'Writing For The King'
The stories of the songwriters - by Ken Sharp.
- FTD Book/CD Review -
Writing For The King; The stories of the songwriters - by author Ken Sharp is a fascinating text driven exploration of Elvis' music and his composers.
This is FTD’s biggest project to date, with over 140 interviews and 400 pages. It is a book that deserves one's time being spent on it as one pores over the stories and information - and similarly it cannot be properly reviewed in just a few short paragraphs.
In our detailed review below, EIN's Piers Beagley explains why it is such an essential purchase.
There are so many Elvis books released every year from trite biographies, photo books, to Elvis conspiracy investigations but nothing as detailed as this. With 142 interviews and 400 pages 'Writing For The King' is a fascinating text driven exploration of Elvis' music and his songwriters.
Unlike the later singer/songwriter era, Elvis never* wrote any of his songs himself but instead was the world's greatest interpreter and innovator of other's compositions. How Elvis could take rather sweet swing-style of Dave Bartholomew/Smiley Lewis' 'One Night' and turn it into his overpowering blues & sex-filled Number One moan was creation in itself. So a real fascination for anybody interested about Elvis' musical heritage is, exactly where did these classic Elvis songs come from? How did Elvis make Dennis Linde/Arthur Alexander's 'Burning Love' into the quintessential Elvis song?
Although this book is definitely written for the Elvis fans who love to delve into and investigate his music and creativity rather than the jumpsuit-junkies, there are so many fascinating quotes and side stories that the book takes more than a week to really explore.
The first two chapters dedicated to ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ writers Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden - “When I first heard Elvis sing Heartbreak Hotel I was a little disappointed”! - along with the original demo, are a fabulous way to start this in-depth exploration.
Pick one of your favourite Elvis songs, be it 'Anything That's Part Of You', 'It's Midnight' or even 'A Dog's Life' and you can read about its creation while listening to it at the same time. You’ll also discover that the composers of those three very different songs, Don Robertson, Jerry Chesnut and Ben Weisman all did meet Elvis - and you can then read about their feelings towards our hero. So compared to a photo book that might take just a couple of hours to read this is a book to pore over and revisit.
And while the book provides an abundance of reading matter there are plenty of interesting photos of the songwriters as well as memorabilia, such as hand-written lyric sheets, and images of Elvis where appropriate.
The author Ken Sharp, a songwriter and performer himself, has managed to gain the confidence of his interviewees and there are plenty of tales to make you laugh as well as feel emotional. There are plenty of insights into every side of composing Elvis’ material, which makes one realise that there is always something new to discover.
It's fascinating to learn, and even see, how the script indicated to the songwriters what to provide for the movie soundtracks. There's an original extract from the Blue Hawaii script indicating (to Don Robertson) how they would like a song to be inserted into the action.
. .'Elvis as Chad, "I learned that in a little town outside Paris,.. Hey, here's one you'll dig"
Chad starts into a slow almost mournful song - then suddenly breaks into a driving, beat-heavy, Italian rhythm... '
We discover that at times members of Elvis' TCB Band actually played on his earlier demos. It is also surprising to learn just how many songwriters met or had contact with Elvis, especially considering that The Colonel liked to try and keep them separated. Ben Wiseman for instance has a great story about sitting down and jamming on the piano with Elvis in the studio before Elvis discovered that he was the writer of 'Got A Lot O' Livin' To Do'.
Nearly all the songwriters have good tales to tell including the famous ones like Phil Spector (he introduced Priscilla to Mike Stone), Otis Blackwell, Mark James, Leiber & Stoller.
Mac Davis (‘In The Ghetto’ etc) tells some wonderful stories. We learn that he wrote 'A Little Less Conversation' with Aretha Franklin in mind and there is a lovely description of him visiting Elvis' house (“the smoked mirrors and the black & red flocked wall paper") & playing him 'Don't Cry Daddy' for the first time.
(Right: From the book, Elvis at Radio Recorders Jan 1958)
Jerry Leiber tells a lovely story of going to see Elvis years later at Madison Square Garden..
“One of the reasons I never saw my acts in person over all those years was that I was claustrophobic and I couldn't take the crowds. But I went and took my family. "I'm gonna grit my teeth," I thought, "I'm gonna grin and bear it and go to the show. It's Elvis!" … He was great and I enjoyed every minute of it. One, it was Elvis Presley. Two, he sang a couple of our songs. Three, I'd NEVER been to a live concert of ANYONE I've ever produced or wrote for. It was incredible. It was like going to see Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling. At the end when the orchestra starts playing his finale theme, I looked around and said, "Get out of here now, it's gonna be a stampede" and we left. When I got to the office the next day my secretary hands me a note and says, "Read this." It says, "Why did you leave." It was from Elvis. He wanted to know why I left early. There were over 20,000 people in the audience and he saw me leave. How 'bout that?”
Then there's the great Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman. Mort Shuman wrote some of Elvis’ very best songs and he has great tales to tell about key songs such as 'Little Sister' and 'A Mess Of Blues'. However, to give you the scope of the book, he also wrote the stinker 'Double Trouble' and his honesty about the writing of that mid-sixties lightweight is eye-opening. ..
“‘Double Trouble,’ well, I couldn't care less. All I cared about was getting high or renting another convertible to match either my bloodshot eyes or the blues eyes of my latest girlfriend. I have no idea how the song goes which shows you how much I cared about it. Elvis must have known what those songs were like. He was past caring and he was caught up in a terrible vicious cycle.”
Other songwriters are similarly honest about some of their contributions. Lenore Rosenblatt talks about her song 'Startin' Tonight' (from 'Girl Happy') saying, "Startin' Tonight was real piece of crap. Elvis always sounded good but you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." !
These of course are balanced by the stories of the classic Elvis songs with fascinating contributions by people such as Red West, fabulous stories from Jerry Reed ('Guitar Man' etc) and of course Dennis Linde ('Burning Love' etc), the list goes on & on.
Dolores Fuller (‘Rock A Hula Baby’ etc) another composer who spent time with Elvis, tells some wonderful tales about meeting Elvis in an elevator, later regretting that she refused dinner at Elvis’ house because her boyfriend objected, and also about the Colonel’s prejudice against women.
As you turn the pages and play the songs there are wonderful new titbits to discover along the way. You can learn how Elvis gave singer Sherrill Neilsen a hair-transplant mid recording session, great stories from Phil Spector, and from the memorabilia check out the original hand-written lyric sheet for 'If I Can Dream' where Elvis has written on it "MY BOY, MY BOY - THIS COULD BE THE ONE! - E" and how right he was.
(Right: 'If I Can Dream' lyric sheet)
Even Fred Burch who wrote the awful 'Yoga Is As Yoga Does' has a good story about meeting Elvis & finding his fridge of Krystal burgers.
At the end there are two fascinating interviews with song pluggers Freddy Bienstock as well as Elvis' friend Lamar Fike. Fans who always put down Memphis Mafia member Lamar Fike would do well to read just how involved he was in the music business and not just an Elvis hanger-on. Lamar explains details from an insider’s point of view and I never realised that he was also a friend of Bob Dylan's before, even making it on one of Bob's recordings!
My only major compliant about the book is that there is no song index for a quick reference, the songwriters being placed in chronological order instead. A minor disappointment is that a few of the composers also have surprisingly little to say. Mitch Leigh who wrote ‘The Impossible Dream’ had no idea that Elvis had even recorded his song. How weird is that? Does he have no friends who like Elvis? Did he never notice a jump in his royalty cheque!
As a final note it's worth sharing part of Dottie Rambo ('If That Isn't Love') with her touching revelations about sharing Bible readings and prayers with Elvis.
“Elvis carried the Bible and poetry on the road with him. He and I would sit and read the Bible and share passages, lyrics and poetry. He loved the Bible.
Elvis would call me every morning at nine o'clock, and we'd pray. He gave me his Bible and wrote a prayer on a piece of red paper and said, "Now every morning we'll pray together on the phone. If I can't reach you we'll just repeat this prayer." I have it in his handwriting and I carry it with me all the time. Elvis was very dramatic about things. He said, "We'll take a deep breath and then we'll exhale and say, (recites prayer) Jesus light. Jesus peace and Jesus within." That's just a short prayer and it might not mean a lot to other people but it's a treasure to me. If we couldn't find each other I'd repeat that prayer out loud and just feel him near me.”
The Bonus CDs.
CD 1 - 'The Recordings' -
A clever compile of 23 songs, 74 minutes, of officially unreleased Elvis in concert from RCA's multi-track recordings.
Twelve tracks come from Elvis’ dynamic 1969 comeback season. Although Elvis’ August 24th Midnight show wasn't his best concert ever, it's still damn good as he comes on like a rock'n'roll punk on speed. He's having fun and feeling playful, "Here we go again man. Looks like my horse has just left", Elvis jokes to the audience after a rockin' 'I Got A Woman'!
Elvis' discussion before 'Love Me Tender' is very amusing where he talks about his throat being so dry that "It feels like Bob Dylan slept in your mouth." With a very different feel to the August 26th Midnight show (that featured the laughing 'Are You Lonesome Tonight') there is still an ease & confidence that Elvis exudes which makes this a terrific listen.
The 'Hound Dog' intro includes Elvis laughing about the "One big square eye" story, as well as his "A stone cold freak" comment. You can hear the happiness and fun in Elvis' voice as he sings a particularly good-humoured 'Yesterday/Hey Jude' to which he adds an unusual pumped-up ending.
When the bootleg CD 'Here I Go Again' of this August 24th concert was released every fan was stumbling over each other to praise it, but now half of it is released officially some fans seem to have been overly negative! This is ridiculous as the original bootleg was in mono, as well as being somewhat muffled, and with added echo. Here the RCA master tape is used and so the audio is vastly improved and in true stereo. There is still a little echo but nothing like the illegal version. Also note that 'Suspicious Minds' and 'CHFIL' on the bootleg were not from the same concert of August 24th so we do get completely new versions here.
Four tracks are from Elvis' February 1970 shows which were affected by his cold/cough - and 'Don't Cry Daddy' is a little disappointing as Elvis fights against his cough. Elvis is also only on 3/4 power for 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes'. But how can anyone complain about hearing new 1970 versions of 'Polk' or 'Kentucky Rain' however imperfect they might be? Even Elvis explains to his faithful audience that he needs a kleenex or napkin or tablecloth, "Like everything else when its gotta go, its gotta go!"
The three tracks from August 1970 are particularly touching. 'Something' is sumptuous, featuring a very prominent lead vocal and less orchestra than the Master.
Before a delicious 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' the loudspeaker feedback, which upsets the subtle mood, spooks Elvis. Elvis then does a very cute imitation of a ghost "Wooooooooooo" to make his point, before getting back on track. It's a great 'Elvis moment'.
'I Just Can't Help Believing' is interesting for having a short intro and, strangely, no extended ending yet this was only 2 nights after the Master recording.
Felton Jarvis recorded four nights of Elvis' live Vegas shows in February 1972 for RCA of which very little has been officially released. 'American Trilogy' the single and 'It's Impossible' being the only recordings released in Elvis' lifetime. So it is interesting to hear another four tracks from this season and the rockin' 'A Big Hunk O' Love' (introduced into Elvis’ concerts this season) is sensational and worth the price of admission. One of the best versions ever released and makes one look forward to the upcoming FTD from the same season. The band rocks - PLAY LOUD!
The CD ends with 2 tracks from 1969. Elvis’ comment before a superb 'Suspicious Minds' is intriguing, "A new record that I have recorded, it should be in the record shop here tomorrow, I just found out. Plug, plug plug!". What a sensational moment for all Elvis fans. To hear the song for the very first time, and to buy it the very next day!
Elvis' chillout before he exits, "Lord Have mercy. Excuse me a minute while I walk around & breathe and check all my sore spots!" is a cool outro to the perfect 'Can't Help Fallin in Love' ending. Ohh, I wish I had been there.
The main point is that the CD features 23 of the songs that are discussed within the book - and how good to get new multi-track versions of all these songs. Of course, this is a bonus CD and never intended to be a best-ever ‘Elvis Live’ CD but, on the other hand, it does make a very nice alternate "Greatest live Hits" compilation and is fun to listen to, even if you won't play it as much as 'In Person', 'On Stage', 'Elvis Live' or other major concert compilations.
CD 2 'The Demos'
Twenty-six compositions that Elvis made his own. While this is not a CD that you will play often, it is an essential part of the concept of 'Writing For The King'.
In the book a lot of the songwriters describe making demos of their material for Elvis and at the same time trying to create a sound that Elvis would be interested in. Sometimes they would sing the vocals themselves, (ie Bill Giant, Don Robertson, Mort Shuman) or sometimes use quality Elvis style vocalists ie Otis Blackwell or Jimmy Breedlove.
In the end, what all these Demos prove is just how damn good Elvis was as an interpreter, vocalist and stylist. And that's why 99% of Elvis imitators sound crap - 'cos they ain't Elvis!
Having said that, if you are interested in the book then there are some real delights to be explored here.
The original 'Heartbreak Hotel' demo - what a find! The demo by Glen Reeves sounds like an old man on a porch singing out some blues into the Louisiana night. It's not that bad, it's just that Elvis added the scary emptiness of true heartbreak and loneliness which totally transformed it into the spooky classic that challenged the very concept of rock'n'roll.
'Teddy Bear' is fabulous for being vocalised by the great Otis Blackwell and comes on like an Elvis rough first take. In some ways it is a shame that Elvis didn't try for an alternate version at this slower tempo.
'Don't Ask Me Why' by Jimmy Breedlove is another treat for having an alternate doo-wop feel and cutting guitar.
'Hard Headed Woman' comes on feeling far more Jerry Lee Lewis than Elvis. This is very pop orientated and without any of the evil that Elvis managed to imbue it with. Similarly the singer of 'Trouble' sounds very puppyish – as if he's lying on his back waiting for a tickle - with none of the intensity that Elvis managed to add.
More and more these demos - like the hopelessly slight Pat Boone pop of 'Wear My Ring Around Your Neck', 'Pocketful of Rainbows' that follows, 'Good Luck Charm', or even the later songs like 'I've Lost You' - show just how much soul, personality and excitement Elvis could add to the original demo and, in the process, transform almost any bland composition. Peter Lee Sterling on 'I've Lost You' sounds more like he's singing about the phone-line dropping out, as opposed to losing his real love! Though it does have an interesting different ending.
There's also a little humour to find in the mid-sixties demos! Gerald Nelson come on sounding like a first-grade school teacher with a totally sex-less 'Love Machine' demo, 'My Desert Serenade' is similarly as erotic as watching paint dry, while composer Bob Johnston does a cool Eddie Cochran imitation on a cute 'C'mon Everybody'!
Highlights are the Mort Shuman demo of 'His Latest Flame' sounding like Elvis' early takes and another is the 'Clambake' Alternate demo. Winfield Scott (of the alternate 'I'm A Roustabout' find) deserves a medal for persistence in trying to get interesting soundtracks songs to Elvis. While hardly an A-side single at least the suggestive lyric "With a string in one hand I'm a satisfied man, with the other end tied to that girl" is an improvement to the chosen title version - "Mama’s little baby loves Clambake, Clambake".
The later seventies songs are interesting for being such a varied selection of styles but none carry the soulful passion that Elvis adds to any lyric. Highlights are of course Dennis Linde's original 'Burning Love' sounding more like Credence Clearwater Revival than Elvis. Boy, did Emory Gordy add some sensational throbbing bass to transform the song!
T.R.O.U.B.L.E also shows how Elvis changed a line-dancing country tune into a proper rock song, while 'Raised On Rock' is similarly too sweet as a demo - it sure ain't rock'n'roll!
The 'Way Down' demo by composer Layng Martine Jr is a final treat coming on like an "unplugged" version. Once again Elvis transforms a fragile higher-key vocal line into a thick funk-laden track. Intersetingly the backing-vocal and J.D Sumner's bass line are already there.
This is the perfect accompaniment to the book and there's also some good fun to be had by programming the sequence The Demo > Elvis' first take > Elvis' Master to as many tracks as you can on your CD stacker.
Verdict – FTD’s biggest project and an essential purchase for Elvis fans who love to delve into, and investigate his music. This is a book that deserves one's time being spent poring over the information and so is not for those fans who only like Elvis photo type books. There are plenty of fascinating quotes and Elvis stories along the way and although expensive, this is not a typical lightweight Elvis book that you’ll have finished in a couple of hours. The two CDs are also worthy bonuses that fit in with the overall concept. Being such an expensive book to produce I doubt if FTD could ever afford a re-print, so if this book is for you, don’t let it pass you by. One of the best releases of 2006.
Review by Piers Beagley
-Copyright EIN, February 2007
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* "Elvis never wrote any of his songs himself" - Not quite true as Elvis was involved in writing his songs 'You'll Be Gone' and 'That's Someone You'll Never Forget' as well as arranging traditional songs and interpretting others.
Writing For The King
CD 1- The Recordings.
Las Vegas Aug '69; Feb '70; Aug '70; Feb '72.
1. Blue Suede Shoes (Aug 24, 69 MS)
2. I Got A Woman (Aug 24, 69 MS)
3. All Shook Up (Aug 24, 69 MS)
4. Love Me Tender (Aug 24, 69 MS)
5. Jailhouse Rock/Don't Be Cruel (Aug 24, 69 MS)
6. Heartbreak Hotel (Aug 24, 69 MS)
7. Hound Dog (Aug 24, 69 MS)
8. Words (Aug 25, 69 DS)
9. Yesterday/Hey Jude (Aug 25, 69 MS)
10. In The Ghetto (Aug 25, 69 MS)
11. Don't Cry Daddy (Feb 16, 70 DS)
12. Polk Salad Annie (Feb 16, 70 DS)
13. Kentucky Rain (Feb 17, 70 DS)
14. Walk A Mile In My Shoes (Feb 16, 70 DS)
15. Something (Aug 11, 70 DS)
16. You've Lost That Loving Feeling (Aug 11, 70 DS)
17. I Just Can't Help Believing (Aug 13, 70 DS)
18. Never Been To Spain (Feb 14, 72 MS)
19. Love Me (Feb 14, 72 MS)
20. Teddy Bear/Don't Be Cruel (Feb 14, 72 MS)
21. A Big Hunk O'Love (Feb 14, 72 MS)
22. Suspicious Minds (Aug 24, 69 MS)
23. Can't Help Falling In Love (Aug 24, 69 MS)
(Left: From the book - Elvis and Nancy Sinatra in Speedway)
1. Heartbreak Hotel (Glenn Reeves)
2. Teddy Bear (Otis Blackwell)
3. Don't Ask Me Why (Jimmy Breedlove)
4. Hard Headed Woman (Jimmy Breedlove)
5. Trouble (Unknown)
6. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck (Gus Colleti)
7. Pocketful Of Rainbows (Jimmy Breedlove)
8. No More (Don Robertson)
9. His Latest Flame (Mort Shuman)
10. Good Luck Charm (Robert Moseley)
11. Devil In Disguise (Bill Giant)
12. Viva Las Vegas (Mort Shuman)
13. C'Mon Everybody (Bob Johnston)
14. Kissin' Cousins (Malcolm Dodd)
15. My Desert Serenade (Kenny Karen)
16. Could I Fall In Love (Malcolm Dodd)
17. The Love Machine (Gerald Nelson)
18. Clambake [Alt. song] (Winfield Scott)
19. Wearin' That Loved On Look (Dallas Frazier)
20. I've lost You (Peter Lee Sterling)
21. The Next Step Is Love (Paul Evans)
22. Mary In The Morning (Johnny Cymbal)
23. Burning Love (Dennis Linde)
24. T.R.O.U.B.L.E (Jerry Chestnut)
25. Raised On Rock (Mark James)
26. Way Down (Layng Martine Jr.)