EIN: Who is Allen Wiener?
AW: I am the a author of “Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll,” and “The Beatles: The Ultimate Recording Guide”; co-author of “David Crockett in Congress,” winner of Independent Book Publishers 2010 award for regional non-fiction, and “Music of the Alamo.” I’ve written for several magazines and done liner notes for CDs. I am a retired Federal policy analyst with U.S. Dept. of Transportation.
EIN: What gave you the idea for Channeling Elvis?
AW: I had done a series of articles in “Discoveries” magazine on Elvis’ early years, 1954-58, after becoming interested in the role he and Sun Records played in the start of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Those years also coincided with his first TV appearances in 1956, and I made a mental note to look more closely at those TV shows if I could get hold of the videos. Later, a friend of mine pointed out that all of Elvis’ TV appearances coincided with crucial moments in his career and it might be worth taking a look at them in that context. I started working on an article with that objective, but it quickly grew into a book when I started doing interviews with many people who were involved in those shows. I didn’t realize that I would be able to reach so many of them or that they would be so forthcoming with accounts of what took place on those shows.
EIN: How long did it take you to research and write Channeling Elvis?
AW: I started Channeling Elvis 15 years ago and did most of the interviews then. It was difficult to find a publisher and I ended up doing other books in between. When they were finished I decided to resurrect Channeling Elvis.
EIN: Were you “Elvised out” after watching so many hours of Elvis footage in researching the book?
AW: Not really. I’ve always enjoyed Elvis’ music, especially his early years, prior to the movie years that began after his military service ended. But my research on him led me to all of his other recordings and I was very surprised at how good a lot of it is. I think there are some unfortunate stereotypes of Elvis, first as a revolutionary rocker who pioneered rock ‘n’ roll, then as the “matinee idol,” who squandered a promising film career through formulaic musicals, and finally as a jump-suited near-self-parody during his last years. I especially found the last one to be unfair to him and thought it trivialized some of his greater moments, like returning to the stage in 1969.
However, I will say that there is a huge amount of home-movie footage of Elvis in concert shot throughout all of the concert years, 1969-77, and I was hard pressed to sit through more than a couple of hours per day of that. The shows became so similar, almost identical in many respects, that I could anticipate every move Elvis would make and even some of the jokes he told or his banter with the audience. This was not the case with the professionally shot footage for That’s the Way It Is and Elvis on Tour, or the more recent Prince from Another Planet footage from Madison Square Garden. I also loved seeing the restored Tupelo footage with sound added. However, I think it was essential that I watch as much concert footage as I could find in order to accurately describe the course of his career during those years for the chapters that address that. I think that was the only stuff I was sort of “Elvised out” on by the end.
EIN: Allen, in Channeling Elvis you present a cogent argument that television was not only instrumental in facilitating Elvis’ rise to prominence but also in sustaining his fame. Could you briefly explain?
AW: That is because of the timing of those TV shows. It may be a sign of the Colonel’s skill at choosing what Elvis should do at any point to best help his career, or perhaps serendipity in some cases, but all of them came at important points in his career. The shows in 1956 took him from relative unknown to national star in less than a year and Elvis remained a star for the rest of his life. But his career reached low points, like the end of the movie years, when he needed to do something new or different to regain that star status and draw widespread attention to himself again.
The 1968 “Comeback” special is, of course, the most obvious example of that, but the Frank Sinatra also put him back in the public’s mind very quickly after he’d been away for two years in the army. It was a great way to tell the world that Elvis is Back and, in fact, very quickly. It was as if he’d never left. I think the Colonel gets a lot of the credit for that smooth transition and for keeping Elvis’ spirits up during the two army years, when Elvis was very concerned that he would be forgotten by the time he returned home.
“Aloha” of course was the first internationally televised concert, another “first” for Elvis and the Colonel, which again made him stand above other musical artists, and also captured him at perhaps the last “great” moment in his career. I actually think his performance had already started to decline by then, although he still looked good and sang well. Elvis in Concert, of course is the visual record of a career completely undone and shattered. It marks the end of that career, just as the Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show” marks the start of Elvis’ rise.
The King of Rock 'n' Roll meets Sheena Queen of the Jungle (Irish McCalla)
EIN: Would Elvis have been as big a star without it?
AW: Undoubtedly he would have achieved stardom anyway. His records were beginning to climb the charts and he had developed a following via radio and records, as well as the many live shows he was doing. But I think he might not have stood out as much as he did without television and could have become a star in tandem with other rising artists of the time, like Pat Boone or the other Sun stars, like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. It would have been a slower process and I don’t think Elvis would have stood out and apart from everyone else as graphically and powerfully as he did through those TV appearances.
I think the need for TV may have been just as great when the “Comeback” special was done and, as I mentioned, the Sinatra show. But Elvis was certainly very good for television and was always sure to bring blockbuster ratings. He was a help to fading stars like the Dorsey’s and Milton Berle, and he alone pushed Steve Allen ahead of Ed Sullivan in the ratings when he appeared on Allen’s show. The “Comeback” special earned NBC’s highest ratings of the year and, as we discussed, “Aloha” was unlike anything TV had done before and was a huge ratings winner.
Elvis with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey
EIN: While there is an irrefutable case around the importance of television in establishing Elvis in America, did you form a view on its importance in establishing Elvis in other countries?
AW: I did not, really, apart from the ratings he scored with “Aloha,” especially in the Far East, where it was broadcast live. I think television must have had an influence in other countries as well, but not in the way it did in the U.S. Elvis was already a star here and had done his earliest shows when he began to be known in Europe, for example. The Beatles became aware of him more through his records than video and I’m not sure they saw Elvis prior to his first movie, Love Me Tender. But Elvis has long been extremely popular throughout the world and it is difficult to find a single cause for that, beyond his charisma and talent.
After all, he never once toured outside the U.S., except for a quick trip over the border into Canada in the 1950s. So, something else had to have grabbed the world’s attention. His movies clearly had an impact and I think the later TV shows did as well. “Aloha” was seen in much of Europe only hours after the live broadcast, for example, and drew a big audience there, although I don’t think it was seen in England until much later; I haven’t found conclusive information about that, but it is odd.
EIN: You interviewed many people involved in the making of Elvis’ television performances. Please tell us about some of the more interesting and intriguing interviews.
AW: I thought that many of them were interesting and intriguing. First, of course, there were those with musicians that played with Elvis, especially Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana, Glen D. Hardin, and also Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires. They were very candid and open with me and very straightforward in their responses. They gave me a good glimpse of Elvis from that perspective, but also off the stage. For example, each mentioned that they thought Elvis should have spoken up more for himself than he ever did with the Colonel or with some of the TV people he dealt with, particularly Steve Allen, because Elvis was clearly upset about what Allen was doing on that show, but refused to say anything about it to Allen.
I regard my interviews with Steve Allen as among the most interesting, given the controversy surrounding that show and Allen’s own forthcoming responses to my questions. I found inconsistencies in what he told me compared to what he had said on other occasions over the years, but the interviews were nevertheless compelling because he was such an engaging and interesting person to deal with and he clearly was quite passionate in giving his version of events.
I found Skitch Henderson [band leader on The Steve Allen Show] a very engaging and honest man, who also was quite candid in his views. He openly criticized himself and musicians of his generation who dismissed Elvis out of hand at first and thought little of him or his music. Henderson admitted to having been shortsighted and unfair and later became an Elvis fan, even mentioning having attended one of Elvis’ 1976 concerts in Tulsa, Oklahoma and being stunned at how badly Elvis had deteriorated physically. He was both saddened and shocked.
Elvis with Skitch Henderson backstage at the Hudson Theater, New York on 29 June 1956
Steve Binder, Bones Howe, and Bob Finkel, who were the key figures involved in the 1968 “Comeback” special were truly fascinating and revealed much about how that miraculous event came to be, how it evolved, and what it was like to work on it day in and day out. They were just amazing to talk to and I found Finkel’s stories about him serving as the go-between with Colonel Parker both funny and revealing.
Although I disagreed with the way Marty Pasetta did Aloha from Hawaii, I was taken with his genuine enthusiasm both for Elvis and for that special. I think he put everything he had into the show and did his very best to bring it off and, it must be admitted, that he did so amazingly well considering it was the first internationally live televised concert. Given the technology that existed in 1973, I think he did an amazing job. I also enjoyed talking to Debra Paget, not only because she, too, was quite candid and friendly, but because I had been told that she was impossible to locate or to interview. Both she and the late Irish McCalla, who played “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle” on TV, had very interesting observations about the Milton Berle show.
Many of the lesser-known people who worked on these shows, from producers and directors to hairdressers often provided interesting observations. This was especially true regarding the Sinatra show and the various impressions the people involved had of both Elvis and Sinatra. Most of them observed how nervous Elvis seemed to be and attributed it at least partly to his misgivings about Sinatra’s opinion of him, but also to Elvis’ own insecurity and doubts about his ability to return to the top of the heap. ABC-TV’s Production Coordinator, James Washburn and director Richard Dunlap were particularly informative, having worked with Sinatra before.
I should also mention Steve Allen’s producer, William O. Harbach and his writers, Stan Burns and Herb Sargent, who provided great background information on the Allen show. Of course, Allen’s director, Dwight Hemion, had the rare distinction of having directed that early Elvis TV appearance and his very last in 1977, so he brought an interesting perspective. Gary Smith, however, was the real treasure trove of information regarding the Elvis in Concert special since the show was largely shaped by him and it reflected his concept from the very beginning. I found Smith to be one of the most enjoyable people to speak to – very candid, unpretentious, funny and intelligent. I think I got something useful out of all the interviews I did, but these particularly stand out, at least off the top of my head.
EIN: On the surface, the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show seems a somewhat odd place to begin Elvis’ national television career. What is your view?
AW: I think you have to understand that in the 1950s there were only so many opportunities to put Elvis on television. The Colonel knew this and as Elvis was at the time only a regional star he couldn’t book him on the top television shows like Ed Sullivan. While the Dorsey Brothers show, produced by Jackie Gleason, wasn’t as big as Ed Sullivan’s, it still got fairly decent ratings, which were lifted when Elvis appeared. The Gleason/Dorsey Brothers appearances helped increase Elvis’ recognition across America and create interest in him from other television variety shows.
One of the interesting things I discovered in researching Channeling Elvis was that the Colonel included a provision in Elvis’ contract with RCA that committed the label to securing three national television appearances for Presley, However, the Colonel realized there was no guarantee that RCA would be able to do it. Never one to leave things to others, the Colonel embarked on his own campaign to get Elvis on the tube.
EIN: What did the Dorsey Brothers, with their jazz and big band orchestra background, think of Elvis?
AW: They liked him personally but hated his music. My research found that they complained to Jackie Gleason about having Elvis on the show but Gleason knew there was an opportunity to improve the show’s ratings if Elvis appeared. However, despite their dislike of his music the Dorsey Brothers treated Elvis well when he appeared on the show. And it was those six shows that allowed Elvis to build a following among the youth of America.
In regards to the Dorsey Brothers and other adults not liking rock and roll music I see a parallel to today’s rap music. Many adults don’t like rap music and don’t understand its attraction to the youth of today. They respond to it, like their parents did with Elvis and his rock and roll music, by automatically rejecting and denigrating it and viewing it as really not being music or at best music that is not of a high caliber.
EIN: In your opinion what impact did the “Hound Dog” performance have on Elvis’ career?
EIN: What did you discover about Elvis’ controversial performance of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show?
AW: In hindsight the fallout from Elvis’ performance of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show was surprising. It’s interesting that when I talked to people including Debra Paget, Scotty Moore and Irish McCalla, all of whom also appeared on the show, none of them thought there was anything shocking or wrong with what Elvis did. They said Elvis just moved his hips. And as Scotty Moore told me, Elvis had been doing the same thing for quite a while. In any case his performance style was little different to a number of the burlesque acts that appeared on television’s variety shows at the time. In fact on the Berle show that night, Debra Paget, who would of course star with Elvis in Love Me Tender, did a very steamy dance number which didn’t elicit any controversy.
AW: As it turned out the performance on the Berle show resulted in probably the worst press Elvis ever got. However, as the Colonel knew, any pr was good pr. Suddenly Elvis had become a subject of controversy and the Colonel welcomed the attention of the press and Elvis' appeal to teenagers. However, both he and Paramount Picture's Hal Wallis, were concerned about the controversy. Wallis of course was grooming Elvis for his film debut in Love Me Tender and was concerned that Elvis’ shows were getting too rowdy and this was damaging his image.
Harry Kalcheim from the William Morris Agency was concerned about Elvis' crude stage behavior, like throwing his gum into the crowd and belching. But to get Elvis across on television, which was at the time a family thing, unlike the segmentation today where there are dedicated youth channels, the big wigs thought Elvis needed to tone down his performances, at least on television. People often underestimate how important it was for advancing his career and image that Elvis did tone down his performances. While Elvis' television performances were still animated, the movement was not as wild or pronounced as happened during his early television performances – his performing was cleaned up. It would not be until the Comeback Special in 1968 that viewers would again see the “real Elvis”.
In hindsight it all seems rather silly now. And if you watch Elvis on the Milton Berle Show closely you will see that many in the audience were chuckling and didn’t find his performance offensive.
Elvis’ appearance on the Steve Allen Show is widely regarded as a put down of Elvis, but this criticism is unfair. Allen’s was primarily a comedy show that placed guest stars in comic sketches. Many big stars appeared in such sketches on Allen’s show, including Academy Award winner Charlton Heston, and none felt they were being embarrassed. My view is Allen wanted to maintain the central character of his show and entertain his audience.
EIN: You mentioned Elvis’ feelings about his treatment on the Steve Allen Show. Many fans are also critical of it. While Allen has arguably been unfairly portrayed over the years it is also apparent he has, at times, been somewhat disingenuous in his public comments about Elvis’ appearance on his show. You devote a wonderful chapter, The Great Humiliation – Or Not: The Steve Allen Show on Elvis’ appearance. Without giving away too much what are your views on this performance and Steve Allen?
AW: The Ed Sullivan Show was the one you wanted to be on. It was must see TV. The Steve Allen Show was broadcast in the same time slot as Sullivan's show and was struggling in the ratings, facing an uphill battle against Sullivan. Allen was always looking for acts that would boost his ratings so he could compete with Sullivan. It is well known Allen, who was into classical music and jazz, like the Dorsey’s, did not like rock and roll and dismissed it. However, after Elvis’ appearances on the Dorsey Brothers and Milton Berle shows he saw an opportunity to challenge Sullivan’s dominance. And it worked. The Steve Allen Show beat Sullivan for the first and only time.
I do not believe he set out to embarrass Elvis, he simply wanted to have a fun show that increased his ratings. In fact, Allen would have wanted to avoid deliberately humiliating any of his guests because it would have made him and his show look bad. From those I talked to, Allen had no idea that Elvis was unhappy with being dressed in a top hat, white tie and tails and having to sing to a dog! Gordon Stoker commented that had Steve Allen been told Elvis was unhappy he would have done something about it. But Elvis did what he often did; he just hid his feelings and got on with the show.
Despite Allen's claims to the contrary, he was clearly aware of the controversy created by Elvis’ appearance on the Berle show. He looked for a way to present Elvis that would prevent him from repeating that kind of performance on his show, while also fitting him into the comic atmosphere of the show. Presenting Elvis as the very opposite of the hard-edged rocker that he was represented parody, and the audience has to be familiar with a performer’s real look and style in order to get the joke when they are presented that way. That’s all Allen was trying to do.
Allen didn't anticipate that Elvis’ appearance on his show would result in its own controversy. I think Allen became defensive about this once he realized that Elvis’ fans and even some critics objected to the way Elvis had been presented. The criticism followed Allen for years and I think that’s why his accounts of what happened changed over time as he became more defensive about it. However, given the nature of the Allen show and the fact that he had not set out to make Elvis look bad or denigrate him, this criticism of Steve Allen is unfair, especially since Elvis never expressed any uneasiness about it.
EIN: Elvis’ appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and his satellite show Aloha from Hawaii have received the most commentary in the media. What did you discover about the Sullivan performances?
AW: In the mid-1950s the Sullivan show was “must-see TV”. Ed Sullivan, who at the time was also a newspaper columnist, traveled the world and found acts no one in the US had seen before. He also had strong connections on Broadway. From acrobats to opera singers, Sullivan found high class performers and performances.
Sullivan played it safe and was initially not interested in having Elvis on his show due to the controversy he created. However, after Allen beat him in the ratings on the back of Elvis’ appearance, Sullivan relented. He ended up paying Elvis an unheard of amount at the time of $50,000 for three appearances. It was five times more than he paid the Beatles!
Elvis’ appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show caused their own controversy in that for his final appearance he was shown only from the waist up. The ‘tone down’ for the third appearance wasn’t really necessary as in reality Elvis wasn’t moving as much as he had and the advance announcement that he would only be shown from the waist up was intended only to boost ratings. In fact, Sullivan had already shown him from head to toe with no negative press fallout. Really it was a non-issue but from the Colonel’s perspective, great pr.
Sullivan’s comments about Elvis during his final appearance when he admitted he was wrong about Elvis were a big surprise. He liked Elvis when he met him and respected him, even if he still didn’t like his music. Ed repeated his comments later on the Hy Gardner show. An important thing about Elvis’ appearances on the Sullivan show was that they made Sullivan realize the importance of the new youth music and of course it resulted in rock and roll acts becoming a regular inclusion in the Ed Sullivan Show over the next decade.
Rehearsals for the Frank Sinatra Welcome Home, Elvis TV Special
EIN: You uncovered a number of very interesting ‘behind the scenes’ incidents in relation to the Frank Sinatra Welcome Home Elvis special. Please tell us a little about those.
AW: The Sinatra show was important. It helped Elvis in that it was a great way to say “Elvis is back” following his army service. It was the ‘big splash’ the Colonel wanted. Pairing Elvis with Sinatra – two teen idols -- was a dream match. Unfortunately there was no chemistry between them and their behind the scenes interaction was cordial, but without warmth.
When I was writing Channeling Elvis I used the word “nervous” to describe Elvis during the Sinatra show so many times I had to edit it. And Elvis was nervous. I wondered if perhaps Elvis felt Sinatra, who was another who disliked rock and roll, also did not like him. My research confirmed the legendary volatility to Sinatra’s personality. He never really got overtly angry but you had the idea he might explode. Elvis may have sensed that and in addition he would have been nervous that after two years in the Army his career may be over.
When I talked to Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires, he commented on how odd Elvis’ comeback single was given the other songs on the Elvis Is Back album. Stoker felt Stuck On You was an inferior, throwaway song.
Overall, the Sinatra Welcome Home Elvis special seemed to be a very forced show. I don’t think it was because Sinatra personally disliked Elvis, but reflected Sinatra’s dislike of doing the specials and the lack of chemistry between its two lead performers.
EIN: Also, your research and the accounts of those involved in the Sinatra special suggests Elvis took an acquiescent position in relation to its production. Why do you think Elvis didn’t assert himself and influence its look and feel?
AW: That is an interesting question and one where, not really knowing the answer, I need to speculate. A lot of the books written about Elvis mention how insecure he was about himself and his talent. This is probably at the center of why Elvis rarely spoke out. I think part of his problem lay in his upbringing where he never had a strong father figure or parent. And when his career took off the Colonel wasn’t going to play that role. Also his upbringing taught him to respect older people and I think all these factors meant he had a strong tendency to acquiesce and be a ‘good guest’. It’s not that people didn’t tell him to speak up and he was big enough to do it. Why he took the point of least resistance is a mystery and part of the tragedy of his story.
The King's Greatest Television Moment - the '68 Comeback Special (Singer Presents Elvis)
EIN: The Comeback Special. Much has been written over the years about how the Colonel wanted it to be a straight Christmas special but Steve Binder (and subsequently Elvis) had other ideas. What did your research uncover about the making of the Comeback Special?
AW: While the Colonel had been good for Elvis in making him a major star, he lacked artistic judgment. In relation to the ’68 “Comeback Special” and that it was to air in December the Colonel was influenced by the fact other major stars such as Judy Garland and Bing Crosby did what can only be called routine Christmas shows. Had the “Comeback Special” been produced this way it probably would still have rated very well but it would have been anything but “special” and would have hindered him advancing into the next creative part of his career.
Elvis was in a very good place during filming of the special. In addition he looked terrific and he had a newfound enthusiasm for his music. Elvis was also in good hands with the show’s producer/director, Steve Binder, and musical director, Bones Howe, both of whom he bonded with and trusted. The bond was so close that while Elvis addressed most people by their title, he addressed Binder by his first name, Steve. Bob Finkel had been frustrated when Elvis didn’t connect with him in that way and continually called him “Mr. Finkel.”
Elvis listened to Binder and Howe and they listened to him. Elvis could see the opportunity for a special in which he made a musical statement rather than just singing a bunch of Christmas songs. He didn’t acquiesce to the Colonel’s desire for a mundane Christmas show and managed to get him to back off. And as I said earlier, Bob Finkel, who was originally to be producer of the show, found himself with the role of go-between, running interference to keep the Colonel at arm’s length, which was a big help to Elvis, Binder and Howe.
The Colonel was in a bind as he knew he needed a splashy breakthrough as Elvis’ films were no longer making money and Elvis was tired of Hollywood. The Colonel had to go along for the ride.
At first, Elvis was uneasy at having a big orchestra in the show. Steve Binder discussed it with him and suggested Elvis try it and if he felt it didn’t work they could send the orchestra back home. As it turned out, Elvis loved it. From Binder’s perspective the key was for Elvis to try it and Elvis was willing to trust him. Binder handled Elvis very well and got him to achieve creative output that others hadn’t.
EIN: The issue of Elvis (generally) acquiescing to the Colonel. Do you have a view on why this was the case?
AW: Elvis was raised to respect his elders and authority. So this was certainly part of the reason. I think also that Elvis had reason from his early days to trust the Colonel. The Colonel negotiated his contracts and made him not only an American star but an international star. Elvis also may have needed someone to make decisions for him and to reassure him at times. The Colonel performed this role. The Frank Sinatra show, which I mentioned before, is an obvious example. The Colonel reassured Elvis he would still be a star when he returned from the Army and the Sinatra show was the “reset” Elvis needed.
I also think that Elvis may have felt out of his depth when it came to business matters, such as negotiating contracts, and felt more secure leaving that to the Colonel. It's important to remember that the Colonel had done a lot for Elvis and fulfilled his earliest promises to Elvis and his parents. He made Elvis a star and a millionaire, after the family had struggled in poverty.
Pasetta introduced visual distractions to give it more impact, for example, Elvis’ name being flashed in different languages. And given the restrictions of television Elvis had to keep the show moving by not talking with the audience as much as he otherwise would have. I think that overall Pasetta produced an average Elvis show but one that worked in spite of its weaknesses and restrictions.
EIN: Allen, your research suggests the situation with Elvis Aloha from Hawaii was different......in his interview with you Glen D. Hardin was critical of several matters including the influence of Marty Pasetta. What is your view on the issue?
AW: As I mentioned earlier, I think Pasetta did as good a job as he could under the circumstances. He had done a lot of music specials but was not a rock and roll guy and looked at “Aloha” through the eyes of a TV producer. He was not going to produce a variety show as Steve Binder had done with the “Comeback Special”. “Aloha” was going to be basically an Elvis concert brought to a big chunk of the world’s population. Pasetta saw Elvis perform and thought it unexciting with Elvis exhibiting little movement. As a result the setting for Aloha became critical.
EIN: On the Aloha show you comment: “Unlike Elvis’ earlier television appearances, Aloha broke no new ground, did not set him in a new direction, and contained no surprises.” Some would argue that it would have been difficult for Elvis, then in his late 30s, to break new musical ground particularly in front of a family audience. What would you say in response?
AW: Elvis had not broken new ground since his '68 special and had stayed on tour and in Vegas ever since. He had settled into that routine and Aloha reflected exactly where he was in January 1973. But Elvis could have done many new things, including more challenging film roles that he chose himself, new challenging recording sessions with new song writers, such as the work he had done at American Studios, and he might have changed his entire stage act. The large orchestra, multiple backup groups, the jumpsuit costumes and the routine nature of he shows were all very stale.
Elvis might have given the stage act a complete makeover, maybe done a segment similar to the live "pit" segments he'd done on the '68 special, or a short acoustic set during the show with no one but him playing and singing, as Paul McCartney did during one of his tours. The key words here are "new" and "challenging." Elvis did great things when he felt challenged and got the bit in his teeth. That never happened after 1969.
EIN: Allen, Elvis’ final television special, Elvis in Concert. Given Elvis’ state of health and mind, it is an emotionally confronting experience to watch. What are your views on the special?
AW: I have to agree it is emotionally confronting to watch. Elvis looked and sounded bad. Joe Guercio was quoted in Peter Guarlnick’s book [Careless Love] as saying the producers were very kind to Elvis. They saw he looked sick but they still had an assignment to build a special. Neither of the two concerts used as the basis of the special were particularly good. This made it difficult to produce a show which presented Elvis as a “music phenomenon”.
They chose to construct the show in a similar way to the experience you get going to the circus. They included the pre-show attractions, the pre-show build up outside the “main tent”: side show alley, food and drinks and merchandising, all of which serve to heighten the anticipation. Not surprisingly, the Colonel, with his carny background, liked it. In fact, the first 10 minutes was really all about the Colonel and how he had built a phenomenon. The rest of the show is uneven and one of the real high points, a powerful moment when Elvis sat at the piano and sang "Unchained Melody," was actually cut from the broadcast. When I interviewed Jerry Schilling he told me this was one of the “great performances” and he decided to include it in his Great Performances video compilation, even though he thought the special never should have been aired.
The finished product was, for the wrong reasons, mesmerizing. To use an old cliché, it was like watching a “train wreck”. It is emotionally confronting but you can’t help but keep on watching.
Singing Unchained Melody (from Elvis in Concert )
EIN: Do you think Elvis in Concert should be released to fans and/or the public?
AW: I think it is unlikely EPE will ever publicly release Elvis in Concert. Their marketing strategy is based around building and promoting Elvis as an “attractive” image. Elvis in Concert does not fit that mold.
However, I think it should be released because it is part of the record and of Elvis' story, sad though it may be. In fact, I'd like to see all of Elvis' television appearances released, as the Ed Sullivan Shows have been.
EIN: In writing Channeling Elvis did you research Elvis’ alleged appearance on the Roy Orbison TV show in 1955?
AW: Yes I did. I spoke to Barbara Orbison who put me on to a guy in her office who could help me. He checked the records but couldn’t find any mention of Elvis. Also, the dates didn’t match. Roy’s show was aired “live” in several different towns and Elvis wasn’t there during the times when Roy was broadcasting from those places . No one I spoke to recalled Elvis appearing on the show. Sadly, there is no video footage of Roy’s TV show and no real evidence Elvis appeared on it.
EIN: Do you think Elvis realized how important television was in making and sustaining his career?
AW: That is a really good question but a tough one to answer. In researching my book and talking to many people who were around him I heard from beginning to end Elvis didn’t like TV. He found it restrictive, but as he usually did, he deferred to the Colonel. However, certainly in the early days and even later, especially regarding the '68 Comeback special, Elvis realized how important television was and had no misgivings about doing it.
EIN: Did your research change your view of Elvis in any way?
AW: Yes, in some ways. Glen D. Hardin talked to me about how most people are fans of either early Elvis or later Elvis. For Glen it is the early Elvis and he described how Elvis’ records from the 1950s are as fresh today as they were when first released. Originally I too was a fan of the early Elvis. I never went to an Elvis live show and I drifted away in his later years. However, when researching Channeling Elvis and watching countless hours of his TV performances including Aloha, a lot of concert footage, and listening to his recordings from that period, I was struck by how good his voice was. It was very good through most of the 1970s and he released some excellent recordings during those years.
EIN: Allen, did you form a view on Elvis’ body of television work?
AW: I think that if you look at it objectively, it is an uneven record of Elvis on TV. This is somewhat understandable as in the majority of performances, Elvis is not the star or only star, but a guest star. His earliest appearances were on variety programs showcasing circus and animal acts and Elvis stands out as he was different to the other acts of the time. The “Comeback Special” was the first show entirely built around Elvis. There are light years of difference between Elvis on the “Comeback Special” and Elvis’ earlier television appearances. In 1968 Elvis looked his best, he was not full of drugs and he was so committed he moved into the NBC Studios and lived there during filming. Elvis’ commitment showed in a dynamic performance unlike anything he did before or after. To use another old cliché, the “Comeback Special” was Elvis’ “perfect storm”.
They had so much great footage from the '68 special that they had to cut much of it to fit the one-hour time frame. This disappointed Steve Binder, who had prepared a longer version for a 90-minute slot. Fortunately, the version was later released on video, as were the full "pit" segments. By contrast, Aloha was somewhat rushed as Elvis had to cram one of his concerts into a rigid one-hour air time. Ironically, the longer U.S. version was terribly padded and dull by contrast. Elvis In Concert, on the other hand, was a struggle to find sufficient decent material to fill out the full hour.
EIN: What is next for Allen Wiener?
AW: After 15 years researching, writing and promoting Channeling Elvis…….a rest!(lol) I also did two other books during that time and was actually working on them simultaneously with two different co-authors! I'm never doing that again! But, I'm always looking for a new idea and a new project. I expect to be back at it before long.
EIN: Allen, is there anything else you would like to say to EIN readers?
AW: Joe Guercio made a big deal to me of what Elvis wanted as against what his fans may have wanted. Joe felt many fans just wanted to see Elvis in a white jumpsuit or black leather outfit singing "Hound Dog" every time. But Elvis wanted more than that. He wanted recognition as a vocalist who could interpret songs in a wide range of different music genres. Elvis was a pioneer of “roots” music.
He was unique in that he could master so many different genres: rockabilly, rock and roll, gospel, country & western, blues, pop, soul, semi-operatic. In his later “live” shows he incorporated gospel songs which particularly showed his strengths as a singer and his vocal power when he fully invested himself in a song.
If you look closely at Elvis’ later years, while his physical demeanor may have been diminishing, his command of music was still very powerful. For this reason the cliché version of the overweight Elvis in white jumpsuit is an unfair depiction. There was a lot more to Elvis even in his last few years.
EIN: Allen, thank you very much for talking to us and providing such a great insight to Elvis' television appearances both in front of and behind the camera. We wish you continued success with Channeling Elvis and success with your future endeavours.
Comment on this interview
Allen Wiener's official website: http://allenwienerblog.blogspot.com
Read EIN’s review of: Channeling Elvis How Television Saved the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll
firstname.lastname@example.org: Just a word on my thought on the interview. Seems like he has the facts correct and agree that Steve Allen was not out to intentionally embarress Elvis but it was a typical '50's show where comedy played a big part and Elvis was in there to fit in with the format. Also while many rate the 1973 aloha show as his ultimate concert a lot of people who were not born at the time do not know that the show especially in Australia was heavily critiqued by the media. we saw it live Sunday at 9pm in black and white with the only commercial break coming when Elvis introduced the band. The next day Jimmy Hannan and a host of TV, radio and press people stated how Elvis looked and sounded listless and tired. They blamed his extensive rehearsals for the show however now we know the effects of the medication were the real reason.
Also I have no idea why the directors, producers and his looney Mafia so called friends did not realize how bad he looked in a 1977 jumpsuit and would have been better off in a jacket and pants which would have covered the excess weight. The fault as Wiener and others agree is that Elvis was not manly enough to assert his authority through his lifetime. Overall an interesting book and interview.
Garry F.: Great interview with Allen Wiener. It has made we revisit Elvis's TV shows and I'm watching them in chronological order. Keep up the great work.
Bernard Roughton: Very interesting interview, I have this book & it is excellent, despite mine being cheaply being "Printed-on Demand" by Amazon with wavy paper. It deserves better.
You have a pic on Elvis in the Supper Club scene from NBC, wearing the sparkly gold jacket. Am I right in thinking that is Lance Legault behind him with the tambourine (I don't remember him with dark hair!) but who is the drummer? And who else was in this different band? Were they all proper musicians, & if so I wonder why Scotty & DJ were not used. Possibly not there of course, but if so I wonder why they were not asked? Not going to get the DVD out, but I think Charlie Hodge may have been in there too!
Any thoughts on this?
Ken Duvall: Enjoyed your interview with Alen Wienere. He made a lot of valid points about Elvis not taking control of his tv appearances. Elvis was a prisoner of his fame and more so by his lack of confidence in himself. It is sad that a person with so much talent didn't have the strength to assert himself creatively on a regular basis.
AJ: This is an excellent Interview! There's a LOT of information covered. I liked that Allen Wiener kept his answers professional and stayed away mostly from getting too personal in the "history" of Elvis. He kept it mostly about his career & the rise and fall of Elvis.