Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Eighteen) King Creole by Elvis Presley

Recorded during a three-day session in the mid part of January 1958, with some additional work done in a day in mid February, Elvis Presley’s KING CREOLE album is one of his greatest and most diverse works. The album stands as a testament to the astonishing range Elvis had, as a vocalist and producer, and it is among the most consistently great of all of his LPs.
The album was recorded at Paramount’s Soundstage Studios with a Thorne Nogar operating as engineer. The producers listed are Paramount’s Walter Scharf and Phil Khagan although it is fairly well documented that Elvis himself was the one really responsible for the sound of his recordings up to 1968. Ernst Jorgensen notes in his book A LIFE IN MUSIC that songwriters Lieber and Stoller were also on hand to help with production duties for this difficult record.
Joining Elvis in the studio were his legendary sidemen Scotty Moore on lead electric guitar, Bill Black on stand up bass, and D.J. Fontanta on drums. Elvis himself is credited with much of the rhythm guitar playing on the album. Paramount and RCA enlisted the help of many top session musicians for the diverse selections including Neal Matthews on guitar, and a top Jazz combo. The ever-reliable Jordanaires appear on background vocals and vocalist Kitty White pops up on the legendary CRAWFISH track.
This was a volatile and rushed moment in the life of Elvis Presley. His draft notice had already come through, but he had successfully got the okay to complete work on the KING CREOLE album and film. This huge upcoming change had to be weighing heavy on Elvis’ mind and his vocals on the KING CREOLE sessions, featuring some of his most passionate and at times frantic, surely reflect this.
Elvis was commercially at the peak of his powers here, and it seemed that everything he touched in this period was a sure fire smash. With this in mind the KING CREOLE album can be viewed as somewhat of a risk, as stylistically it would mark a departure from much of his previous work. The album, the jazziest that Elvis ever produced, stands though as a tribute to the vision and talent of Presley, and a punch in the face to critics who claim all of his soundtrack work was garbage.

The album opens up with the startling Leiber and Stoller track KING CREOLE, one of the swampiest and most evocative tracks Elvis ever recorded. With his menacing vocals promising a “guitar held like a tommy gun” the iconic background work of the Jordanaires and a blistering Scotty Moore guitar solo, KING CREOLE is masterful introduction to the album and it holds up as well as any of his more popular work from the period.

The lovely Wise and Weisman composition AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU follows, and its sweet lilting melody and charming vocal as a perfect counterpoint to the intense opener. AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU is one of the great ballads Elvis ever sang. It is a shame he didn’t revisit it later in his career. It is harder to imagine a more perfect and simple love song, and the fact that it is delivered in less than two minutes makes it all the more haunting.

HARD HEADED WOMAN follows and I will let what I wrote recently on it stand. I will say here that I love the way this long player (it should be noted that KING CREOLE was originally released as two extended players) keeps switching things up. It’s a schizophrenic record whose sharp stylistic swings mirror perfectly the volatile part of Danny Fisher that Elvis played so well in the film.
The legendary TROUBLE follows, surely one of the dirtiest and most savage songs in Presley’s entire catalogue. His deadpan vocals on this original take make it all the more fascinating. This astonishing Leiber and Stoller composition would of course later open Elvis’ 68 comeback special in a roaring rock and roll take that tops this very jazzy and cool original.
The Claude DeMetrius/Fred Wise track DIXIELAND ROCK is sparked by a great lyric and a scorching Sax solo by Justin Gordon, and it is followed by the sweet HARD HEADED WOMAN b-side DON’T ASK ME WHY.
LOVER DOLL, a Wayne and Silver track, is one of the slightest tracks on the album. It sounds like an attempt to recreate the magic of the previous years TEDDY BEAR but it doesn’t have any of that songs power. It does have a nice smooth vocal by Elvis, and a cool time change at the end, but it is finally among the weaker moments on the album.

The Wise and Weisman track, CRAWFISH, on the other hand, is one of the best. Later covered by Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin, CRAWFISH is one of the most underrated of all Elvis’ work. Totally authentic sounding with the great Kitty White providing a great female counterpart to Elvis, CRAWFISH is really remarkable…it is no wonder the legendary New York Dolls axe-man chose to release it as one of his final singles nearly thirty years after this original.

YOUNG DREAMS is a contribution from Martin Kalmanoff and Aaron Schroeder and it is a passable song made great by Elvis’ passionate vocal take. The interplay with The Jordanaires is particularly good here also.
The short Lieber and Stoller track STEADFAST, LOYAL AND TRUE follows and while it works in a key sequence in the film, it is a minute that could have been left off the final album.

The slip up of STEADFAST, LOYAL AND TRUE gives way to one of the album’s greatest moment, the down and dirty Jazz romp NEW ORLEANS. Featuring a sizzling call and response between Elvis and The Jordanaries, and a scintillating lyric by Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett, NEW ORLEANS is a stunning closer to the album. It is just a shame that it is over in just a couple of minutes, as the band and Elvis sound like they want to play on and on.

KING CREOLE, the album, would street in August of 58 and it would climb to #2 on the album charts. It most surely would have gone to number one had it not been proceeded by the two Extended play releases the month before (which by the way did top the charts). It would be the last album of all new material before Elvis would enter the army (1959’s FOR LP FANS ONLY was a grab bag of Sun and RCA tracks) and it remains one of the great albums of his career. Short, to the point and incredibly diverse, KING CREOLE can stand proudly next to the likes of ELVIS PRESLEY, ELVIS IS BACK, FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS and I’M ABOUT TEN THOUSAND YEARS OLD as one of the great recorded tributes to the genius of Elvis Presley. It should be in every rock lover’s possession.
The album can be heard in its entirety on the massive box set THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL or even better in a 1997 re-release that features a bonus of the entire album in outtakes.


Lastyear said...

A lot of people don't realize how good some of the music in the early films was.One viewing of the later films can easily trump the memories of the early ones.A song like Do the Clam is pretty hard to make an argument for.Colonel Parker-may he rot in hell.

Jan said...

Jeremy, great review. I love the soundtrack to King Creole. I just recently watched the movie again. Without a doubt it is Elvis' finest dramatic turn.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks LastYear...A recent US magazine had a listing of the fifty best soundtracks and they failed to put any of Elvis' fifties work in there...The begrudgingly put VIVA LAS VEGAS at fifty mostly just to make fun of them...ridiculous

Thanks Jan,
I totally agree...