Elvis Presley : Lost In Hollywood

By: Ernst Jorgensen
Source: A Life In Music
October 24, 2011

On Sunday night, January 12, 1964, about an hour after a new round of sessions was scheduled to begin, Elvis roared into the parking lot at RCA's studios on his motorcycle. His mission: to record the two songs from the previous May he'd been dissatisfied with - the ballad 'Ask Me' and 'Memphis Tennessee', which Elvis had in mind for his next single. At first, as he strode into the control room of Studio B, it seemed as though his priorities had shifted. Announcing he was hungry, he had food ordered in, and recording was delayed for almost three hours while they got dinner out of the way. Then, just as abruptly as they'd halted, the proceedings started up again. With virtually no rehearsal time, drummers Buddy Harman and D. J. Fontana exploded into the opening bars of 'Memphis Tennessee', in a much more confident rumble than they'd managed back in May.

At the console, first-time Elvis engineer Ron Steele was scrambling to get proper recording levels on the double-drum-kit intro when the three guitar players, bass, and piano all jumped in as well, flooding the tape with busy rhythmic patterns. It was obvious that Elvis wanted a more exciting, up-to-date feel from his rhythm section than he'd had on the previous version. For Ron Steele it was a rocky baptism.

Chet Atkins offered little help as the new engineer struggled along; Steele was so beleaguered trying to control the balance and keep down the distortion crowding in from several channels - just trying to find space for each of the instruments to breathe - that he could barely make it through each new slate announcement (you try saying 'RPA four-one-oh-oh-four, take three', three times fast). Take one was complete. Takes two and three were false starts, and there was no take four at all because Steele got lost in his count. On take five (the second complete run-through) Steele was still shifting instruments from one side to the other and then into the middle, but by take six Elvis had what he wanted, and except for a few minor glitches Ron Steele got there too.

Elvis radiated pure concentration: There was no fooling around, no joking as they turned to the next item on the agenda. With a new, very slick pop arrangement, and with Elvis singing far better than he had eight months before, they quickly polished off 'Ask Me'; after that they made it through a new song, 'It Hurts Me' - co written by Charlie Daniels of later Charlie Daniels Band fame - in just fifteen minutes.

They might have worked on the number longer, but take five had everything they were looking for: a strong, uncliche'd melody, a mature lyric, an arrangement that was both simple and forceful, and a vocal performance so passion-filled that it must rank among the absolute best of Elvis' pre-1968 efforts.

When Elvis left RCA's studios at midnight, he left more than just the three likely singles he'd cut - for the moment, at least, he'd left his RCA studio recording career behind. It would be twenty-eight months before he would do another regular, non movie recording session, and he would never again record under the supervision of Chet Atkins or Steve Sholes. The sound, the style, and the repertoire that had worked so well for him in the early '60s were all abandoned. On the day he made them, all three new sides must have seemed ripe with commercial possibilities; if the session hadn't been prolific, at least it was focused. Unfortunately, two of the three lost their potential almost immediately. Elvis relegated the marvelous 'It Hurts Me' to the B-side of 'Kissin' Cousins', and although the A-side managed to climb into the top twenty at number twelve, selling a respectable 750,000 records, its flip never attained classic stature promised by the song and the performance. 'Memphis Tennessee' - originally slated for the 'Kissin' Cousins' B-side before 'It Hurts Me' replaced it - suffered a second blow just weeks after it was recorded, when Lonnie Mack scored a top-Eve hit with an instrumental version. And the natural coupling of 'Memphis' with 'Ask Me' as a single received its death knell in May 1964, after Johnny Rivers heard the unreleased version on a visit to Elvis' house; Rivers recorded his own version of 'Memphis Tennessee' taking the song to the top of the charts for the second time in twelve months and knocking it out of the running as an Elvis single.

No one examining Elvis' record sales between 1961 and 1964 could fail to see how soundly his soundtrack albums were outselling his studio albums - by margins of two, three, even four to one. And since the 1961 Blue Hawaii single 'Can't Help Falling ln Love', the situation with singles had been virtually the same. Elvis Presley's record-buying audience simply didn't support the artistic brilliance of an Elvis ls Back album as strongly as a throwaway movie product like It Happened At The World's Fair. And none of this was lost on Colonel Parker, who always kept his eye on the hits. Even during the early '60s Elvis' record output was managed far differently from that of most other artists, who would release an album of songs recorded in a brief series of one or two sessions, including - featuring - the hit singles from those sessions.

Not so with Elvis. At the Colonel's insistence, Elvis' hits were assembled on special collections such as the Golden Records series, about to enter its third instalment. The rest of the session material, minus the hits, was released on albums like 'Elvis ls Back' or the aptly named Something For Everybody (1961) and Pot Luck (1962); random collections with no movie exposure, they met with little radio support and received paltry attention considering that they were the work of such a major recording star. Any other artist would have highlighted his new album with cuts like 'Stuck On You', 'lt's Now Or Never', and 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' - hits that surely would have put 'Elvis Is Back' at the top of the charts for a long time. Similarly, 'Surrender', 'l Feel So Bad', 'Little Sister', and 'His Latest Flame' would have given 'Something For Everybody' an incalculable boost, just as 'Pot Luck' could have benefited from the inclusion of 'Good Luck Charm' and 'She's Not You.' What other artist would have failed to name an album after one of these hit singles?

The bottom line was the income generated by the movies. At the start of each new picture, Elvis and the Colonel collected up to a million dollars - to which they could add up to fifty percent of the film's profits.

The income from just one picture amounted to substantially more than all the RCA royalties they received in any given year. And the soundtrack program was filled with extra benefits: From each one they collected both recording royalties and publishing income through Elvis' two publishing companies, while fulfilling contractual obligations to RCA at the same time.

Lee Majors visited Elvis on the Clambake movie set.
Lee Majors visited Elvis on the Clambake movie set. From the book, The Elvis Files Vol 4.

One obvious result of the Colonel's short-term thinking was the fate of the recordings Elvis made at his May 1963 RCA sessions. Two of the standouts, 'Devil In Disguise' and 'Please Don't Drag That String Around', were immediately released as a single, while the rest of the tracks were slated to be the basis of a new studio album. But in August the album slot was filled by Elvis' Golden Records Vol. 3, under the prevailing logic that greatest-hits records would sell better than untested studio material, So the studio album was shelved; it remained on the release schedule, but when the Fun In Acapulco soundtrack and the Viva Las Vegas and 'Kissin' Cousins' projects began piling up, the logical illogical conclusion was to use the l963 studio cuts for album filler and single B-sides. By January 1964 Elvis Golden Records Vol. 3 had already passed the half million mark, and 'Fun In Acapulco' had no trouble matching Pot Luck in sales. Not until 1990 was the original I963 album finally released, as The Lost Album / For The Asking. If you ignored artistic aspirations and aesthetic judgments, it all made perfect sense. So now it was off to Hollywood, full-time.

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Elvis Presley : Lost In Hollywood, an except from Ernst Jorgensen's 'A Life In Music : The Complete Recording Sessions', details perfectly why Elvis continued to make so many movies and release the subsequent soundtracks during the 1960's.

Link to shop A Life In Music : The Complete Recording Sessions by Ernst Jorgensen

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