Elvis Movies: SPINOUT

Mike McCoy tests his #11 427 Cobra in 1966's SPINOUT (MGM)

Mike McCoy tests his #11 427 Cobra in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Today, we will look at Elvis Presley’s 22nd movie, Spinout. Before we do that, however, I want to take a sidetrack to mention Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS film. I usually dislike movies that attempt to portray Elvis, so I was fully intending to skip this one. That is, until I saw the preview trailer that Warner Brothers released last week.

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures channel (YouTube)

The ELVIS trailer shocked me. Austin Butler seems to have captured the essence of Elvis. He has the body language and moves down without looking like an impersonator. I figured he would look like a clown once they showed him in a jumpsuit, but he pulls that difficult look off, too. I loved the unexpected use of “Unchained Melody” from 1977, which gave me chills. The production design is obviously top-notch, with a keen attention to detail.

The story of Elvis is a challenge to portray in an effective way. It is a tale of both triumph and tragedy. His life is both inspiring and depressing. He achieves the American dream many times over, but slowly allows it all to erode.

“The image is one thing, the human being is another,” Elvis said in 1972. “It’s very hard to live up to an image.” Once Elvis died in 1977, the image won and the human that he once was all but disappeared. Can Luhrmann’s film humanize Elvis again? If the script is as solid as the trailer, this could really turn out to be something special. ELVIS opens in the United States on June 24.

No need to wait until June to enjoy Elvis, though. Let’s take a drive with the real Elvis in Spinout.

Elvis Presley is Mike McCoy in 1966's SPINOUT (MGM)

Elvis Presley is Mike McCoy in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)


“It’s Elvis with his foot on the gas and no brakes on the fun!!!”

Spinout

Spinout (MGM)
Wide Release: November 23, 1966 (United States)
Starring: Elvis Presley, Shelley Fabares, Diane McBain
Written By: Theodore J. Flicker & George Kirgo
Music Score By: George Stoll
Produced By: Joe Pasternak
Directed By: Norman Taurog
Running Time: 93 Minutes


In Spinout, Elvis Presley stars as Mike McCoy. Is Mike a racecar driver who also sings or a singer who also races cars? Folks, we don’t ask such questions when watching an Elvis Movie. We just sit back and enjoy the ride.

View from the #9 car, driven by Mike McCoy, during the Santa Fe Road Race in 1966's SPINOUT (MGM)

View from the #9 car, driven by Mike McCoy, during the Santa Fe Road Race in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Outside of the cars, there is not a lot of action in Spinout. The film focuses more on the romance side of the Elvis Movie formula. Three, count them, three women are vying for Mike’s affections. There’s heiress Cynthia (Shelley Fabares), who runs him off the road in the opening scene. There’s also author Diana (Diane McBain), who declares him the “perfect American male,” with the prize being herself, naturally. Even the drummer in his band, Les (Deborah Walley), has been secretly holding feelings for him.

Deborah Walley is Les, Diane McBain is Diana, and Shelley Fabares is Cynthia in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Deborah Walley is Les, Diane McBain is Diana, and Shelley Fabares is Cynthia in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Mike is initially unable to decide what to do about his admirers. “I’ve gotta think about it,” he says. “I’ll let you know after the race. I think better when I’m driving.”

Shelley Fabares is Cynthia Foxhugh in 1966's SPINOUT (MGM)

Shelley Fabares is Cynthia Foxhugh in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Spinout is the second of three Elvis Movies in which Shelley Fabares appears. She is one of my favorite Elvis co-stars, so I really don’t understand how Mike found deciding among the three women to be so difficult. Anyway, the movie also includes a couple of fun in-jokes in regards to Elvis’ real-life past – the Ed Sullivan Show warrants a mention and Mike refers to a wandering canine as a “hound dog.”

Though production on Spinout began only a few months after the premiere of the Get Smart television series, be sure to listen out for Mike doing what sounds to my ears like a quick Don Adams impression with Agent 86’s “Would you believe?” catch-phrase.

Mike McCoy (Elvis Presley) rehearses "Never Say Yes" in 1966's SPINOUT (MGM). Note the 12-string guitar.

Mike McCoy (Elvis Presley) rehearses “Never Say Yes” in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM). Note the 12-string acoustic electric guitar.

Mike does sing quite a bit in the movie. “All That I Am,” “Am I Ready,” “Never Say Yes,” and “Spinout” are all strong songs. “Never Say Yes” is rare in the Elvis catalog in that it includes the “Bo Diddley Beat,” which is fun to hear. On the other side of the coin, “Smorgasbord” is awful.

Mike McCoy drives the #9 car during the Santa Fe Road Race in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Mike McCoy drives the #9 car during the Santa Fe Road Race in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

For a movie named Spinout, there is less racing than you might expect. The Santa Fe Road Race featured in the finale is well-filmed. A humorous subplot involving Mike’s #11 car being stolen by another man vying for Cynthia becomes tiresome, though. Mike ends up substituting for Shorty Bloomquist (James McHale) in car #9 to chase after his own car. Look quick and you’ll see Elvis’ friends Red West and Joe Esposito in Shorty’s pit crew. Cynthia also winds up driving onto the road course, so she and Mike tangle again, creating a bookend of sorts to the opening.

Spinout sometimes qualifies as fun, but all too often feels like it is running on empty.

Mike McCoy (Elvis Presley) races in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Mike McCoy (Elvis Presley) races in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)


Spinout Tote Board

  • Kisses: 28
  • Songs: 9
  • Cars Driven By Mike: 4
  • Women Chasing Mike: 3
  • Cars Crashed Into Water: 2
Audience members look on as Mike McCoy (Elvis Presley) sings "Adam And Evil" in 1966's SPINOUT (MGM)

Audience members look on as Mike McCoy (Elvis Presley) sings “Adam And Evil” in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

Songs In Spinout

  1. “Spinout” (1966) [performed twice], written by Sid Wayne, Ben Weisman, & Dolores Fuller
  2. “Stop, Look, and Listen” (1966), written by Joy Byers
  3. “Adam And Evil” (1966), written by Fred Wise & Randy Starr
  4. “All That I Am” (1966), written by Sid Tepper & Roy C. Bennett
  5. “Never Say Yes” (1966), written by Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman
  6. “Am I Ready” (1966), written by Sid Tepper & Roy C. Bennett
  7. “Beach Shack” (1966), written by Bill Giant, Bernie Baum, & Florence Kaye
  8. “Smorgasbord” (1966), written by Sid Tepper & Roy C. Bennett
  9. “I’ll Be Back” (1966), written by Sid Wayne & Ben Weisman
Elvis Presley is Mike McCoy and Shelley Fabares is Cynthia Foxhugh in 1966's SPINOUT (MGM)

Elvis Presley is Mike McCoy and Shelley Fabares is Cynthia Foxhugh in 1966’s SPINOUT (MGM)

The Mystery Train’s Spinout Scorecard

  • Story: 2 (out of 10)
  • Acting: 5
  • Fun: 4
  • Songs: 6
  • Overall: 4 (For Elvis Fans Only)

Further Spinout Reading


TMT Files: Mike McCoy

Click image for larger, full-color version


“I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.”
1 Corinthians 9:23-25

An Elvis Presley Christmas Countdown

Elvis Presley performs “Blue Christmas” during taping of 1968’s ELVIS special (NBC)

Well, folks, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve posted. In case you don’t remember me, I’m the once and future conductor of this little blog we like to call The Mystery Train.

Christmas is my favorite time of year, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write. In fact, believe it or not, I had actually planned to write anywhere from 6 to 25 posts this month. I’m definitely a dreamer. In one form or another, I’ve been trying to start this one post since Thanksgiving. Yes, Christmas is my favorite time of the year, but also one of the busiest.

“Next week this time it will be all over,” my uncle tells me. As much as I love the Christmas season, I do almost dread the actual day coming because he is right, it means it is just about over. My mom loved Christmas as much as I do, and I remember it making her sad when everything went back to “normal.”

One thing I’ve done the last few years that helps, though, is leaving up some of my Christmas lights throughout the inside of my home. Turning those colored lights on can bring back some of the magic, even if it is March!

At the rate I’m going, it may well be March before you see this post. So, I’d better get on with it.

I enjoy doing lists and rankings, so I was really surprised to find that I apparently haven’t done one with a Christmas theme before. Therefore, I present a countdown of Christmas songs by Elvis Presley. This is, of course, one fan’s opinion.


#20 White Christmas (1957)
Elvis’ Christmas Album
Writer: Irving Berlin
Comments: Elvis’ 1957 version of “White Christmas” borrows heavily from the Drifters’ 1954 recording of the song but unfortunately falls short of that high watermark. This is Elvis’ worst Christmas song, so stick with the Drifters, Burl Ives (1965), or Bing Crosby (1940s) for this one.

#19 The Wonderful World Of Christmas (1971)
Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas
Writers: Charles Tobias & Albert Frisch
Comments: How did the weakest song on Elvis’ 1971 Christmas album become the title track?

#18 O Little Town Of Bethlehem (1957)
Elvis’ Christmas Album
Writers: Phillips Brooks & Lewis Redner
Comments: There is a childlike yet sincere quality to Elvis’ voice as he tells the story of the birth of Jesus on “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” that makes this recording stand out, despite how it plods along at times. Nat King Cole recorded the best version (1960).

#17 The First Noel (1971)
Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas
Writer: (Traditional)
Comments: Fourteen years later, here again we have Elvis telling the story of the birth of Christ – this time in “The First Noel.” While, like its predecessor, it does plod along at times, it is still a solid recording of this classic. Mahalia Jackson (1968) and Frank Sinatra (1957) recorded the best versions of “The First Noel.”

For reasons unknown beyond a CD tie-in, this Elvis version inspired a 1999 children’s book. I remember running into it at a bookstore in a shopping mall back then and being quite surprised. Not enough to buy it, though!

#16 It Won’t Seem Like Christmas [Undubbed Master] (1971)
Back In Nashville
Other notable versions: 1971 Master (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas ), 1971 Rehearsal (preceding Take 6, Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas [2011 FTD Edition])
Writer: J.A. Balthrop

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: One of the things I love about Christmas music is that it actually represents so many different genres that otherwise wouldn’t share the same rotations, playlists, or compilations. Under the “Christmas” banner, you can get everything from Gospel to Rock ‘n’ Roll to the Blues to Country to Electronic to Classical to Jazz to Rap to Children’s Music to Pop to “Oldies” and probably 53 others I am leaving out.

While it doesn’t hit quite that many sub-genres, Elvis music is similar in that Elvis did not restrict himself to one type of music. One of the reasons I love being an Elvis fan is hearing his takes and combinations on so many different styles – the Blues, Gospel, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Pop, Country. As for Elvis Christmas Music, “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” is the first entry of many on this list that reflects a melancholy view of the holiday. I love sad songs, and Elvis had a way of infusing sadness and regret right into the sound of his voice that really resonates with me.

While I haven’t played the rest of the set, I dipped into the Christmas songs on the recently released and unimaginatively titled Back In Nashville for the sake of completeness on this list. I’m glad I did, because a few of the versions there, as mixed by Matt Ross-Spang, trumped my previous favorites of particular songs. Stripped of its orchestral and background vocal overdubs, “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” becomes even more poignant.

I now see why these posts take me so long. I originally intended the “Comments” to be one sentence or less per song, but I hope you forgive and enjoy the tangents.

#15 On A Snowy Christmas Night [Undubbed Master] (1971)
Back In Nashville
Other notable versions: 1971 Master (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas )
Writer: Stanley Gelber

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: Though I wish Elvis had recorded another couple of takes to really nail the song, I still love what we have in “On A Snowy Christmas Night,” a song that reminds us what the season is all about. The undubbed master fittingly gives more prominence to a church-style organ.

#14 If Every Day Was Like Christmas (1966)
If Every Day Was Like Christmas/How Would You Like To Be [RCA Single]
Writers: Red West & Glen Spreen

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: The powers-that-be chose to slot 1966’s “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” one-off on a 1970 budget reconfiguration of 1957’s Elvis’ Christmas Album, but for me it fits far better with his powerful 1970s style. The lyrics even reference “a wonderful world,” making it a natural for 1971’s Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. (Note that this album cover is shown in the official video above, so perhaps the song indeed appeared on a subsequent reissue of Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas as well.) A number of popular artists later hit similar themes in their Christmas songs (e.g., Bon Jovi’s “I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas,” 98 Degrees’ “If Every Day Could Be Christmas”), but Elvis did it best.

#13 Silver Bells [Undubbed Master] (1971)
Back In Nashville
Other notable versions: 1971 Master (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas )
Writers: Jay Livingston & Ray Evans

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: “Siver Bells” paints a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of a bustling city during Christmas. The Back In Nashville version far exceeds the original Elvis release due to the absence of the overpowering male background singers that plagued so many of his masters from 1956 onwards. I respect that Elvis originally wanted to be a member of a gospel quartet, so it was part of the sound he sought. However, many (not all) of his recordings sound so much better to these ears without the Jordanaires, the Imperials, the Stamps, Voice, whoever.

#12 Santa Bring My Baby Back (1957)
Elvis’ Christmas Album
Writers: Aaron Schroeder & Claude DeMetrius

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: The fun “Santa Bring My Baby Back” was a favorite of my mom, so I think of her dancing along whenever I hear it.

#11 If I Get Home On Christmas Day (1971)
Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas
Other notable version: 1971 Undubbed Master (Back In Nashville)
Writers: Tony Macaulay & John MacLeod

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: Elvis recorded three different songs about seeking home on Christmas. “If I Get Home On Christmas Day” sounds the most optimistic in terms of his chances of actually getting there: “Though I’m half a world away, if we’re patient and we pray, I know I’ll get my chance with you this time.” A beautiful song that leaves us wondering, year-in and year-out, did he make it home this time?

#10 Blue Christmas [Unedited Live Master] (1968)
Tiger Man
Other notable versions: 1968 Live (June 27, 6 PM, Memories), 1957 Master (Elvis’ Christmas Album)
Writers: Billy Hayes & Jay Johnson
Comments: Elvis was on fire during taping of the 1968 ELVIS television special for NBC and delivered in a live setting improved versions of a number of his classics, including 1957’s “Blue Christmas.” RCA truncated the live master first released on ELVIS-TV Special, so 1998’s Tiger Man CD is my go-to version since it is unedited. What I love about this version from the June 27, 8 PM “Sit Down Show” is that Elvis sounds like he doesn’t want to let the song go, repeating its simple lyrics again and again as he strums away on electric guitar.

#9 O Come All Ye Faithful [Take 1 & Take 2 Splice] (1971)
Memories Of Christmas
Other notable versions: 1971 Master (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas), 1971 Undubbed Master (Back In Nashville)
Writer: (Traditional)
Comments: Elvis only recorded two takes of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” He laid down a great performance on Take 1, but tried an extended version for Take 2 that added 75 seconds to the song. Unfortunately, portions of Take 2 were not as strong as his Take 1 performance. Take 1 became the master. 1982’s Memories Of Christmas album brilliantly spliced Takes 1 & 2 to make the definitive version of this Christmas classic. Get used to that word, “definitive,” because I will be using it often from here on out. While I love the recently released undubbed versions, “O Come All Ye Faithful” actually benefits from majestic orchestral and background vocal overdubs that serve to herald the arrival of our Lord.

#8 Winter Wonderland (1971)
Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas
Other notable version: 1971 Take 10 (Master, Alternate Mix, Back In Nashville)
Writers: Dick Smith & Felix Bernard

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: Sometimes I don’t understand my fellow Elvis fans. One such instance is that I would guess that roughly 90% of those fans who post online trash Elvis’ performance of “Winter Wonderland.” I must admit, I don’t get it. At all. Elvis puts a rock-n-roll spin on “Winter Wonderland,” complete with a “signature Elvis ending,” and creates, yes, the definitive version. I’m a proud member of the 10% who love Elvis’ take on this song, which is why it ranks so high on this list.

#7 Merry Christmas Baby [Single Edit] (1971)
Merry Christmas Baby/O Come All Ye Faithful [RCA Single]
Other notable versions: 1971 Undubbed/Unedited Master (Back In Nashville), 1971 Master (Album Edit, Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas)
Writer: Lou Baxter & Johnny Moore
Comments: While the album edit (5:45) of “Merry Christmas Baby” as well as the unedited performance (8:08) are surely of interest to us Elvis fans, the single edit (3:15) of this jam feels just about right. As much as I love Elvis’ rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby,” it was not the best choice for the A-Side of a single, though. Ironically, RCA was sitting on another recording that could have proven much better.

#6 Here Comes Santa Claus (1957)
Elvis’ Christmas Album
Writers: Gene Autry & Oakley Halderman
Comments: With all due respect to Gene Autry, Elvis’ recording of “Here Comes Santa Claus” is, that’s right, the definitive version. I love how the world’s foremost rock ‘n’ roll star practically swings the lyrics, “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus,” near the end of the song.

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

#5 Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees [Undubbed Master] (1971)
Back In Nashville
Other notable versions: 1971 Master (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas), 1971 Take 4 (Back In Nashville), 1971 Take 2 (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas [2011 FTD Edition]), 1971 Take 8 (If Every Day Was Like Christmas)
Writers: Red West & Glen Spreen

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: Full of a sad nostalgia for Christmases past, the quiet “Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees” shines as an example of Elvis at his best. Perhaps that is because the song “gets” Elvis, for it was written by his friend and bodyguard Red West, who also penned 1966’s “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” earlier in this list. West, who passed away in 2017, wrote a number of solid songs for Elvis, including 1972’s “Separate Ways” – which mirrored the singer’s collapsing marriage and concern about the impact to his daughter, Lisa Marie. West seems like he was a tough guy, and I guess you’d have to be to protect a man like Elvis, but many of his lyrics reveal a sensitive side and obviously appealed to Elvis.

#4 I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1957)
Elvis’ Christmas Album
Writers: Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, & Buck Ram

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: Elvis was only 22-years-old when he recorded “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” in 1957. By comparison, Bing Crosby recorded the song at the age of 40 (1943) and Frank Sinatra recorded it at the age of 42 (1957). While the versions of Crosby and Sinatra are classics in their own rights, the Elvis version sounds more heartfelt – and world-weary – making it the definitive version.

#3 Silent Night (1957)
Elvis’ Christmas Album
Writer: John Freeman Young, Joseph Mohr, & Franz Gruber

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: “Silent Night” is Elvis’ best faith-based Christmas song, but did he record the ultimate version? He’s certainly in the conversation, but with strong competition yet again from Bing Crosby (1930s & 1940s). However, I have to give a slight edge over both men to Nat King Cole’s version (1960). Whether you prefer Elvis, Cole, Crosby, or one of hundreds of other renditions, “Silent Night” perfectly illustrates the birth of Jesus Christ, transporting you there.

#2 I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day [Re-recording] (1971)
Memories Of Christmas
Other notable versions: Nearly all of them, including 1971 Take 4 (Back In Nashville), 1971 Master (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas), 1971 Re-recording Take 9 (Today, Tomorrow & Forever), 1971 Re-recording Take 2 (I Sing All Kinds)
Writer: Michael Jarrett

Credit: Elvis Presley – Topic channel (YouTube)

Comments: Elvis made two separate series of attempts at “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day.” The first was multiple takes of a country-flavored rendition in May 1971 that resulted in what eventually became the album master. Elvis used a bluesier approach when he tried the song again in June of that year, again going through multiple takes. That the incredible June re-recording was passed over in favor of the May version still boggles my mind. The re-recording of “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day” languished in RCA’s vaults for over a decade until the excellent Memories Of Christmas album finally brought it to light. By then, Elvis had been dead five years.

In my alternate universe, the bluesier “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day” would have been Elvis’ A-Side Christmas single of 1971, backed with “Merry Christmas Baby.” What a one-two punch that would have been. They could have even left the original version on the album, making the single even more unique.

The writer of “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day,” Michael Jarrett, also wrote “I’m Leavin’,” which Elvis released as an A-Side earlier in the same year. Despite Elvis’ belief in the song, it failed to ignite record-buyers. Perhaps that factored into Jarrett’s Christmas song being passed over for single consideration. As much as I love “I’m Leavin’,” though, “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day” is a far better song. In fact, it is almost the greatest Elvis Christmas song ever, but that honor instead goes to….

#1 Santa Claus Is Back In Town (1957)
Elvis’ Christmas Album
Other notable version: 1968 Live (Tiger Man)
Writers: Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

Comments: “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” is the quintessential Elvis Christmas song. It is perhaps second only to “Reconsider Baby” as his best blues recording, and even that is almost too close to call. According to Jerry Leiber, he and Mike Stoller wrote “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” in five minutes in the bathroom of the recording studio when Elvis needed another tune for his 1957 Christmas album.


I also have to give an honorable mention to “Santa Lucia,” which Elvis recorded in 1963 for the movie Viva Las Vegas – later released on the Elvis For Everyone! album. Elvis’ version, which uses Italian lyrics, is not technically a Christmas song, but the Swedish version of “Santa Lucia” traditionally kicks off the Christmas season in Sweden. Indeed, I recall waking up early one Christmas morning and seeing some kind of news broadcast or documentary that included footage from Sweden, including “Santa Lucia.”


While I have always loved Christmas, it has taken on even more meaning for me since I was saved in 2018. The observance of the birthday of Jesus Christ should be the solid foundation of a season which otherwise can all too often collapse under the weight of never-ending “Black Friday Sales” and other enticements to shop til you drop in search of the perfect gift.

It turns out that the perfect gift doesn’t need a Black Friday Sale, for it has no cost to you – yet it is priceless. Eternal salvation is yours through accepting Jesus, the Son of God, into your heart. You don’t have to be perfect nor become perfect to accept the perfect gift and follow Jesus. I sure wasn’t perfect then, I’m not perfect now, nor will I ever be perfect. However, my entire life changed, and I gained a new perspective illuminated by His light.

Elvis accepted that perfect gift, too. He even passed his blessings on to us with songs about it, including some of the ones we have discussed today. Despite his God-given talents, Elvis wasn’t perfect, either. It seems his every shortcoming has been documented multiple times over. Yet, God still loved him and welcomed him to Heaven.

He has places for all of us there, too. Don’t leave yours empty.

The dreamer side of me thinks I might sneak another post in before Christmas, but the realistic side of me knows that is highly unlikely. With that in mind, I want to take a moment to thank you for reading The Mystery Train Elvis Blog. I pray you and your family have a Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!

TY

“Give thanks for all you’ve been blessed with and hold your loved ones tight, for you know the Lord’s been good to you on a snowy Christmas night.”
–From “On A Snowy Christmas Night” by Stanley Gelber; Elvis Presley song, 1971


“No one has ever gone to Heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from Heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.”
John 3:13-17 NLT

King Creole: The Making Of The Movie

Elvis Presley, 1958

Elvis Presley in King Creole, 1958

King Creole was based on the 1952 novel A Stone For Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins. The novel’s protagonist is a boxer in New York, which the movie adapted into a singer in New Orleans to better suit audience expectations of its star, Elvis Presley. Elvis read the novel as part of his preparations for the role of Danny Fisher.

Producer Hal Wallis had been trying to get the film version of A Stone For Danny Fisher off the ground since 1955, long before Elvis was attached to the project. At that time, A Stone For Danny Fisher was also playing as an off-Broadway production.

James Dean was even rumored to have been in the running for the movie’s lead at one point. This was Wallis’ second Elvis movie. He would go on to produce nine Elvis movies in all.

Hal Wallis: “Michael Curtiz directed the film and he has a very sharp but romantic instinct. Walter Matthau made an excellent heavy and we had marvelous locations in New Orleans” (1).

Controversy swirled around King Creole before shooting even began. In late 1957, Elvis received his draft notice ordering him into the US Army as of January 1958.

With production slated to begin in Hollywood that same month, Paramount requested a deferment from the Memphis draft board, citing $300,000 it had already pumped into the movie during pre-production. Milton Bowers of the draft board replied that a deferment might be possible under the circumstances, but that Elvis would have to be the one to request it.

On Christmas Eve, 1957, Elvis wrote a letter requesting extra time before reporting to the Army in order to make King Creole. He completed the letter by wishing a “Merry Christmas” to the draft board members. Bowers and the draft board indeed granted his extension request, but soon received heat from other organizations – including the national chapter of the American Legion – calling for the immediate induction of Elvis.

Milton Bowers: “You know what made me angry about the entire thing is that he would have automatically gotten the extension if he hadn’t been Elvis Presley the superstar” (2).

Elvis Presley: “I’m glad they were nice enough to let me make this picture because I think it will be the best one I’ve made” (3).

On January 10, 1958, just two days after celebrating his 23rd birthday, Elvis departed Memphis on a train for Los Angeles. He brought along several friends, including Alan Fortas.

Alan Fortas: “Every town we passed through, no matter what time of morning or night, the whole station was jam-packed. These people knew as soon as Elvis finished this movie, he was going in the Army, so most of them considered it the last time to see him. […] People knew and they were lined up along the tracks all the way across America” (4).

Elvis arrived in Hollywood on January 13 and reported for pre-production. During the week, he also began work on the soundtrack at Radio Recorders.

During pre-production, the movie was titled Sing, You Sinners. This title was changed to Danny, and finally King Creole, based on the strength of the rock ‘n’ roll tune Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote for the soundtrack.

Filming began on January 20. Many of Elvis’ early scenes were with Jan Shepard, who played his sister, Mimi.

Jan Shepard: “[W]e worked together alone for about a week, because we did the opening of the show. He was […] just a lot of fun and buoyant, not guarded at all. There was a five-and-dime store on our set, and in the morning I would find earrings and little bracelets, little five-and-dime stuff on my dressing room table. I used to call him the last of the big-time spenders!” (5)

Because of his character’s name, Elvis often sang “Danny Boy” on set. He would return to the folk song many times over the years, including a 1959 home recording captured while he was stationed in Germany (available on the posthumous release A Golden Celebration). He formally recorded the song in 1976 at Graceland for the album From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee. An organist played the song at the beginning of Elvis’ funeral in 1977.

Dolores Hart appeared as Nellie, one of Danny’s love interests. She had previously appeared with Elvis in 1957’s Loving You, also a Hal Wallis production.

Elvis Presley: “[King Creole] was quite a challenge for me because it was written for a more experienced actor” (6).

Dolores Hart: “Elvis, no matter what anyone says, deserves credit as a person of talent. There is no reason he shouldn’t soar to the heights the kings [of the screen] occupy now” (7).

Jan Shepard: “[Elvis] was very concentrated, very focused on playing Danny. For a kid coming in and just beginning his career he had a great sense of timing; there was great honesty in his acting. He was a very good listener, and he just became the young boy […]. Just like in his music, he really got involved in his acting” (5).

Walter Matthau played Fisher’s antagonist, Maxie Fields. It was his sixth film.

Walter Matthau, 1958

Walter Matthau in King Creole

Walter Matthau: “I almost hesitate, I creep up to the sentence, [Elvis] was an instinctive actor. Because that is almost a derogation of his talents. That’s saying, ‘Well, you know, he’s just a dumb animal who does it well by instinct.’ No, he was quite bright, too. He was very intelligent. Also, he was intelligent enough to understand what a character was and how to play the character simply by being himself through the means of the story” (8).

Michael Curtiz’s directing credits extended back to 1912. In addition to 1942’s Casablanca, for which he won an Oscar, his other work, from among nearly 200 films, included the 1937 original version of Kid Galahad, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and White Christmas (1954). Curtiz was attached to King Creole before it was transformed into an Elvis movie.

Jan Shepard: “Curtiz said he thought Elvis was going to be a very conceited boy, but when he started working with him, he said, ‘No, this is a lovely boy, and he’s going to be a wonderful actor'” (5).

Walter Matthau: “Michael Curtiz used to call him Elvy and he’d call me Valty. He’d say, ‘Now Elvy and Valty, come here, now Valty, this is not Academy Award scene. Don’t act so much. You are high-price actor. Make believe you are low-price actor. Let Elvy act.’ But Elvy didn’t overact. He was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate . . . refined and sophisticated” (8).

Jan Shepard: “You just didn’t have a lot of fooling around with Curtiz […]. But no matter what Curtiz would ask of Elvis, he would say, ‘Okay, you’re the boss'” (5).

Elvis at a party in 1958

Elvis performing at Jan Shepard’s birthday party on February 22, 1958. Also pictured is Dolores Hart on clarinet.

Hart threw a birthday party for Shepard on February 22. Elvis showed up with a stuffed tiger that he named “Danny Boy.” His birthday gift for Shepard was a movie camera, definitely not from the five-and-dime store. He also played guitar and sang at the party.

King Creole was the first Elvis movie to include location shooting. On March 1, the film’s cast and crew headed for New Orleans by train. At this point, Red West, Elvis’ friend since his high school days, and actor Nick Adams, who Elvis had befriended in 1956, joined up with the rest of his entourage for the trip.

Carolyn Jones played Ronnie, Danny’s other love interest. She brought her husband, actor Aaron Spelling, along for the train ride to New Orleans. The couple would divorce in 1964. Spelling later went on to produce dozens of television series, including Charlie’s Angels and Beverly Hills 90210.

Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, expressed concerns about security on the location shoot to Wallis. Wallis assured Parker that they could handle it. After all, he had worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the peak of the duo’s popularity.

Alan Fortas: “There were thousands of people. Hal Wallis couldn’t believe it. […] I never saw so many people in my life. They declared it Elvis Presley Day and let the kids out of school and it took us two hours to get back to the hotel no matter where we were, even from across the street” (9).

In the French Quarter, the car carrying Elvis was almost overturned by the massive crowd.

Carolyn Jones: “[Elvis] had to ride in an old sedan, lying on the floor in the back, so his fans couldn’t mob him” (10).

Elvis took over the tenth floor of the Roosevelt Hotel, one block from where they were filming in the French Quarter. Hotel security was so tight that no one was admitted to the tenth floor. As a joke, Hart, Jones, and Adams armed themselves with toy guns and held up the elevator operator to force their way to Elvis’ floor. The elevator operator was not in on the joke and was apparently still shaken the next day.

Alan Fortas: “[W]e got on the elevator and we said, ‘Tenth floor, please.’ The elevator operator said, ‘No, sir, I can’t stop on the tenth floor. Mr. Presley is up there and we just can’t stop.’ Elvis was on the elevator with us and he said, ‘Yeah, I know. I’m Elvis.’ The elevator operator looked straight at him and said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t stop on that floor for anybody.’ We had to go to the eleventh floor and walk down” (9).

The film’s climax was shot at a house on stilts at Lake Pontchartrain. Elvis and Jones shared scenes there.

Carolyn Jones: “[Elvis] was always asking a lot of questions. God, he was young! I didn’t think anyone could be that young. He was always talking about his folks and about the house [Graceland] he’d just bought them” (8).

When onlookers at Lake Pontchartrain became unmanageable, Elvis had to escape through the back of the house to a motorboat that whisked him away.

Though Memphis was tantalizingly close, the group had to return by train to Hollywood to be released from King Creole. Elvis attended a wrap party on March 12, and then he and his friends were on yet another train. Destination: Memphis.

Alan Fortas: “We’d just sit and talk [on the train], try to write songs, try to sing. You know, just typical ol’ boys. But it got to us by the time we got to Dallas. We couldn’t take it any longer. So we got off that train and rented some Cadillacs and drove the rest of the way home” (11).

Elvis arrived home on March 14 and was inducted into the Army on March 24.

Paramount released King Creole throughout the United States on July 2. It peaked at #5 on the Variety charts. At this time, Private Presley was still stationed at Fort Hood in Texas.

Hal Wallis: “Now, although I don’t have all the figures, I believe that one of the least successful of Elvis’s films was King Creole. But that was my favorite!” (1)

Dolores Hart and Elvis Presley in King Creole

Dolores Hart and Elvis in King Creole

Dolores Hart: “Elvis is a young man with an enormous capacity of love . . . but I don’t think he has found his happiness. I think he is terribly lonely” (12).

According to longtime friend Sonny West, if Elvis had his way, he would have reunited with director Michael Curtiz when Elvis was cast in a remake of Kid Galahad, which filmed in late 1961 (13). This time, Elvis actually played a boxer, albeit a singing one. Despite Elvis’ campaign, Phil Karlson received the directing nod instead. Curtiz passed away in April 1962 at the age of 74.

Elvis later reunited with Jan Shepard in 1966’s Paradise, Hawaiian Style, in which she played Betty Kohana. Shepard had maintained a friendship with Hart after King Creole. By this time, the quality of Elvis’ movies had declined. While King Creole is a contender for Elvis’ best movie, Paradise, Hawaiian Style is a contender for his worst.

Jan Shepard: “One time [Elvis] asked about Dolores Hart, and we had a little bit of a conversation. In the quiet moments, he was still very sweet. When we reminisced about Creole, he said, ‘Honey, that was my favorite picture'” (14).


Bibliography

  • Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, Little, Brown And Company, Boston, 1999.
  • Down At The End Of Lonely Street: The Life And Death Of Elvis Presley by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske, Dutton, New York, 1997.
  • ELVIS: The Biography by Jerry Hopkins, Plexus, London, 2007.
  • Elvis Commemorative Edition, compiled by Bill DeNight, Sharon Fox, and Ger Rijff, Publications International, Lincolnwood, IL, 2002.
  • Elvis Day By Day: The Definitive Record Of His Life And Music by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen, Ballantine Books, New York, 1999.
  • The Elvis Encyclopedia by Adam Victor, Overlook Duckworth, New York, 2008.
  • Elvis: The Great Performances, dir. Andrew Solt, perf. Elvis Presley, 1989, DVD, SOFA, 2011.
  • Elvis: His Life From A To Z by Fred L. Worth and Steve D. Tamerius, Wings Books, New York, 1990.
  • Elvis In Private, edited by Peter Haining, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987.
  • Elvis: Still Taking Care Of Business by Sonny West with Marshall Terrill, Triumph Books, Chicago, 2007.
  • Good Rockin’ Tonight: Twenty Years On The Road And On The Town With Elvis by Joe Esposito and Elena Oumano, Avon Books, New York, 1994.
  • Internet Movie Database, accessed March 23, 2013.
  • King Creole, dir. Michael Curtiz, perf. Elvis Presley, Carolyn Jones, and Walter Matthau, 1958, DVD, Paramount, 2000.
  • Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, Little, Brown And Company, Boston, 1994.
  • Viva Las Elvis: Celebrating The King, compiled by Peggy Thompson, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 1994.

References

(1) Elvis In Private, p. 92
(2) Down At The End Of Lonely Street, p. 137
(3) Last Train To Memphis, p. 446
(4) ELVIS: The Biography, p. 129
(5) Last Train To Memphis, p. 450
(6) Last Train To Memphis, p. 456
(7) Elvis Commemorative Edition, p. 112
(8) Last Train To Memphis, p. 451
(9) ELVIS: The Biography, p. 130
(10) Down At The End Of Lonely Street, p. 139
(11) ELVIS: The Biography, p. 131
(12) Elvis: His Life From A To Z, p. 85
(13) Elvis: Still Taking Care Of Business, p. 120
(14) Careless Love, p. 209


My grandmother worked in the ticket booth of a theater for decades. I dedicate this series of movie posts to her, who would have turned 103 this month. I often remember her when I watch movies.

REVIEW: Elvis – The Complete Masters Collection (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series reviewing Elvis: The Complete Masters Collection. Read Part 1.


We haven’t finished the summer yet, folks, but why not take a break from the heatwave to enjoy a Christmas-themed review?

CD Vol. 4: Christmas With Elvis

Elvis: The Complete Masters Collection - Volume 4This volume of The Franklin Mint‘s 36-disc Elvis: The Complete Masters Collection (mastered by Vic Anesini) presents nearly all of the Christmas songs that Elvis released during his lifetime (a live version of “Blue Christmas” appears on a later disc).

Christmas With Elvis contains each of the Christmas songs featured on Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957), his 1966 Christmas single, and Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas (1971).

01. Blue Christmas: I think of “Blue Christmas” as the “Hound Dog” of Elvis Christmas songs. It’s the one the general public most associates with him. It is an okay recording and certainly appropriate to kick off this CD. I wish it had less or no backing vocals, though. I much prefer his live versions from 1968. (Recorded: 1957)

02. White Christmas: “Blue Christmas” does not transition very well into “White Christmas,” but the compiler has once again taken the easy way out and confined the song sequencing of this disc to recording order. I’m actually not a huge fan of “White Christmas” by Elvis. For this one, my go-to versions tend to be those by The Drifters (whose 1954 recording inspired the Elvis one) or Burl Ives (1965). Incidentally, this track differs from the one released during Elvis’ lifetime in that a finger-snap near the beginning of the song has been omitted (5). I must admit, I would never have noticed such a small detail on my own. That’s the wonder of the For Elvis CD Collectors Forum. (1957)

03. Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane): You’ll be happy to know that no finger-snapping has been omitted from this terrific version of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” I love how Elvis swings some of the lyrics. (1957)

04. Silent Night: I probably would have saved “Silent Night” for the closer, but what a beautiful recording. For the gentle voice of a 22-year-old to convey this kind of passion and conviction speaks volumes about the faith of Elvis Presley. (1957)

05. O Little Town Of Bethlehem: On the other hand, Elvis’ version of “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” tends to wear on me a bit. Like “White Christmas,” it is an okay performance, but nothing special. Nat King Cole’s 1960 recording tends to be my go-to version of this one. (1957)

06. Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me): It’s more finger-snapping fun on “Santa Bring My Baby Back.” What’s not to love? (1957)

07. Santa Claus Is Back In Town: Here it is, not only Elvis’ best Christmas song, but also one of his best blues numbers – right up there with 1960’s “Reconsider Baby.” When it comes to Elvis performances, they do not get much better than “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” Incredible. (1957)

08. I’ll Be Home For Christmas: Elvis delivers yet another stunning performance on his classic version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” This also would have worked as a great album closer. Sound quality is noticeably cleaner here than it was on 1994’s If Every Day Was Like Christmas CD, my previous source. (1957)

09. If Every Day Was Like Christmas: Recorded just a couple of weeks after the session that produced the How Great Thou Art album, the unique “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” makes me wish Elvis had recorded a few more Christmas tunes at this time. This one seems to have slightly more reverb than my previous source on the same 1994 CD. As I’ve not seen any experts make note of this, I assume this reflects the original release. (1966)

10. It Won’t Seem Like Christmas: Flash forward five years now to May 1971 and the sessions that produced Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas, my favorite of his Christmas albums. I used to write off “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas” as too depressing for a Christmas song, but it has definitely grown on me over the years. (1971)

11. If I Get Home On Christmas Day: Though it covers much the same theme as “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas,” “If I Get Home On Christmas Day” sounds much more hopeful. A very enjoyable performance. (1971)

12. Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees: Written by Elvis’ longtime friend Red West, “Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees” takes its place among the best of Elvis’ Christmas recordings. (1971)

13. Merry Christmas Baby [Album Master]: While it does not quite meet the stature of “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” “Merry Christmas Baby” is another solid blues take on the holiday season by Elvis. This studio jam ran for well over eight minutes, about 5:45 of which appeared on the Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas album. The single version, edited to 3:15, does not appear in The Complete Masters Collection. (1971)

14. Silver Bells: Elvis delivers a fine rendition of “Silver Bells,” a Christmas classic. (1971)

15. I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day: Written by Michael Jarrett (“I’m Leavin'”), “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day” is a perfect Christmas song for Elvis. I put this one just below “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” as his best Christmas recording ever. Really, one of his best-ever songs, period. It is always a highlight of any album on which it appears. (1971)

16. On A Snowy Christmas Night: Though it does not often get mentioned, I love “On A Snowy Christmas Night,” especially the reminder to “Give thanks for all that you’ve been blessed with and hold your loved ones tight.” (1971)

17. Winter Wonderland: For some reason, many Elvis fans criticize this performance of “Winter Wonderland.” Even Thomas over at Elvis Today Blog, with whom I almost always agree, called it “spiritless.” I don’t hear it that way at all. Perhaps some feel this song should remain in the territory of a performer like Johnny Mathis, whose 1958 version is horrible. For me, Elvis owns “Winter Wonderland” – particularly by adding on his signature ending style. This sounds exactly like “Winter Wonderland” as interpreted by Elvis should: Perfect. (1971)

18. O Come All Ye Faithful: “O Come All Ye Faithful” is the “Silent Night” of the second Christmas album and is just as effective. This is a great arrangement, too. I love the percussion leading into “Sing choirs of angels…” (1971)

19. The First Noel: While I would not call it “spiritless,” Elvis does begin to sound a bit tired on “The First Noel.” To continue the comparison, “The First Noel” is the “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” of the 1971 album. Good, but not great. (1971)

20. The Wonderful World Of Christmas: It is strange that “The Wonderful World Of Christmas,” the weakest song of the 1971 Christmas album session, became the title track. It also does not serve very well as the closing track here. (1971)

As I stated last time, since The Franklin Mint has chosen to theme their CDs anyway, I would have preferred the compiler put more thought into the sequencing. It is much easier to intermingle Elvis’ Christmas music from different decades than many of his other recordings (also true of his gospel music), so this is a missed opportunity on this CD.

However, Christmas With Elvis at least gathers his Christmas masters in one place. It’s really hard to go wrong with an Elvis Christmas CD and this one is no exception. With upgraded audio, I’m all set for the Christmas season in a few months.

* * *

In Part 1 of this review, I mentioned that I was planning to frame the reproduction of the 1954 SUN 45 “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” that came with this set. Here are the results, and it looks beautiful.

SUN 209 Reproduction - Framed

I’ve just obtained an RCA vintage-1977 edition of “Way Down” b/w “Pledging My Love” to hang beneath it. Just waiting for the frame to arrive.

Well, that’s four CDs down and … wow … thirty-two to go. Continue to look for future installments here on The Mystery Train Blog. I hope to finish within the next eight or nine years.

Sources

(5) “Re: Complete Masters compared/contrasted with Franklin Mint” by Claus, For Elvis CD Collectors Forum, 2010.


Read Part 3.

Best wishes for Sonny West

In case you have not heard, Elvis’ longtime friend and bodyguard Sonny West is in the hospital after suffering serious injuries from a fall last week. My thoughts and prayers go out to him for a speedy recovery.

After being fired by the Presley camp in 1976, Sonny was part of a trio of former bodyguards, including his cousin Red West and Dave Hebler, that co-authored the 1977 book Elvis, What Happened?

Published just two weeks before the singer’s death, the book is notable as the first to expose Elvis’ prescription drug addiction and abuse. Gossip columnist Steve Dunleavy wrote the tell-all, giving it a sensationalized and negative tone. After Elvis passed away, Elvis, What Happened? became a bestseller.

While mourning the loss of Elvis, many fans were understandably hurt by this book. At the time, none wanted to believe what most of us know today – with thirty-four years of perspective – to be its underlying truths.

In 2007, Sonny published another book about Elvis, but with an entirely different tone.  In Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business, Sonny fondly remembers his friend.

“I am forced to concede that [Elvis, What Happened?] was largely a failure,” he says in the introduction. “It didn’t save Elvis, and neither did it convey to readers how much I loved the man. By focusing so much on Elvis’ addiction and oddball behavior, I was remiss in not telling readers how much he meant to me.”

Thirty-four years is a long time, but, given the cold stories and comments on various Elvis sites about Sonny’s hospitalization, some fans unfortunately continue to hold a grudge against him.

We will never know, of course, what might have been, but I personally believe that Elvis and the Wests eventually would have reconciled had he lived.

Again, my best wishes go out to Sonny.