“Prince from Another Planet” (RCA/Legacy)
“The Classic Christmas Album” (RCA/Legacy)
This is shaping up to be a joyous holiday season for Elvis Presley fans, as RCA has just dug into its vaults and released two albums from The King, “Prince From Another Planet,” and “The Classic Christmas Album.”
In June 1972 Elvis was at a crossroads. He had wrapped up his film career and was trying to revive his recording fortunes. The musical landscape had changed dramatically since the days when radio programmers would automatically add a Presley single as soon as they received it. After becoming synonymous with the Las Vegas Hilton, there was some question as to whether Elvis could sell out big arenas such as Madison Square Garden.
Although he had performed in New York on both “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Steve Allen Show” in 1956, he had never given a full-length concert here until his decision to perform four shows 40 years ago at the Garden. “Prince From Another Planet” is a DVD/ two-CD package that captures what are possibly Elvis’ most famous live shows — though some may argue in behalf of his Honolulu concert that beamed worldwide in January 1973. The unusual title comes from a headline from a music critic who reviewed the MSG show and obviously idolized Elvis.
The Madison Square Garden concerts gave equal doses of Elvis the rocker and Elvis the crooner. As is the case with any artist who has compiled a sizable catalog of hits, he deftly tried to walk the line between being contemporary and yet still giving oldies fans most of the big hits that they longed to hear.
He opened the show with his first big hit, “That’s All Right,” and quickly segued into more contemporary fare as he covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” Three Dog Night’s “Never Been To Spain” (which was still on the pop charts at the time), and Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie.”
Elvis made sure to give the Garden audience his Mount Rushmore classics such as “Love Me Tender,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” “Suspicious Minds” got a humorous ad-lib when Elvis wisecracked “No not much!” after delivering the emotional line of “You know that I’d never lie to you!”
Elvis would have been better off skipping his dreadful version of “Hound Dog.” Ironically, John Lennon would perform the song the way Presley should have three months later on the Garden stage, during a fundraiser to benefit the Willowbrook Children’s Hospital, which had been exposed for its shoddy treatment of its mentally disabled young patients by Channel 7 reporter Geraldo Rivera earlier in 1972.
The Las Vegas side of Elvis was on display in New York as he performed solid versions of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” and Ray Price’s “For The Good Times.”
Pop music historians will enjoy the DVD, which replays Elvis’ press conference at the New York Hilton the day before the MSG concerts. He was asked why he hadn’t recorded more rock songs recently. Elvis replied that he was having trouble finding good ones but did say that his next single would be in the rock genre. He was referring to “Burning Love,” which would be the last true smash that he would have in his lifetime. For some reason, though, he did not want to introduce the song at the Garden.
Christmas albums played an important part in rock ’n’ roll becoming acceptable mainstream pop. Holiday albums always had been the domain of old-school vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis and the like, but Elvis, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector put a fresh coat of paint on Christmas classics, as well as making hits out of original holiday material.
Elvis recorded numerous gospel albums in his career, so it wasn’t a stretch to envision him putting his all into “The First Noel,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.”
What’s often overlooked about his career is the success that he had on the rhythm & blues charts. His 1957 version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” hews far closer to the 1954 Drifters record than it does the 1947 Bing Crosby hit. “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the creative team behind much of his early success, is a gritty, Chicago-style blues tune with a great honky-tonk piano intermezzo.
And of course you can’t think of Elvis and the holiday season without “Blue Christmas” coming to mind. Cheerful images of white snowflakes, decorations of red and a green Christmas tree quickly turn blue because his girlfriend dumped him before the holidays. Elvis tries to be a good sport who isn’t bitter in the song, but he isn’t fooling anyone and that’s precisely the point. It was one of the first songs to admit that not everyone is jolly around the holidays.