Matt Shepherd Interview
'Elvis Presley: Stories Behind The Songs'
EIN's Piers Beagley asks the questions
New book 'Elvis Presley: Stories Behind The Songs' sees BBC Local Radio presenter and EIN contributor Matt Shepherd looking at some of Elvis' biggest hits and lesser known treasures.
The first of a two volume book, starts in January 1969, almost 50 years ago, when Elvis recorded in Memphis for the first time in 14 years.
"I started my book in 1969 as it was a crucial crossroads for Elvis, he had proved in the 68 Special that he was still a dynamic performer. However the 69 sessions would go on to show Elvis was still a major chart force, able to select and record hit making and relevant songs.
"Had these Memphis sessions not been the great success they were, Elvis could well have spent the rest of his life as a nostalgia act. So it was essential he got it right."
With songs like "Suspicious Minds" and "Don't Cry Daddy" Elvis proved once and for all he was not only the King of Rock n Roll but also the King of Music.
The book also looks at some of Elvis' standout live performances of the 1970s, before transporting the reader back to the unforgettable days at Sun and then RCA, before Uncle Sam came calling.
EIN wanted to find out more.. Piers Beagley asked the tricky questions..
'Elvis Presley: Stories Behind The Songs' by author Matt Shepherd and published by Libri looks at some of Elvis' biggest hits and lesser known treasures.
The first of a two volume book, this first volume starts in January 1969, almost 50 years ago, when Elvis recorded in Memphis for the first time in 14 years.
The book aims to have the reader look at each song in a different light - maybe go back and play the lesser heard songs and appreciate them in a whole different way after reading the story behind that particular track. If it further builds on the fans' knowledge about Elvis and brings around a bigger appreciation of Presley's music then the book will have achieved its purpose.
EIN: Matt, we have had quite a few conversations over the years so it’s great to know that your book about Elvis’ songs is coming out and to also have a chance to find out more..
Matt Shepherd: Thank you Piers – I love visiting the Elvis Information Network. I visit most days and have worked my way through all your archive interviews too – great stuff!
EIN: Can you tell EIN readers when you first discovered the power of Elvis and how long you have been collecting his music?
Matt Shepherd: Wow we have to go back to when I was six years old. We had family round and after the meal when the adults wanted to talk I started to watch some TV. Back then in the UK we had three TV channels. I came across this great looking guy singing and that was it. My Uncle sent me a poster of Elvis soon after. It was a life-sized one taken from the movie Loving You. My first Elvis record followed, which was the Camden label release of “Return to Sender” – the album came with a free poster. I guess the collection started then! I have around 500 albums now from various countries and a few hundred singles too. For me it’s always been about the music when it comes to Elvis and there’s so much out there still to collect! I’m like a kid in a sweetshop when I find a new album to add to my collection.
EIN: How long have you been working on BBC radio and are your shows rather Elvis biased?!
Matt Shepherd: I have worked for BBC Radio Cornwall for 24 years so far. Over that time I have been lucky enough to have worked on more than 50 shows dedicated to Elvis. I co-present a show with my good friend Freddy Zapp every January and August. We’ve done that since 1992. I also cover various other shows on the radio station which is based in Truro, Cornwall. I have been delighted to have been able to interview some of those who knew Elvis, including Joe Esposito, George Klein, Jerry Schilling, Celeste Yarnall and the only actor to appear in both a Beatles and an Elvis movie, Norman Rossington. Many of these haven’t appeared in print before but they will feature in Elvis Presley: Stories Behind The Songs Volume Two which is out next year.
EIN: How are your Elvis specials received, after all it’s a long time since he left the building.
Matt Shepherd: It’s funny Piers, I have been lucky enough to do all sorts of exciting things for the BBC, but all the listeners know me as the “Elvis guy” I get the same response everywhere I go. And I absolutely don’t mind in the slightest! Listeners have always been so kind about the shows and often write in with requests when they know I am doing an Elvis Special. There’s still countless fans out there. I don’t think Elvis will ever be forgotten. The exciting thing for me is there are so many social media pages dedicated to Elvis. I know your fantastic Facebook group has thousands of members. On Instagram there are hundreds of accounts dedicated to Elvis and loads of these are run by young people, which I think is fantastic. It goes to show the magic of Elvis is still getting passed down through the generations and long may that continue!
EIN: What drove you to examine all of Elvis’ songs for a book?
Matt Shepherd: This will be a two volume collection and it will cover the vast majority of songs but not every single one. What I have tried to do with volume one of Elvis Presley: Stories Behind The Songs is to look at a wide range of Elvis’ songs, not only the classic hits but also some of the rarer gems that can often be overshadowed by the million sellers but yet have their own story to tell. So while there are the obvious songs like “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” this volume also looks at hidden gems like “Tomorrow Never Comes” (why was this never released as a single!!) And the fabulous bluesy “Power Of My Love” (If only Elvis had recorded a dedicated Blues album – I think it would have been huge!) And as an Elvis fan, what a fantastic excuse to listen lots of songs by my idol!
EIN: How long have you been working on the book?
Listeners to BBC Radio Cornwall have been telling me for years to write a book. One day I thought – why not! I knew from the start it had to be about Elvis’ music as that has always been a major love of mine. I started writing the book about two and a half years ago. As I was writing it I thought they might end up as radio shows, which is why the style of the book is quite chatty as it would translate to a radio script quite easily. It was a very special moment to finally hold a copy of the book a few days ago. It’s a dream come true to have a book published.
EIN: They first came out as small E-books, what made you compile them into larger formatted books? How many volumes will there be?
Matt Shepherd: Well Piers I used the E-book idea to test the market and while they sold ok I soon realised that us Elvis fans want the physical product, a book, a record, a CD; something we can add to our collections or our shelves to form a display. But the E-books served a great purpose as they started getting my written work out there. As far as the paperback books go, there will be two. But if they go well I have Elvis-related ideas for future books. My publisher Libri Publishing has been so supportive so it would be lovely if it’s the start of a long association.
EIN: The first volume starts in 1969, why not start at the beginning? Are the listings chronological or alphabetical?
Matt Shepherd: Great question Piers. When I started writing the book two and a half years ago I was drawn to start it in 1969 because it was such a crucial crossroads for Elvis in his career. He had just proved himself to the television audiences that he was still an electrifying act on stage. However now he had to back this up with really strong material to solidify the comeback. We can’t stress enough how important Elvis 1969 Memphis recordings are. If Elvis had recorded weak material which didn’t make an impact on the charts, he was likely to have become a nostalgia act along with the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bill Haley. Elvis would not have wanted that. The fact he recorded some of the greatest songs of his career 50 years ago meant that he was well and truly back, not only as a “must-see” performer but also a major chart force. The songs covered are not alphabetical however there is an index at the back so if people want to dip in and out of the book there’s an opportunity for them to do so. I really hope fans who buy the book will take the opportunity to dive into some of Elvis’ incredible but lesser heard tracks while reading about them in my book.
EIN: There have been two rather successful books published recently about Elvis’ music, Shane Brown’s ‘Reconsider Baby’ and Mark Duffett’s ‘His 100 Finest songs’ how will your book compare with these and want more will it tell fans?
These books are great Piers. I have them in my collection along with Robert Matthew Walker’s book from many years ago and the more recent release by Mike Eder. Before I even started writing Stories Behind The Songs, I had to decide whether I could bring anything else to the table to compliment these excellent releases. I hope I have. I like to think I take the reader on a “scenic route” through Elvis’ songs. Not only do we look at the tracks and Elvis’ version but I also write about the other people connected to the songs and their careers. So we look at the lives of the composers, the other people who covered the track and how successful their version was. Also if Elvis’ version was a cover, who was he most influenced by. I hope it will help the readers to fall even more in love with the tracks covered.
EIN: Elvis songs sometimes changed and developed as they were being recorded (ie ‘Give Me the Right’ starting off bluesy but eventually sounding more pop) – do you recognise these differences in your book?
Matt Shepherd: Absolutely. It’s fascinating researching all these tracks and learning more about them myself, especially the lesser known songs. Elvis in the studio was an incredible force. He always gave his all in every performance, even the inferior quality movie tracks from the mid-60s. I love the way Elvis would take a track, even a really famous one, and give it a new and exciting lease of life. He may not have been a composer, but he certainly was a fantastic producer and knew what he wanted. It must have been so frustrating for him when Parker would often instruct the sound engineers to bring Elvis’ voice forward, lower backings and even speed up Elvis’ voice – what was Parker thinking!
EIN: Are there any photos in your book?
The photos on the front and back cover and the ones in the book are from my own record collection. I have some rarities as you can see above. I spoke to my editors a while back and we agreed that because the book was all about the music then we had to include some single and album covers.
EIN: Do you think the release of every Elvis session outtake by RCA / FTD a good idea?
As a mad Elvis fan for so many years, I always get excited when I hear a new outtake from Elvis. I think FTD has done an incredible job over the years with their releases. I wish they could go on forever but we all know that sadly that won’t happen. So I have and will always welcome any such release. We are so lucky that Elvis was such a prolific recording artist so we as fans can still get excited by his recordings all these years after Elvis left the building.
EIN: Fifties, Sixties or Seventies – which is your favourite era?
Matt Shepherd: Oh wow – that’s probably the hardest question of the interview so far! Can I pick ten from each decade? No? Oh dear! Each decade produced exciting tracks and moments from Elvis. If I had to pick one album to have in the car it would probably be “Elvis is Back”. It’s always been a favourite of mine. I feel it’s very underrated and can’t believe “GI Blues” sold so many more copies. But it’s an amazing album where Elvis covers the different music genres with such ease and professionalism. Sorry Piers that probably hasn’t really answered your question!
EIN: That was perhaps a trick question as my favourite era depends on my mood. But even if you adore the sixties, what on earth can you write about Elvis’ mundane movie songs?
Matt Shepherd: Funny you should ask that Piers – I am currently in the early 1960s as I am mid-way through writing volume two of my book. The early 60s is quite easy as there was still a lot of quality control especially in the studio albums like “Elvis is Back”, “His Hand in Mine”, “Pot Luck” etc complimenting the soundtrack releases, but I know it’s going to be a struggle by the time I get to “Kissin’ Cousins” and co! It’s hard because first and foremost I am an Elvis fan and want to see the best in everything he recorded, but as a writer I also have to step back and be realistic about certain movie songs. At the end of the day though, when you’ve got a catalogue consisting of hundreds of recordings, I guess you’re allowed a few turkeys too!
EIN: Tepper / Bennett wrote 45 songs for Elvis. Do you consider them a fast and furious creative team providing what was required or composers of tripe that never should have been recorded?
I don’t blame the composers. They often wrote with a gun held above their heads I guess. They had very little time to come up with the goods, or at least something passable. I must confess I wasn’t a big fan of their early offerings to Elvis like “Lonesome Cowboy”. It’s definitely not the strongest song of the “Loving You” soundtrack! But then “Shoppin’ Around” from “GI Blues” was perfectly acceptable for the time. And a guilty pleasure of mine is “Puppet on a String”. But then when you get to songs like “Smorgasbord” and “I Love Only One Girl” you can’t help but wish their pen ink had run out after the first line!
EIN: At what point should Elvis had said "NO, I am not recording this crap”? Can you name a particular song?
Matt Shepherd: One thing about Elvis, as I mentioned earlier, is he did his best with everything he was given. He may have shown his frustration but on the whole he made the best of an often bad song. There were signs of a dip in quality from the early 60s, but I think the time Elvis should have started putting his foot down is when Parker really swooped in with his cost cutting measures – so around the time of “Kissin’ Cousins” you can really see how cheaply made that film was compared to the glorious “Viva Las Vegas”. Then soundtracks like “Harem Holiday” – oh dear – really not one I intend to play too often! The saving grace of some of the soundtracks that followed were the bonus songs – but what a sin that amazing songs like Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” and the beautiful “Suppose” are hidden among the easily forgotten turkeys like “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad”. That said I’ve now got that one in my head – so I guess such songs were catchy if nothing else!
EIN: Regarding the Harum Scarum / Harem Holiday soundtrack - is it 'so bad-it-is-good' and at least has a different musical influence – or just plain bad?
Matt Shepherd: I would love to have known what would have happened if Parker had been given the go ahead to add a talking camel to Harum Scarum! I must confess to having days when I enjoy “So Close , Yet So Far” from that album. Ok, let’s be honest what was good about that film – oh yes the wonderful Cecil B. DeMille backdrops! Yet we all have our favourites. Some people detest “Tickle Me” but it’s one of my guilty pleasures – so as fans it’s great we can pick our own favourites and the ones we leave on the shelf gathering dust!
EIN: At a 1967 RCA session Elvis complained “Doesn’t anybody have any decent material worth recording” – With such great music being produced at the time, “The Beatles, the Byrds and whoever” – surely fans should have contempt for the way Col Parker and Freddy Bienstock operated?
Matt Shepherd: It was all about the money for those two characters I’m afraid. Parker never understood the brilliant talent he managed. I truly believe he saw one of the greatest musical talents the world has ever seen, as a strange carny side show. Parker treated Elvis like he treated all his money making schemes – as a passing fad – grab what you can and run. I think over the years Parker and Bienstock have been viewed with contempt by the fans and I fear it’s totally justified. Who was the biggest villain of the pair – wow that’s a whole new interview in itself!
EIN: What was Col Parker’s biggest musical mistake?
Matt Shepherd: Parker’s biggest mistake was that he didn’t understand the music that his world famous client was so amazing at producing. He also made some incredibly crazy judgements when it came to some of Elvis’ most amazing music. Why on earth would you put the then recent recording of “Burning Love” on a budget album – or “Guitar Man” on the same album as the downright awful “Confidence”. Missing “Suspicious Minds” off from “Elvis in Memphis” back in 1969 was crazy too. We don’t know his reasons behind these moves obviously, but from the outside looking in they don’t make any sense to me!
EIN: When you read of composers being blocked from access to Elvis by the publishers – even Tony Joe White after the success of Polk Salad Annie – doesn’t this make you angry?
(See EIN exclusive TJW interview below)
Matt Shepherd: Very angry – but Parker was suspicious of everyone who had more talent than he did. If anyone did anything good for Elvis’ career – starting back in the 50s with the legends that were Leiber and Stoller – then their rewards were to be blocked from Elvis’ life. We can only begin to imagine what else the partnership of Elvis and Steve Binder would have produced. Or maybe an album working with Jerry Reed would have happened if Elvis had been blessed with a manager who was in touch with the music of the time and one that was totally tuned in to the talents of his client. So many “what ifs”.
EIN: How does your book tackle the “Comeback Special” as the re-visited versions differ from Elvis’ originals yet sound so damn good? Did Elvis ever do a better live version of ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love?
Matt Shepherd: The Comeback features in Volume Two of my book so I would love to come back and chat to you again Piers as there’s so much to talk about when it comes to that legendary show. I also love Elvis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” from the 68 show. He looked and sounded magnificent. Sometimes in the 70s Elvis could be accused of doing casual throw away versions of his oldies. But with the 68 performance he’s committed to a track with had brought him so much success in “Blue Hawaii”.
EIN Did you get to see the recent cinema showing of the 68 Special – it was still so amazingly
powerful to see 50 years later?
Matt Shepherd: Sadly Piers I was unable to see the screening in Cornwall and I was gutted about it. Friends who did go to see it told me it was an amazing experience. I do hope they bring it back again. Unfortunately I was “born too late” to quote a Poni Tails song, so I never got to go to the
cinema to see Elvis on the big screen when his movies came out. How exciting must that have been!! I do hope we get to see more movies of Elvis in the cinema. It would be great to see “Elvis On Tour” on the big screen one day – fingers crossed!
EIN: What are your thoughts on ‘The Searcher’ and the DVD release?
I think the problem with such releases is as fans we always want the very best product with something magical that we haven’t seen before. It’s frustrating when we know that somewhere there’s got to be outtakes and moments we have never seen before and may never see. However that said I think “The Searcher” had many magical moments in it as well as the predictable. But if it further keeps Elvis in the public eye then I welcome such projects and hope for more in the future, but with more tasty treats for the dedicated fans.
EIN: What do you think of Elvis’ “remixes” or the new fake duets? Are they a necessary evil?
Ah now there’s another question which could make a full interview. I remember very clearly hearing the UK Chart Show on BBC Radio 1 when Mark Goodier announced that Elvis and JXL had gone straight to number one with the remix of “A Little Less Conversation”. It was one of those moments when the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I had a tear in my eye. It was that moment when I realised how magical it must have been for the fans in the 50s, 60s and 70s to hear a new Elvis track on the radio. So I am a big fan of that track because it was a chance to enjoy the magic of hearing my idol go to number one.
I know a lot of people have a great dislike for the RPO recordings and other remix projects but then many also like what the releases are trying to achieve. Everyone is absolutely entitled to either love or loathe these projects. If they keep Elvis in the public eye, or help to enlist new fans, then that has to be a positive thing. But these versions can never and will never replace the originals for one very big reason. Elvis has had no creative input in any of these remixes. Of course they are nothing new – Felton Jarvis was doing something similar with the Guitar Man album – the first full priced Elvis album I ever owned. As an eight year old I really loved that album. But today I know that old saying really rings true – “the originals are the best”.
EIN: I personally have very mixed feelings about the Re-Orchestrated albums as some tracks were very heavy-handed produced. What did you think, and what about the recent “new” Gospel album?
I am with you totally Piers – you listen to some and think – well you haven’t really added anything to that, and then you hear “I’ve got a thing about you baby” and you think – well that is different! I do think they have run their course now. You have to respect Elvis’ immense catalogue and these recordings might be added to that catalogue but can never take over from the original songs Elvis produced. I get the overall impression that many people who first welcomed the concept are now beginning to wonder how many more releases can they justify. I personally feel the concept is at risk of growing tired if they go for too many more releases.
EIN: What “new” album would you suggest RCA put together that might inspire a new generation of Elvis fans?
I think RCA/Sony have already attempted that with Bossa Nova Baby: The Ultimate Elvis Presley Party album – with mixing the 'Viva Elvis' tracks with the originals. You always have to be careful when you pluck ideas out of the air as I have the greatest respect for Elvis’ original recordings. However if the plan was only to attract young fans and not necessarily to please the existing fans then here’s a couple of possible ideas:
Give today’s producers like Rick Rubin free range to pick any Elvis track and re-imagine it.
Or take today’s stars and do duets - I hear the groans already – but it might sell well with the fans of today’s stars buying into it. But it would have to be massive stars. The "Christmas Duets" concept album failed because of the use of American country stars, who are obviously very talented but not always incredibly well known in other music circles.
I am not saying I like these ideas personally but if it attracts new and young fans to then look at Elvis’ back catalogue of original recordings…
EIN: What’s your favourite Elvis song?
Oh goodness – there’s so many!! One I never will grow tired of listening to is Elvis’ version of Bridge over Troubled Water – amazing. I also love Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues – because my little boy is called Charlie and I love hearing Elvis say his name!
EIN: Your favourite album?
Having Fun with Elvis on Stage – no I am joking!! Please can I have two? “Elvis is Back” and “From Elvis in Memphis” – the strength of the material means every listen is an absolute joy to the ears.
EIN: Your favourite Elvis Box-set?
Matt Shepherd: If you ask me next week I will give you a different answer but at the moment I am loving listening to the deluxe edition of “Elvis at Stax” – some amazing material on there.
EIN: When is your book out and what about the future volumes?
Matt Shepherd: Volume One came out on 3rd December - as you can see in the photo!
It is available through Amazon in most countries and also The Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain and Essential Elvis in the UK.
EIN: Finally I have to ask, having listened to all of Elvis catalogue what is the song you never want to hear again?
Matt Shepherd: Ask me after Volume Two is written but I am likely to still give the same answer “Dominic” and “Confidence” oh and probably “Old MacDonald”!
Finally Piers can I say thanks so much for interviewing me. The Elvis Information Network has been so supportive whenever I have done Elvis shows on BBC Radio Cornwall, the launch of the E-books and now Elvis Presley: Stories Behind The Songs Volume One.
EIN: It has been a pleasure, we could obviously take for hours. Indeed I am looking forward to catching up again when Volume Two is published.
Matt Shepherd: I would also like to wish you, the team and all the amazing Elvis fans who visit your site a very Merry Christmas and every best wish for 2019. Keep playing those Elvis songs loud and proud!
Interview by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN December 2018
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