Part 2, in which I continue to list the best songs of the King’s later years and compare him to. . . well, read on. . . and listen and watch, and enjoy the master in motion before his death on August 16, 1977.
The British Invasion and mediocre movies sucked Elvis into a slump for most of the ’60s. His 1968 Comeback Special blasted a path out of the limbo. It was a short step to Las Vegas where, with spectacular costumes and lavish musical arrangements, Elvis became Las Vegas. With the production of Aloha from Hawaii in 1973, he conquered the world and stayed there until his death on August 16, 1977.
Here are my top 10 picks from this period.
“Suspicious Minds” marked the solidification of his return to the masses. Elvis starts the 1969 song about a dysfunctional relationship in a normal tone and gradually whips it into a frenzy, especially in his Vegas stage shows. Love, jealousy and suspicion were never so circular or exhausting. But millions related.
“In The Ghetto,” 1969, was a gamble. He didn’t need to do a social commentary song. In the hands of lesser voices, “Ghetto” would have been just another protest song. His voice create a mini movie in which you hear and see the unending cycle of poverty and the constant image of “and his mama cries… ” Elvis’ voice gave voice to the urban impoverished.
“Kentucky Rain,” 1970. Ronnie Milsap provided the thunderous piano as Elvis brought to life the bleak desperation of a man searching for his wayward lover.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” 1970. From Simon and Garfunkle it is a quiet reassurance. From Elvis it’s a powerful declaration from the soul.
“American Trilogy,” Elvis is in top physical and vocal form. The musical arrangement and his voice work together with subtlety, wistfulness and power as the ultimate Song of the South. It sends chills up my spine even after 50 viewings.
“How Great Thou Art,” 1968. Elvis, a musical pioneer on many fronts, only won a Grammy for his gospel songs. He grew up on gospel, felt it, and this was probably his crowning gospel achievement.
“Blue Christmas” 1964 must be on the list because Elvis boldly jams a blues element into this 1948 number, but it’s infused the holiday culture to the point where I want to ram a an icicle through my ear. But I’m inserting “It Won’t Seem Like Christmas Without You.” The loss of his mother in 1958 was a trauma that never healed and one has to believe when he delivers the lines “the holly’s so pretty this year” and “I’ll see you tonight in my dreams,” that he was giving voice to this lifelong ache and loss. Listen close and you will cry, because this thought, this feeling is in everyone’s experience.
“Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” was part of the 1961 Blue Hawaii soundtrack. Elvis pulled it into the ’70s, with a more fully encompassing chorus and orchestra, ending is stage shows with it. Who can resist: “Take my hand, take my whole life, too/for I can’t help falling in love with you.”? Especially from a guy who spreads his cape at the end.
“Burning Love,” 1972. It outdoes Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” for describing the heat of love. “Hunka hunka burnin’ love” is part of our musical vocabulary.
“A Little Less Conversation,” underscores The King’s timelessness. The song first appeared in the 1968 film Live A Little, Love A Little. Junkie XL’s remix in 2002 topped the singles charts in nine countries. This demand for less talk and more sexual action, has appeared in eight films and four TV shows.
In 2000, TV Guide named Elvis “Entertainer of the Century.”
Like Mark Twain, Elvis, of poor, rural Southern beginnings, combined genius, lifestyle, clothing, and mannerisms to create a voice, image and body of work that are both immortal and uniquely American.