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Elvis Presley’s “Elvis” Reviewed

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This is the story of two men screwing up. Not a huge screw up, Presley’s second album Elvis still spent four weeks at the top of the charts, but nevertheless, it was bad judgement. First Presley’s RCA point person Steven Sholes commissioned “Paralyzed” from Otis Blackwell and chose “Love Me” from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, in an attempt to replicate the “Don’t Be Cruel”/”Hound Dog” smash  recorded that July and spending the summer at the top of all three charts (pop, r&b, C&W). In effect, Sholes became Simon Cowell telling the world’s best songwriters to bring their A game for One Direction’s second album. And both Blackwell and Leiber-Stoller performed stellar jobs,  Blackwell’s “Paralyzed” is a superb country pop rocker, that tiny bridge, that “one, two, ooh” is so cute and sexy it stands as great an act of sexual surrender as a pop star could ever provide. “Love Me”, not originally for Presley,  is just the way I love Presley blues, complete masochistic surrender: “treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel …” If you’ve ever heard the original, it is a C&W parody and not very good, but it works for certain here, Elvis surrenders to it, he doesn’t wink at us at all. Two great tracks, but not “Don’t be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” by any stretch.  “Love Me” got to # 2, and “Paralyzed” stiffed at #58. Sholes had a great idea, used RCA’s muscle for the best of reasons, and came up way short.

Elvis’ mistake was odder, and probably showed both his integrity and also how even the best of self-producers (c’mon, Presley was 100% in charge of the September 56 THREE DAY recording session that brought us Elvis a month later) sometimes misunderstand their artist. None of the three Little Richard covers are up to the job (though Little Richard got co-writing credits on two of them and sure wasn’t complaining),  and the reason isn’t slackness, or any form of ego, or anything like that, it is because “Rip It Up”, “Long Tall Sally” and “Reddy Teddy”, all work directly in contradistinction to Presley’s great skill. Presley could change blues into rock into pop without losing its soul and he could change country into rock into pop, but he couldn’t change rock into rock into pop. The songs were outdistanced so well by Little Richard’s originals that they became also rans, it is the same way Buddy Holly couldn’t handle “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”. For Little Richard, Presley couldn’t nail the high end, and he was much too male to give into Richard’s femininity. None of the three songs, none of the five songs actually, are remotely bad, they just aren’t where they need to be.

The rest of the fast paced 30 minutes arrest the usual suspects are as good or better  better than those five songs except for the gooey set closer, and if the entire enterprise isn’t as completely undeniable as you’d like, the band is first rate all the way through, with a hard rock style that would set the tone for back up bands, Scotty, DJ and Bill Black were a very tight unit, with Presley on acoustic guitar, sometimes doubling on piano. And the Jordainaires performing excellent back up vocals all the way to the end.

Presley is in find voice whether sobbing through a dead dog tall tale or a rockabilly trifle. He doesn’t have the boom he’d own fifteen years later but as always he performs with awe inspiring power and beauty.

Look at Elvis this way: the first three tracks on side one opens with Arthur Crudup, continues with Red Foley, and concludes with Little Richard, and until you hear that move from “Old Shep” to “Reddy Teddy” you’d be excused for wondering what the hell was Elvis thinking. Yes, Elvis. Steve is credited as the producer but this is all Presley making all decisions, Stoles was the engineer and RCA’s make sure there are some hits here, boy, man but Presley made every call and you can hear it.

Elvis was a big hit and it will never be as great as Elvis Presley, it aims a little higher: those Richards covers was a great rocker staking his territory. As great as “Blue Suede Shoes” or “Money Honey” were, they were still Presley in his comfort zone, but here there is a sense of an artist testing his skills. Truly, I don’t prefer it to (I like it as much as)the first albumn and I know the first album is better, but this is pretty damn great.

Grade: A

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