Elvis in the Seventies

Elvis Presley’s art is hard to get a grip on. The impact his earliest records — the fusillade of singles released between 1954 and 1956 — had upon American, and ultimately global, pop culture will never be equaled. More than 60 years later, it’s easier to place his music in its proper context alongside the work of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and others and see what each contributed to the invention of rock ’n’ roll, but at the time he towered over the world. There was Elvis, and there was everyone else. 

It couldn’t last, of course. In 1958, he was drafted into the Army, where he served his full two years. Upon his return, he released one good album (1960’s Elvis Is Back!), but quickly embarked on a mostly awful string of uninspired soundtracks to embarrassing movies. By late 1967, the hits had dried up and Presley seemed woefully out of touch, yesterday’s man.

Everything changed in December 1968, when a one-hour TV special resuscitated his career and his artistic reputation. There were a few showbizzy production numbers and a gooey ballad of a single (“If I Can Dream”), but all anyone remembers today are the segments where Elvis and a small band including his 1950s compatriots, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana, sing blues and early rock ’n’ roll songs and tell jokes, with Presley wearing a skin-tight black leather suit and delivering the most committed, swaggering performances anyone had seen from him in a decade.

The TV special was a massive hit, and Elvis realized exactly how big a second chance he’d been given. He entered American Sound Studio with producer Chips Moman in January and February 1969, and cut his first non-soundtrack album since 1962’s Pot Luck. From Elvis In Memphis was released in June 1969, and in many ways it marked the debut of Elvis Presley, album artist. Unlike most of his earlier releases, which threw together a couple of rock songs, a couple of soppy ballads, and a take on whatever was popular at the moment (a 1961 album was literally called Something For Everybody), From Elvis In Memphis featured taut country-soul arrangements that served the songs rather than making craven attempts to chart, and Presley’s vocals were delivered with more passion and craft than he’d shown in years.

Between 1969 and his death in 1977, Elvis threw himself into his music like he hadn’t done since the ’50s, and the results were…well, a mixed bag. While he was a thrilling rock ’n’ roller, a convincing country and blues singer, and maybe one of the greatest white gospel performers ever, he had a cheesy side, and would quite happily sing hammy ballads that even crooners like Dean Martin and Johnny Mathis might have turned up their noses at. But the show tunes were kept to a minimum on his 1970s albums, and balanced by work from forward-looking singer-songwriters from the folk-rock and country realms. Elvis recorded songs by Kris Kristofferson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, and transformed a latter-day Chuck Berry song, “Promised Land,” delivering a breathless country-rock performance. He also emphasized different parts of his unique version of American music in different years — while he focused on country-tinged material in 1971 and 1972, in 1973 he recorded at Stax Studio and emerged with three deeply soulful, even funky albums.

As weird as it sounds, Elvis also blossomed as a live performer in the Seventies. After performing in Las Vegas in 1970, he began touring the US extensively — he played 168 concerts in 1973. Backed by an explosive band that included lead guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, and drummer Ronnie Tutt, he delivered a mix of new songs and oldies, telling jokes and goofing around with the audience. Live albums from the era, and films like Elvis: That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour, documented a rejuvenated Presley doing what he did best and seemingly both happy and artistically fulfilled.

Of course, that wasn’t the whole story by a long shot — Elvis Presley was a man with demons and addictions, and they destroyed him in the end. And in the decades since his death, his cultural status has been debated, litigated, condemned and defended in a seemingly never-ending cycle that rarely seems to take the actual man (who, at a press conference announcing his first Las Vegas residency, pointed to Fats Domino in the audience and said, “That’s the real king of rock ’n’ roll, right there”) into account. But taken purely as music, his Seventies studio albums are the work of a brilliant interpreter who knew what he wanted and knew how to get it. The many outtakes available on various boxed sets and compilations document him conducting the band, joking with backup singers, and keeping things loose and fun, all while pursuing a creative result with relentlessness and determination. Far from a spent force, Elvis did much of his best work in his final decade.

Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old) cover

Dock this album one star for the annoying snippets of Elvis singing “I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago” that fade in and out between the full-length songs. But those songs are often pretty great, from a pianoless version of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” to Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” to Sanford Clark’s “The Fool” to Eddy Arnold’s “I Really Don’t Want to Know.” The arrangements are sometimes slick enough that this isn’t that much more of a “country” album than his other work of the era, and Elvis stays Elvis, never putting any extra twang into his voice. But the lyrics have enough bite that it winds up one of his most passionate studio albums of the Seventies.

He Touched Me cover

Elvis was serious about his religion, but he was enough of a performer to know that straightforward readings of gospel songs, like you’d actually hear in church, wouldn’t go over. So tracks like “I’ve Got Confidence” and “Seeing is Believing” have as much raw rock ’n’ roll energy as anything in his catalog, with loud and stinging guitars, and “Bosom of Abraham” and “I, John,” sung with a male gospel quartet over a driving beat, are equally breathtaking. The best gospel music has enough transcendent power to thrill even the grumpiest unbeliever, and Elvis’s charisma and passion ensures that this album belongs on that list.

Good Times cover

The second of Elvis’s three albums recorded at Stax Studios, Good Times was mostly tracked in December 1973, with two tracks left over from the initial sessions in July. It feels ballad-heavy, though the prominent female backing vocals give it more juice than the pop-country material he’d been recording in 1971 and 1972. “I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body” and “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” though, are genuinely startling — Elvis dives headlong into soul, and the results will make any listener wonder what might have happened had he ever entered the studio with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

Today cover

The March 1975 session that yielded this album marked the last time Elvis Presley set foot in a recording studio; everything after this was recorded at Graceland. He’s in swaggering form on the opening “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” one of his most rocking songs of the ’70s. The bulk of the album is taken up with country-pop ballads that Presley sings with commitment, deploying the power of his mature voice in service to the material. A take on the country classic “Green, Green Grass of Home” was directly inspired by Presley’s love of Tom Jones’ version, and closes the album on a high note.

Elvis cover

This 1973 album might seem at first like a patchwork: it includes studio recordings from spring 1971, a single live track, and two more songs tracked in March 1972. But the choice of material is fascinating. There’s a song by Paul Williams (“Where Do I Go From Here”), one by Gordon Lightfoot (“(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me”), and two (“It’s Still Here” and “I Will Be True”) by blues/R&B songwriter Ivory Joe Hunter. On those, Elvis plays piano — tentatively, but all the more affectingly for it. And the whole thing ends with a loose, lighthearted version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” edited down from a nine-minute jam in the studio.

Promised Land cover

Released on Elvis’s 40th birthday, Promised Land was the last album culled from his 1973 recordings at Stax Studios, and it’s the strongest of the three. The opening title track, written by Chuck Berry, features a manic vocal over an absolutely ripping country-soul-funk performance by the band. Other highlights include the strutting “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” the anguished ballad “It’s Midnight,” and versions of two recent, major country hits, “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who’ll Take Me Back In)” (recorded by Conway Twitty) and “You Asked Me To” (written and recorded by Waylon Jennings).

Elvis Now cover

Though it’s called Elvis Now, this album gathers tracks from sessions in 1969, 1970, and 1971. Presley tackles a broad range of material, including Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain,” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” which he sings in an oddly nasal register, only truly unleashing himself on the coda. He also throws in a couple of gospel songs, “Miracle of the Rosary” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” and a version of “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread),” a standard dating back to 1940. The arrangements mostly tend toward glossy Nashville country-pop, with an R&B backbeat popping up occasionally.

Moody Blue cover

The last Elvis Presley album to be released during his lifetime, Moody Blue is superficially a mess, combining six tracks recorded at Graceland in February and October 1976 (he stopped going to recording studios in 1975) with four live tracks from 1974 — “Let Me Be There,” the same recording used for Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis — and 1977. The performances (vocal and musical: his bands continued to kick ass) are uniformly good, though, and include a surprising live version of the doo-wop chestnut “Little Darlin’”, a dramatic take on Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” and a widescreen version of George Jones’s “She Thinks I Still Care.”

Prince From Another Planet cover

After receiving negative reviews for his TV appearances in 1956 and 1957, Elvis Presley didn’t come back to New York for 15 years, but when he played four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in June 1972, he and his crack live band, driven by drummer Ronnie Tutt, tore the place down. Prince From Another Planet contains the hour-long afternoon and evening sets from Saturday, June 10 in their entirety. Like the albums he was making at the time, the shows include a mix of pop balladry and high-energy rock ’n’ roll numbers delivered in his unique style, which mixed country, soul, gospel and funk into something indefinable but purely Elvis.

Raised On Rock cover

In July and December 1973, Elvis recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis, seeking something he couldn’t get at American Sound, where he’d been working since 1969. No surprise, then, that Raised On Rock features some of his funkiest and most soulful material, including the title track and “If You Don’t Come Back,” and some Southern-fried rock ’n’ roll (“Three Corn Patches,” “Find Out What’s Happening”). The ballads “I Miss You” and “Are You Sincere” were recorded in L.A. in September 1973, but even there, the ache in Presley’s voice is visceral. This was the beginning of a trilogy of albums that are among his strongest work of the decade.