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 Nickelodeon 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 afterward and was no longer bound by dogma. (And this is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge moment . . .)
Compared to the iconic photo on Elvis’ first album of 1956, the photo on the cover of Blue Hawaii makes 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 obsessive-compulsive-anal-uptight New Yorker) and his gorgeous on-again/off-again paramour Margeret “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 inveterate 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.
The cover for the boxed set of DVDs 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.
Television loves lawyers
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 brother 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 teen flicks.
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 our household since!
This is the mono version of BLUE HAWAII (RCA Victor LPM-2426). As stereo was still relatively new in the early’60s and most stereo gear was owned by older record buyers, the bulk of the sales of this album for the first few years of its release were of the mono records. Because of the general appeal of the music on this album, the stereo version (LSP-2426) was also a big seller. I bought my copy of LPM-2426 in 1965 at a five-and-dime store for a whopping $1.99.
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 probably one of the best Elvis albums. Ever!”
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.
The pedestrian cover art on Tom Hibbert’s THE PERFECT COLLECTION 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. Compilations of any sort are generally verboten in similar lists compiled by what John Ross refers to as the “Crit Illuminati,” the critics who mold much of our opinions on pop and rock music.
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 attention 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).
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!
Elvis’s second secular studio album of the ’60s was SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY (RCA Victor LPM/LSP-2370, 1961). It was an enormous disappointment after the previous year’s ELVIS IS BACK, at least in hindsight. In fact, it took many fans and most critics decades to recognize its merits. And merits it has, as several ballads are so beautifully rendered that they almost make up for the lack of drive on the rockers
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 as 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.
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.)
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.
This poster announced the fourth Presley movie of the ’50s. It is stark, with a passionate red laid over the minimalistic black and white design. Interesting that Elvis is shown not with the girl that the boy in him pines for (Dolores Hart) but the woman (Carolyn Jones) that the man in him lusts after!
Some trivia on Blue the album
Hawaii had become the fiftieth state in these here United States on August 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 well into the ’60s. Elvis loved the island, its people, and its music, so why not a musical-based movie set there.
The BLUE HAWAII soundtrack had been released in the US earlier than the movie, reaching stores on October 20, 1961. It was an immediate success, eventually spending twenty weeks at #1 on the Billboard Top Pop LPs Mono chart with an additional nineteen weeks on that survey’s Top 10. (It also spent four weeks at the top of that magazine’s stereo chart, indicating that some “adults” were buying Elvis records.)
RCA has submitted BLUE HAWAII to the RIAA for sales certification on four levels:
• On December 21, 1961, it was certified for a Gold Record Award (approximately 700,000 sales at the time).
• On March 27, 1992, it was certified for a Platinum Record Award (1,000,000 sales).
• On March 27, 1992, it was certified for a Double Platinum Record Award (2,000,000 sales).
• On July 30, 2002, it was certified for a Triple Platinum Record Award (3,000,000 sales).
Actual sales are reputed to be significantly higher but RCA has “misplaced” (or refuses to divulge) boatloads of Presley’s sales over the years.)
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 BLUE HAWAII album was released on October 20, 1961, sans a hit single to promote it. Why Colonel Parker and Elvis made this decision seems baffling in hindsight. On November 21, 1961, Can’t Help Falling In Love and Rock-A-Hula Baby were pulled from the album and issued as a single. To promote the single, RCA Victor had a red sticker affixed to the front cover of the LP jackets, meaning copies of the album with the sticker are effectively “second pressings.”
Almost always true
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 members that Elvis worked with accompanied by a few musicians to ad local flavor to the arrangements.
Electric lead guitar: Scotty Moore
Acoustic guitar: Hank Garland and Tiny Timbrell
Double bass: Bob Moore
Drums: D.J. Fontana, Bernie Mattinson, and Hal Blaine
Piano: Floyd Cramer and Dudley Brooks (celeste)
Celeste: Dudley Brooks
Saxophone: Boots Randolph
Pedal steel guitar: Alvino Rey
Harmonica: George Field
Ukulele: Fred Tavares and Bernie Lewis
Backing vocals: The Jordanaires and the Surfers
The album featured seven tracks 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. Here is what the grades mean:
And that voice is all over 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 . . .
This is the picture sleeve for the 33 rpm Compact 33 Single for Can’t Help Falling In Love / Rock-A-Hula Baby. Like most Presley sleeves of this time, it is graphically uninteresting and features a close-up photo of the increasingly less interesting singer. While the similar picture sleeve for the 45 rpm single is easily found, the Compact 33 sleeve is outrageously rare and will set you back thousands of dollars even in lesser condition.
Some trivia on Blue Hawaii singles
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!
This is the poster for BLUE HAWAII, Elvis’s second big musical movie of the ’60s. It stands in stark contrast to the poster for KING CREOLEabove: While the earlier poster featured a minimalistic design and a limited color palette, this poster overwhelms with its splash of colors. And it’s just plain silliness. Those of us who grew up with Elvis back 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.
Trivia on 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.
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.
In May 1962, RCA in Italy issued No More from the BLUE HAWAII soundtrack as a single. The original song is titled La Paloma (“The Dove”), although Presley’s arrangement is Italianesque. The picture sleeve is one of the oddest in all of Elvisdom, as it pictures a bird instead of the cheeky singer.
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 . . .
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was cropped from this photo from April 1961. It is a posed publicity photo of Elvis serenading co-star Joan Blackman on a set in Los Angeles for the movie Blue Hawaii.
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 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 canceled 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 it 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!)