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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Elvis Presley: King Creole


1) King Creole; 2) As Long As I Have You; 3) Hard Headed Woman; 4) Trouble; 5) Dixieland Rock; 6) Donʼt Ask Me Why; 7) Lover Doll; 8) Crawfish; 9) Young Dreams; 10) Steadfast, Loyal And True; 11) New Orleans; 12*) Danny.

General verdict: Elvis goes New Orleans on our asses — with somewhat mixed, but generally exciting results.

Perhaps King Creole is not the most consistent LP in Elvisʼ career — it is still a soundtrack, after all — but it would be hard to deny that it marks the peak of that very brief period where Elvis actually had a chance to grow into something significantly bigger than ʽHound Dogʼ and ʽLove Me Tenderʼ. As great as all those songs were, the true potential of rockʼnʼroll still remained largely untapped — and the future looked really bright for the partnership between Elvis, Leiber, and Stoller, as they began writing songs for his next movie, which would go on to become his best, too. King Creole, directed by none other than Casablancaʼs own Michael Curtiz, actually managed to go beyond clichés, give its protagonist a nice, biting social angle, and become that one Elvis movie that you are always recommended if... well, if you actually want to go see Elvis in a good movie. Rather than just go see Elvis. Or go see Elvis and a bunch of hot girls in bikinis. I mean, far be it from me to renounce the power of either, and King Creole ainʼt no Kubrick, either, but as far as general entertainment with soul and brains in 1958 is concerned, you could hardly do any better.

In any case, whatʼs a better choice than ʽKing Creoleʼ to pull Elvis out of his safety zones and make him explode just as credibly in a completely new musical setting? A brand new type of rockʼnʼroll, diligently crossed with elements of New Orleanian music, a song that you can headbang to just as heartily as to ʽTutti Fruttiʼ, but featuring a completely different type of beat, jazzy energy, and a guitar solo that seems more influenced by Django Reinhardt than any of the old jump-blues heroes. Above all, it continues to ooze Elvisʼ sexiness, as each verse seems to rise out of the ground, line by line, gaining in intensity with each second — and the man really gets into it, chomping out the line "he holds his guitar like a Tommy gun" with the toughness of a mafia hitman and then getting all properly tiger-ish on "he starts to growl from way down his throat". The rhythm section is much softer here than on the similarly anthemic ʽJailhouse Rockʼ, but it is hard to shake off the feeling that ʽKing Creoleʼ goes deeper and darker — that somehow we are past comedy here and making our way in much more dangerous territory.

That feel of danger is even more expressly stated in ʽTroubleʼ, Leiber and Stollerʼs second and equally fabulous contribution. It is essentially a Chicago blues number dressed up in a bombastic New Orleanian big band jazz arrangement, and the ruckus generated by the percussion and brass section in the chorus and particularly the sped-up "Iʼm evil, evil, evil as can be" coda is quite intoxicating, but a large part of the song is completely quiet, featuring nothing and no-one but Elvis in his self-aggrandizing big-bad-boy-of-the-blues mode, inspired by Muddy Waters and the like. Of course, this here is nothing like the mystical, voodoo-drenched terror of the big African-American dude, and Elvis is not even trying to emulate the swag of a Muddy or a Howlinʼ Wolf; this is the battle stance of a rough white kid from a tough neighbourhood, but Presleyʼs deep bass rumble somehow communicates well enough both the idea of the man being dangerous and a certain nobility of intent — "Iʼve never looked for trouble, but Iʼve never ran", that sort of thing. When he pulls all the stops with "Iʼm evil, evil, evil", it sounds nothing like the ʽEvilʼ of Howlinʼ Wolf — it just goes to show that the man means business if you got his back to the wall. Itʼs a fun, cocky, menacing, life-asserting, happy-licious song, with all these psychological layers to it and more. I remember being mildly disappointed by it after first hearing it on a compilation in deep childhood — who needs all that Vegasy jazz brass? whereʼs a Scottie Moore guitar solo? — but even back then I already knew this was something special.

It is a bit disappointing, of course, that Leiber and Stoller only contributed those two numbers to the soundtrack (the third one, ʽSteadfast, Loyal And Trueʼ, is a rather silly acappella school anthem that can only be appreciated by those who are not alergic to any sort of school anthems in principle), because none of the other numbers come close to the inspirational punch of ʽKing Creoleʼ and ʽTroubleʼ. Well, for those who donʼt mind some good old misogyny in their soup, there is always ʽHard Headed Womanʼ, another little Claude DeMetrius classic delivered by the King at such a breakneck tempo that you will find it quite a challenge to sing along — and here you do get a Scottie Moore guitar solo, although it is still eventually overtaken by a wild brass onslaught. But Schroederʼs ʽDixieland Rockʼ is a disappointment, a transparent attempt to remake ʽJailhouse Rockʼ New Orleans-style that takes most of the bite and anger out of the original and replaces it with even more brass soloing — not good at all.

In general, the weak spot of King Creole is that too much of the album is subjugated to one simple formula: let us take the average Elvis Presley record and cross it with New Orleans jazz. It does result in an album that is almost conceptual in nature, but if you just throw your big band arrangements on top of everything, well, be prepared that sometimes it will work and sometimes it wonʼt. Not surprisingly, perhaps, one of the albumʼs true hidden delights is ʽCrawfishʼ, a short and almost minimalistic «exotic» shuffle about... well, the lyrics speak for themselves, donʼt they? "See I got him, see the size, stripped and cleaned before your eyes" — howʼs that for a from-the-waist-up Ed Sullivan show? Never mind, even if you read past all the innuendos (and I myself thought for quite a long time it was just a song about fishing down on the bayou), the Kingʼs drawn-out howl of "craaaawfish!", lustfully echoed back by Kitty White, is still enough to ignite something. Too bad the whole thing is over much too quickly and there is nothing else even remotely like it on the record.

Still, even if ʽDixieland Rockʼ does not work, and even if several of the ballads are second-hand shadows of earlier successes, individual flaws do not spoil the general feel. Discounting the couple of compilation LPs released while Elvis was in the army, King Creole is the very last blast of a young, cocky, and still relatively free true King of rockʼnʼroll — who may have been on the verge of something even greater, if not for the combined counteraction of the Armed Forces and «Colonel» Tom Parker; and while we are all aware that one of the «Colonel»ʼs worst deeds was confining Elvis to the movie set, an even worse one may have been his isolation from Leiber and Stoller — who allegedly did not wish to sell themselves into Parkerʼs servitude and were consequently banned from access to Elvis by the Memphis Mafia. A sad story, alas, in no way predictable based on the lively exuberance of King Creole. 


  1. I really think you should go youtube and search Cliff Edwards. In my opinion he wasn't any less of a singer than either Elvis or Sinatra. Search for "If I had you" or "Remember". I think you might enjoy it.

    1. Respect your choice, but ukulele-based pop standards are really not my thing. I'm not that much of a Sinatra fan, either. Give me something more blues-based.

  2. I suspected you might say something like that. For me its not about the aesthetics but about the expression, which, to my ears, is very honest and pure. Its like, people love to love Billie Holiday or Nancy Sinatra but they don't like Doris Day because they don't see pass the image. I'm not saying that every song by Doris Day (or by Cliff Edwards, for that matter) was gold but I really think she was a great singer.