Retro Roundup looks at Elvis Presley albums Part 10 | Arts & Entertainment

We now continue with Retro Roundup’s look at Elvis Presley’s albums, the non-soundtrack, non-gospel, non-compilation studio albums, this time focusing on an album that, as with Good Times and Promised Land, followed a tumultuous time in Elvis’s life.

To recap, Elvis’s life following the triumphant (more in spectacle than in artistry) Aloha From Hawaii concert was a mess — lackluster and some cancelled concerts in Las Vegas, a drug-fuelled plan to have a paid goon kill his soon-to-be ex-wife Priscilla’s boyfriend Mike Stone, lackluster shows in Lake Tahoe, mostly lackluster recording sessions by a depressed Elvis at Stax studios in Memphis, a wild Las Vegas closing show in which Elvis threatened, in song, the owner of the Hilton Hotel over the firing of a chef; the final divorce from Priscilla and a medical emergency on a flight. Miraculously, Elvis rallied and recorded many good songs in December 1973, also at Stax in Memphis. Elvis seemed to be back.

And that good streak continued for at least the first half of 1974. Better concerts in Las Vegas, a recorded concert in Memphis that showed Elvis in a great mood (this should have been televised as well) and, by July, he looked as good as he did in 1969-70. He even got ambitious and attempted a new live repertoire for his August-September Las Vegas run. He also looked great at that time, too.

Then something happened.

Near the end of the Vegas run, Elvis started to pontificate on stage, he hurled an F-bomb at an audience member who yelled out “I hate you!” (in my mind, the F-bomb was merited, and Elvis did say he was just kidding) and, most infamously, on the closing Vegas night, he went into a rant about accusations in movie magazines he was on heroin and threatened to assault any leakers. Elvis also spoke about his divorce, with Priscilla in the audience.

Even worse, Elvis was so stoned by his next tour that he could barely sing at two concerts in College Park, Maryland, one of which can be heard in a low-fi audience recording; and the other one is from a very clear soundboard. These are considered by many to be Elvis’s worst ever concerts, but in my mind, a show in Houston, Texas in 1976 (termed by bootleggers Houston We Have A Problem) takes that prize.

It was time for another hospital stay for Elvis, and during his stay, his father Vernon had a heart attack.

And yet, with all this stress, Elvis rallied once again when he returned to the recording studio — this time RCA Hollywood, the site of the Burning Love/It’s A Matter of Time/For the Good Times/Fool/Always On My Mind/Separate Ways, etc. sessions.

The difference this time was that unlike his 1969, 1970, 1971 and December 1973 sessions, Elvis only recorded enough songs for one album, and the result was…

Elvis Today: This album is notable in other ways as well — it was the last on which bassist Duke Bardwell performed, and because of a combination of Elvis’s apparent dislike of his playing and their lack of personal chemistry, his contributions were mostly erased and replaced with those of the returning Jerry Scheff. This was also the last Elvis album released in quadraphonic sound (the 360 Reality Audio mix on headphones from Amazon Music is good, but Promised Land sounds better). Here’s a song-by-song rundown.

T.R.O.U.B.L.E. – This is the song that had some critics thinking Today was a rockabilly revival album. I’m pretty sure it was an attempt to emulate the fast-paced, rapid fire vocalizing of the Chuck Berry cover Promised Land. The sound at RCA Hollywood is superior here to Stax — the drums really kick here, and Elvis’ voice has reverb once again. This was the only song to feature Bardwell’s playing.

And I Love You So– This performance of the Perry Como hit should have immediately dispelled any notion that Today was a rockabilly album. Despite the song’s MOR sound, it’s a very nice performance, inspired by the presence of Elvis’s girlfriend at that time, Sheila Ryan, in the studio.

Susan When She Tried– A quite good, uptempo song, which I consider to be more country than rockabilly.

Woman Without Love– Another slice of country, this time at a slower tempo. Another nice, but not extraordinary, performance.

Shake A Hand– A pretty inspired performance of the 1950s Faye Adams song, but the original is still superior. Great playing by the band, though.

Pieces Of My Life– The standout of the album. This was Elvis’s State of the Union address about the state of his life at the time, and it has a real air of desperation. Elvis poured his heart and soul into this one, asking to hear it over and over again when it was recorded. Another candidate for an Elvis best-of album. Interestingly, the great Charlie Rich recorded the song a year earlier.

(An aside here. While Elvis was recording this song, Brian Wilson — during a bad time of his life — was also at RCA recording and paid a surprise visit during the session, during which he playfully tried to karate chop Elvis. Brian says Elvis called him “Duke” and that he didn’t know why. My theory — maybe Elvis called anyone he was not crazy about “Duke”, reflective of his relationship with Duke Bardwell.)

Fairytale– This jaunty country-sounding cover of the Pointer Sisters original, which has some nice passion, became a staple of Elvis’s concerts in the last years of his life. He introduced the song as “the story of my life.” Significantly, he could have done the same with Pieces Of My Life if he performed it in concert more than once (July 24, 1975), but that would have been too revealing.

I Can Help-A nice, rollicking version of the Billy Swan hit, and another rockabilly-sounding track. But it doesn’t add much to the original. If you listen closely, you can hear that Elvis is getting a bit out of breath.

Bringing It Back– Not bad, but a little blustery and not exactly a distinctive performance. More country than rockabilly.

Green, Green Grass of Home– A very nice performance of this well-known song, which was a hit by Tom Jones and others. This story of a condemned man brings out some nice passion.

Another aside: Elvis and the band also jammed on the song Tiger Man, which was performed with ferocity on his 1968 TV special, some of his early Las Vegas performances and in his “threat” to the owners of the Hilton in 1973. Here, it’s taken slower and, dare I say it, is fairly uninspiring. Maybe Elvis was attempting a slower, rockabilly take.

Next time: From Elvis Presley Boulevard and Moody Blue, the last studio albums Elvis made.

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