Saturday, August 13, 2011

Elvis Week 2011, Part Four: Lost in Hollywood and Beatlemania

After being released from the Army, Presley resumed his recording career in 1960 but Parker had him doing few concerts.  Rather, the 60's were about Elvis and his movies, many of which were critically lambasted.  I'll have a complete section on Elvis and his movies later in the week.  "It's Now or Never" (#1 for five weeks) and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (#1 for six weeks), both recorded shortly after he got back from his military duty, became two of his biggest all-time hits.  "Stuck on You", Surrender" and "Good Luck Charm" also reached #1 and he had a couple of other Top 10 songs in the next three years, most notably "Can't Help Falling in Love", "Return to Sender" (#2 for five weeks), "Little Sister" and "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame".

But Parker pushed Elvis into constant moviemaking rather than singing and performing.  He filmed 27 movies in the 1960's and, while they were critically panned, generally made money.


But when the Beatles hit America, many artists were adversely affected and Elvis wasn't immune to the revolution in rock & roll.  He released 41 singles in the time the Beatles were together over the next five years, and, in sharp contrast to his success prior, Elvis only reached the Top 10 with one of them ("Crying in the Chapel".)  Clearly, it was a new ball game and an entirely different landscape from before the Beatles hit the scene.  By and large, Elvis had the stage to himself in the early days of rock and roll.  But now there was a new phenomenon on the scene who attracted the same wild fanaticism.

Elvis Priscilla Vegas Wedding

Elvis and Priscilla, who had been courting for 7 1/2 years, married on May 1, 1967 in their suite at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Presley's only child, Lisa Marie, was born February 1, 1968.  But while Elvis was experiencing joy in his personal life, substandard material included in formulated movies was taking its toll.  In October, the "Clambake" soundtrack set a record for the lowest sales for a new Elvis Presley album.  It was a wake-up call to RCA but "by then, of course, the damage had been done, as historians Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx said.   

Not only was Elvis not reaching the Top 10, his releases weren't even reaching the Top 40--only two did so from the beginning of 1967 through May of 1968.  His albums weren't selling either and everywhere you looked, his career wasn't the same as it was.  Of course, any person in the music business could tell you why this was so.  Colonel Parker (through low payment of the two other members of Presley's original trio) had driven elite guitarist Scotty Moore and standup bassist Bill Black away, two musicians largely responsible for Presley's success.  Since Elvis did not read or write music, he was dependent upon others to write for him.  Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the songwriting team who had written many of his greatest hits, were run off by Parker.

Further, since Elvis did not take charge of his own career, rather leaving management decisions and nearly all other decisions to Parker, he would be directly affected by the good decisions his manager made as well as the bad ones.  Parker had done a lot for Elvis, no question, but when he directed Elvis to make 27 movies with inferior material now that he had forced Leiber and Stoller out and neglected the one element of success for any musician (live performances), he served him very badly.  

With key songwriters Leiber and Stoller out of the fold, Black gone and Scotty Moore no longer an insider, the chief tools, indeed the engine behind Elvis, were gone.  Presley needed songwriters to fill the vacuum, but Parker made ridiculous demands of other songwriters.  A singer was a precious commodity, but at the minimum they need quality material.  In the early years of rock and roll, most artists did not write their own songs (Buddy Holly was one of a select few in the time before the Beatles.)  Then the group from Liverpool came along and completely revolutionized the music business in every way.  Now, artists not only wrote their own music, but they arranged the scores, chose their background musicians, produced their own music, signed their own contracts and were in charge of their own careers.  

This was great for the artists who wrote music, but for the stars of the 50's and early 60's, it left them at a competitive disadvantage.  Songwriters were valuable to them, even more so now that most artists were writing their own songs.  To retain them, it was established practice before the Beatles came along that the writers of a song would share in the royalties, often quite substantially.  With Leiber and Stoller, Elvis had a winning combination.  So what did Parker do to attract new songwriters?  He made demands that they would sign over a large portion of the industry norm for their royalties over to Elvis before agreeing to a contract.   

Elvis was a huge star in the early 60's, the biggest the world has ever seen.  But he had lost the original members from the trio he started out with.  Very few talented songwriters agreed to the contract demands of Parker.  And even a star of the magnitude of Elvis couldn't escape the negative effect from not touring.  

But Presley was one of the only pre-Beatles' stars to endure through the Beatles Era (the Beach Boys and the 4 Seasons were the other two), albeit on a much lower scale than those two groups and certainly much lower than the standards he had set for himself in the early part of his career.  He recorded the great gospel album How Great Thou Art in 1967 that won him his first Grammy Award for Best Sacred Performance. 

The Grammy Award was really the only outstanding achievement since 1962.  This was Elvis Presley, the greatest singing star in history, the man who had 17 hits his first year, the man who had reached #1 five times in his debut year and 11 in his first three years.  He had won 22 Platinum awards and eight Gold awards for his singles through 1963 but just one Platinum and eight Gold records since.  His albums, which used to consistently reach #1, barely made the Top 100.  Clearly Elvis needed a shot in the arm.

He found it in 1968, and Inside the Rock Era will have that and more as we continue Elvis Week 2011 in Part Five tomorrow--"Special Comeback".  

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