What If He Hadn’t Left The Building?

A few days ago, my friend Richard Gadsden suggested to me that I should write something about how Elvis might have had more artistically productive years in him had he lived. As this is a subject on which I have Opinions (and as Richard is one of my Patreons, and I’m planning to start writing posts on topics they suggest on an occasional basis anyway) I thought I’d give it a go.

Before we look at what I think would have happened with Elvis had he lived, though, I think I have to make the case that Elvis’ artistic contributions hadn’t *already* ended by the time of his death. There’s an unfortunate myth that Elvis was artistically a spent force from the moment he joined the army. It’s certainly true that Elvis was not *consistently* as great in the 60s as he had been in the 50s — allowing “Colonel” Parker to make decisions which sacrificed any kind of artistic integrity for quick money put paid to any hope of him having a completely artistically satisfying career. (On the other hand, which of us could say, hand on heart, that were we told “your job is to go and hang around on the beach in Hawaii, and to kiss several incredibly beautiful bikini-clad women. For a month of this arduous work, we will pay you two million dollars (at 1960s dollar values) — oh, but you also have to sing a stupid song about papayas”, we would say “no, I value my artistic integrity more than mere wealth”? Certainly you could buy a great deal of flexibility about my *own* integrity for a great deal less money than that).
Even during the 60s, though, Elvis recorded “Such A Night”, “Reconsider Baby”, “Little Sister”, “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame”, “Suspicious Minds”, “Guitar Man”, “Such A Night”, “Return to Sender”, “Long Black Limousine”, his two extraordinary albums of religious music, and more.

And then in the 70s, Elvis got really good. This has been rather obscured by a few factors. One of those is that he looked ridiculous to modern eyes — while he was only actually fat for a year or two prior to his death, it’s the image that remains of him. But of course fat people can still make great music. And the jumpsuits he wore then also look ridiculous now — but no more ridiculous than the stage costumes of *any* musical act in the mid-70s. It’s just that Elvis died before he could change his image.

But worse, from a legacy point of view, is that the music he was making wasn’t cool. There is still a belief, for God only knows what reason, that the only music which is artistically valid is music which is aimed at, and deals with the concerns of, hormonal middle-class adolescent males. Presley’s 70s music wasn’t like that. It dealt with the concerns of fat middle-aged divorced truck drivers — which given that Presley himself was a fat middle-aged divorced ex-truck driver is hardly surprising.

But if you’re able to listen to music without bringing some rather unpleasant bigotries around age and class to it, listen to the last album Elvis released in his lifetime, Moody Blue (Spotify link — and while searching for that I also found this — a double CD of his complete last studio recordings, released only this month, which I’m listening to as I write, and which is excellent).

Listening to that, what do you hear? You hear an extraordinarily tight band — the same people who backed Gram Parsons, playing the same kind of music Parsons played. 70s Elvis is the secret root of almost all Americana, the grandparent they’re embarrassed by and keep in the attic, but without which the entire genre wouldn’t exist. And over it all, THAT VOICE.

Elvis’ voice is less controlled in his last recordings than in the stuff he did up to about 1974. Whether this is because of his substance abuse problems or a deliberate artistic choice is open to question. But the thing is, that lack of control is only relative. Listen to that live version of Unchained Melody — he’s singing in at least three different ranges, different parts of his body, while playing the piano, and doing it with *extraordinary* projection. Listen to the final “to” in “to me”, where he manages to go from a low bass to high falsetto smoothly. That’s a GREAT singer. Then compare the vocals on “If You Love Me Let Me Know” — a light country tenor — to those on “Way Down”, a growling funky low baritone.

At the time of his death, Elvis was, quite simply, a better interpreter of popular song than anyone else alive at the time save *maybe* Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, or Frank Sinatra — and was, frankly, doing better work than those three at the time. If 70s Elvis had no artistic future, then *no* pure vocalist (so one who wasn’t also a writer) had an artistic future.

But what kind of future could he have had? He only put out a handful of albums in the 70s, because he was being worked to death by Tom Parker. So we need a plausible way in which this could have happened.

One exists. Assume Elvis didn’t have the heart attack in 1977, or that he survived it. Elvis’ father died about eighteen months later. Vernon Presley was, by all accounts, an extremely selfish, greedy, man who relied on his son for financial support, and who saw Tom Parker as a financial genius who was responsible for the income stream. Once Vernon was gone, there was no need for Elvis to be provider, and no-one with power over him to keep him with the Colonel.

So imagine Elvis sacks the Colonel in 1979. He hires Jerry Schilling to be his manager instead (Schilling was one of Elvis’ closest friends, and also managed the Beach Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis, so a plausible choice). Schilling recognises that Elvis has serious problems, and hires in the controversial therapist Eugene Landy, fresh from bringing Brian Wilson back from the brink (in our timeline, Schilling was the person who hired Landy to treat Wilson for the second time, in the early 80s, so again this is plausible).

What kind of career is plausible for Elvis in this timeline? Well, the one that isn’t plausible is one that a lot of people who only like Elvis’ 50s stuff fantasise about — Elvis is reinvigorated by punk, starts making simple rock records again, covers “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (for some reason *everyone* thinks Elvis would have covered Joy Division). This is a fundamental misreading of the kind of artist — and the kind of man — Elvis was. For the same reason, I don’t see him going the Rick Rubin route. Elvis was someone who was fundamentally not concerned with the kind of credibility someone like Rubin offers.

So here’s what happens. Elvis completely ignores punk and post-punk — he simply doesn’t get it. When Elvis Costello has a couple of hits, he makes some disparaging, insulting, remarks to the press about people stealing his name, but that’s about it. Instead, he makes a terrible disco album, probably produced and written by Barry Gibb. It flops horribly. During the early 80s rockabilly revival, there’s an abortive attempt to record something with Dave Edmunds producing, but it gets nowhere, as Elvis gets frustrated and says “I thought you were meant to be the new hot thing, but you’re just doing the same shit I was doing thirty years ago, boy.” — a single is released, but the planned album is on hold.

And his career doesn’t recover for several years, especially after his endorsement of Reagan for President turns the music press even more firmly against him. It doesn’t recover, in fact, until Live Aid.

Elvis was hesitant about doing Live Aid at all — it wasn’t his audience, and because of the fifteen-minute turnaround time he wouldn’t be able to use his full band, as there was simply not enough time to get them set up on the stage. However, Bob Geldof pressured him, and pointed out that he would literally be the only major star they didn’t have, and what that would do for his reputation.

So it was eventually agreed that to make it special, he’d get his old bandmates Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana together for the first time since 1968, with Jerry Scheff subbing for the late Bill Black on bass. They would do one song, just one, but that should be enough. They went on stage, horribly underrehearsed, and did a terrible version of “Hound Dog”. The audience applauded, but more out of embarrassment than anything else.

And something clicked inside Elvis’ brain. He wasn’t used to having to actually win an audience over. But he’d show them.

“I got time for one more, don’t I?”

The band looked confused.

“Oh, don’t worry fellas. I won’t be needing you.”

Elvis took off his guitar, and walked to the front of the stage, and completely alone, sang an a capella version of “How Great Thou Art”. That moment, endlessly shown in clips shows over subsequent decades, started the revival of Elvis’ career.

A TV special, “Elvis 86”, featuring guests Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Belinda Carlisle, and Mark Knopfler, was a success, and was quickly followed by a comeback album — Elvis’ first album of new material in five years. Produced by Jeff Lynne, and with songs contributed by Lynne, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, and others, it was widely regarded at the time as the first truly satisfying album he had ever released, although its reputation is now slightly lower than it was at the time.

It went to number one, as did the 1989 follow-up. That follow-up had a number of problems, not least Presley and Lynne falling out half-way through, with Mitchell Froom taking over the production role for the last five songs. But one song from the Lynne sessions — a Lynne/Petty co-write, “I Won’t Back Down” — returned Presley to the top of the charts.

After that, of course, came the classic Unplugged special and album. The early and mid nineties, though, saw a creative nadir for Presley, with short-lived collaborations with Mutt Lange, Jim Steinman, Diane Warren, and other purveyors of big ballads for film soundtracks. Many of these records were hits, and his duet with Celine Dion on “The Power of Love” is largely considered responsible for bringing her to the attention of Anglophone listeners, but really there’s very little of worth here. By the time he was sixty, the King was still regularly charting, but was creatively bankrupt.

Salvation came in the form of Don Was, who produced the Grammy-winning duets album The King and Them, featuring Elvis duetting on new versions of his hits with such then-popular singers as k.d. lang, Michael Stipe, Bono, and Alanis Morrissette. While in retrospect the album is fairly weak, and sold mostly as a novelty album, it made Elvis seem briefly hip again, for the last time.

In the last decade of his life, before his death in 2005 aged seventy, Elvis concentrated on making albums of cover versions. His record of Hank Williams covers, including a posthumous duet on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which was a minor country hit, was the first of several themed albums, including an album of covers of the R&B songs he had loved as a youth and three volumes of interpretations of the great American songbook.

So anyway… that’s the closest thing I can come up with to a way in which Elvis — a deeply inconsistent and frustrating artist, but one who was capable of greatness — would have had something close to an artistically reasonable career in the decades after 1977. It’s not what my fantasy Elvis career would be, but it *is* probably the best possible path through the kinds of choices the real man was likely to have made. I could go into more detail — about his occasional recurring guest role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, about his point-missing cover version of a Monty Python song, about his contribution to U2’s Rattle and Hum — but that’s the broad-strokes outline. With most of those albums, if we actually had them, we’d still be complaining about the problems, and about the frustration of listening to them knowing that he could have done so much more with his natural talent. If it was otherwise, it wouldn’t really be Elvis.

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5 Responses to What If He Hadn’t Left The Building?

  1. Nicely imagineered by someone who clearly *does* ‘get’ Elvis. I hadn’t heard the Joy Division cover idea but it seems typical. I also agree that the notion of Elvis being over by 1960 etc. is absurd – In the Ghetto and Way Down being my two favourites of the lot, and why I’ll probably always prefer EP to the Beatles. Jeff Lynne though… ugh – thank God that never happened.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      With the Jeff Lynne thing, I’m thinking specifically of the late 80s/early 90s period where Lynne was making something of a career out of producing hit records for older stars who hadn’t had a hit in a while — he did similar things with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Petty, and Randy Newman, and did a track for Brian Wilson’s solo album around that time too, before of course going on to do the Beatles reunion tracks. On most of those, he was able to restrain himself pretty well (apart from his godawful drum sound) and produce records which everyone said at the time were those people’s best records in decades (but which sound horribly dated now).

  2. Christian Taylor says:

    ” . . .his point-missing cover version of a Monty Python song”

    Would that have been “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”? Surely not “Christmas in Heaven” . . .

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