Blue Hawaii is one of the best Elvis albums – ever!

REGARDING PRIME-TIME TELEVISION as the American-entertainment-medium-of-choice: Berni and I are inveterate non-viewers. I swore off the glass teat back in 1969 when ‘they’ took the best-ever show in all of history off the air. Except for the delightful Nickleodeon cartoons of the ’90s that I watched with my daughter—Aaahh! Real Monsters, Doug, Hey Arnold!, and Rugrats—I have not ‘watched tv’ in almost fifty years! 1

Berni gave up television for Lent years ago and never went back, even though she allowed her subscription to the Catholic Church to lapse shortly afterwards and was no longer bound by dogma. (And this is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment . . .)

The look and feel of Blue Hawaii is about as far from Elvis’ iconic first album of 1956 as one could get: compared to the photo on that album, this Elvis looks gelded!

Berni first made me aware of the maturation of teevee when she brought her VHS collection of Northern Exposure as part of her dowry. I was amazed by how much I enjoyed the misadventures of the misanthropic Dr. Joel Fleischman (a stereotypically obsessivecompulsiveanaluptight Newyorkjew) and his gorgeous on-again/off-again paramour Maggie O’ Connell (a stereotypically fiery Irish colleen in need of prolonged anger management classes) (and perhaps a more manly man in her bed) and the other inhabitants of Roslyn, Alaska. 2

We have become HUGE fans and regular watchers of modern television serial dramas and comedies, many of them originating from cable and other pay-TV channels! In fact, we are probably looking at a near future where we will have to reconsider our status and declare ourselves “veterate viewers.”

We get most of our fare from the library but are not averse to buying complete seasons of favorite series when we find them for a few bucks a season. It is now easy to buy five-disc sets for $2-4 online or in stores that carry used CDs or books.


Elvis_NorthExp_dvd

The cover for the boxed set of DVD for the complete first season of Northern Exposure cleverly depicts the forlorn Dr Joel Fleischman abandoned in the fictitious town of Cicely, Alaska. The DVD technology is the very best way to binge watch a great television series. Alas, when I was first exposed to this show, it was via Berni’s collection of VHS cassettes, all dutifully taped off the TV screen, commercials and bad edits galore. Of course, none of that kept me from loving the show and the likable cast of characters and the actors’ credible performances.

She also brought along some Ally McBeal episodes, which, while lacking the character continuity of the former, was even more outstanding in its approach to television narrative. It even had some hilarious special effects that never ever belonged in a show purportedly about lawyers. (Why does television love lawyers so much?)

Repeated watchings over the years have only made me appreciate these show mores, never growing tired of either. But I dismissed the rest of the stuff on the air, assuming (and I never assume) that these two were exceptions to the rule.

Then, several years ago, I was discussing new movies with my bother Charles and he informed me that he and Cynthia had pretty much given up on movie-going, as so many new films seem geared towards (mindless) teenagers—even when they weren’t advertised as teenflix.

To my surprise, he opined that the best scripts, directing, and acting could be found on television. He recommended a few series (Six Feet Under and Lost among them) and we pulled them from the library and nothing has been the same in the Berni/Neal household since!

Through the glass doorway

Since the shows we watch are usually older or established series, we get complete seasons from the library and do a lot of binge watching. So, we are currently hooked on Mad Men and watching one full season after another. The first two episodes of the sixth season make up a two-part narrative titled “The Doorway” (episodes #66 and #67, April 2013). The story takes place in December 1967, with Don and Megan Draper enjoying a free vacation at a Sheraton hotel in Hawaii.

Episode #67 ends with Elvis singing Hawaiian Wedding Song over the closing credits. While listening, I had a minor revelation and turned to Berni and said, “Y’know, BLUE HAWAII is one of the very best Elvis albums. Ever!”


Elvis_BlueHaw_lpm

Yes, the look and feel of this cover is about as far from the iconic first RCA Victor album of 1956 (ELVIS PRESLEY, LPM-1254) as one could get. And yes, compared to the photo on that album this Elvis does indeed look tamed, if not actually gelded! And yet this album sold more copies in its first few months of release than 1254 had sold in five years! And like it or, it is iconic in its own right. I have chosen the mono version to use as an illustration, as it vastly outsold the stereo version of the album in the first half of the ’60s. I bought my copy of LPM-2426 in 1965 at a five-and-dime store for a whopping $1.99 . . .

That’s not a statement that I would normally make if someone asked me to list some kind of ‘Top 10 Essential Elvis Albums.’ (And that’s not a list that I would try to make in a casual conversation: nigh on impossible if only considering his Victor albums released before 1977; more impossible if bootlegs issued before his death are included; damn near impossible if posthumous releases are considered.)

When compiling these often inane ‘best ever albums’ lists, most rockwriters and critics tend to overlook Presley’s more pop-oriented records (and, alas, his amazing gospel albums) and focus on those that rocked the most. And normally I wouldn’t argue with that approach—except for BLUE HAWAII . . .

1954-58: the first two Elvis ‘Eras’

For me, Presley’s career can be broken up into mini-eras based on what he was focusing his attentions on in the recording studio. His first few years are fairly easily divided into the Sun Era of 1954-55 and the Rock & Roll Era of 1956-58. After that, it gets difficult. 3

Through most of the past forty years, the Crawdaddy/Rolling Stone/Creem-inspired critics have foisted upon us a rather limited canon of the ‘best rock and soul albums of all time.’ In fact, many of these writers rarely seem to recognize any creativity let alone genius in actual ‘pop’ music. Hence I find most of these lists utterly useless. An exception is the little known Tom Hibbert and his book The Perfect Collection – The Rock Albums Everybody Should Have and Why (Proteus Publishing Company, 1982).


Elvis_Hibbert

This pedestrian cover art (which should have inspired the publisher to fire their art department and start anew) fronted one of the most anti-authoritarian books on popular music ever published! Not only does it include pure pop, but also greatest hits collections and other compilations, both verboten in the more ‘serious’ such lists by other critics and institutions.

Rather than a best-of-all-time-in-numerical-order, this is more like a list based on the concept of ‘If-I-had-to-explain-the-first-thirty-years-of-rock-and-roll-to-a-Martian-these-are-the-100-albums-that-might-come-closest-to-making-that-happen.’

This endlessly enjoyable (and argument-provoking) book deserves a review of its own, but suffice to say he included BLUE HAWAII as an album that almost perfectly encapsulates early ’60s escapist pop-rock. For rock fans who also love pure pop for then people, this alone justified shelling out a few bucks for the book!

1960-62: a third Elvis ‘Era’

Back to my Elvis Eras: while the aforementioned critics usually rave about ELVIS IS BACK from 1960 (and rightly so) for its blend of rock & roll, blues, gospel, country, and yes pop, they have been less generous about their praise concerning other Presley records from this time. While that album did show that Elvis could still rock with the best and sing da blues like few white boys could, he rather quickly made it clear that his post-Army interest laid elsewhere: he wanted to be a great balladeer.

And he was: I label 1960-62 the Tender Ballad Era. Presley’s way of singing of slow, romantic songs was soft, supple, very very sensuous, and yet always, oh I dunno, manly.

Sort of masculinely tender.

In these readings, he was rarely maudlin (although a few numbers in a few movies could be so described, they are forgiven because they were part of the movie) or merely sentimental.

This was the voice that could be heard on such singles sides as Wild In The Country (a #1 hit on at least one British weekly), Lonely Man, and Anything That’s Part Of You, and even on such rhythmic numbers as I Gotta Know (a song I endlessly sing, inside the shower and out) and She’s Not You, and dominated the SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY and POT LUCK albums.


Elvis_Something_Canada

Elvis’s second secular studio album of the ’60s was SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY (RCA Victor LPM/LSP-2370, 1961). There is no arguing that it is not an enormous disappointment after the previous year’s ELVIS IS BACK. In fact, it was so much lesser a work that it took many fans and most (if not every) critic decades after Presley’s death to recognize its merits. And merits it has: divided into a Rhythm Side and a Ballad Side, several of those ballads are so beautifully rendered that they almost make up for the lack of drive on the rockers. Pictured here is the Canadian version of the album, which has a far lovelier front cover design than the American version.

I don’t know what to say except that the timbre of Elvis’s voice and his approach to ballads at this time moved me as a kid in a way no other ballad singer did. I mean, most of us at 12 years of age have little appreciation for the emotions and experiences addressed in slow, torchy songs. But Elvis moved me.

(And I am not counting his ‘50s rockaballads and more bluesy slow songs, which a kid could get into without understanding the emotions.)

Some trivia on Blue Hawaii the album

Hawaii had become the fiftieth state in these here United States onAugust 21, 1959 and the lower 48 were enjoying a fascination with all things Hawaiian. Tiki dolls and figures, hula skirts and hula hoops, Hawaiian Punch, etc., all found a vast market for several years fom 1958 into the ’60s. Elvis loved the island, its people, and its music, so why not a musical-based movie set there.

The album BLUE HAWAII the album had been released in the US earlier than the movie, reaching stores on October 20, 1961. It was also an immediate success, eventually spending twenty weeks at #1 on Billboards Top Pop LPs Mono chart with an additional nineteen weeks on that survey’s Top 10. (But it spent only four weeks at the top of that magazine’s stereo chart.0

BLUE HAWAII has been certified by the RIAA for domestic sales of 3,000,000, although actual sales are reputed to be much higher. (RCA has misplaced boatloads of Presley’s sales receipts over the years.)

•  On December 21, 1961, it was certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record Award (approximately 750,000 sales).

•  On March 27, 1992, it was certified by the RIAA for a Platinum and a Double Platinum Record Award (1,000,000 and 2,000,000 sales).

•  On July 30, 2002, it was certified by the RIAA for a Triple Platinum Record Award (3,000,000 sales).

Based on Billboard’s rankings on their surveys, BLUE HAWAII was the second most successful album of the ’60s. Another soundtrack, WEST SIDE STORY, was the first, spending fifty-four weeks at #1 on the Top Pop LPs Stereo. (And this is based on relative sales, not absolute; many albums of the post-Beatles era outsold both WEST SIDE STORY and BLUE HAWAII.)

Blue Hawaii was second to West Side Story as the most successful chart album of the ’60s, the latter spending an unbelievable fifty-four weeks at #1 on Billboard’s stereo LP chart.

In England, it was equally successful: although it only spent nineteen weeks at #1 on the British LP survey (G.I. BLUES had spent twenty-five weeks at the top spot), the editors of the encyclopedic Elvis UK book note that BLUE HAWAII was “probably his best selling soundtrack album” in the UK.

The album was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of ‘Best Sound Track Album or Recording of Original Cast from a Motion Picture or Television.’ (And that is one helluva long title . . .)

The fourteen songs are a collection of songs associated with hawaii, some Tin Pan Alley standards, some made-to-order originals from the usual cast from Hill & Range. The musicians and singers were regular crew that Elvis worked with accompanied by a few musicians to ad local flavor to the arrangements. 

Electric lead guitarScotty Moore
Acoustic guitarHank Garland and Tiny Timbrell
Double bassBob Moore
Drums: D.J. Fontana, Bernie Mattinson, and Hal Blaine
PianoFloyd Cramer and Dudley Brooks (celeste)
CelesteDudley Brooks
SaxophoneBoots Randolph
Pedal steel guitarAlvino Rey
Harmonica: George Field
Ukulele: Fred Tavares and Bernie Lewis
Backing vocals: The Jordanaires and the Surfers

The album featured fourteen songs, seven per side. They are listed below with their playing time and a grade assigned by me based on my attempts to be objective while still being true to my taste. One diamond (@) is a sub-standard recording by Presley; two is average; three better than average, and four exceptional.

Side 1
Blue Hawaii                                                (2:37)                                   ♦♦♦♦

Almost Always True                                 (2:24)                                         ♦♦
Aloha Oe                                                       (1:55)                                      ♦♦♦
No More                                                       (2:24)                                      ♦♦♦
Can’t Help Falling In Love                      (3:04)                                   ♦♦♦♦
Rock-A-Hula Baby                                     (2:01)                                        ♦♦
Moonlight Swim                                         (2:22)                                        ♦♦

Side 2
Ku-U-I-Po                                                    (2:23)                                     ♦♦♦
Ito Eats                                                         (1:25)                                            ♦
Slicin’ Sand                                                  (1:37)                                         ♦♦
Hawaiian Sunset                                       (2:35)                                   ♦♦♦♦
Beach Boy Blues                                        (2:05)                                          ♦♦
Island Of Love                                            (2:41)                                       ♦♦♦
Hawaiian Wedding Song                        (2:53)                                    ♦♦♦♦

And that voice is all over BLUE HAWAII: Hawaiian Wedding Song, Blue Hawaii, Ku-U-I-Po, Hawaiian Sunset, Island Of Love, the ever extraordinary Can’t Help Falling In Love, and even the shoulda-been-a-throwaway reading of Aloha Oe. That’s seven exceptionally sung ballads.

All lovely, all moving.

(And I didn’t count No More, a fine performance if yet another take on Presley’s predilection for Mediterranean melodrama, and even the charming ditty Moonlight Swim.)

They more compensate for the limpdick, er, I mean flaccid, rockers (Rock-A-Hula Baby and Slicin’ Sand), the ersatz blues (Beach Boy Blues), and the downright silly Ito Eats. 4

I don’t understand how Elvis’s commitment to this project and his engagement with the material escapes anyone but the most blindered-by-rock-and-roll of critics . . .


Elvis_CantHelp_ps

Elvis_Cant_C33ps

Above is the readily found picture sleeve for the 45 rpm single promoting Can’t Help Falling In Love. Below it is the rather rare sleeve for the Compact 33 Single (a seven-inch, 33 rpm record) promoting Rock-A-Hula Baby. The sleeve is graphically uninteresting, as is the close-up of the increasingly less interesting singer . . .

Some trivia on Blue Hawaii’s 45 rpm single

In one of many, many tactical, aesthetic, and eventually financial boners, Colonel Parker forbade RCA Victor from releasing a single six to eight weeks in advance of the album. Popular demand for such a record forced capitulation and on November 21, 1961—a month after the album’s release—Can’t Help Falling In Love was coupled with Rock-A-Hula Baby  were pulled from the LP as a single. In the US, Can’t Help Falling In Love was the A-side and peaked at a disappointing #2 on Billboard while halting at #4 on Cash Box.

Promoted as a “twist special,” Rock-A-Hula Baby reached #23 on Billboard and #28 on Cash Box. Had this record been released in advance of the album, it almost certainly would have topped the charts for several weeks. This single sold an easy million and eventually received an RIAA Gold Record Award.

In the UK, the record was promoted as a double-A-side and reached #1 with most weeklies pointing to Rock-A-Hula Baby as the lead side. British sales supposedly passed 600,000, a substantial amount in the pre-Beatles era!

Trivia on Blue Hawaii the movie

On March 21-23, the entire soundtrack (fifteen songs) was recorded in three days at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. On March 25, Presley gave a one-man concert to raise money for the USS Arizona, which had been sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941. By mid April, location filming in Hawaii for the movie was completed.

Blue Hawaii was produced by Hal B. Wallis, who also provided the screenplay, and directed by Norman Taurog. Incidental music was by Joseph J. Lilley and the cinematography courtesy of Charles Lang, Jr. Elvis’s primary co-stars were Joan Blackman and Angela Lansbury.


Elvis_Creole_poster

The poster above is from the fourth Presley movie of the ’50s; the poster below from his fourth movie of the ’60s. They could hardly be more different: King Creole is stark, with a passionate red laid over the minimalistic black and white design. Elvis and bad girl Carolyn Jones are hot! Blue Hawaii almost overwhelms with its broad palette of colors. And its plain silliness. Old Elvis; new Elvis. Those of us of age then had to get used to it. And my argument is that Elvis’s singing of slow songs at this time made the transmogrification endurable . . .

Elvis_BlueHaw_movieposter

Released on November 22, 1961, Blue Hawaii was distributed by Paramount Pictures. The movie was an immediate success: it opened at #2 in box office receipts and, despite being shown for only forty days, finished as the 10th top-grossing movie of 1961 on Variety magazine’s national box office survey! It finished 1962 as the 14th top-grossing movie for that year, earning $5 million in the US.

(According to the Consumer Price Index, that would be $40,000,000 in 2015. In the real world, that would be more like $75-100,000,000. And that is not counting ticket prices, like they do today.)

Kantner’s screenplay was nominated by the Writers Guild of America in 1962 in the category of Best Written American Musical. The film won a fourth place prize Laurel Award in the category of Top Musical of 1961.


Elvis_MadMen_Drapers

Megan and Don Draper (Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm) in Hawaii for Christmas of 1967. It was the two episodes titled “The Doorway” on Mad Men that got me up off the couch to jot down some notes about Elvis’s singing in Hawaii in 1961 that led to this rambling essay. (And of course I am using this photo as a way to get Ms Paré onto my site.)

Finally . . .

For a two-year period, Elvis Presley did not sound like any singer of slow songs before or since—be they crooner, lounge singer, or torch-song specialist. Whatever audience he was attempting to reach (and I am not certain he was: he may have been singing for God, his Mama, or just himself), he reached.

That post-Beatles/Stones/Dylan/Byrds-bred rock critics have almost universally failed to be among that audience is their loss. 5

One of the last tracks he recorded in this Third Era voice was Don Robertson’s They Remind Me Too Much Of You, a gorgeous song lost among the disposable dreck of the It Happened At The World’s Fair soundtrack. (And the less said about that album the better, although I might opine that Robertson was perhaps the perfect writer for Elvis at this time.)

By 1963, Elvis was noticeably mushier. He became a more predictable singer, especially on his then seemingly endless supply of soundtrack albums.

Things would not change in the way that Elvis approached singing appreciably until the 1968 Singer Presents Elvis television special. With this production, Presley placed his future in the hands of producer/director Steve Binder, who bet that future on revitalizing the past. Binder also created a ‘new’ Elvis by assigning the show’s most important moment to the essentially unknown songwriter W. Earl Brown.

Believe it or not, most of this essay flashed through my mind as I sat on the couch with Berni listening to Elvis singing Hawaiian Wedding Song as the credits for Mad Men rolled past. Writing this has only solidified my opinion that BLUE HAWAII is one of the best Elvis albums.

Ever . . .



FOOTNOTES:

1   The “glass teat” is a term coined by Harlan Ellison for the television set that occupies a central location in most American homes. The term was used as the title of of a pair of books The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion On Television (1970) and The Other Glass Teat (1971). These collected Ellison’s weekly columns on television published in the then highly influential Los Angeles Free Press in 1968-69.

The reviews were actually essays, most of which discussed the deleterious effects of prolonged exposure to what is often referred to as the ‘boob tube.’ That term derides viewers’ intelligence; Harlan’s term implies that regular viewers are not so much dumb but are more like unweaned children knowing no other sustenance than that which they receive from their mothers’ breast.

And the best-ever show that was cancelled that sparked my rebellion? Star Trek, of course . . .

2   There’s the hilariously self-absorbed, cantankerous, rightwingnut Maurie Minifield, and his need to dominate his employee, Chris Stevens, perhaps the closest television ever came to capturing the spirit of a genuine Sixties ‘hippie.’ And Holling Vincoeur and Shelley Tambo and Ruth Ann Miller and Ed Chigliak and the inscrutable and indomitable Marilyn Whirlwind.

3   In other writings, I also refer to the RCA Records hits of 1956 through ’59 as Elvis’s First Golden Era. Both work. 

4   Not only was Beach Boy Blues not a convincing blues, its incredibly trite lyrics inspired an even more dreadful movie s few years down the road: “Now I’m a kissin’ cousin to a ripe pineapple, I’m in the can.”

5   One of the countless plusses of the Internet is that is has given a (non-professional) voice to several talented, opinionated writers, many of whom came of age after the influence of the initial (and very, very important) rockwriters and critics waned. Consequently, an appreciation of rock’s poppier successes can be found on thousands of well-considered, well-written websites and blogs.

(And here’s a chance for me to plug my fave such site: The Round Place In The Middle, where Nondisposablejohnny writes some of the best essays and observations on rock and pop and country and soul this side of well, Greil Marcus!)


Elvis_Edelstein

Lisa Edelstein appeared in several episodes of the above-mentioned Ally McBeal television show, where she played Cindy McCauliff, a transgender woman not completely finished with her transformation. I know—I know: this has absolutely nothing to do with Elvis and Blue Hawaii but it’s Lisa Edelstein, for Grommett’s Sake, and even Berni allows me a crush on her! After Ally, she starred in one of our favorite teevee series, House, M.D., where Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) suffers no fools while sublimating his desire for hospital head administrator Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Edelstein).

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