Showing posts with label Albert Goldman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Albert Goldman. Show all posts

Monday, February 4, 2008

Wednesday, January 13, 1960: Haley's Comet(s)

In yesterday's blog I referred to Albert Goldman's controversial biography Elvis (1981). Having mentioned the book, I was prompted to return to it and re-read the portions relevant to Elvis's army career, and found that, contrary to the general perception many have of the book, Goldman demonstrated a good deal of empathy for Elvis's predicament at the time he was drafted and that he also made some important observations. For instance:

For from Elvis's viewpoint, he had nothing to gain from the army and everything to lose. At the time he entered the service, he was at the very peak of his fame. With fads and fashions in pop music changing constantly, with a host of imitators and rivals springing up to steal his stuff, with fame itself such a freaky and chancy thing, what likelihood was there that he could come back two years hence and pick up exactly where he left off? There was none; and, in fact, Elvis never did regain the momentum he lost when he entered the army. So, from Elvis's point of view, his conscription was the worst sort of disaster that could have befallen him as an entertainer and a new star. (324 Avon paperback edition).

Thus it seems appropriate that on the very day Elvis and his service buddies traveled to Paris on leave, January 12, Bill Haley and His Comets were at Bell Sound Studios in New York City recording material that would be used on two albums for Warner Brothers released in 1960: Bill Haley and His Comets (pictured above) and Bill Haley's Jukebox. According to Chris Gardner's authoritative Bill Haley sessionography, on January 13, 1960 Bill Haley and the Comets were re-recording their signature tune, "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" for Warner Brothers, as well as "Stagger Lee" and, ironically, "Blue Suede Shoes," the earlier hit for Elvis. Of course, all these songs might be considered rock and roll "standards" as it were, but the juxtaposition of these two seemingly unrelated events, one happening in Paris and the other New York, bears out Goldman's argument that while Elvis was in the army, rock and roll (and popular music) was blithely moving on without him. Despite the fact that the two albums of material released in 1960 by Bill Haley and His Comets are comprised largely of covers, in retrospect they were significant releases, as the previous year Warner Brothers Records had begun to take the steps which, by the end of the 1960s, transformed it into a major label with a significant popular music catalog. The Bill Haley and His Comets recording sessions for Warner Brothers were produced by the formidable George Avakian, an important figure in American recording history and an especially important figure in jazz music. He had joined Warner Brothers the year before with the specific task of building its pop music catalog, and among the first acts he convinced to move to WB was Bill Haley and His Comets. (Avakian also signed The Everly Brothers and comedian Bob Newhart.) Prior to moving formally to Warner, Avakian had been asked to produce Tab Hunter's first WB single, "Jealous Heart," which became the label's first charted single. Of course, Tab Hunter was never a serious rival to Elvis, but the point is clear enough: while Elvis was in the army, any number of figures were found to replace him. Perhaps those figures weren't as talented as Elvis, but the point is that among his achievements what Elvis created was a set of performance possibilities, the "opening up" of styles of performance, so it really didn't matter whether those figures were equally talented.

Of course, none of these historical developments answer the daunting question asked by Albert Goldman in his biography of Elvis: "As to the question of why the Colonel should have urged Elvis to interrupt his career at its peak in order to join an army that was in no hurry to draft him, we find ourselves up against one of the most baffling questions posed by Colonel Parker's mysterious machinations." (328) Perhaps the Colonel believed that no one could "copy" or "imitate" Elvis, and that is true (although there were those that tried, but were unsuccessful), but the successful ones who followed him didn't try to copy him, but used the opportunities Elvis gave them to create their own styles of performance. Perhaps that is what the Colonel did not see or understand was possible when he stopped Elvis's career dead in its tracks.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tuesday, January 12, 1960: Parisian Romp

I've never been able to shake the impression that Elvis's year and a half in Germany (October 1958-March 1960) while a soldier in the U. S. Army had a sort of surreal quality to it. Arriving in Bremerhaven on October 1, 1958 and met by approximately 1,500 unruly fans, Der Elvis must have experienced a sense of deja vu, believing for a moment he was back in America. Soon after his arrival, he boarded a train to Friedberg, northeast of Frankfurt, where he and the other members of the Thirty-second Tank Battalion, Third Armored Division, were installed in the austere, grey-bricked Ray Barracks which, about twenty years earlier, had been the barracks of Hitler's S. S. troops.

"I'd like to meet Brigitte Bardot," Elvis had said while still in America, on the day he departed for Germany, and perhaps he'd meant it, because twice he used the opportunity that extended leave gave him to visit Paris. Apparently he never met Brigitte Bardot, but in addition to meeting lots of cute German girls, while on leave Der Elvis also met many cute French girls. Peter Guralnick, in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 1999) said that while in Germany Elvis had other sorts of encounters as well, having met "pills that a sergeant had introduced him to when they were on maneuvers at Grafenwöhr" (p. 21). Guralnick goes on to write on the same page that one time one of Elvis's service buddies observed Elvis exchange some "'large bills'" for "over four quart-size bottles of amphetamines....When Elvis returned to the car, he said with a wink, 'Rexadus, it ain't what you know but who you know that counts in this old world.' And Rex couldn't help but think, 'And if you got lots of money it helps.' "

Albert Goldman, author of the much-maligned (read: mythbusting) biography Elvis (McGraw-Hill, 1981) isn't quite so sure that Elvis was first introduced to amphetamines in Germany, believing that this explanation is nothing but an expression of the old "innocence corrupted" myth--the inevitable Platonic apocalyptic sequence of deviation from the Good--that fans hold on to about their cherished King. I tend to agree with Goldman: there's no evidence that Elvis did not use amphetamines prior to entering the Army--his mother's use of "weight loss" pills is well documented--and well-known Memphis figures Elvis knew before entering the service, such as Dewey Phillips, allegedly got by with a little help from their friends.

According to Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen's Elvis Day By Day (Ballantine, 1999), on Tuesday, January 12, 1960, Elvis traveled with his friends Joe Esposito, Cliff Gleaves, and his new found friend and recently hired karate instructor, Jurgen Seydel--"the father of German karate"--to Paris. Required to return to the base by Sunday, Guralnick reports the second trip to Paris was "much the same" (p. 49) as the first trip to the city of lights, meaning an amphetamine-fueled nighttime trip fantastic, in which Der Elvis careened "from one improbable fantasy to another" (34). The Parisian romps anticipated his life-to-come in America after returning from exile in Germany:

They woke up late in the day to have their one full meal, a huge 8:00 p.m. breakfast. Then they would catch the first show at the Carousel or the Folies Bergère, and from there go on to the Lido, where the statuesque chorus line, the Blue Belles, were all English girls eager to make Elvis Presley's acquaintance. After the Lido closed, they would proceed to Le Bantu, a late-night club which didn't open until 4:00 a.m., bringing with them as many of the Blue Belles as wanted to come along. At the end of the evening Elvis would take his pick from among all the girls, leaving the rest for [the others] to choose from. (34)

Returning from his second trip to Paris on Sunday, January 17, Elvis had just about seven weeks left in the Army. He would return to America late on the evening of March 2, and three days later, on March 5, the King would be formally discharged from the service. Hence, on January 12, his army nightmare was just about over, but Elvis's image would be irrevocably altered (perhaps intentionally) during his absence, and his cultural influence effectively over. As John Lennon is supposed to have remarked upon hearing of Elvis's death in 1977: "Elvis died the day he went into the army."