Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Start of Phase 2 of Elvis' Career

In the last two decades of his life, everything Elvis Presley did made news. If he was making a movie, it was in the news. If he recorded a new song, it was in the news.

When he was inducted into the Army, it was in the news.

There was kind of a news blackout on Presley for a couple of years while he was in the Army — although he did have ten top 40 hits between his induction in 1958 and discharge in 1960 so I guess some people hardly knew he'd been away — but once he was discharged from the service in March 1960, his career roared back to life. He had barely been discharged when he was rushed into the studio in the spring of 1960 and recorded two of his biggest hit singles, one of which — "It's Now or Never" — was released on this day in 1960.

It was an interesting thing, that song. It was conceived in almost a casual way. The melody was inspired by "O sole mio," an Italian standard from the 19th century, but the theme of the song was inspired by a recording that had been a modest hit a decade earlier, and the lyrics were written in half an hour by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold — who were assigned the task of writing the lyrics because they were the only songwriters in the music publisher's office when he arrived one day.

Yet the song wound up selling more than 20 million copies and is second only to "Hound Dog" on the list of Elvis' top–selling songs.

In January, on what would have been Elvis' 80th birthday, wrote about Elvis' Italian legacy and listed the Italian–influenced songs he recorded.

That was an impressive argument, but more persuasive than any song in Presley's musical library, even "It's Now or Never," was this observation:
"Elvis, especially in the second phase of his career — from the '60s on — fell in love with the 'Bel canto,' became a balladeer and between his vocal influences he incorporated Italian tenors Enrico Caruso and his heir, Mario Lanza."

There isn't really a doubt in my mind that his vocal style was suited for Italian ballads, and it was especially obvious, I thought, in his post–Army recordings.

Early in his career, it was often noted that Elvis sounded like a black singer — due, no doubt, to the musical influences of his Mississippi roots — which gave him enormously lucrative cross–over appeal. I don't know if that is true, but the numbers don't lie. He had three dozen #1 hit recordings in his career and made nearly as many movies.

He never really lost that — for lack of a better phrase — black sound, but it didn't seem to dominate his work as it had before.

Much of his work was accomplished after his return from the service, and it is clear to me that his performing style was toned down, less the Delta influence and more the Italian crooner style. He wasn't stationed in Italy, but maybe he was influenced by music he heard on radios in the barracks or live in the clubs of Germany, where he was stationed.

I'm not enough of an Elvis fan to know about that — but I do know that, around the time he recorded "It's Now or Never," Elvis appeared on The Frank Sinatra Timex Show. In addition to his Italian lineage, Sinatra's disdain for rock 'n' roll was well known; long before they appeared on television together, Sinatra said of Elvis' staying power, "Only time will tell. They said I was a freak when I first hit, but I'm still around. Presley has no training at all. When he goes into something serious, a bigger kind of singing, we'll find out if he is a singer. He has a natural, animalistic talent."

Sinatra may well have influenced the second phase of Elvis' career before the first phase had ended.

During his lifetime, Elvis' fans probably would have bought anything that he recorded and, even though the quality of his music tended to suffer after his time in the service, in all likelihood because of the his movie career, it is clear from even a casual listening that the style of his music was different, possibly due to a different ethnic influence than the one he had at the beginning.

He continued to sell records, as always, but they were different. Even "It's Now or Never" was different from what had come before. True, it became Elvis' second–best–selling recording — but it had none of the in–your–face quality of "Hound Dog."

A new age had begun.