Caught In a Trap

THE 1950’S – THE BEGINNING

Today almost everyone is aware of the great rags-to-riches story that Elvis Presley’s story was – he came from very humble beginnings but possessed an extraordinary talent and musical vision. At SUN studios in 1954 Elvis first tried his chops as a recording artist – with help from the owner Sam Phillips they created something that can’t properly be explained even today; the recordings show someone filled with young enthusiasm, unbreakable spirit and remarkable musical knowledge. Elvis was off to a good start but when he got a new manager and switched to RCA in late ’55, things started happening very fast. The next two years Elvis was like a runaway train that could not be stopped – slowed down occasionally, yes, but the ride simply didn’t stop.

Elvis posing for some photos at the New Frontier hotel’s pool area – April 1956.

Most people also know the story of Elvis and Las Vegas. By the end of his career he had a love-hate relationship with the place, but there was a time when no one lit up the Sin City quite like he did. It was no coincidence that some of his career’s greatest moments come from performing there, but also one of his earliest missteps. Long before the words “Elvis” and “Las Vegas” were practically synonymous, he stepped to the city as a young rising star in April 1956. The visit was the last stop on their long tour, and made the whole tour seem that much longer – the experience was completely different than what their shows usually were. The more mature and sophisticated audience was something Elvis wasn’t prepared for, but at the same time was maybe one of the things that kept him grounded in a time when he seemed almost invincible – it was, essentially, one of the first times Elvis “flopped”.
–> More detailed account of the visit in FLASHBACK

However, no matter how ‘traumatic’ this experience might have been on one level, on another, it woke up his love for the city – perhaps subconsciously he saw it as a challenge and thought that one day he’d return to win over the more sophisticated audience, not to mention because of his already developing insomnia he must have been fascinated by the ‘city that never sleeps’ and offered entertainment at any time of the day.

He paid many visits to Vegas over the years both in his private life and whenever his career took him there. He went to see many different performers there and found some glamorous dates in the process, made a movie in 1963 that was basically all about Vegas, got married there in 1967 and eventually in August 1969, ironically enough it would be the city where he would make his triumphant return to live performances after almost a ten year break.

But of all places, what was it that led him there? Good timing and a great opportunity.

 

In Hollywood…

…and on the road – 1957.

1957 saw the last of “Elvis live” for a while. There were a good amount of tours considering the fact he was also starting up his Hollywood career properly around the same time – this was something that was a dream of his. Love Me Tender was already released along with Loving You not long after, and Jailhouse Rock was about to hit the theaters later in the year. In fact around October (when the movie was released) and November Elvis always had a banner up somewhere on his shows that was advertising the movie – although this could’ve been more Parker’s idea than Elvis’.

While there were plenty of shows for him it wasn’t anywhere near the grueling schedules of the previous two years, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and surely welcomed by Elvis. After making his final live appearances in November ’57 and with Jailhouse Rock still in theaters, he went to work on his final 50’s movie full time – it would be the last thing he’d do before he’d head to the US army for the next two years. Elvis’ fourth movie, King Creole would be released when he had already started his service and with that, he had already had a taste of Hollywood, making movies and recording soundtrack albums for them.

 

THE 1960’S – WELCOME TO HOLLYWOOD!

After completing his National Service in March 1960, the first thing he did was go back in the recording studio and record not only some singles but a full album, and these had nothing to do with soundtrack sessions. It was strictly what he himself wanted to record. Even before the first single was recorded, it had sold over one million copies in advance-sales so despite Elvis’ own fears, the demand for him was certainly still there – practically all of his post army singles for the first year sold like hot cakes, and the album that came out from the process as well (Elvis Is Back!) is an extremely good example of Elvis at the top of his game even though he had been away for two full years. The vocals are sublime, well controlled and Elvis was trying out everything from something jazzy to more pop-oriented material, beautiful ballads and straight up blues.

In November the same year Elvis’ first proper gospel LP-album was also released, titled His Hand In Mine – although one might think this was also Elvis branching into something new, he had in fact already released an EP-album containing spirituals some three years earlier. This was music he had a very close relationship with all through his life, ever since singing spirituals in the church as a young child. As Elvis took gospel songs very seriously, the effort was showing and the album became a great seller.

On location shooting for Blue Hawaii (1961)

On the set of G.I. Blues (1960)

His first Hollywood project after getting discharged was conveniently enough called G.I. Blues, and was very loosely based on his time in the army. A great marketing ploy and it had its success as after all, it was the first time people properly saw Elvis after his discharge. The most notable movie of the time came a year later – Blue Hawaii, which turned out to be a very successful one. The movie itself was one of the top-10 grossing films of the year but the album stayed 20 weeks at the #1 slot, and 39 weeks in the top-10 altogether. This was enough for Elvis’ manager to be convinced this was a much more handy way of making money than concerts.

In the early 60’s Elvis gave only three live concerts – all in early ’61 and all for charity purposes. Two were held in Memphis in late February, and the third one a month later in Hawaii. They served their purpose well but because of the circumstances at the time, (Colonel Parker being against it as he felt people wouldn’t go see Elvis’ movies if they’d see him on stage, so he made Elvis pay for all the expenses of the shows) it would be the last times Elvis was seen on stage for over seven years. The high success of Blue Hawaii must’ve played a part on this as it was good leverage for Colonel Parker to convince Elvis it was indeed easier and better to just stay in movies.

So in the end, it didn’t actually take too long for Elvis to settle in Hollywood. After these shows Elvis headed there full-time and as he himself would later put it, “got in a rut”. He abandoned live performing altogether and year after year he put out a movie after a movie, even as many as three in one year – on top of that, he also recorded soundtracks for each as well as tried to concentrate on recording material outside the movies.

Elvis and Ann-Margret filming on-location at the Flamingo hotel – July 1963

It could have been a challenge for him for the first couple of years after his army stint, and he more than likely enjoyed the money that was pouring in for far lesser work than with live performing. The nice benefit of working alongside some of the prettiest ladies of the 1960’s Hollywood and interesting locations possibly didn’t hurt either. For one, in  July 1963 his career took him to Vegas once again; Elvis, his co-star Ann-Margret and the MGM crew went on-location to shoot for Viva Las Vegas – a movie that was like a massive advertisement billboard for Vegas.

The film itself is highly regarded among fans despite the fact it was one of many ‘formulatic movies’ – however, the great visual style capturing the fabulous Vegas scenery and the on-screen chemistry between Elvis and Ann-Margret makes it one of the, if not stronger, certainly more pleasing outings in Elvis’ Hollywood catalog. The film was also very successful financially when it was released in May 1964.

But as the years went by, the movies themselves would not only get more repetitive but also more songs would be crammed into one, even if they had no real purpose in the film. Just as long as Elvis was seen singing, Hollywood (and as it seems, the audience) was happy. Perhaps the thing that makes many of his films so “un-even” (for many fans) is indeed the fact that they’re very much lacking on the writing department. They were mostly lightweight musical comedies with essentially the same script over and over, while Elvis himself always wanted to be more a dramatic actor. He stated on interviews on multiple different occasions how it was his biggest ambition.

The problem was – he was given chances for portraying more serious roles, the type he always wished for himself through films like Flaming Star and Wild In the Country. While Elvis certainly did well with the roles, they simply weren’t selling like the more musical-type movies and so eventually basically all he got were singing roles. Yet, no matter the role or film, it was always financially well worth it for all parties – but for Elvis, by mid-60’s it wasn’t satisfying him as an artist anymore. By then it was clear to him that he wouldn’t become the type of actor he always wanted to – he was almost literally caught in a trap.

The never-ending string of soundtrack albums (1962-1965)…

Elvis himself would later recall how he sometimes felt physically ill as there was nothing he could do to make things change. Hollywood had established a certain image of him and they wanted to stick with it. All they could see were the dollar signs, easy money, and at the same time unfortunately Elvis was drifting further and further away from his fan base. By 1965 the bar had already dropped considerably, and Elvis’ sales weren’t what they used to be. Harum Scarum, Paradise Hawaiian Style, Easy Come Easy Go, Spinout, Double Trouble, Clambake – it was all starting to be too repetitive even for the most hardcore fan and when you have ten or more songs per movie, two-three movies per year, the standard for the songs will go down. Some of the worst recordings of Elvis’ career come from this time period; Yoga Is As Yoga Does, CONFIDENCE, Old McDonald… this was not the Elvis people wanted to see. This was not the real Elvis and there was no real reason why an artist of his stature should record material like this.

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