The King

November 17, 2020

elvis thats the way copy

Elvis Presley would never quite reach the heights of that peak year again

By Gillian G. Gaar

As 1970 began, Elvis Presley was in the best commercial and artistic shape he’d been in for years. The revival started with his 1968 TV special, Elvis, continuing into 1969 with the albums From Elvis in Memphis, and From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the singles “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds,” and a sold out season in Las Vegas. He’d fulfilled all of his movie contracts, and was free to take his career in any direction he desired.

elvis on stage copyFirst up was another Vegas season at the International Hotel (now the Westgate Las Vegas), from January 26 to February 23. He switched his stage wear from two piece outfits to jumpsuits, which would become his signature costume for the decade. A live album was recorded during the run, and as Elvis had just released a live album the previous year, he revamped his setlist. On Stage would feature contemporary material like “Sweet Caroline,” “Polk Salad Annie,” and “The Wonder of You,” the latter a Top 10 single. After Vegas, Elvis appeared at the Houston Astrodome from February 27 to March 1. It was a sign he planned to take his live act on the road.

By the time On Stage was released in June (reaching No. 13), Elvis was back in the studio. From June 4 to June 8, he recorded an astonishing 35 masters at RCA’s studios in Nashville, tracks that would appear on the albums That’s The Way It Is, Elvis Country, and Love Letters From Elvis.

elvis nashville copyThis session is the focus of the new release From Elvis In Nashville (RCA/Legacy), a four CD set presenting all the master recordings, newly mixed, and without the additional overdubs. The set also includes the four songs recorded at a follow up session on September 22, and two discs of bonus tracks, featuring alternate takes and rehearsals.

Elvis worked with his longtime producer, Felton Jarvis, and a group of top studio musicians known as the Nashville Cats; he also brought in James Burton, the lead guitarist of his live band. From Elvis In Nashville presents the tracks in the order they were recorded, allowing you to experience the sessions as they progressed. What you hear is a man determined to work, but also ready to cut up and have fun whenever the mood strikes him.

elvis country copyRecording the break up song “I’ve Lost You” had moved Elvis to tears, for example, so he lightened the mood by next rocking through “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” (initially used as a linking track on Elvis Country). Similarly, after recording the ballad “How The Web Was Woven,” he burst into a lively medley of “Got My Mojo Working”/“Keep Your Hands Off It,” storming through it in one take. He dug into country favorites like “I Really Don’t Want To Know,” “Faded Love,” and Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” the latter followed by the recording of another stomper, “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water.” Elvis never again recorded so many tracks at one time.

In July, the first single from the sessions was released, “I’ve Lost You,” peaking at No. 32. By then, Elvis was preparing for his next Vegas engagement. Rehearsals began on July 14, initially held at MGM’s studios in Culver City, California, so they could be filmed for the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. With an accompanying album planned as well, the setlist again featured much new material: the recent single “I’ve Lost You,” “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” “Patch It Up,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” among others.

The Vegas run opened on July 10 and ran through September 7. Reviews were good. “Presley is cool and very collected all the way through his full hour, knowing just what to do every minute,” Variety wrote in its review. But there were a few bumps along the way. Elvis was hit with a paternity suit, and received a death threat serious enough to report to the FBI. Returning to the public eye had come with an element of risk.

But the paternity suit was later dismissed, and the would-be assassins never materialized, though extra bodyguards were on hand. On completing the engagement, the International presented Elvis with a commemorative silver belt, overlaid with gold, with a large buckle that read “Worlds Championship Attendance Record” and studded with sapphires, rubies, and diamonds. The belt was designed by Nudie Cohn, who had also designed Elvis’ famous gold lamé suit in the 1950s. Elvis was thrilled by the gift, and loved showing it off.

On September 9, Elvis headed out on a short tour that began in Phoenix, Arizona; followed by a return to Nashville for one more studio session on September 22. Another short tour began on November 10 in Oakland, California. The crowds were ecstatic, but reviews were somewhat mixed. In the words of the St Petersburg [Florida] Times, “[Elvis] has frozen rock ‘n roll into a kind of parody of what the old, real thing was like, complete with pastel lights, backup singers, a big band, gaudy costumes.” To critics, a note of pageantry was becoming as much a part of the show as the music; the show was less a concert and more of a ritual.

The film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is was released in November. Director Denis Sanders stated his intention was to “capture the excitement of Elvis,” but the film is more observational than insightful. There are no interviews with Elvis or his band; the Elvis phenomenon is instead explored through interviews with  his fans, Inter-national Hotel employees, and Tiger Beat editor Ann Moses, among others. It’s still an invaluable film record of Elvis in his prime.

The accompanying album (which reached No. 21) wasn’t quite a “soundtrack,” as not all the songs were featured in the film. Some were studio recordings, with applause dubbed in. A re-edit of the movie was issued in 2001, cutting out footage that was deemed extraneous, like the fan interviews. But later DVD/Blu-ray packages included both the 1970 and 2001 edits. The album has also been reissued in various incarnations over the years, the last package being an 8 CD/2 DVD box released in 2014.

That seems to have emptied the vaults as far as live shows were concerned. So what to do for the 50th anniversary this year? Dig even deeper, and compile an 8 CD set of rehearsals, in a new box set released by official collectors label Follow That Dream. This elaborate package sold out right away, and is already commanding high figures on resale sites ($600, plus $135 postage, on eBay). The rehearsals are fascinating for the songs that wouldn’t become sta-ples of the live shows: “Heart of Rome,” “Stranger in My Own Hometown,” “Stranger in the Crowd,” “Don’t Cry Daddy.” The two books (one on rehearsals, the other on the concerts) are packed with information, and plenty of photos. A great set, if you can find it.

The year ended on an improbable note, with Elvis making an impromptu visit to President Nixon at the White House. His career was also at a crossroads. His manager had unwisely flooded the market with releases in 1970 — one box set, seven albums, 5 singles — which undermined the credibility Elvis had reestablished for himself. It was a sign of things to come. Elvis would never quite reach the heights of 1970 again.


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