Why didn't Elvis record more rock 'n roll and rhythm and blues?

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by sweetdudejim, Nov 13, 2019.

  1. sweetdudejim

    sweetdudejim Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Flagler Beach
    I've been thinking of starting this thread for a bit after reading a bit in the Elvis '70s thread. I can't remember exactly what was being said, but what I remember was certain talking about what a different singer Elvis was in the '70s than he was in the '50s. And people got to talking about him and his lack of much (if any) real rock 'n roll or rhythm and blues on his later albums. So I figured I'd make a thread about this to expand upon this, and not have it lost in the middle (of an admittedly great) thread.

    So my thing is, was Elvis really that much of a fan of rock 'n roll or rhythm and blues? Did he really care for the stuff?

    Let's start from the beginning of his recording career. He started off recording four ballads. Stirring stuff in my opinion, listening to it now, knowing what he became, but definitely not a hint of what was coming. Then, even during the "That's All Right" session, we have him again working on "Harbor Lights." Now don't get me wrong, I think a lot of the ballads from the Sun sessions are the best things that Elvis ever did. That includes "Blue Moon", "I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')", "Harbor Lights" and "Tomorrow Night."

    After "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and whatnot, Elvis ends up taking off as a rock 'n roller. Has lots of hits with a whole lot of rockers, along with some amazing mid-tempo cuts and of course a nice amount of gorgeous ballads. Most anybody reading this thread knows the story. But quickly we'll just say that before the Army I'd say he recorded some of his most raucous rock 'n roll. Stuff like "A Big Hunk O' Love", "Hard Headed Woman", "I Need Your Love Tonight", etc.

    When he returns from the Army he definitely does some great work. Not as much rock 'n roll, but times had changed a bit. But regardless, he made some really nice albums like Elvis Is Back and Pot Luck and of course recorded some of his best ballads, like "It's Now or Never" along with "Are You Lonesome Tonight" and "Can't Help Falling in Love." His ballad material on Blue Hawaii I also thought was for the most part top notch.

    As the '60s went on he got bogged down with the soundtracks, only with the occasional reprieve, such as the beautiful gospel album How Great Thou Art and also some nice singles, like "Big Boss Man" and "Guitar Man." Then after the comeback special, he really seemed to to be reinvigorated cutting great stuff like From Elvis In Memphis and Elvis Country, not to mention quite a few great singles. However, after the wonderful soul music from Memphis in '69 and the great country and rock from Nashville in '70, we don't really hear a convincing rocker from Elvis besides "Burning Love" and "Promised Land." I think wonderful stuff like the incredible "Hurt" and the sneakily affecting "Pledging My Love" also fall under the rock flag as well, but I think you all know what I mean.

    I know Elvis said in '72 (?) something like a "good rock tune was hard to find" or something, but I kinda get the feeling that he wasn't looking. Because I also think good MOR ballads were also hard to find, but he seemed to find some of the corniest trash around to record. And yes, I know some of this comes down to Felton Jarvis and the Colonel, but ultimately it was Elvis' name on his albums and singles. And besides his '60s soundtracks, I think for the most part, Elvis spent his career recording what he wanted to record. And in the '70s that meant very little rock 'n roll. And I think anybody calling stuff like "Way Down" or "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" rock are kinda kidding themselves. Not to mention the way that he treated some of his rock 'n roll hits on stage. After around 1970, I don't think you could find a serious attempt at "Hound Dog" (though I must admit, that is a tough tune to replicate) or a version of "Jailhouse Rock" where he wasn't just breezing through the lyrics. One up-tempo tune that he did seem to put a bit of heart into was "Trying to Get to You."

    But yeah, I guess my point is that for of a man referred to as the "King of Rock 'n Roll" he didn't have much interest in showing us why he is/was. I get that we all change, and I'm probably about as far from a "rock-ist" as one could get. I appreciate artists growing and not trying to be their 20 to 25 year old self when they get older. And not for a second did I think Elvis should've been out there in the '70s trying to out-rock Zep or something. However, I do think he coulda tried to be something more than a contemporary of Neil Sedaka and tom Jones.

    To finish, with Elvis, it seems like his musical stew that combined rhythm and blues, gospel, country and whatnot was what really made him resonate with a lot of us, and as time went on, a lot of the rhythm was lost. And I wonder why that was.

    I'm sorry if this was a bunch of redundant nonsense. Hopefully I'm not wasting anyones time.
  2. writteninwater

    writteninwater Forum Resident

    He did not seem to find the rocking foot in the 70s, except for a few songs like "Burning Love". Could it be that he felt out of touch with what was going on in rock? There was no real rock 'n' roll revival before the early 80s. I guess "Elvis rock" was considered passé in the 70s? And Elvis was 40 in 1975. It was kind of old then, when the new rock generation said they did not trust anyone over 30. It must have made him feel "old"? He was first generation rocker. It's only now that we realize that rock can be performed at the ege of 90. Jerry Lee Lews, Carl Perkins.. they all went country music. Well, I don't know... I say this in traditional broken English.
  3. John B Good

    John B Good Forum Hall Of Fame

    NS, Canada
    I remember first hearing Reconsider Baby on an LP issued in the 90s. I was very impressed!

  4. sweetdudejim

    sweetdudejim Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Flagler Beach
    Great early '60s blues track. Wish he did more like it!
  5. Rick Bartlett

    Rick Bartlett Forum Resident

    Great thread idea!
    I doubt the material 'wasn't' there if he was really looking!
    I wonder because he'd built himself into this monster 'only do the big material' kind of performer?
    Those sorts of older style tunes may well have been 'in his mind', not to the intensity of the level of 'Trilogy', 'Bridge', 'Thou Art' etc etc
    From a live big production performance, songs like 'Blue Suede Shoes' and 'Mess of Blues' weren't to the same caliber.
    Even if some were re-worked into what I'd call 'average' arrangements like 'Hound Dog' where it was played
    at million miles and big band arrangements that seemed like some kind of 'throwaway' approach to having to play the hits to keep fans happy....
    Perhaps as more time went on, and if his renaissance kicked in, he may have reworked his whole act, as artists do,
    and we could have had Scotty and DJ back for a reunion on the early style material etc in some capacity.
    The fact that he died in 77, didn't give enough time for any of those possibilities.
    Even George Harrison said something along the line of, 'I wish he had of dropped all the big band stuff....'
    I'd 'wish' to hope, in the years that would have followed, he probably would have re-evaluated his whole 70's rock persona,
    and maybe got some help in the 80's with whatever addictions he may have had, by the 90's we would
    have had back the reason he was truly Elvis, and some reunion stuff with the original material we fell in love with Elvis with.
    That would have been my ideal.......
  6. Zeroninety

    Zeroninety Forum Resident

    It may be flippant to say "It was a phase he went through," but I don't think that's far from the truth. It seems he was quite passionate about it in the mid-50's, but reading Guralnick etc, I get the impression that his interest in rock faded in the late 50's, and he didn't have the kind of lifelong passion for it that he had for gospel and country.
  7. Chazzbo13

    Chazzbo13 Forum Resident

    Johnstown, PA
    Three words: Colonel. Tom. Parker.
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  8. numer9

    numer9 Beatles Apologist

    Philly Burbs
    There was a huge rock and roll revival in the early 70's.
    Spadeygrove likes this.
  9. 2141

    2141 Forum Resident

    In the early 80s there was a big rockabilly revival. If Elvis had lived and wanted to (that's a big IF), he could easily have stripped down the bloated band and rocked again with some of his earlier (and later) songs. That would have been fantastic! Of course this is assuming he cleaned up with the drugs and got back into better shape. The 60s and 70s were a hard time for Elvis to really shine. The counter-culture was not really his thing. The 80s and beyond might been a better fit for a nice comeback, but we'll never know.
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  10. Bluesman Mark

    Bluesman Mark But I'm innocent! Swan stole my music & framed me!

    Bingo! You took the words out of my mouth.
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  11. MikeM

    MikeM Senior Member

    Youngstown, Ohio
    IINM, it was said that prior to setting foot into Sun Studios, Elvis's favorite singer was Dean Martin. He had a taste for a variety of styles starting out, and rock/R&B/blues was just one of them. As noted, I believe he also stated that Gospel was his favorite genre of all.

    As a sidebar to the OP's question, for me rock 'n' roll's greatest "What if?" question is one of my own devising: What if Atlantic rather than RCA had won the bidding war for Elvis's Sun contract? How would the legacy of Elvis's recorded output from that point forward have been different?

    To my mind, the differences would have been considerable.
  12. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    I think the thing that confuses or annoys folks with Elvis is what he actually liked doing.
    He summed it up to Sam Phillips Secretary "I sing all kinds"
    Through Elvis' catalog there are plenty of rocking and rhythm and blues tracks, but that wasn't his focus. He picked songs he liked, even when Parker stunted his songwriter pool, by being .... well.... Parker the indescribably paranoid pathetic idiot ... but I digress.

    I think by the time we get to the seventies Elvis does a lot less rock and rhythm and blues, because rock moved more into heavy and hard stuff, and the progressive stuff. I don't think Elvis was ever going to go in that direction.
    That change there in the late sixties and early seventies led a lot of fifties artists to move in a more country direction, and with rock and roll being very closely related to country, that was the natural progression for them I suppose.
    I think the Vegas scene had a big effect on his later song choices, and arrangements, for better or worse.
    I also think that the manipulations of Parker, shutting off the Chips Moman option with lies and slander, and then appearing with the magic (to Elvis) opportunity to return to live shows via the Vegas route, really altered the direction.
    I think it is quite notable how much Elvis' direction changed after the American Studios sessions, because there was a fair bit of rock in there, and I think the country/rock/soul numbers were a great direction, but Parker, as always sank that ship, and the formula to get those right was taken away.

    Elvis Is Back, Something For Everyone and Pot Luck had some great rock/rock and roll on them. Even though Something for Everyone had terrible album sequencing, from my perspective, making it seem like a ballads album.

    Elvis' career is so damn complicated because of Elvis' desire to make all sorts of music, and Parker's desire to have complete control. Cutting off the brand's nose to spite its face so frequently, it is amazing anything got recorded at all.
  13. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    Parker and RCA did a terrible job of Elvis' recordings and the way they went about putting together albums ... it is astonishing, and a real tribute to how good Elvis was that he had such success.
  14. uzn007

    uzn007 Pack Rat

    Raleigh, N.C.
    Yeah, American Graffiti came out in 1973, and Elvis presumably could have cashed in on that big time if he had wanted to (it's not like he had a problem covering songs that had been made famous by someone else).

    As my son once put it:

  15. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    So he didn't listen to much then?
    RSteven likes this.
  16. BluesOvertookMe

    BluesOvertookMe Forum Resident

    Houston, TX, USA
    He liked all kinds of music, but gospel was a constant love for his entire life.

    The sped up versions of his '50s songs were because he felt he had to perform them, but he wanted to spend more of his set doing new music, and not be chained to the old material. It wasn't a lack of love for Rock and Roll/R&B.

    Here's some great Elvis Blues, circa 1969.

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  17. uzn007

    uzn007 Pack Rat

    Raleigh, N.C.
    To be fair, he had listened to like one album side at that point.
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  18. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    1962 - Pot Luck Gonna Get Back Home Somehow

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  19. 2141

    2141 Forum Resident

    Great song! I could see this one getting a modern mix ala Little Less Conversation and being popular again.
    mark winstanley likes this.
  20. numer9

    numer9 Beatles Apologist

    Philly Burbs
    The closest he came was the aforementioned Burning Love in 72.
    2141 likes this.
  21. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    1074 - I Got A Feelin' In My Body

    Leans a little more funk I guess, but not a ballad

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  22. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    1975 - Promised Land
    the d6 again gives it a bit of a funk feel, but to me this it rock and roll as well

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  23. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    Also in 1975 we had the Today album,

    T R O U B L E

    Shake A Hand could be seen as a blues
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  24. CousinCheebo

    CousinCheebo Forum Resident


    Good question and hence another long interminable post from me. Maybe you can trace the reasons back to his very first recordings in ‘53-‘54 in order to speculate.

    I’d take a guess that, due to the fact that the very first four tracks he ever recorded were ballads, he was just naturally drawn to them - for such a young man to have acquired time in a studio setting and spent it exploring an affinity for songs that were slow and mellow and not letting loose with something more raucous is definitely out of the ordinary. How many kids these days have you ever known to get into a recording studio and sing a ballad - as opposed to making a lot of noise?

    But then he didn’t have a band, it was just him alone. Also, maybe he’d always been developing his own raw style at home but was too shy to go for it in case the reaction was negative purely because chances were nobody had ever heard anything like that before, so he played it safe by singing ballads - and in any case you might argue that he himself invented/perfected “raucous” but that wouldn’t happen for another year. Whatever reason he clearly wasn’t ready to set the world alight in ‘53.

    I also find it interesting how a year or so later in 1954 he’d again played through a number of tracks with Scotty & Bill which hadn’t quite kicked things off BEFORE unleashing a new rock sound with That’s Alright, Blue Moon of Kentucky etc. and to me that would suggest he was again going for the softer stuff right off the bat because that’s just what he was into.

    I’m sure there are experts who know this inside out, but it leads me to wonder whether because of that Elvis either accidentally stumbled onto a style that became his forte/image (unlikely considering how attuned to it he seemed to be and how developed the style seemed to be) or it was something he’d been practicing privately and had spontaneously decided to try his luck with it if seeing as his first approach hadn’t worked.

    My point is if you take the latter view, it would suggest he was drawn to the ballads first and foremost, but he quickly knew he had to do something else to get noticed. Whatever, he clearly had a natural ability and charisma to be able to rock out and be one of the few to define it’s style, essentially becoming the first rockstar.

    Maybe once he exploded employing this genre mashup tempered with raw energy he decided to both ride and steer the wave to where he wanted to be, and if successful he could then focus on what he loved the most - country, blues, soul, ballads etc. Which is definitely what happened as the soundtracks drew to a close. I’m just speculating of course as I have absolutely nothing better to do while sitting on the train.

    When I first started listening to him I didn’t know that he had such a wide range of material - not in terms of volume but in terms of variety. His catalogue definitely rocked less than I initially assumed, but his country and blues material more than makes up for that. One of his early quotes was “I sing all kinds” - if you were to percentage his entire output into different music styles, it would probably show a pretty even divide between genres.

    But there was definitely an entire industry’s worth of rock material available if he wanted it - that is if he focused on covers and reinterpreting material that was already out there; I don’t think the old formula of a studio writing team like Lieber & Stoller was going to challenge the raw inspiration of the likes of the Doors, CCR or Jimi.

    And even though Elvis didn’t write it may not have hindered him as much as you’d think; one of the most defining gifts Elvis had was his ability to fuse genres together and reinterpret material in his own way - just like William Shatner did ;) - as although he didn’t write his early trailblazing material he definitely wrote or re-wrote the book on it - maybe he could have turned the world on its head again. Maybe he just wasn’t that into it, at least as time went on.

    Off the top of my head I cannot really think of any specific tracks he could have reimagined, but I would tend to lean towards him covering lesser known material from the country or blues world which he could revamp and make the song his own. You can’t really make songs by the Beatles or Stones your own, so he’d have to take something that he thought had potential but wasn’t quite realised. A decent forward thinking producer and not another yes-man would do the trick.

    Personally, I would have wanted Elvis to not just rock more, but rock harder as time went on - especially in the seventies - as the music got heavier and fatter as technology improved, but that’s just my preference. He didn’t, and that’s fine - I enjoy what he did put out as it was what he wanted to do. We all know what happened when he got roped into doing songs he wasn’t interested in.

    But in my hypothetical scenario I would have loved to hear him try his luck up against the new rock acts of the day. On @mark winstanley ‘s awesome Elvis sixties thread there is a discussion about Elvis performing at Woodstock and what he could have brought to the table following his ‘68 Comeback Special. I think this would have been very interesting - he still had the ability, the energy, the power and the magic - the TV special was proof he could handle himself against the competition and win over a new generation who’d previously thought of him as old hat.

    If he’d focused on his roots again, and gone for more rollicking material and edgy stuff, then it could have really invigorated him to start making proper albums, carefully considered right down to the track order and photos/artwork. And proper album titles - not just “Elvis in...”, or “Elvis sings...” - would really have pushed him in the direction of an album artist.

    Firing that arsehole of a manager would have helped, quite clearly a key player in Elvis’ second demise as the seventies wore on. If his career and health had been looked after properly, he may have not got lost again, and would have been successful and therefore interested in what he was doing.

    He could have started at Woodstock by performing his Sun material with the remaining Blue Moon Boys and then supplemented his band with additional guitars, piano and horns etc as he moved onto later stuff, something like this:

    Heartbreak Hotel
    Blue Suede Shoes
    Mystery Train > Tiger Man
    Blue Moon Of Kentucky
    That’s Alright
    Milk Cow Blues Boogie
    Tryin To Get To You

    Trouble > Guitar Man
    Wearin’ That Loved On Look
    Stranger In My Own Home Town
    Power Of My Love
    Little Sister
    King Creole
    Tomorrow Is A Long Time
    A Mess Of Blues
    Reconsider Baby
    Down In The Alley
    What’d I Say

    Suspicious Minds

    In my opinion this is some of his best and more aggressive material up until 1969 and perhaps would have gone down well at Woodstock.

    Again, personal preference but with a voice like that I’d have loved to have seen him do a proper hard rock album a la Led Zeppelin - that kind of production and power backing him up. Or a psychedelic album similar to his track Edge Of Reality - anything that would keep him inspired to try out new things.

    A lot of fan fiction to be had with this guy...
  25. adm62

    adm62 Forum Resident

    Toronto, Canada
    He wanted to be a star, not a rock n roll singer.

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