Elvis Presley returned from the Army to create a rock album even Frank Sinatra loved
Elvis Presley faced a new America when he returned from his stint in the Armed Forces in March 1960.
Before going off to serve in Germany, he filmed his most convincing dramatic film yet, Michael Curtiz’s New Orleans–set King Creole, and in June 1958, he cut enough sides for RCA (including “A Big Hunk O’Love” and “I Got Stung”) to keep him on the radio while he was away. Now, at the start of the decade, there had to have been some questions about if, and how, he would adjust, whether his dominance would continue. In his absence, there were people who were confident that the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing would wear itself out, and Elvis would be considered a fleeting affair, a boyfriend who went overseas and was sent a collective brush-off letter from the girls he left behind: We missed you, but we outgrew you. What could Presley do to win back their hearts?
When Elvis came marching home, a new musical was preparing to open on Broadway; its lead character, modeled on Presley, was about to join the Army, and his hysterical female fans were devastated by his impending departure. Bye Bye Birdie, although bubbling with catchy songs, treated the rock ‘n’ roll idol, named Conrad Birdie, as a lunkhead creation, and his handlers as calculating image-shapers. He was an honestly sincere, fine upstanding American boy, proud to serve his country and bestow one last chaste kiss on an adoring admirer from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Meanwhile, Colonel Tom Parker, the manager of the real-life teen idol, was mapping out Elvis’s post-Army career. The first orders of business: getting Presley back into the recording studio, and back on television. It was Elvis’s disruptive and divisive appearances on TV, especially the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan shows, that made him a cultural phenomenon, and Parker wanted to get Presley back into those millions of homes pronto.
VIDEO: Ann Margaret in the opening theme to Bye Bye Birdie
The time Elvis spent in the Army might have derailed his career for a while, but it gave Parker the opportunity to reboot his client. Presley couldn’t come back as the same hillbilly cat he was in 1958; it would have felt like a retread, and most of the pop guys who thrived during his absence—wan whiners like Anka and Avalon—took a smoother, less overtly sexual approach. Records like “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” and “Bobby Sox to Stockings” were the mildest of come-ons, quite a distance from Elvis: “One night with you, is what I’m now praying for,” he sang in 1958. And on his most recent number one single, “A Big Hunk O’Love,” he was unsubtle. “I ain’t greedy, all I want is all you got.” The new Elvis needed to be friendlier. Or could he, possibly, be split in two, make records that had fire, but have another, less threatening side? Maybe some grown-ups could be dragged into his camp, in case the rock ‘n’ roll fad fizzled.
On March 20, 1960, Elvis Presley went into RCA’s studio in Nashville. He brought along his guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, and the studio cats hired for the session were the city’s A-team: Hank Garland on guitar, Floyd Cramer on piano, Buddy Harman on drums, Boots Randolph on sax, the Jordanaires on backing vocals. Over two days, this tight combo cut three songs that would wind up on Presley’s first post-Army album, Elvis is Back!: “Make Me Know It,” “Soldier Boy” (not the song that would become a hit for the Shirelles), and “It Feels So Right.” They also recorded sides for singles: “Stuck on You,” “Fame and Fortune,” and “A Mess of Blues” (the latter, a Doc Pomus–Mort Shuman song, would have made a strong addition to the LP, but none of the singles from those sessions also were included on the album). Then everyone took a break, and Presley flew to Florida, so he could film his return to the small screen.
Frank Sinatra hated rock ‘n’ roll. He made no bones about it (he made no bones about anything, typically, but on this topic he was particularly steamed). Why, then, would he agree to host Presley’s homecoming (the show was called The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis)? Why would Colonel Parker choose a Sinatra special to reintroduce the now-veteran to U.S. viewers? Ratings, obviously, on Sinatra’s part (people would’ve tuned in to see Elvis anywhere). Image-tweaking on Parker’s: See, America? Elvis respects his elders, plays well with others, can croon a few bars of “Witchcraft,” and plug both sides of his new RCA 45. On “Fame and Fortune,” he opened his heart: “Who cares for fame and fortune?/They’re only passing things/But the touch of your lips on mine/Makes me feel like a king.” Isn’t that sweet? Presley was well-behaved alongside Sinatra, and no doubt the Colonel was pleased.
VIDEO: The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis)
With the television spectacular in the can (it wouldn’t air until May), Presley went back to Nashville to finish up the album and cut some additional sides. At Parker’s request, he did a song that dated back to the 1920s, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” complete with a mid-song recitation. Another song from those April 3–4 sessions was a flamboyant translation of the Italian song “O Sole Mio,” retitled “It’s Now or Never.” There was some creative schizophrenia going on in the studio. Most of what would end up on Elvis Is Back! was bluesy and purposeful; Elvis was clearly feeling liberated, and his singing had a simmering tone. Always a fan of Clyde McPhatter’s edition of the Drifters, he did “Such a Night,” an erotic reverie; he cut Peggy Lee’s version of “Fever” (with the priceless line about Romeo and Juliet: “Julie, baby, you’re my flame”), a hit for Little Willie John; from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who’d provided him with great material for Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, and King Creole, he chose the self-explanatory “Dirty, Dirty Feeling”; and in one completed take, he and his band dug into Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby,” and it has some of the let-it-rip spontaneity of his 1968 in-the-ring segments of his comeback special.
But no singles were released at the time from Elvis is Back! (“Such a Night” came out on 45 in 1964 , seemingly at random). Now, it’s considered one of Presley’s best albums. Then, however, it was a bit of a disappointment (it stalled at #2 on the Billboard chart). Meanwhile, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “It’s Now or Never,” from those same sessions, were giant hits. And when the soundtrack album from Presley’s first ’60s movie, G.I. Blues—recorded in April and May—came out later in the year, it stayed at #1 for eleven weeks.
Lessons, as far as Parker could see, were learned. Elvis is Back! feels like something the Colonel let Presley get out of his system, but the real dough was in soundtracks from a series of movies that were like hastily printed picture postcards. Presley went along, and although the tendency is to blame Parker for everything we don’t like about the direction Elvis’s career took, there was always more than a pinch of schmaltz (“That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’ and “I Love You Because” from the famed Sun Sessions for example) in the material Elvis selected. He was a sentimental Southern boy with a wild streak; within the same year, with the same players, he recorded “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” and “I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs.” “A Mess of Blues” was on the flip side of “It’s Now or Never.” After Elvis is Back!, and scattered singles that followed in that vein, like “Little Sister” and “His Latest Flame,” it was a spiral into a world of hijinks, urchins, and girls, girls, girls. But as the album ends with the yelp of “Reconsider Baby” (“Play the blues,” Presley commands before Boots Randolph starts to growl out his solo), it’s like Presley is pressing a pause button. It would take a while, but he’d be back.
AUDIO: Elvis Presley Elvis Is Back! (Full Album)