February, 1970. The early days of Elvis Presence. That was when true fans of Elvis Presley’s innate and unmatched talent started to settle and realize they’d settle for even less in the years ahead. Elvis still had the talent. The voice was still there. The swagger was still evident. He wasn’t making those silly movies anymore. He could still amaze us with a terrific new recording, one or two a year. The classic example was “Suspicious Minds,” the hit played in jukeboxes across America in the Summer of ’69 along with “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones and “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Yes, Elvis still had the pipes and he could still put his unique stamp on a song. He was playing in front of live audiences again. The reemergence that began with his acclaimed December ’68 TV special picked up steam. Elvis Presley had slipped from the public’s eye for much of the ’60s and now he was back. But not completely back. Quite frequently, instead of Elvis Presley, we got Elvis Presence.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Elvis Presence could be captivating. As Ringo Starr said, Elvis was “the man.” So with many, just seeing him walk on to the concert stage was satisfying enough. After all, “the man,” who inspired great cultural shifts in the ’50s remained a transcendent figure. We could bask in his presence. Yet, while in his presence, it was obvious, even before the drugs and health problems really took hold, that he was not as serious about his music anymore. That was particularly evident when listening to the live albums he recorded in Las Vegas and elsewhere on the concert trail. He seemed to race through his classic hits. His selection of covers was confounding. Some worked very well for him, as he appeared not only interested, but jazzed when it came to songs like “Release Me,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Proud Mary.” Yet others like “Polk Salad Annie” and “Steamroller Blues” were as much displays of machismo as they were anything musical. The selection and posturing got even worse in the remaining years of his life. “You Gave Me A Mountain,” “Welcome To My World” and “Let Me Be There” should not be included on any list of 250 best songs by Elvis Presley, but they remained in his repertoire.
The Beatles’ classic “Yesterday” was a splendid match for Presley’s talents. Its engaging and complex melody is quietly beautiful. The words do not conjure great drama but their reflective nature does provide a sense of loss and of being careless with matters of the heart. There’s a hurting feeling about the song. On The Beatles’ original version, Paul McCartney (he wrote the song and is the only Beatle on the recording) reveals vulnerability. “Yesterday” is about a love gone wrong. McCartney’s vocal treatment affirms the feeling of the lover left behind. That lover knows things have fallen apart; understanding why will take time. Certainly, this thoughtful story-in-song could have been sung with bodhi and tenderness by Elvis Presley. Such an approach came easily to him. But with “Yesterday,” he fell short.
“Yesterday” was included on Presley’s album, On Stage: February 1970, recorded live at The International Hotel, Las Vegas. The album has its highlights, with covers of recent hits by the likes of Joe South, Neil Diamond and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Other selections go back a decade or more. The 1959 hit by Ray Peterson, “The Wonder of You,” is covered and becomes a hit once again. While the song itself is a bit mushy, Presley still delivers a first-rate performance. In fact, much of the material included on this live album seemed to confirm that Presley was in full gear, just as he was before joining the Army in 1958. But he missed on what should have been his big moment.
As his band begins “Yesterday,” it’s plain that Presley meant well. His singing is mindful and measured. The great voice and the great song blend beautifully. However, as he repeats the bridge, “why she had to go … ,” it appears he’s lost interest in the song. The background vocals swell. From there the performance is all about the build-up to a proper Vegas closing. Elvis Presley had left the building and Elvis Presence took his place.
Before We Fall Apart At The Seams . . . While watching the documentary film, Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, at home a few years ago, my wife said she felt sorry for Elvis. It was interesting that Gena, hardly one to withhold empathy, made her comment during the concert segment of the film, which featured dynamic performances by Presley. But knowing the Presley story quite well, she knew what lay ahead. Presley’s story, despite the great success he experienced, is among the saddest in the world of entertainment. Empathy was in order.
Filmed in August, 1970, Elvis: That’s The Way It Is has a few moments in which we’re getting only Elvis Presence, but for the most part it captures Presley, bristling with spirit and excited to be working that great voice before live audiences. He’s suavely commanding as he puts his own stamp on “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” a Dusty Springfield hit four years prior. Take a look and take a listen: Elvis is in charge, working the band and singing with gusto. At the song’s opening, whereas Springfield made “When I said I needed you, you said you’d always stay” a bereft appeal, Presley took the same words and made them sound as a firm reminder. He was making his case.
Earlier in the set, on “Patch It Up,” an infectious rocker with stock lyrics, Presley gave a little demonstration, as Otis Redding would put it, of why he was still regarded as the King of Rock and Roll. The music charges and pounds away, and Presley’s at the center of it all. There’s James Burton spinning off his clean but frisky guitar licks. The horns blast away, pushing Presley, and not only is he up to the fervent challenge, he’s exhilarated by it. It’s an electrifying performance. Ringo Starr was right. There’s much to lament about Presley’s life and career, but Elvis was “the man.”
Roughly 17 years later, with Presley now gone for a decade, was James Burton on stage at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, still spinning out those inventive guitar licks, this time for Elvis Costello. Burton, whose playing brought so much light to the recordings of Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and others, was putting in another stellar performance that November evening in ’87. Costello closed the set with “Tokyo Storm Warning,” a relentless and booming song from his Blood and Chocolate album. It had not been a hit for Costello, peaking on the U.K. single charts at #87, but it was a terrific choice to wrap up an evening of great music. As with “Patch It Up,” the musicians on “Tokyo Storm Warning,” were going full-steam-ahead, and Costello was, like Presley had been, in command and enjoying a prime moment in his career. Those two guys named Elvis certainly participated in some thrilling moments with James Burton.