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The enigma of Suppose

By Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
November 5, 2005 - 1:57:00 PM

Suppose is not the greatest song Elvis Presley ever recorded but it is, for me, one of the most underrated. At a time - the mid 1960s - when you can almost hear the self-belief seeping from him on some recordings, Elvis was unusually intrigued by this quiet chilling ballad.

The song was neglected, even by RCA and producer Felton Jarvis, at the time. Perhaps, as Ernst Jorgensen suggests, it was regarded as too similar in sound and lovelorn feel to the 'comeback' single 'Indescribably Blue' which had failed to do the business. Somehow, it didn't make the cut for the soundtrack for Easy Come Easy Go - too good for its own good? - and then, in the kind of inverse quality control which typified Elvis' career at that point, was cut from the film Speedway too. Mercifully, though, it made it onto the soundtrack album as the best of five bonus songs.

Suppose is written by Goehring and Dee. George Goehring famously wrote 'Little Donkey', while the song's co-author Sylvia Dee is famous - make that notorious - for a song called 'Chickery Chick' about a chicken who brightens up his life by saying "Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la, chekala romey/In a bananika bollika wollika-". Goehring never co-wrote anything else for Elvis, Dee had co-written 'Moonlight Swim' for Blue Hawaii with Ben Weisman.

Fortunately, George and Sylvia set all thoughts of farmyard animals aside to write 'Suppose', a simple, plaintive, ballad, in which the narrator/singer is left desolate, if not suicidal, by doubts over his love. It's the kind of haunting number that feels as if it ought to be heard in a David Lynch movie.

Some fans have suggested this song may have inspired John Lennon's utopian anthem Imagine.

The evidence for this view runs like this: 1) in both songs, the singer runs through a list of things that might not exist; 2) both numbers consist of a singer, alone at a piano, contemplating another world; 3) both songs have many lines that begin with a single repeated word - suppose or imagine and 4) the phrase "it's impossible to imagine" is actually used in one verse of Suppose. The timeline doesn't rule it out: Suppose was recorded in the summer of 1967, Imagine was recorded - and released - in 1971.

All of which add up to something greater than coincidence but not enough to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The only way to solve this argument is to ask Yoko Ono flat out if her husband was a proud owner of the soundtrack to Speedway. But rock and roll's most controversial widow is hardly likely to come straight out and say: "It's a fair cop", as villains do in bad British TV cop dramas. We know Lennon was a big fan of the young Elvis and, despite some well-publicised put downs in later years, never lost his love for the King. His fellow Beatle George Harrison hadn't stopped listening to Elvis by the late 1960s - even discussing how much he liked the lyrics of Clean Up Your Own Backyard with an interviewer. So anything is possible.

In the final analysis, the Imagine controversy doesn't matter. 'Suppose' stands on its own as a hidden gem - one that, if you'll forgive the plug, I probably should have listed as one of his essential performances in my Rough Guide to Elvis. Listen to the way Elvis pauses after "Suppose I had no wish" and before "to be alive" - in a similar way to Lennon catching his breath after "all the people". Elvis was the king of many things and on those ballads he felt a spark of interest in, he was the king of phrasing.

Suppose was exceptional, when Elvis first recorded it, for being a song he actually cared about. Listening to his private recordings from this period, he sounds more soulfully engaged on songs like 'Dark Moon', '500 Miles' and 'Suppose' than on most of the songs he recorded between the 1966 'How Great Thou Art' sessions and the 'Guitar Man' sessions in Nashville in September 1967.

If you haven't listened to it recently - or have never heard it - treat yourself. Suppose is a more subdued performance than those with which he shook the world, but it's as telling. It's one of a handful of songs that, like his cover of Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time', hints at musical worlds he never, sadly, got to explore. I'd recommend buying it on The Home Recordings because it does offer you, as the sleeve notes suggest, an insight into his musical soul.

If you have any thoughts/evidence on the Suppose/Imagine debate, do email me.

- More articles by Paul Simpson

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Also by Paul Simpson :

- Elvis the Singer
-
The Shock of Elvis
- Passion and Soul: A Little Less Conversation, a Lot More Fans
- The King of Pain!
- The Elvis Mystery
- Elvis: a star is torn by Paul Simpson

Paul Simpson is the author of The Rough Guide to Elvis.

Suppose can be found on the following CDs ;

- The Home Recordings
- From Nashville To Memphis - The Essential 60's Masters
- Elvis Ballads


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