Sunday, March 16, 2008

David Hess Wrote For The King

This Article Originally Appeared at my Moon In The Gutter on 05/05/2007

The music of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was one of the first things that struck me about Wes Craven’s brutal shocker when I first saw it in my teens. The film for all of its darkness and intensity featured a score that at times matched its nihilism and other times played against it. The most memorable piece of music was the haunting THE ROAD LEADS TO NOWHERE, a song which played a big part of Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER decades later.
The music to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was composed by none other than David Hess, the intense and imposing psychopath Krug in the film. Pretty early on I noticed in certain articles about David Hess often mentioned that he had been David Hill in the early sixties and had written a number of famous songs including the great DADDY ROLLING STONE and most intriguingly I GOT STUNG recorded by none other than Elvis Presley.
It was hard to me for a long time to picture the star of Craven’s film as well as similar roles in HITCH-HIKE and THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK as the writer of such sublimely well crafted songs. It seemed like two totally different worlds and David Hess was so good in these films that it was hard for me to come to terms with seeing him in another light.
Released last year was the mammoth book WRITING FOR THE KING. The book is an important one in that it is entirely centered on the amazing songwriters who contributed songs not just for Elvis but a number of popular music’s greatest song stylists of the twentieth century. The format of the book is simple. Each chapter is dedicated to a songwriter, or songwriting team. Many are interviewed and for those that have passed. solid biographies are given. They all talk specifically and honestly about the songs that Elvis recorded and also about their lives, careers, disappointments and highpoints. It is a really unique book that gives voice to many who haven’t been heard from before. The book also includes an entire cd of original demos by the songwriters that Elvis would have heard, as well as an unreleased live recording collection by Elvis himself. The demos cd is great because we can clearly hear these songs in their early stages, some fully formed and others almost just sketches. Also interesting to hear is how much Elvis would change and mutate them to his own voice and style. It is especially fascinating to listen to some of the demos attempting to sound like Elvis, it’s a window into a fascinating world that most of us as music listeners aren’t usually able to hear.
David Hess is one of the songwriters featured and his chapter is one of the best. He recalls his time as a singer in New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene in the late fifties and getting hired early on by Shalimar music where he met the great Otis Blackwell. He talks of recording Blackwell’s ALL SHOOK UP as David Hill before Elvis and finally landing a job at the influential Hill and Range company.
It was with fellow songwriter Aaron Schroeder that Hess wrote his most famous song, the delightfully catchy I GOT STUNG. Hess admits that for a long time he thought his demo was superior to Elvis’ version but admits that, “Elvis’ version has really stood up, I love it.”

Hess goes on to talk honestly about Colonel Parker’s business dealings and other trappings of the songwriting world. He mentions how much he admired Elvis’ ability to phrase his singing, “from internal strife” and talks about the excitement of Paul McCartney’s ‘back to his roots’ recording of I GOT STUNG.
Hess concludes with talking about some later movie songs he wrote for Elvis as well as some other non-Elvis tracks. He says, “I just love Elvis. I love what he did…we stopped at Graceland and I cried seeing what had happened to this incredibly talented genius. What makes Elvis great is his honesty. The only way he could sing was honestly.”
Included in the Hess chapter is a great photo of Hess performing in New York in the fifties and a studio shot from the sixties. No mention is made of his later career as this book is just about their lives as songwriters and it is great to see attention given to this side of the talented Hess.
WRITING FOR THE KING is huge 400 page coffee table book that is essential reading for Elvis fans as well as people interested in the craft of songwriting. It contains interviews with many people you might not have heard of as well as many you have but guaranteed you will recognize most of these songs.
Below are two links. One is information on ordering this book and cd collection. The price might seem steep but it is more than worth it. The other link is David Hess’ fine official site. Here you can read up on the man, his films and music. Several cds are available including THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT soundtrack as well as a demos and live collection. Hess continues to be a major force in front of the camera and is rumored to have recently been cast in Deodato’s long awaited CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST sequel.
Hess’ most memorable films including LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, HITCH-HIKE, HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and SWAMP THING are all currently on dvd from various companies. The special editions of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and HITCH-HIKE are highly recommended.

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