Elvis was a hero to most

(Above: The ’68 Comeback Special is the pinnacle of Elvis Presley’s artistry after he got out of the army.)

By Joel Francis

Elvis Presley led a boring life.

I realize this seems like a preposterous statement, especially coming from someone who devoted a good deal of time reading Peter Guralnick’s 1,000-plus page, two-volume biography of The King. But I stand by my statement.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Carless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley stand as the definitive works on the totality of Elvis’ life. Other books might provide better insight into a specific part of Elvis’ story, but for a cradle-to-grave examination, I can’t imagine how anyone could do it better than Guralnick.

In addition to being a great writer, Guralnick is a thorough researcher. While Elvis left no record of his life beyond the carefully cultivated figure in copious interviews, films and records, Guralnick gets to the soul of the man through first-hand interviews with scores of musicians, friends and – most importantly – women.

Through the memories of Dixie Locke, Elvis’ first girlfriend, we see the inception of his royalty. She was 15 when they met (Elvis was 19) and a sophomore in high school. They started seeing each other regularly when Elvis was a truck driver, delivering supplies at job sites for Crown Electrical in Memphis. Locke paints the picture of a man who was confident in his ability as a musician, but didn’t want to be pushy about his passion. Elvis’ always had his guitar with him and wouldn’t hesitate to play and sing if asked, but would never initiate a performance on his own.

Locke was on a two-week vacation with her parents when Elvis got the call from Sam Phillips to cut some songs for Sun Records. When she returned, Elvis was playing shows all over the area with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Elvis and Locke did an admirable job of trying to remain a couple, but Elvis’ life had changed too much over that short amount of time. He was home less and less and the couple found they had fewer things in common each time he was back in Memphis. Elvis was still shy, tender and devoted, but he was no longer living a life that could be contained by a white picket fence and nine-to-five job.

Elvis’ rise on the Louisiana Hayride tours, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan television shows is well-covered territory. In many ways, his life crescendos upon entering the army. Although just 23 at the time, Elvis and his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, were worried a fickle public would forget about The King while he was overseas. When Elvis returned from Germany two years later, he hit the ground running, recording singles and making movies to regain any lost momentum. He also came back with a habit for pills and a 14-year-old love interest, Priscilla Beaulieu.

In many ways, the events of 1960 and Elvis’ return to America set up a cycle of events that he was either never willing or able to escape for the rest of his life. Elvis would fly to Los Angeles or go on location for a movie shoot for a few weeks, pop into a California or Nashville studio to record the music for the film’s soundtrack, a stand-alone single or his own album, have a few weeks off, then be off to another movie shoot with a sprinkling of several more recording sessions, rinse, lather, repeat.

In the days of the Kennedy administration, it seemed like everything Elvis touched turned to gold. He had hit records and was a big box office draw. Because success came so quickly, both before and after the army, Elvis kept a tight circle of friends, people he knew from Memphis or the service, people he could trust. This is certainly natural and understandable. And because Elvis and his crew were all males in their early 20s, it made sense for everyone to burn the candle at both ends and have as much fun as possible. If that meant you had to take a few pills so you could stay up for 20-plus hours at a time and cavort around Las Vegas or the Sunset Strip, so be it.

The enduring problem was Elvis never found a greater purpose in life. He began with ambition to be a legitimate actor in the mold of Marlon Brando or James Dean, but it didn’t take long for Parker or the studio heads to realize that people would gladly pay just for the privilege of seeing their idol on the big screen, regardless of the vehicle. So, any attempts at prestige went out the window and the movies got quicker and cheaper. For most of the ‘60s, Elvis was appearing in three new movies each year.

Likewise, the unmistakable brilliance in being able to transform a standard like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into something completely fresh and revolutionary was also being commodified. In order to make as much money as possible, Parker and RCA records insisted that they have a significant cut of the publishing on any song Elvis would record. As the decade progressed, the person responsible for finding new material from their publishing company got lazier and lazier and the material suffered significantly. There are many true gems to emerge from this period, like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “Viva Las Vegas.” But those moments are tarnished by the amount of embarrassing dreck like “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Near the end of the decade, Elvis was tired of releasing such undercooked material (although he never got tired of cashing the checks). His routine had been pretty static for several years at this point, although because Elvis’ fame kept growing, the circle around him became even more insular and isolating. And because everyone had been taking stimulants to stay awake for so long, they now needed depressants to help them sleep.

Here again, the underlying issue of a greater purpose comes back to the fore. When you can buy anything you want without fear of running out of money, when you can bed any woman you want on charm alone and you can get out of any jam simply because you are Elvis Presley it all becomes very rote very quickly. Put another way, a life without friction is no life at all.

Elvis, June 1968

Elvis flirted with different hobbies, trying to fill that void. He bought a ranch and everyone got horses, he got into karate, then collecting law enforcement badges, guns and racquetball, but eventually tired of it all. Nothing scratched that itch.

Shortly after the summer of love, Elvis finally stood up for himself and declared he wanted to start touring again. (As a point of reference as to how out-of-touch Elvis was at this time, try imagining him at the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock. It is almost impossible.) Coincidentally, the public was finally tiring on to Elvis’ cinematic manure and stopped showing up at the theaters. The ’68 Comeback Special re-established The King’s musical bona fides and invigorated his recordings for a while. The fans flocked to his concerts, which earned rave reviews, but in reality, Elvis had only traded three- or four-week movie shoots for two- or three-week tours. The rest of his hamster wheel remained the same.

After Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla ended in divorce, he desperately started cycling through a dizzying number of women. This time, though, he wasn’t (just) looking for sex. He was searching for a connection. He felt isolated from his entourage, his family, his manager, even well-meaning fans. Who he was as a person had been consumed by what he was as a celebrity.

Several women in Guralnick’s book express surprise that when they met Elvis, thinking their world was going to get larger. Instead, it shrank to hotel suites, Graceland and a dozen constant hangers-on. By the mid-‘70s, Elvis had given up any pretense of caring. He put on weight, quit trying onstage and lashed out at everyone around him. The merry-go-round of uppers and downers had given way to cocaine.

Elvis, June 1976

In his final years, Elvis was burning through money in futile attempts to buy intimacy. He’d buy a fancy car for a girl on their first date, then get sad when she wanted to leave Graceland to be with her friends or family. “Well I gave her a car and she leaves me in it,” Elvis quipped. He begged his dates to hold his hand and stay with him until the pills take over enough for him to fall asleep. He speaks baby talk and expects them to wait on and care for him. By the end, it is no surprise that Elvis dies, only that the inevitable took so long. And it didn’t really take that long. Picture Elvis in that gorgeous black leather attire onstage in the fabulous (and weird) ’68 Comeback Special. Now think of him bloated, squeezed into a jumpsuit. Those moments are less than 10 years apart.

Could this have been avoided? Looking at Judy Garland and Kurt Cobain, the answer seems negative. But Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Dave Grohl would say otherwise. Heck, Frank Sinatra outlived Elvis by two decades, and Sinatra started his career when Elvis was in grade school.

Elvis rarely spoke up for himself, preferring to follow a schedule someone else laid out for him. Maybe he didn’t want to let down all the people depending on him, but it ultimately meant he became a pawn in his own life. He was far too content with the superficial for far too long, rarely searching for depth until he had become fallow.

As Guralnick notes in the introduction to Careless Love, Elvis’ story is a tragedy. It is compelling and fascinating by what it suggests and lacks, but as a long-form, day-by-day narrative, it plays like a boring recitation of Groundhog’s Day as the same events cycle past again and again. As a vacation, I’d swap places with Elvis in a second, but in the long view I’ll take my mundane life over Elvis’ boring one any time.

Cue “Heartbreak Hotel.” Roll credits.

Keep reading:

KC Recalls: Elvis Presley at Kemper Arena

Peter Guralnick and Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

(Above: Solomon Burke takes a mid-day festival crowd to church with “If You Need Me.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Soul legend Solomon Burke died Sunday at an airport in Amsterdam. The 70-year old singer was best known for 1960s soul classics such as “Got To Get You Off My Mind” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which was covered by Wilson Pickett and the Blues Brothers.

Although he made his name in the ‘60s, Burke released several stunning albums in the last decade of his life. His 2002 comeback “Don’t Give Up On Me” featured songs written specifically for him by Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Nick Lowe. In 2006, Buddy Miller helmed “Nashville,” an Americana-themed album featuring support from Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. 2005’s “Make Do With What You Got” is another crucial piece of Burke’s renaissance.

I never got to see Burke perform. In fact, unless I missed him at the old Blues and Jazz Fest, I can’t recall him even stopping in Kansas City in the last 15 years. I always hoped Bill Shapiro would be able to book him for one of his excellent Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly series. Sadly, it was not to be.

But while I missed out, thousands of fans around the world were able to enjoy the king of rock and soul up close. Writer Peter Guralnick devotes an entire chapter to Burke in his classic 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music.” Plenty has been written about Burke’s musical legacy; the following recollections from the book spotlight Burke’s colorful personality.

 

Burke during his glory days.

 

Burke was signed to Atlantic Records in 1961, in part to fill the hole that had been left when Ray Charles departed for ABC. Burke had, Guralnick wrote, “a combination of Sam Cooke at his mellifluous best and Ray Charles at his deep-down and funkiest, an improbable mix of sincerity, dramatic artifice, bubbling good humor, multitextured vocal artistry.”

Music was Burke’s love, but he always had a little something extra going on the side. Before signing to Atlantic, the Philadelphia-based singer struggled to bridge the gap between gospel and something bigger. When his first independent singles didn’t perform to expectation, he briefly left the music business to become a mortician, a skill he never completely abandoned. During an early Atlantic recording session, he begged out early to return to Philadelphia where he worked a snow-removal job for $3.50 an hour.

The ability – and willingness – to deliver a wide range of musical styles, from country to soul to gospel, not only made Burke a nationwide star, but disguised his race in a still very-segregated landscape. In “Sweet Soul Music” Burke described a Friday night gig in Mississippi that looked like a dream.

“They had those big flatbed trucks with the loudspeakers hooked up, and the black people was just bringing us fried chicken and ribs,” Burke recalled. “Oh, my God, they got corn on the cob, they making cakes and pies, they got hot bread, barbecued ribs …. Oh, man, I can’t begin to tell you – it looked like the festival of the year!”

Before the band went on, the sheriff instructed them when to take the stage and end their set, and promised protection and an escort back to the highway. When the band went onstage at the appointed time Burke noticed odd lights in the distance.

“All the way as far as your eye could see was lights, like people holding a blowtorch, coming, they was just coming slowly, they was coming toward the stage,” Burke said. “They got closer and closer. Man, they was 30,000 Ku Klux Klanners in their sheets – it was their annual rally. The whole time we played we played that show those people kept coming. With their sheets on. Little kids with little sheets, ladies, man, everybody just coming up, just moving under the lights, everyone dancing and having a good time.”

True his word, the sheriff made sure there was no trouble, and the band departed unscathed – not that they lingered any longer than necessary.

In 1964, radio station WEBB in Baltimore crowned Burke the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul. Burke took the title seriously and began performing from a thrown and wearing a crown. It was his royal cape, however, that caused the biggest problem.

 

If you haven't read Peter Guralnick's wonderful book, you are missing out.

 

The other reigning king of R&B had featured a cape in his shows for some time, and James Brown took offense to what he considered Burke’s stealing part of the act. The feud came to a head when Brown hired Burke to open in Chicago for $10,000. That was good money for a one-night stand in the early ‘60s, made even better when Burke was told he could use the James Brown Orchestra, saving his own band expenses.

Shortly before show time, Brown’s assistant met with Burke, ensuring Burke had his throne, red carpet, robe and crown all ready to go. Burke confirmed he was ready to go. When it was time to go on, Burke was standing in the wings in full regalia as the introduction started – only the emcee introduced Brown instead.

“James came on with his cape, dancing on the carpet. That was funny, man,” Burke said. “He says, ‘Your job, just watch me. Watch the real king.’”

At one point in the show, Brown asked Burke to come onstage and place his crown on Brown’s head. Even though he never performed, the crowd chanted Burke’s name all night.

“(Brown) says ‘Solomon Burke cannot perform because he’s been decrowned,’” Burke said. “I never did find out what ‘decrowned’ meant. But it was, as I say, very amusing.”

It was also an easy way to pick up ten grand. After the show Burke told Brown he’d be willing to do the whole thing over again the next night for a discounted price of $8,000. It was a generous gesture for Burke, who while not exactly cheap, recognized – like Brown – the value of making a buck.

For example, he frequently traveled with a mini convenience store of sandwiches, orange juice, tomato juice and ice water. As the odometer turned on the tour bus, so increased the price of Burke’s goods. Otis Redding’s brother Rodgers Redding remembers one tour with Burke.

“(Burke) always carried stuff like ice water, cookies, candy, gum; even though he didn’t drink at all, you’d go into his room at the hotel and see all this, Courvoisier, different kinds of wine, the whole room would be full of booze. He’d have a hot plate, frying pan, flowers, roses, everything, just for his guests, whoever would come by.

“I remember one tour,” Redding continued, “Solomon was selling his ice water for ten cents, sandwiches for a dollar – everybody just laughed at him. By the time they got halfway there, he was selling that water for a dollar, sandwiches for $7.50!”

Jim Crow laws in the South had given Burke a captive marketplace, but also provided a generous audience in each town. Burke taught his band never to eat out after a gig – the little old ladies would always provide a nicer meal for free in their home than they could imagine at a restaurant. Sometimes they offered more.

“Them old ladies would come out with their biscuits and fresh-baked pies, they’d say ‘Here’s some fresh milk for you, son, just be sure and bring back my thermos.’ Fried chicken, barbecued ribs, ham hocks, collard greens, man it was great,” Burke said. “Then them old ladies would say, ‘Son, would you drive my granddaughter out to the main highway? Don’t you worry none, she can find her own way back.’”

Every facet of Burke’s personality converged when he played the Apollo Theater at the height of his popularity in the mid-‘60s. Playing the famed theater was a dream for most performers, but Burke, as always, wanted a little something extra. He had language included in his contract that gave him control of the theater’s concessions that night. Known for strolling the aisles at intermission and hawking wares, this is what the theater owners thought they were agreeing to. Burke, however, had other plans.

 

The king of Rock and Soul on his throne.

 

Bobby Schiffman, brother of Apollo owner Frank Schiffman, picked up the story in his other brother Jack Schiffman’s book “Uptown: The Story of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”

“Solomon arrived … with a cooker on which he fried pork chops to sell the gang backstage, and a carton of candy,” Schiffman said. “I decided to humor him – until the truck pulled up.”

It seems Burke had recently bought into a chain of drugstores and had an abundance of popcorn. He had taken to hauling a trailer of the stuff around to his shows and passing it out. So when the Apollo deal was struck, Burke thought he had the perfect means of ridding himself of the overstocked kernels.

“I had about 10,000 stickers printed up to go on the boxes of popcorn saying, ‘Thank you for coming to the Apollo Theater from Solomon Burke, Atlantic Records Recording Artist. Your Box of Soul Popcorn,’” Burke told Guralnick.

After nearly giving the Schiffman family a collective heart attack, the two parties hastily renegotiated. In Burke’s version of the story, he agreed to take a loss on the rest of his food and cede concessions back to the theater provided he could still distribute the popcorn. In Bobby Schiffman’s version the family bought the popcorn off Burke for $50,000 provided he not sell anything else in the theater that night.

“That’s been my problem my whole life in entertainment: I utilize my educational background and maybe that makes me a little too smart for my britches,” Burke said. “They assumed my intelligence was limited, that my ability to supply a demand was limited. I wasn’t even thinking about singing that week. My biggest shot was: get rid of that popcorn. But it was the greatest publicity thing that I ever did.”

Keep reading:

Talking King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Jay Bennett, Always In Love

The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part One): The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues

Down on “Cypress Avenue”