Review

THAT’S THE WAY IT IS (Deluxe Edition)

by Gillian G. Gaar

In the summer of 1970, Elvis Presley might have felt he was on top the world. But in reality, he was at yet another crossroad in his career.

He’d managed to pull off a remarkable comeback after eight long years of churning out lightweight movies that belied his true desire to be a decent actor. As his manager “Colonel” Tom Parker steered him away from live performance and non-soundtrack sessions, his career began to suffer accordingly. By the mid-’60s, groups like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, — who had all been inspired in their youth by Elvis when he reigned as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the ’50s — were pushing rock into exciting new territory, both lyrically and musically. Elvis was left behind, singing the likes of “Queenie Wahini’s Papaya” to a group of giggling kiddies in Paradise, Hawaiian Style. Even when he momentarily escaped to Swinging London in the diamond smuggler caper Double Trouble, he wound up all too soon in Belgium, crooning “Old MacDonald” to his leading lady. (Sadly, his superlative rendition of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” languished unnoticed on the soundtrack of Speedway).

thats-the-way-it-is-frontThen in 1968 he redeemed himself by donning a black leather suit for his television special Elvis, which reawaked his career, which such force it’s now more commonly known as the “Comeback Special.” In 1969 came his first sessions in Memphis since his Sun Records days, where he laid down hits like “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” A live engagement in Las Vegas followed, where he shattered all attendance records at the newly opened International Hotel (later the Las Vegas Hilton). Arrangements were quickly made for Elvis to appear for a total of eight weeks each year at the hotel, in winter and summer seasons.

By the time summer 1970 came around, Parker was ready to rev up the cross-promotion he’d utilized so prodigiously during the movie years. The Elvis Summer Festival was to be both filmed and recorded. The resulting documentary, That’s The Way It Is, duly appeared that November, along with an album of the same name. Oddly, the album wasn’t a true soundtrack; eight of the album’s tracks were studio recordings, with applause overdubbed, while the four live performances weren’t the same live versions seen in the movie. Perhaps this was an admission of overkill; Elvis had already released two albums of his previous Vegas seasons. He would release three more live albums in the remaining seven years of his life (four if you count the oddity Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, a bizarre compilation of his between-songs chat).

thats-the-way-it-is-backAnd therein lies the rub. Having escaped the movie treadmill, Elvis was now stepping onto the live shows treadmill. After the Elvis Summer Festival, 1970, came to a close, he went out on a short tour. After that, he would rarely spend more than a few months off the road; in 1977, the year of his death, he was playing somewhere in the country from February to June.

This lavish box set captures Elvis before live performance had become a grind. The eight CDs cover every aspect of That’s The Way It Is: the original album, singles and outtakes, rehearsals, and six complete shows. There’s also the visual record: the original That’s The Way It Is movie released in 1970, and a re-edited version of the film released in 2000. Though most of the material has been previously released (with the addition of 21 previously unreleased live songs), having it all collated in one package makes this collection the definitive look at this period in Elvis’ career.

Most of the original That’s the Way It Is album was recorded in Nashville with studio musicians. Elvis had worked quickly, recording 34 songs in five days, the most productive sessions of his life. One thing common to both the studio recorded songs and live cuts was Elvis’ lack of hesitation in choosing to record songs strongly associated with other artists, such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” big hits for Simon & Garfunkel and the Righteous Brothers, respectively. These were songs Elvis liked to sing for the sheer enjoyment of it, as opposed to the ’50s and even the ’60s, when he took new songs and made them hits.

There’s another similarity that becomes more obvious when you figure in other songs on the album like “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and “Just Pretend”; a growing preference for dramatic ballads. Elvis’ vocal prowess had greatly improved since the ’50s; he now had a broader range, and he was anxious to show it off. This isn’t just seen when he’s singing ballads; gentler songs like “I Just Can’t Help Believin’” and “Mary in the Morning” showcase the ease with which Elvis could switch from a powerful vocal delivery to a more delicate touch, as required.

There is only one CD with recordings of rehearsals, which is a shame, as it’s fun to hear Elvis basically goofing off for an hour, especially when he’s singing songs he never recorded properly, like “Oh Happy Day” or “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” When singing his ’60s hit “Little Sister” live, he developed the habit of seguing into the Beatles’ “Get Back,” and the version on the rehearsal disc shows how easily he could caught up into endless vamping, as he switches back and forth between the two songs for nearly six minutes, the musicians right along there with him. There’s a great rendition of “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” originally released in 1969 on the From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis album, and even more of a down ‘n’ dirty blues here; it’s evidence of a side of Elvis you wish had been given more exposure in his live shows.

But the bulk of the CDs are given over to live shows, and it’s especially interesting listening to them in the order in which they’re performed. Elvis wasn’t one of those artists with a tightly scripted show. Though he opened and closed with the same numbers, he mixed it up in between, adding and dropping numbers from the set list and expecting his band to be able to adjust to whatever he threw at them.

There’s also a noticeable difference in mood between the dinner shows and the midnight shows. “Elvis loved performing, though I must say he hated that dinner show,” Elvis’ drummer, Ronnie Tutt, told me in an interview. “You have people ordering, the waiter picks up the fork from the salad plate drops it and it makes a loud noise — you can imagine that in a big room full of people. When you think about it, here we are up there singing, playing our hearts out, and these people are sitting there dining? What’s that all about? That’s why he loved the second show, because it was more like a concert. People were sitting there excited, they were pretty loose by then, there was a great feeling of anticipation, the evening was on — it was time to get down.”

From 1970 on, Elvis’ live act gave a quick nod to his ’50s past (with a few key exceptions, he didn’t do many songs from the ’60s), then moved on to contemporary material. The shows in That’s The Way It Is opened with “That’s All Right,” Elvis’ very first single, which he performs with muscular gusto (a medley of “Mystery Train” and “Tiger Man” gets a similar treatment). But he tends to race through his other ’50s numbers, like “Hound Dog.” “He didn’t want to be known as a rock ‘n’ roll singer any more,” in the opinion of Jerry Scheff, Elvis’ touring bassist in the ’70s. “He wanted to be respected for his vocal, his voice, and rock n’ roll didn’t do that for him. He wanted to do all those songs where he could really get emotional in them and show off his range, and I’m sure that he thought he was too old to do the rock n’ roll thing anymore. All the old rock stuff, the ’50s stuff, he would combine them into medleys so we could get through them fast.  Some of them like ‘Hound Dog,’ are so fast, they’re ridiculously fast — I’m convinced that he just wanted to get through them.”

But it’s those ’50s songs that made Elvis a musical innovator and gave him a distinctive style. In hindsight, this ’70s season captures Elvis in transition from a being powerhouse performer to a lounge singer. He’s still able to rock it up with energized performances of songs like “Polk Salad Annie,” “Patch It Up,” and especially “Suspicious Minds,” numbers that get him to move his body around with abandon. But eventually, the histrionic numbers held sway — the kind where the song builds to an emotional climax, with Elvis invariably striking a commanding pose at the end. It’s exactly what comes to mind when you think of Elvis in the 1970s; a guy in a jumpsuit singing “My Way.”

The two film versions of That’s The Way It Is show Elvis before his performances hardened into cliché. The 1970 edit is the more insightful one, as it’s about the Elvis phenomenon as much as it is about Elvis, who’s held at something of a distance; he readily mugs for the cameras, but doesn’t answer any questions. And there’s so much you’d like to know: how he puts the show together, how he chooses the musicians and the songs, where he’d like to take his career in the future. The viewer’s just a fly on the wall, observing; you’re allowed into the inner sanctum, but no secrets are revealed.

So instead of Elvis giving the film personality, it’s left to those who will talk to the camera; hotel staff, Anne Moses, then editor of teen magazine Tiger Beat, and various Elvis fans. The fans are the most interesting, if a little odd — like the two young women who talk about taking their cat to see Elvis. An intense young man with coke-bottle glasses threatens to send the filmmakers a “dirty little letter” if he doesn’t like their movie. A middle-aged woman confesses that seeing Elvis live “sends my Phi Beta Kappa key to jangling.” Elvis impersonators are seen jiving at a fan convention in England. If nothing else, it shows that there’s no “typical” Elvis fan.

But such footage was seen as an embarrassment to some, such as Ernst Jorgensen, who produces the Elvis’ reissues (he’s a co-producer of the That’s The Way It Is set) and oversaw the new edit of the film released on the its 30th anniversary. As someone who’s tried to refocus attention on Elvis’ achievements as an artist, Jorgensen told me he found the non-Elvis sequence to “nonsense footage … and it dates the film tremendously.” So instead of simply a DVD’s worth of new footage added to a 30th anniversary package, an attempt was made to usurp the original film by putting out a new edit, sans all that “nonsense,” under the same name (the film’s original director, Denis Sanders, was dead by then, and so couldn’t offer any objections). Jorgensen’s right that the non-Elvis footage does date the film. But that’s part of its charm. And after all, that’s inherent in the title, That’s The Way It Is, not “That’s The Way We Think It Should Be.”

In any case, both edits were released together in a single package in 2007, and they’re both in the new set as well. The set thankfully eschews some of the ephemera that appears in other sets of this ilk, like reproductions of tickets, concert posters, and other souvenir items, which only seem to be added to justify a high retail price. There’s a great, fully annotated booklet, and it’s all packaged in a nice album-sized slipcase.

That’s The Way It Is shows Elvis at his peak. Post 1970, Vegas, and touring, became routine. His wife left him. He began to put on weight. His drug intake increased. His health began to suffer. And the show never stopped. He gave his last performance on June 26, 1977. Fifty-one days later he was dead, on the verge of yet another tour. But there was a time when he still held the world in the palm of his hand. That’s The Way It Is was that moment.