Writing for the King: The Songs and the Writers Behind Them
Source: American Songwriter
March 5, 2008
In my new book, Writing for the King, I spoke to over 140 songwriters whose work was recorded by Elvis, and most remarked about his uncanny ability to capture the essence of a song and make it his own. Like a musical geneticist, Elvis drew from every strand of DNA in a songwriter's work, which ultimately helped shape his own distinctive personal interpretation.
Just listen to the wide stylistic swath of genre hopping material Elvis recorded during his career-from Junior Parker's amphetamine-paced rockabilly classic 'Mystery Train' and the poppin' perfect panache of Otis Blackwell's 'All Shook Up', to the down-and-dirty blues swagger of 'Reconsider Baby' and the operatic grandeur of 'It's Now or Never'. And then there are more controversial, socially-conscious anthems ('If I Can Dream' and 'In the Ghetto') and introspective '70s fare like 'Separate Ways' and 'Always On My Mind'. Right away, you can hear the breadth of a master stylist who breathed new life into every song he cut. But how was Elvis presented with songs in the first place?
In 1956, Freddy Bienstock was hired by powerful New York publishing firm, Hill & Range (formed by Austrian brothers, Julian and Jean Aberbach) as a songplugger. From then on, he was responsible for presenting songs to Elvis and acted as his A&R musical lifeline. His arms piled high with acetates; Bienstock was a constant presence at all of Elvis' recording sessions, plying the artist with demo after demo.
'I knew what kind of songs Elvis liked and what I thought might capture his attention', Bienstock remembers. 'It was either a terrific melody or a novelty kind of lyric idea like 'All Shook Up'.' Elvis listened intently to demos and knew immediately if a song was right for him. 'He knew exactly what he wanted to do', Bienstock affirms. 'You couldn't talk Elvis into doing a song; he had to feel it. He knew what would work for him. If Elvis didn't like a song, he'd only play about eight bars and then he would take it off. Then there were times he'd want to hear it again and again. Elvis would often adapt the arrangements inherent in the demos. On songs that he was particularly fond of, he would make a real effort-sometimes he'd do 40 takes. When there was a song he especially liked, he was almost a perfectionist about getting it just right'.
Elvis' close friend, Lamar Fike, headed up the Nashville division of Hill & Range between 1962 and 1973. 'You'd get all the songs together for a session, anywhere from probably 50, 100, 200 songs', Fike remembers. 'Freddy would send them to Memphis or L.A. or wherever we were, and Elvis and I started going over the material. We would weed it down to 20 or 30 songs and then weed it down further to about 10 songs. It was a continual process of listening and evaluating the material. We were looking for hits. You didn't know exactly what you were looking for in the sense of this kind of wording, or, that type of music. With hit songs you feel it and just know it's there. Elvis was one of the best song men that I've ever seen. He had an excellent ear, and he was more right than wrong with the material he selected. If he hadn't been more right than wrong he wouldn't have sold 200-300 million singles'.
As for songwriters' whom Presley particularly enjoyed, Bienstock recalls that 'Elvis loved Otis Blackwell. Otis had a feeling for black music that Elvis liked. For example, 'All Shook Up' was an expression that got to Elvis. Otis wrote some terrific songs, but he didn't write many. Those that he wrote were very special, whether it was 'Don't Be Cruel' or 'All Shook Up' or 'Return to Sender'. He also had hits for other artists like Jerry Lee Lewis with 'Great Balls Of Fire'.'
'Any good singer that's smart knows where his material comes from and then where to go get it', adds Fike. 'It's a business. Elvis was respectful of the writers. He loved Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus stuff and Mike Stoller and Jerry's Leiber stuff. He also liked Don Robertson's music, which was very country. When material came in from any of those writers, he would listen to it real fast'.
For the most part, Presley was limited to cutting songs published by Hill & Range. If he took a liking to a non-Hill & Range song, a publishing deal would quickly be secured. During that time, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, in cahoots with Hill & Range, also adopted a somewhat controversial stance whereby Elvis received a third of the songwriters' mechanical royalties on tunes he cut. (He's listed as co-writer of several hits, including 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'All Shook Up', albeit he didn't have a hand in writing them. This practice of adding co-writer credit soon ceased thereafter.)
Surprisingly, most of the songwriters whose work was recorded by Elvis did not object to this practice, as landing a cut was quite a coup and potential money maker. David Hess, a Hill & Range writer who had a few songs recorded by Elvis-including his 1958 No. 1 smash, 'I Got Stung'-recalls, 'Part of the deal when Elvis cut one of your songs was he would get a piece of the action. Colonel Tom Parker made sure of that. To have a potential No. 1 hit staring you in the face made the pain of getting screwed a little less painful. It was a game you had to play and it was just dollars and cents for the Colonel. It wasn't personal. He was looking out for his client, and that's the way it was one in those days. It's so much different now. Everybody owns their own publishing. Back then you were just a songwriter and were happy to be part of a situation that made you money. You didn't think about making waves, because if you did, you were out-and there was always somebody lined up behind you waiting to get in. You weren't thinking about anything but making a living and writing songs'. In later years the quality of the Hill & Range songs dipped dramatically and outside songs managed to fall between the tightly controlled cracks, most notably Mark James' 'Suspicious Minds', which proved to be Presley's last No. 1 hit.
Characterizing Presley's extraordinary ability to inhabit the heart and soul of the songs he recorded, Fike reflects, 'In order to make a song work, you've gotta understand it. And that's what any good singer does.
If you're a stylist like Elvis was, that's what makes a great song. What makes a great singer is his style. Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest stylists that ever lived-so was Elvis. When Elvis got through with a song, it became his. Sinatra said one time when talking about Elvis' version of 'My Way', 'He's the only other person that made that song his too'. With Elvis, when he got through with the song, it was his and nobody else's'.
The following interview excerpts spotlighting some of Elvis' most important songwriters and offer illuminating insight behind the songs recorded by The King.
Tommy Durden 'Heartbreak Hotel'
Tommy Durden and Mae Axton crafted Presley's first RCA Records smash, 'Heartbreak Hotel', a song cited by music historians as the seminal spark that ignited the rock and roll revolution'.
I would get The Miami Herald every day. I loved the horse races-didn't bet on 'em because I never had any money-but I loved to make my picks. I was reading The Miami Herald, and I ran across a little item about a man who had committed suicide. I don't remember how he killed himself, but there was a line in the suicide note that struck me. It said, 'I walk a lonely street'. I thought it would be a terrific idea for a blues song'.The next time I went to Jacksonville for The Toby Dowdy Show, I met up with Mae Axton who was a songwriter. I walked into her house and I said, 'Mae, I've got a terrific idea for a song'. I told her that I got the idea from the paper. I said, 'We can write a blues song about it'. I knew that Mae knew Elvis. She'd booked him on shows in Jacksonville. She sat down at the piano and I walked the floor behind her-and we wrote 'Heartbreak Hotel'. It took all of 20 minutes. I started out with what was in the man's suicide note: 'I walk a lonely street'. But as you get into it, it goes, 'Down at the end of lonely street at the heartbreak hotel'. We wrote the song and decided that it would be a natural for Elvis. He wasn't big at the time. He was still on Sun Records, and Parker had just taken him under his wing'.Glenn Reeves, the guy that introduced me to Mae, came into the house. He could do an Elvis imitation. We got Glenn to sing it like he thought Elvis would do it. He didn't even like the song. It was done just with guitar and voice.
'There was a disc jockey convention coming up in Nashville, and Mae was going to the convention. I said to Mae, 'Take the dub because Elvis is gonna be there. Go see him and play it for him. If he'll record it on RCA, give him a third of the writer's end'. She went there, played it for him and gave him a third of it. And it was his first release on RCA'.
Otis Blackwell 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'All Shook Up'
Otis Blackwell was reportedly a very quiet man. Yet in truth he didn't need to speak much, as his wonderful songs spoke in volumes. 'Don't Be Cruel', 'All Shook Up', 'Paralyzed' and 'Great Balls Of Fire' are among the rock and roll treasures he created'.
On Christmas Eve in '55, I was standing outside the Brill Building with no hat and holes in my shoes. It was snowin'. Leroy Kirkland, the arranger who worked with Screamin' Jay [Hawkins], asked if I had any songs. I said, 'Yeah, I'm trying to get some Christmas money'. He took me to Shalimar Music where I met Goldie Goldmark, Al Stanton and Moe [Gayle]. So I said OK. Al Stanton was a friend of another fellow named Paul Cates, who was with the Elvis Presley people. He got my songs through'.I was working for Shalimar, and Elvis was with Hill & Range. So they got together to co-publish. I played seven songs for them-one of the songs was 'Don't Be Cruel'. They bought it and showed it to the Elvis company. They asked me could I write some more stuff. So I made a couple of demos. I made the demos to 'Don't Be Cruel', 'Paralyzed' and 'All Shook Up'. When Elvis recorded these songs, he was copying the vocal style on the demos. And when they heard that, they asked me would I make other demos for writers as well.
'After 'Don't Be Cruel', Shalimar said I had a chance to get Presley again, so I wrote 'All Shook Up'. [Al Stanton] walked in one day with a bottle of Pepsi, shaking it, as they did at the time, and said, 'Otis, I've got an idea. Why don't you write a song called 'All Shook Up?' Two days later I brought the song in and said, 'Look, man, I did something with it'. After that song, the agreement about sharing songwriting credit was washed. We had both proved how good we were and had a good thing between the two of us.
'I was surprised when I heard 'Don't Be Cruel' because it was just like I had done the demo. I used to sing all my own demos, and it just so happened that a lot of what Presley and Jerry Lee did sounded alike. I thought they did justice to the songs. They put the kind of feeling into it that I felt'.
Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller 'Hound Dog', 'Love Me' and 'Jailhouse Rock'
In the annals of songwriting, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are championed alongside such legendary teams as Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, and Goffin and King as among popular music's most seminal writers. Celebrating over half a century of songwriting, Leiber and Stoller penned dozens of hits, but it's their remarkable songs so beautifully interpreted by Presley that stand among their finest achievements.
Mike Stoller: 'Hound Dog' was not originally written about a hunting dog who'd forgotten how to hunt. It was about a woman kicking a free-loader out of her house.
Jerry Leiber: I didn't particularly like Elvis' version of 'Hound Dog', but as time passed I grew very fond of it. I'm not sure if it was the actual record itself or the fact that it had become such an anthem.
MS: After that, Elvis' music publishers [the Aberbach brothers], contacted us. They asked if we had any other songs we thought might be good for Elvis. Jerry suggested a favorite old song of ours called 'Love Me' that we'd recorded with a gospel group from San Francisco.
JL: It was originally written as a send-up of country music, but Elvis sang it from the heart and it became a true love song.
MS: Elvis' version of 'Love Me' became a big hit and a standard. He managed to transform this simple tune into something genuinely touching.
JL: For Elvis' movies, they'd send us a script and there would be indications of where a song should appear. Our job was to come up with the songs, and ultimately we decided where they would go.
MS: We submitted the songs through the appropriate channels, which meant Freddy Bienstock, who worked for his cousins [the Aberbachs]. That was the system that had been established by Colonel Parker. No one was to approach Elvis directly without his sanction. We wrote 'Jailhouse Rock' for the film.
JL: We were the producers without portfolio. That was a given. Steve Sholes [RCA A&R man] was a great guy-big, heavy-set and very good natured. He came up to me and said, 'Hey, Jer, you guys know more about this rock and roll stuff than I do. Why don't you just take over?' And we did. We didn't get credit and get paid, but we got a hit score and some hit records.
MS: Elvis requested that we be at the 'Jailhouse Rock' recording sessions. We hadn't met yet. He was very easygoing. I was showing him some stuff on the piano, and he joined in noodling in the upper register. We were doing some mean freehand boogie-woogie. The studio was like a living room. He had all his pals there with him. We'd demonstrate the songs for him. It was long hours and hard work in the studio, but Elvis made it seem effortless. He could sing take after take and never get tired. He was unreal.
W. Earl Brown 'If I Can Dream'
He's had songs recorded by Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Cher and The Jacksons, yet W. Earl Brown's extraordinary 'If I Can Dream' is the centerpiece of his career. It was the soul stirring closer of Elvis' historic '68 Comeback Special television show and heralded Presley's resurrection as a serious recording artist'.
They wanted to close the show with a song of peace, hope and brotherhood-a message song. 'A Change Is Gonna Come' by Sam Cooke was the kind of song I wanted to write. And I thought that if Elvis doesn't record it, I'll give it to Aretha Franklin. So one night at my place in Sherman Oaks, California, I wrote the song while looking out the window at the garden, with the sun coming in and thinking how much I mean it, how much I felt. This was not a hack job. I really believed in the song so much. 'If I Can Dream' came quickly, both words and music. I didn't even sit at the piano; it just came to me. I quickly scribbled it out on manuscript paper. It just unfolded. I didn't think about form. It was a very inspired and pure song'.I took it in the next morning, and Billy Goldenberg played the piano while I sang it for Bob Finkel [the producer] and Steve Binder [the director]. They loved it. From the other room I heard Colonel Parker say, 'That ain't Elvis' kind of song'. Then from behind me I heard, 'I'd like to try it, man'. I didn't know that Elvis had been standing in the doorway and had heard it. The next thing I know I find myself at Western Recorders and Elvis is recording it and The Blossoms have tears running down their faces. Darlene Love said to me, 'He really loves the song. He really believes in the song and means every word of it'.
'There was such a sense of excitement in the air with Elvis doing the Comeback special. He had done his concert in the little boxing ring with the kids all around. When he began to sing 'If I Can Dream' at the end of the show, you could feel something in the air. It was truly electric. I'm not being dramatic-it really was.
'I still have my original handwritten lyrics for 'If I Can Dream'. Up in the left corner Elvis wrote, 'My boy, my boy-this could be the one!' Because he hadn't had a hit in nine years, and it was'.
Don Robertson 'I'm Counting on You', 'Anything That's Part of You' and 'I Really Don't Want To Know'
A 1972 Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame inductee, Don Robertson's songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Nat 'King' Cole, Willie Nelson, The Everly Brothers, John Fogerty, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Dinah Washington and many more. Leiber & Stoller paid hearty tribute to Robertson deeming his country standard, 'I Really Don't Want to Know', as the greatest country song ever written'.
When I finished writing 'I'm Counting On You' in my studio in North Hollywood, I played it over the phone for my New York publishers, Jean and Julian Aberbach. They liked it a lot and said, 'We think we can get you a big artist on that'. Jean called me about it a few months later. He was apologetic and said, 'We didn't get you a big name artist, but there's this new singer who everybody thinks is going to be really hot and his name is Elvis Presley'. I was very disappointed at the time because I was expecting a big name artist, not someone I had never heard of with a contrived stage name. I changed my mind later on [laughs]. Elvis' recording of 'I'm Counting on You' was included on his first RCA album. It was recorded right after RCA bought his contract from Sun Records'.Anything That's Part of You' was a love song I had written for Irene, the girl that I'm still married to today. When Irene and I were going together, she was a flight attendant for American Airlines and was gone a lot. I worried about her and missed her so much when she was away. She left a brown knit sweater hanging in my closet, and I would sometimes bury my face in it and smell her perfume and feel my heart ache with longing for her. I was, as they say, head over heels in love. This inspired me to write 'Anything That's Part of You'.
'In the course of working on it, the sweater became the more singable 'ribbon from your hair'. I made a demo and sent it to my publisher. Elvis particularly liked my piano work on the demo and had his session pianist copy it for his recording. By a happy coincidence, Elvis and I had similar vocal ranges, so he was comfortable in my keys-with my phrasing and my arrangements. I think that was one reason he liked my demos. He usually copied my demos note for note. There was an easy rapport between us musically, as well as in person...we obviously liked the same kind of vocal phrasing'.I had recorded an album for RCA of some of my past hit songs called Heart on My Sleeve. My performance of 'I Really Don't Want to Know' was on that album. Along with my wife and my son, Donny, I took it up to Elvis' house one day. One of his friends answered the door and said Elvis wasn't home. I gave him the album, which I had autographed to Elvis. I don't know if Elvis ever listened to it-but I think he did because it wasn't too long after that that I was told that Elvis had recorded 'I Really Don't Want to Know'. Maybe he already knew and liked the song from the many records that had been released on it, beginning in 1954 with Eddy Arnold's beautiful rendition. I'm glad I gave it to him. Elvis' bluesy rendition was very different from my very straightforward one. I don't know who came up with his arrangement, but I'd like to kiss her or him. He introduced the song to a whole new generation and helped to establish it as a pop/country standard. That was extremely satisfying to me as a writer'.
Mac Davis 'In the Ghetto'
Mac Davis's first big break came with songs he wrote that were recorded by Elvis, namely the hits 'In the Ghetto', 'Don't Cry Daddy' and 'Memories'. Soon thereafter, he enjoyed major success as a recording artist, racking up such timeless hits as 'Baby, Don't' Get Hooked on Me', 'One Hell of a Woman', 'I Believe In Music' and 'Stop and Smell the Roses'.
My daddy was a small building contractor. There was a guy named Alan Smith who worked for him for years and years. He was just like part of the family. He was a black man and his little boy, Smitty Junior, was my age, and he and I used to play together. They lived on a really funky dirt street ghetto. There was broken glass everywhere. I couldn't understand how these kids could run around barefoot on all that broken glass. I was wondering why they had to live that way and I another. Even though we weren't wealthy or anything, it was a whole big step up from the way that Smitty Junior had to live.
'Freddy Weller, a guitar player I knew from Atlanta, came by my little office on Sunset Boulevard and was showing me a guitar lick. I was messing around with it after he left and I just went [sings]: 'In the ghetto'. I thought, man that just fits. I had always wanted to write a song called 'The Vicious Circle'. There's nothing that rhymes with circle, if you wanna know the truth about it. A child is born in a situation, his father leaves and he ends up acting out and becoming his father. Being born, dying and being replaced by another child in the same situation is basically what I was talking about. Dying is a metaphor for being born into failure, a situation where you have no hope. If you listen to the song it's more poignant now than it was then. Instead of getting better it's gotten worse. Back then we had gangs and violence in a few cities. Now we have it in almost every American city.
'When I had finished the last line, I knew that I had written a hit. I didn't know that it was important, but I just knew that it was a hit if the right person cut it'.I think Elvis took a huge chance in doing 'In the Ghetto'. It was a big risk. When they released it I was totally surprised that he saw fit to put that out as a single. That was not his image at all. He was always middle of the road when it came to controversy. I was shocked that the Colonel allowed him to put out 'In the Ghetto' because it was controversial at the time. But I'm glad he did.
'Elvis improved [the song]. In fact, it was Elvis' idea to add another 'and his mama cries' at the end of that song. The song originally finished [sings]: 'And another little baby child is born-in the ghetto'. That was the end of it. To me the circle had been done, but he just emphasized it by saying 'and his mama cries' again. It would have been a hit without him doing it, but he improved it'.I didn't go to a lot of the shows. I was invited to the big night in Vegas. It was just a huge thrill to me. He did 'In the Ghetto' and winked at me and said, 'Hi Mac'. I forget what he said, maybe something like, 'Here's my first number 1 in quite a while'. The music started up, and he just kinda winked at me. I wanted to jump up and down and say, 'That's me!' but I didn't [laughs]'.
Mark James 'Suspicious Minds'
First coming to prominence as the writer of B.J. Thomas's Top 5 smash, 'Hooked On A Feeling', Mark James crafted one of Elvis' most enduring and lasting songs, the No. 1 hit 'Suspicious Minds'. Elvis cut an additional four songs penned by James ('It's Only Love', 'Raised on Rock', 'Moody Blue' and 'Always on My Mind')'.
The idea for 'Suspicious Minds' came to me one night. First the title came-I thought about it and lived with it a while. Then the lyric came to me: 'Caught in a trap, I can't walk out because I love you too much baby'. What I was trying to say is we can't live together, attain our dreams or build on anything if we don't trust one another. That's what I mean by suspicious minds. If there's distrust in a relationship or you're wondering if your partner wants to be with somebody else, you can't go forward. The chorus, which says, 'We can't go on together with suspicious minds', is what I was trying to get across with the song. I was lucky to start the song in an abstract way-
'Suspicious Minds' captured a lot of soul. In Houston, I grew up on a lot of soulful artists and I learned a lot from them. I put 'Suspicious Minds' together in about a week-a week and a half. I was a writer trying to write a great song, a hit song, and it came off just right.
'The single came out on Scepter Records in '68, and Elvis didn't come into American Studios until '69. He booked American Studios for two weeks. Chips Moman and Don Cruise were partners. Chips was more the creator, and Don was a good businessman who had a lot of heart and soul. He kept the studio goin' through a lot of lean years. American Studios was like Motown. A lot of hit records came out of there. Don came up to me one day and said, 'You know Elvis is coming in?' I replied, 'I know, I'm trying to come up with something great for him'. I analyzed it a little bit. Elvis was in his early 30s. I thought, 'How can you be a rock star and be in your mid-30s and still be viable?'
'That same year Tom Jones had taken it over. Elvis had released a lot of songs from his movies, and his musical career had really gone down as far as controlling the national charts. Tom Jones was the sex symbol at the time. I believed in Elvis and knew something great was in the air to bring him back. Every time I'd walk into the studio, Don would grab me and say, 'You come up with anything for Elvis?' I was still writing and bumping my head against the wall. One morning I came into the studio and Don said kind of urgently, 'Elvis will be here in a couple of days. You think you'll have anything?' I said, 'I don't know-I hope so'. Then he said, 'Well, what about the old catalog? What about 'Suspicious Minds?' At that point I wasn't thinking about my older catalog. But as soon as Don said that, in my head I saw a golden number one. 'That's it! That's the song I've been looking for!' Chips was a little hesitant because I didn't have a hit with my own version of 'Suspicious Minds', but he saw the belief I had in the song and he played it when Elvis came. Elvis liked it immediately and said, 'Let's hear that again'. He heard it again and it hit him the same way. He asked for a tape and took it home. Priscilla loved the song too, so the excitement and momentum about 'Suspicious Minds' kept building and building.
'Chips was a gambler. That's how he got his name. When Elvis came in with his entourage, the Colonel and Hill & Range were trying to get a piece of the songs that were being recorded at those sessions. Before that, they were able to get quite a bit of the publishing and songwriter royalties. To get an Elvis cut, writers would give up almost anything. Most of the time the Colonel or his publishing executives would try to take half of a song or more. I'd never give up my songwriting royalties. I'm not gonna sell it like a used car. That's the way I looked at it. I was signed to Chips' publishing company, Press Music. Chips was the one who told them, 'Look, I'm not giving up any publishing on this song. If that's what you want, then I'm keeping the master and y'all can leave!' This all went down while they were doing the 'Suspicious Minds' session'.Elvis' performance on 'Suspicious Minds' is great. He got into the song and made it his own. It was number one in 27 countries. It's the number one song of all-time for Elvis Presley. I got an award two years ago from Graceland where it was selected as Elvis' all-time favorite song. I believe it is. Elvis had a lot of great songs, but at the time of his comeback, he needed a mature rock song. People were rooting for him to come back, and I'm happy that my song helped him do that. It reinvigorated Elvis as an artist and brought him a newfound respect. I wanted to write a song that would move people and would capture the essence of Elvis'.
Ken Sharp is the author of the new book, Writing For The King, an officially sanctioned Elvis Presley book that showcases over 140 interviews with songwriters whose work was recorded by the artist. The book is available through www.elvis.com.au
If you like reading this article, you will love the book; Writing For The King - a 400 page Book with more than 140 interviews with songwriters like Paul McCartney, Leiber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Red West, Mark James and Tony Joe White. Included are two CDs, the first contains previously unreleased RCA recordings of Elvis performing live in Las Vegas (1969 through 1972), the second a selection of the original demos submitted to Elvis.
The demo CD takes us from Heartbreak Hotel through classics like Teddy Bear, Trouble, Burning Love and Way Down.
'Writing for the King' by Ken Sharp is a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of politics, money, inspiration and great trivia about Elvis and the songs he turned into classics.
Otis Blackwell interview excerpts o Jan-Erik Kjeseth
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