ELVIS PRESLEY’S LEGACY as both a recording artist and an actor seems to suggest that he had his head buried so far up his own behind during the ’60s that he didn’t notice that the times they were a-changing. But his final four movies and their soundtracks suggest otherwise.
Actually, he was far too astute not to have been aware—the lack of response by him aesthetically was probably more a combination of things, such as:
By indifference I mean that things were not as bad as they may have seemed at the time to we fans and historians reviewing those years retrospectively.
The movie and soundtrack release schedule of the second half of the ’60s made Elvis look like a king all right—King of Dinosaurs.
Plus there was the fact that he was tied into several contacts with movie producers to make movies that had reduced his career to making three movies a year with attendant soundtrack albums, from which his new singles were pulled.
So, while the movie/soundtrack release schedule of the second half of the decade (1966-1968) made Presley look like the King of the Dinosaurs, he was addressing the issue with a renewed interest in recording quality material in the studio and dreaming of performing live once again.
In 1966, a time when millions of the men in the Western World were letting their hair down, Elvis posed for a series of photos with this ‘do’ that looks like it required shellac to hold in place and glisten with reflected lamplight. Shots from this photo session were used on several picture sleeves, known to some fans and collectors as the “haircut sleeves.” 1
Before the final four
Let’s look back and try to see things the way the Colonel and Elvis may have seen them.
Remember that careers as pop singers were legendarily brief, with a few notable exceptions, many of whom branched out into movies or television.
And the duration of the successful career of a rock & roll singer was unknown, as it was being measured by the yardstick of Presley’s success and career, there having been no one with a rock & roll career before him.
Shelly Fabares and Elvis on the set of Girl Happy in 1964. At the time, Ms Fabares was a just past her career high as an actor and a pop star. Needless to say, millions of guys around the world would have happily done the clam with her. 2
Elvis had a pretty good year: using the Cash Box Top 100, he had two Top 20 hits (Do The Clam and Puppet On A String), two Top 10 hits (I’m Yours and Easy Question) and one chart-topper (Crying In The Chapel), the latter selling millions around the world.
Cumulative sales of his LPs were good, with the newly released stereo version of ELVIS’ CHRISTMAS ALBUM selling 300,000 copies during the brief holiday sales season.
The fact that most of these records were several years old did not escape Presley’s attention.
Meanwhile, three of his movies (Harum Scarum, Frankie And Johnny, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style) and their accompanying soundtracks were arguably the worst of his career.
Shelly Fabares and Elvis filming Spinout in 1966. By this time, her star power had faded, although her beauty was still growing. Also by this time, it’s probably fair to assume that a few young men in Hollywood were lost who crossed those double lines and spun out over Ms Fabares.
While the sales and chart action of the new singles dropped precipitously (two Top 40 hits and one that squeaked into the Top 20), cumulative LP sales were good, mostly due to the expanding markets around the world, where Elvis was still revered.
Elvis got a new producer and went into the studio with enthusiasm for the first time in years and cut the magnificent HOW GREAT THOU ART album.
Meanwhile, the movies he made (Spinout, Easy Come, Easy Go, and Double Trouble) and their accompanying soundtracks were better than the previous year but still relatively lame. By this time, calling the average Elvis movie a “B-movie” exaggerated its level of professionalism.
Elvis and Shelley Fabares posing for a casual photo on the set of Clambake in 1967.
Sales of both singles and LPs continued to plummet in the US. The gorgeous Indescribably Blue disappointed everyone by barely making the Top 40. While the global market continued to expand, sales of new Presley albums nose-dived and absolutely paled in comparison to sales of LPs by the new, younger (and hungrier) rock artists.
On the plus side, Presley continued to make good music in the studio with Jarvis, even if the results were not commercially as successful as they might have been (Big Boss Man and Guitar Man were Top 40 hits).
Meanwhile, the movies he made (Clambake, Stay Away, Joe, and Speedway) and their accompanying soundtracks were arguably better than the previous year. By this time, even his fans weren’t taking his movies or records seriously.
Bill Bixby, Will Hutchins, Shelly Fabares, and Elvis posing for an MGM publicity photo for Clambake in early 1967.
While Presley recorded very little new material in the studio with Felton Jarvis, things definitely changed for the better. The quality of the movies picked up noticeably—at least by “Elvis movie” standards (or lack thereof).
The movie recordings also picked up.
Of course, none of the records sold particularly well, while the box office take of the movies was negligible.
In some areas, a new Presley movie didn’t even reach the regular theaters, but wound up part of a drive-in’s weekend double-feature.
Elvis opened the ’60s with two blockbuster soundtrack LP albums: G.I. BLUES (1960) and BLUE HAWAII (1961). At this time in 2017, the combined sales of these two albums may be greater than the combined sales of the thirteen soundtrack albums that followed in 1962-1969!
The Hollywood Years
From G. I. Blues, the first movie that Elvis made after returning from the Army in 1960, to the final film of the decade (Change Of Habit) in 1969, there are three simple observations that can be made regarding the quality of the soundtrack music for those movie:
• Many of the songs released in the ’60s should never have been conceived, let alone composed.
• Many of the songs composed in the ’60s should never have been published, let alone selected.
• Many of the songs selected for use in the ’60s should never have been recorded, let alone released.
Many of the soundtrack songs of the ’60s should never have been written, let alone recorded and released to his devoted fans.
While there are notable exceptions to these observations, they are few—especially when compared to what was happening in the heady world of rock, pop, and soul music at the time!
That, too, changed in 1968. The last movies that Elvis made in 1968-1969 may not be anyone’s idea of masterful filmmaking, but they are interesting. They were also all pretty much bombs at the box office.
Here are those four movies with the songs recorded for their soundtracks. I have assigned a value to each consisting of one, two, or three stars. The rating system is relative, based on what Elvis was capable of.
⭐ Typical, forgettable Elvis movie dreck.
⭐⭐ Good, if unexceptional.
⭐⭐⭐ Good enough to be a 2-star studio recording!
Wonderful World (Doug Flett – Guy Fletcher) ⭐⭐
Edge Of Reality (Bernie Baum – Bill Giant – Florence Kaye) ⭐⭐⭐
A Little Less Conversation (Billy Strange – Mac Davis) ⭐⭐⭐
Almost In Love (Luiz Bonfá – Randy Starr) ⭐⭐⭐
Charro has been reviled by many hip critics for its supposedly demeaning take on Native Americans, even though it was one of the first-ever Hollywood movies that looked at life with any kind of nod towards the perspective of those same Native Americans.
Charro (Billy Strange – Mac Davis) ⭐
Let’s Forget About The Stars (A.L. Owens) ⭐⭐
The Trouble with Girls was an interesting period piece that might have succeeded with a better script and stronger directing and/or acting.
Clean Up Your Own Backyard (Billy Strange – Mac Davis) ⭐⭐⭐
Swing Down Sweet Chariot (public domain) ⭐⭐
Signs Of The Zodiac (Buddy Kaye – Ben Weisman) ⭐
Almost (Buddy Kaye – Ben Weisman) ⭐⭐
The Whiffenpoof Song (Ted Galloway –
Meade Minnigerode – George Pomeroy) ⭐
Violet (Flower Of NYU) (Steven Dueker- Peter Lohstroh) ⭐
Change of Habit (1969) is one of the least-watched and least-appreciated Elvis movies. It’s actually rather good, if only in what it attempts: a doctor running a clinic in an inner-city (code for “black”) city, the Catholic Church sending a trio of nuns in disguise out into the “real” world as undercover operatives, those nuns being tempted by that real-world (of which the doctor is a part).
Change Of Habit (Buddy Kaye – Ben Weisman) ⭐⭐
Let’s Be Friend (Chris Arnold – David Martin – Geoffrey Morrow) ⭐⭐
Let Us Pray (Buddy Kaye – Ben Weisman) ⭐⭐
Have A Happy (Buddy Kaye – Dolores Fuller – Ben Weisman) ⭐
If my assessment of the quality of these recordings is accurate, then an album compiled of the best twelve tracks would have made up the best Elvis soundtrack LP album since GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!, which was recorded in 1962.
Yet the fact that these were much better than average Presley movie songs was lost at the time as they were released willy-nilly and spread out over various singles and Camden albums over the next few years.
Follow what dream?
RCA’s all-Elvis subsidiary imprint Follow That Dream has just released a CD addressing the music from these soundtracks. THE LAST MOVIES (FTD-151, 506020-975116), except it contains songs from the last three movies, not the last four discussed above. Like all FTD projects, it contains a lot of alternative takes, many of them interesting, many of them not.
Here are the album listings. Note that titles with an asterisk (*) are previously unreleased (usually for good reason):
Change Of Habit
Let’s Be Friends
Have A Happy
Let Us Pray
Clean Up Your Own Back Yard
Let’s Forget About The Stars
Let’s Forget About The Stars (rough mix)*
Charro (rough mix)*
Clean Up Your Own Back Yard (undubbed master)
Almost (undubbed master)
Swing Down Sweet Chariot (movie version)
Swing Down Sweet Chariot (female vocals and brass overdub)
Signs Of The Zodiac (duet with Marlyn Mason)
College Songs Medley:
– Far Above Cayuga’s Waters*
– Boola Boola*
– Dartmouth’s In
– Town Again*
– The Eyes Of Texas*
– On, Wisconsin*
– The Whiffenpoof Song
– Fair Harvard*
– Notre Dame*
Almost (takes 1-3*, 4*, 6, 10*, 11, 13-16*, 22-25*, 27-29*)
Let Us Pray (alternative vocal overdub)
Let Us Pray (vocal only)
Note that FTD included Rubberneckin’, which was not recorded for a movie but was a part of the Chips Moman’s American Sound sessions in early ’69. It was included in Change Of Habit but is arguably out of place on this album.
By not including the Live A Little, Love A Little soundtrack on this compilation, they missed three of the best sides from this period.
So this album does not collect all the soundtrack recordings from what I consider Presley “last movies” to have been.
It’s basically an album put together for the must-have-everything Elvis collector—even if the “everything” includes Elvis singing snippets of old college songs and multiple attempts at a relatively modest ballad.
Grade for completist Elvis nuts: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Grade for diehard Elvis fans: ⭐⭐⭐
Grade for normal people: ⭐⭐
Note that the focus of the collection appears to be the song Almost, as there are eighteen takes of the song included. While I only gave the song a 2-star rating, Almost is one of my favorite soundtrack recordings of Elvis from this period.
Is it possible to have “too many” photos of Shelly Fabares from the ’60s? No? I didn’t think so either.
Record review time
Like all Follow That Dream titles, THE LAST MOVIES features great (digital) sound in a beautiful package, and includes a 16-page booklet with information and photos. Like most FTD titles, it is for Elvis collectors, featuring a few strong tracks with several lesser recordings padded out with outtakes that few non-Elvis listeners ever want to hear.
Why RCA proper doesn’t issue more Elvis albums and just let decent stuff go out on these limited edition collectors CDs is puzzling.
Take the sixteen tracks recorded for the final four movies of 1968-1969, and you have a reasonably sound Elvis album.
While I only gave the song a 2-star rating, Almost is one of my favorite soundtrack recordings of Elvis from this period.
Add another dozen or so interesting outtakes, and RCA would have a very good CD album for general release—although they might want to give a snazzier title, like Rubberneckin’ – The Last Elvis Movie Soundtracks.
As a mere mortal, I would think that the possibility that such a release might capture the pubic’s attention and potentially sell hundreds of thousands of copies would be attractive.
But, like Colonel Parker before them, the powers-that-be at RCA know best . . .
And in June, 1968, Elvis went to NBC-TV’s studios in Burbank, California, and taped the performances that redefined his career. These led to the sessions at Chips Moman’s American Sound studio in Memphis in January and February 1969, and these to his first live appearances in eight years at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in July 1969.
FEATURED IMAGE: Marlyn Mason and Elvis Presley as Bonnie and Clyde during the filming of The Trouble With Girls (And How To Get Into It) from 1968.
1 This is a bonus photo packaged with initial copies of the SPINOUT soundtrack album. This photo is autographed from Elvis to the movie’s director, Norman Taurog. Note that Presley’s genuine signature on the left barely resembles the machine-stamped signature on the right.
2 Shelly Fabares had been a star of television’s The Donna Reed Show (1958-1963) who ventured into a recording career. Her first single, Johnny Angel, was a pop masterpiece of girl-swoons-for-boy; it topped the charts in 1962. And that was it for her career, although she was married to Dunhill Records founder Lou Adler.
3 Elvis movies often featured co-stars who brought a fresh-faced innocence to the screen. That is, some of Elvis’s leading ladies were barely old enough to be considered ladies, peaking with the teenaged, virginal Annette Day in Double Trouble. Michelle Carey could never be confused for a virginal teenager and her obvious sexuality in a Presley vehicle was a pleasant surprise in 1968.