 1950s, Davis became an Elvis fan and attended concerts in Texas. When, as an adult, he attended Elvis’ August 25, 1969, Midnight Show at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Elvis introduced Nancy Sinatra to the audience. He then had Davis stand up as well:

“There’s a guy sitting in her booth that’s one hell of a songwriter, ladies and gentlemen. He has written some beautiful stuff, and he wrote one of my biggest records. I’d like you to say hello to Mac Davis. He wrote ‘In The Ghetto,’ ladies and gentlemen.”

After introducing a number of other celebrities, Elvis went on to perform “In The Ghetto” and threw in a “Thank you, Mac” after the song concluded. These moments are captured on CD 9 of Sony’s Elvis Live 1969 boxed set, which I just finished reviewing here last week, as well as on FTD’s Hot August Night CD.

Davis co-wrote with Billy Strange several other Elvis songs, all recorded in 1968, including “A Little Less Conversation” for the film Live A Little, Love A Little. In Ken Sharp’s Writing For The King: The Stories Of The Songwriters (FTD, 2006), Davis notes that he actually had Aretha Franklin in mind when he wrote the song and then worked with Strange to change the lyrics to better suit Elvis when submitting it for use in the movie.

After appearing in the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven, an alternate take of “A Little Less Conversation” found a surprising new life in 2002 when a JXL remix for a Nike commercial during the World Cup became an international hit. In Writing For The King, Davis notes he was shocked to hear the song during the 2001 movie, and his kids in 2002 were even more shocked their dad wrote the “Elvis vs. JXL” hit. When a friend called him and told him the song had been remixed and had hit number one:

“I mentioned something about it to my boys and they both jumped up and down. They said, ‘Wait a minute, are you talking about the song in the commercial?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘God, well, all the kids in school are singing that. You wrote that Dad?’ They were totally impressed. I had never impressed them with anything before that.”

The Elvis recording would go on to serve as the opening theme to the 2003-2008 TV series Las Vegas, starring James Caan, Josh Duhamel and Nikki Cox. It has been used in countless other movies and trailers as well.

Davis and Strange composed two numbers that the singer recorded for his 1968 ELVIS special, “Memories” and “Nothingville.” That same recording of “Memories” later featured in the film Elvis On Tour (1972) as well as various posthumous documentaries, including 1981’s This Is Elvis.

They also wrote “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” featured in the movie The Trouble With Girls, and the title song of the movie Charro.

After spending the early parts of his career writing songs for others, Davis went on in the 1970s to become a star in his own right, with multiple hits, including “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me” and “I Believe In Music.” In Davis’ 1980 Greatest Hits album, he included the note: “A special thanks to Billy Strange for starting it all & all those who believed: Elvis Presley, Clive Davis & especially Sandy Gallin.”

Davis also began an acting career in the 1970s that extended all the way to 2019. In 1979, he appeared with Nick Nolte in the sports comedy North Dallas Forty. In 1993, Davis hosted two television specials about Elvis, America Comes To Graceland and Elvis: His Life And Times – a re-edit of a 1987 BBC documentary, I Don’t Sing Like Nobody/Cut Me And I Bleed. Both versions are memorable as being among the best of such productions about Elvis.

Among a long list of other television credits, Davis appeared in a 1995 episode of ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. My niece and I never missed an episode on Sunday nights. Though he ostensibly played a villain on the show, Davis’ affable personality shined through.

As a huge fan of the comeback era, I cannot overstate Davis’ contributions to that portion of Elvis’ career. The movie songs he co-wrote with Strange brought Elvis fresh material that was of a quality unheard in his films since King Creole (1958) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) a decade earlier. We usually have to grade Elvis’ 1960s movie tunes on a curve, but the Davis-Strange compositions are among Elvis’ best songs, period, movie or otherwise. The same, of course, goes for “In The Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.”

I want to leave the last word on Davis to Davis. From Writing For The King:

“I loved Elvis’ version of ‘Don’t Cry Daddy.’ I thought it was really poignant and really sweet. […] I do remember thinking that I should have written another verse for it. But that was me. That’ll be on my tombstone, ‘I was still working on that last verse.'”

Mac Davis as cult leader Larry Smiley in LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN – “Just Say Noah” (1995, Warner Brothers)


I’m praying for Davis, his family, and friends.

Blessings,
TY


“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.”
John 14:1

Presley wins clash of cultures in Elvis At 21

There are over 23,000 works of art in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, spanning some 5,000 years. There is so much to see there, in fact, that it cannot be adequately covered in a single day.

Yesterday, though, my mission was to explore only 56 of those works, all created just over 55 years ago. In VMFA time, 55 years is but a second.

The traveling Elvis At 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer exhibition covers March 17, 1956, and June 30 through July 4, 1956, in the life of Elvis Presley. The images capture the young singer on the brink of fame, in the midst of a nation on the brink of change.

By March 17, “Heartbreak Hotel” is at number 15 and still rising on Billboard‘s sales chart. That evening, Elvis is to make his fifth of six appearances on Jackie Gleason’s Stage Show – a CBS variety program hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Initially hired by RCA to take publicity photos, Alfred Wertheimer is along with Elvis in New York City.

Entering The Warwick shows Elvis in a moment of freedom between rehearsals and the actual show. On the sidewalk, he is alone, unrecognized, unbothered – making it one of the exhibition’s most striking photographs.

Later, in his hotel room, Elvis reads fan mail and then rips it to shreds, according to one of the exhibition notes accompanying the photos. Wertheimer asks him why. “I’m not going to carry them with me. I’ve read them and seen what’s in them. It’s nobody else’s business,” Elvis tells him.

With Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana behind him, he performs “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel” on television that night. Though Wertheimer’s images are stills, there is no doubt that Elvis is very much in motion. In Jump, his feet are not even touching the ground.

When Elvis arrives in Richmond, Virginia, 15 weeks later for two concerts at the Mosque Theater (now the Landmark Theater) on June 30, his life is already changing.

He has made a final appearance on Stage Show and appeared twice on The Milton Berle Show. The second Berle appearance has proven controversial, due to his exaggerated hip movements on “Hound Dog” – a song only recently added to his stage act. In that brief time, he has also given over 85 concerts in tours criss-crossing the country (including two other shows at the Mosque on March 22). He has even cut a new record, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” “Heartbreak Hotel” has now sold a million copies and hit number one. After a series of screen tests in Hollywood, he has been signed to a multi-movie deal. Production has not yet begun on his first film. Elvis does not plan to sing in his movies.

Most Elvis fans have seen Wertheimer’s images at least a dozen times over. It is striking, though, to see them within the context of an art museum. Who in 1956 would have ever believed Elvis would end up here? The prints vary in size, are framed in black, and fill two small halls. The exhibition is crowded with people, but there is plenty of time to examine each picture. Visitors talk softly to each other. In the background, though, I can hear that unmistakable voice:

“Welll, since my baby left me…well, I found a new place to dwell…well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street…”

It’s true that I have seen these pictures before, but there is always something new. For instance, until this exhibition pointed it out, I never noticed in the image Elvis Leaving Richmond Train Station (AKA Elvis Did Have A Pelvis) that he is actually carrying and playing a portable radio as he walks out of Richmond’s Broad Street Station (now the Science Museum of Virginia).

Elvis Leaving Richmond Train Station (Detail)

Elvis Leaving Richmond Train Station (Detail): Elvis went to Richmond for two shows at the Mosque Theater. Getting off the train, he turned on his RCA portable radio. Richmond, Virginia, June 30, 1956 © Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved. Original image courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Used with permission.

Several other Richmond images are included, including two at the Jefferson Hotel and six backstage at the Mosque. Of the Richmond images presented, one stands out among the rest. It is Elvis on stage in the magnificent Kneeling At The Mosque – used as the (unfortunately colorized) cover for the Close Up boxed set, among other projects.

After the welcome detour to Richmond, it is back to New York, this time for the Steve Allen Show. Wertheimer captures rehearsals for Elvis’ July 1 appearance.

“I went to the Steve Allen Show,” Elvis recalled in 1969. “They were going to tame me down, so they told me to stand still. They had me dressed in a tuxedo and singing to a dog on a stool.”

Much worse than singing to a dog, though, Elvis is also forced to perform with Allen in a “Range Round-up” skit. Andy Griffith and Imogene Coco also appear during the nearly unwatchable Western parody. “Allen signified his own importance by wearing the biggest white hat,” states Wertheimer in a note accompanying one of the rehearsal photos.

Allen’s attempts to embarrass Elvis and put the singer in his place, of course, have the opposite effects. The legend of Elvis only grows.

The next day, July 2, he records 31 grueling takes of “Hound Dog” and 28 more of “Don’t Be Cruel” at RCA’s New York studio. The single would prove to be one of his most popular. Included in the exhibition is RCA Victor Studio I, a shot of Elvis rehearsing “Hound Dog” with his band and the Jordanaires. It is literally history in the making.

Elvis Screams is a Wertheimer photo that has always jumped out at me. I’m pretty sure the first time I saw it was back in the 1980s on the old Cinemax documentary Elvis ’56. The shot goes by quickly, as part of a montage. At the time, I thought the documentary producers had made a glaring error.

To me, the photo looks for all the world like an image of Elvis singing in the 1970-1973 era. It is not often that a 1956 image of Elvis can be confused with one from 1973, yet the only mistake was, of course, mine. According to Wertheimer, the image captures the moment that Elvis accepted take 31 of “Hound Dog.” I still find it fascinating, because my eyes still see the “Aloha” Elvis in this image, despite what my brain tells me.

Another series of images are striking. Elvis returns to Memphis after the “Hound Dog” recording session and departs the train on July 4. He walks alone through a field and then down a sidewalk. No bodyguards, no hanger-ons, no fans. Just Elvis.

The impression is not completely “normal,” however, He has just left the train from a multiple-day trip. He holds only his acetates of “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Any Way You Want Me” from the recording session. No bags or other luggage in sight.

Next, we see Elvis with his father (Vernon looks positively annoyed with Wertheimer, with a “back off” look) and then with his mother. He has just moved them into a new home. Not Graceland, which is still a year away.

One of the largest images in the exhibition, Elvis plays the rebel on his Harley in No Gas In The Tank – an image which inspired one of my favorite album covers, Return of the Rocker. Surely, there is a best-selling poster to be made here.

Finally, the photo exhibition concludes with images of Elvis on stage that same night at Russwood Park in Memphis. The image that stands out most to me from the entire exhibition, perhaps because it is one I do not recall seeing before, is Elvis Onstage: Russwood. As far as the eye can see are fans. Scotty Moore is picking away on guitar, and Elvis is turning around with a look of intense joy back at the crowd behind them. You can hear the screams. You can hear the music.

“He would listen respectfully backstage to criticism from agents that wanted him to contain his movements on stage. But once Elvis got on stage, he always did it his way. He really did it his way,” states Wertheimer. His text narrative throughout the exhibition is interesting, for it reveals what the photographer thought of his subject and those around him.

It could be argued that Wertheimer spent more time with and was allowed greater access to Elvis than any other “outsider.” For all of their spectacular moments, for instance, the 1970s documentaries That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour are but illusions in terms of revelations about Elvis beyond his music.

Here, in 1956, Wertheimer is able to capture everything with his lens. No one would ever get this close to the real man again. That is what makes the Elvis At 21 collection and Wertheimer’s many other Elvis photographs significant.

* * *

Feeling almost like an afterthought, though at least providing an appropriate soundtrack that can be heard throughout the experience, there is a little television and bench in the exit alcove at the end of the exhibition. The short video, licensed by Jackie Gleason Enterprises for Elvis At 21, features three complete performances of Elvis on Stage Show:

  • “I Got A Woman” (January 28, 1956)
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” (February 11, 1956)
  • “Heartbreak Hotel” (February 11, 1956)

The audio and video of the performances breathe additional life into the Wertheimer photos just witnessed.

Elvis At 21 is a simple exhibition, and that is all that is required. The works and the subject stand alone. The short video, though, leads me to wonder about the possibilities of future Elvis exhibitions benefitting from complete audio-visual integration.

* * *

I am an American, so I must admit that I looked forward to seeing what Elvis items would be available in VMFA’s gift shop almost as much as I did seeing the exhibition itself.

As we all know, Elvis merchandise can range from the sublime to the chintzy. Fortunately, most of what VMFA had to offer was closer to the former category. No Elvis potato heads, thankfully. I picked up Elvis 1956: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer (2009), a terrific hardcover that presents all of the photos and information from the exhibition.

I also splurged on Elvis At 21: New York To Memphis by Alfred Wertheimer (2006), a massive, coffee-table sized volume that explores even more of his photographs.

Jerry Hopkins’ consolidated Elvis biography and Sonny West’s Still Taking Care Of Business were available there as well, as were some lesser titles. Anachronistic considering the theme of the exhibition, the omnipresent aviator-style Elvis sunglasses that he wore in the 1970s were also available – in both gold and silver plastic, of course. There was even a stuffed “Steve Allen” style hound dog. For this occasion, I stuck with the Wertheimer books.

* * *

For anyone who is ever near Richmond, Virginia, I can always recommend the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. If you are an Elvis fan, though, then you really should try to make it out while this exhibition is still there. Elvis At 21 will be available through March 18, 2012. Museum admission is always free, while tickets for the exhibition are $8 for adults and $6 for seniors, students, and youths. There is no charge for museum members.