Elvis Can Still Be in the Building
By Peter Filichia
That’s how old Elvis Presley would have been on Thursday, January 8, 2015.
Do the math: The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll — as Presley was called when what we label today as “rock” was still called “rock ‘n’ roll” — was born on Tuesday, January 8, 1935. So while the prospect of an octogenarian Elvis Presley seems unfathomable, an octogenarian is what Elvis Presley would have officially become this week.
This also means that because Presley died on August 16, 1977, he’s now been away from us for nearly as long a time as he was with us on earth.
Alive forty-two years, seven months and eight days.
Dead thirty-seven years, four months and twenty-three days – and counting.
Elvis Presley’s professional life, of course, was much shorter. The public was aware of him for less than a quarter century. That even takes into consideration those who jumped on the bandwagon quite early.
And yet, and yet … all these decades later, Presley still has potent posthumous earning power. Forbes recently reported that in 2014 alone, his estate took in $55 million, which made him second on the dead-earner’s list behind only Michael Jackson.
Some of those earnings came from All Shook Up, the 2005 Broadway musical and the resulting original cast album on Masterworks Broadway. It culled twenty-four of the songs that Elvis sang and, if credits are to be believed, four that he co-wrote. They range from “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first Number One hit in 1956 to “Burning Love,” his final substantial hit single in 1972.
Surprised that “Hound Dog” wasn’t Presley’s first recording to reach Number One? No, it was the third or fourth depending on how you care to look at it. Although “Hound Dog” reached Number One in 1956, so did “Don’t Be Cruel,” which happened to be on the other side of the 45 rpm record. It’s a rare single from any era in which the song on each side reaches the top spot, but Presley managed to do it.
All three of those are included in All Shook Up, as are five other Number One Presley hits: “Love Me Tender,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Jailhouse Rock,” the title song and “Teddy Bear” (whose entreaty to “Put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere” would please many a dominatrix).
Funny that two of those Numbers Ones sung by this state-of-the-art rocker were very old songs. “Love Me Tender” was a reworking of that American folk song “Aura Lee,” which was written in 1861; “It’s Now or Never” sprung from the 1898 Italian standard “O Sole Mio.”
The title song from the film Roustabout never charted, but the long-playing record that contained the movie’s eleven songs reached the Number One spot in 1964 – the same year that The Beatles were experiencing their first flush of world-changing success. “Roustabout” made the cut after All Shook Up bookwriter Joe DiPietro completed the daunting task of listening to all 751 Presley recordings, not to mention the far more harrowing chore of screening all thirty-three of Presley’s films.
Of course, not every song can chart, and even Presley had his share of also-rans. That doesn’t mean that DiPietro was wrong to include “Fools Fall in Love,” “It Hurts Me,” “The Power of My Love,” “There’s Always Me” and “That’s All Right,” for he found spots in his book where they said what needed to be said. Besides, the absence of “That’s All Right” on the charts is mitigated that it was the first song Presley ever recorded, on July 5, 1954 when he was still a nobody.
Other songs will be new to many, because they come from movies Presley made, and as any film historian will tell you, no artist with such stature ever appeared in such putrid films. So this may well be the first time you hear “Let Yourself Go” (Speedway), “A Little Less Conversation” (Live a Little, Love a Little), and “I Don’t Want To” (Girls! Girls! Girls!). From the better regarded Viva Las Vegas, however, there’s “C’mon Everybody” which references Bach and Beethoven (although it doesn’t go out of its way to endorse their music).
Still, DiPietro included seven other chart-makers in All Shook Up: “Blue Suede Shoes” (which reached Number Twenty), “Follow That Dream” (Fifteen), “If I Can Dream” (Twelve), “One Night with You” (Four), “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” (Three) and two that made it to Number Two: “Burning Love” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which many consider to be the most beautiful song that Presley ever recorded.
George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore wrote that one for the 1961 film Blue Hawaii. In it, Presley played the son of future Broadway icon Angela Lansbury — although she was less than a decade older than he.
(Musical theater enthusiasts might know George, Hugo and Luigi from their 1968 anti-war musical Maggie Flynn, which starred then husband-and-wife team Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy. Weiss had earlier made it to Broadway by providing some music and lyrics for the 1956 Sammy Davis vehicle Mr. Wonderful.)
In All Shook Up, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” has a particularly dynamic orchestration, one that culminates with the entire cast joining in and making the statement so majestically that there is no doubt that these people couldn’t possibly have helped succumbing to the love object.
Of course, Presley purists may take issue with what orchestrators Michael Gibson and Stephen Oremus did with this song or the others. But the men, who respectively received two Tony nominations and two Tonys, met the challenge to fuse the Broadway sound with the Memphis one. Note, too, that “Don’t Be Cruel” ends with the cherished Broadway tradition of interrupting the song with a word (“Cool!”) just before the last note bleats out. See if the vamp in “It Hurts Me” doesn’t remind you of a very famous song that’s sung by the title character of a Tony-winning musical. (Hint: it was Broadway’s hottest ticket when Presley left this earth.)
Those who are letter-perfect at reciting Presley lyrics will notice a few changes here and there, but they’ll find that no song experienced a wholesale lyrical makeover. DiPietro was judicious and respectful when writing his book, which borrows from Twelfth Night, of all properties. Would Presley have ever anticipated that he’d be linked, however inadvertently or tangentially, with Shakespeare?
For that matter, would Presley have ever believed that he’d be represented on Broadway in his life? The answer to that one may well be a surprising “Perhaps.” In 1956, the producers of Li’l Abner did seek him for the title role of their new musical. Presley declined, probably politely; he was always respectful of his elders, which frustrated many adults; if he’d been a sneering and contemptuous know-it-all, he would have been easy to hate, as those elders really wanted to do for shaking up their musical establishment. At the time, many did deem him, to cite his 1963 hit, the devil in disguise.
And who’d expect that an evening devoted to Presley songs would have started with that Broadway stalwart: an Overture. Granted, the one for All Shook Up will never be confused with the ones for Gypsy or Candide. What’s more, unlike the great Broadway overtures, it weighs in at only a shade more than a minute. It starts with a ferocious series of drum riffs, some fancy guitar playing (which, in fact, Elvis couldn’t do) and centers on a mere two of the songs including of course, “All Shook Up,” to let listeners know what they’ll be experiencing in the next fifty-eight minutes.
On the album you can hear Cheyenne Jackson playing an Elvis prototype. He’s had a very good decade since All Shook Up premiered, what with forty-one TV and film credits. Back then, he was joined by former Tony-nominee Jonathan (Gypsy) Hadary, future Tony-nominee Anika (Beautiful) Larsen and future Tony-winner Nikki M. (The Book of Mormon) James. So there’s plenty of Broadway in All Shook Up after all.