Elvis Presley - Elvis Is Back (RCA Victor) 1960)
Reviewed by Jack Brown 15th July 2023
When Elvis returned from his stint in the army, there was much trepidation from RCA executives; did their boy still have it? Could he deliver the goods? Even Elvis wondered if his loyal fanbase had lost interest. The moment of truth came on the 20th March 1960, with further sessions the following night, & the 3rd & 4th April, when Elvis entered RCA Studio B Nashville. Returning to Elvis’ side were two of the three members of his classic pre-army band, guitarist Scotty Moore & drummer DJ Fontana. Former bassist Bill Black was enjoying substantial sucess with his own combo & had no idea to return. They were augmented by the crean of Nashville session-players to make up one of the best studio bands, of that time & any time. Hank Garland on guitar/electric base, Floyd Kramer on piano, Bob Moore on double-base, & Buddy Harmon making it a two drummer band; pre-dating a certain tinfoil clad Glam Rocker by over a decade. Joining for the April sessions was sax supremo Boots Randolph. Oh yeah, let’s not forget Elvis & his golden voice. Elvis had been experimenting with new styles & his voice whilst in the army stationed in Germany. In fact, he’d added a full octave to his voice, giving it a rich smoother quality, any fears that he’d lost the magic must have been short lived. Elvis was arguably at his vocal peak. The album was produced by his longtime producer Steve Sholes. The LP gave us two firsts; the first Elvis album to be released in Stereo, & the first to be engineered by Bill Porter, a man seemingly able to get the best sound out of Elvis recordings. Elvis must have been in agreement as he took Bill on the road with him to be one of his sound engineers when he returned to live performing, but that’s another story.
Now to the results of the album itself. Many catagorise Elvis in two phases, pre & post-army. Some feel Elvis lost his edge & went too polished & poppy. Whilst it’s true the sound got slicker & more focus was given over to ballad & pop material, Elvis never forgot the Rockin’ & R&B music that made him. & let’s not forget Elvis had been cutting ballads since literally day one; Love Me Tender, I Was The One, the immaculate Don’t, Blue Moon, the list goes on. In fact, his first professional recording at Sun (Harbour Lights) & his first-ever private recording, also at Sun, (My Happiness) were both love songs. Two songs, though not on the album I’m reviewing, but recorded at the same sessions, some critics point to as Elvis taking a more MOR route are It’s Now Or Never & Are You Lonesome Tonight. Yes these are definitely Pop records, & great ones at that. However, the album contains much for rockers to delight over, & Elvis Is Back couldn’t be further away from MOR.
Let’s get to it, track by track. The LP kicks off with an Otis Blackwell (Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up) composition, Make Me Know It, which was actually the first track cut in the session. It’s a rocker, a slick rocker, but a rocker nonetheless. It’s worth noting many of Blackwell’s compositions are fixed at the poppy end of RnR. It was an ideal track to kick off the session with, being familiar ground for Elvis. It’s great. Yes sone of the rough edges & danger in Elvis’ voice are gone, but they’ve been replaced by new vocal depth & power. Elvis’ voice sounds stunning, this track really shows off his richer voice to great effect. What’s also apparent is how darn good the band are. The drums come crashing in & sound just fabulous.
Next, we have Fever. Rockers will best remember the original recording by Little Willie John, some may also enjoy the version by The Crammps. However, Elvis bases his take on the song, new lyrics & all, on the No. 1 recording by Peggy Lee from 1958. The arrangement is sparse; base, drums, & finger-snaps curtesy of Elvis. This all works to great effect, creating a late-night Smokey club atmosphere, one of the few times Elvis skirted with Jazz, he wasn’t a fan. Interestingly, Elvis would revive the track in 1972 during his summer Vegas season for his stage set list. Whenever he shouted ‘fever’ the crowd would go nuts.
Next we have The Girl Of My Best Friend. It’s a Pop song with slightly immature lyrics for a 25-year-old to be singing. But the beauty of Elvis’ voice makes the song irresistible & adds emotion making the song believable. Elvis & the band greatly improve on the original square-sounding recording by Charlie Blackwell, swapping the rather awkward arrangement for something that glides along perfectly. UK fans agreed, taking the track to No. 9 in the UK charts when reissued in 1976. I Will Be Home Again; Elvis had discussed cutting this whilst stationed in Germany. Originally by The Golden Gate Quartet in 1945, done in the Ink Spots mould. Elvis sticks fairly close to the original ballad performance, choosing to sing a duet vocal-harmony with new buddy Charlie Hodge, who he’d met in the army. Charlie comes under much stick in the Elvis world, & often quite rightly so. He always joined Elvis on stage from 1969 to Elvis’ death. Yet all he appeared to contribute other than handing Elvis his water & scarves, was to sing harmony, badly, play guitar none of the other band members seemed to like (they’d often turn his guitar down) & have occasional pathetic little water fights with Elvis. He was also so far up Elvis’ backside it was unreal, always laughing the loudest Elvis feeble attempts at humour. Yet it was Charlie who showed Elvis techniques to improve his breathing & expand his range, & for that we all should be eternally grateful. Hodge actually sings harmony on this track really well with Elvis, making the result sound rather lovely.
Dirty Dirty Feeling; a Leiber/Stoller written rocker, pitched & subsequently rejected for the King Creole movie back in 1958. Two of Elvis’ favourite writers, Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Hot Dog, plus all those clever brilliant songs for The Coasters. This isn’t actually their best work. The lyrics do have the feel of film soundtrack filler, & don’t hold up too well to modern scrutiny. However, it’s still a great rocker & the lyrics are fun. Elvis & the crew give a top performance. Of particular note is how well the interplay between Elvis & vocal group The Jordanaires (especially the base singer) works, making it a real fun rocker. The Jordanaires were Elvis’ main vocal group from 1956 onwards & were present for many major sessions, including the Elvis Is Back sessions. Interestingly, this track was used to advertise the Baby Loney Tunes cartoon series back in the early 2000s.
The Thrill Of Your Love; side 1 closes with a gorgeous ballad written by Stan Kesler, Presley recorded a number of Kesler’s compositions. It’s the age-old story of a man wishing for great wealth, only to find love is better, I could have told ‘him that. If we ignore the irony of the lyrics, Elvis being one of the wealthiest entertainers at the time, it really is a stunning performance. The new-found beauty & power in Elvis’ voice is illustrated perfectly in this recording (check out Fame & Fortune from the same session for similar, probably greater, results.)
Let’s flip the record over, unless you’re listening via CD or Streaming, & see what we have. Soldier Boy; side two opens with another ballad, a 1955 Doo-Top track originally cut by the Four Fellows (imaginative name eh.) Elvis sticks to the Doo-Wop fee, working with The Jordanaires for that Vocal Group sound. It was the second track cut in the first session. Nothing much to say, other than it’s a fabulously achingly-beautiful love songs & is a highlight of the whole album. It was one of the songs Elvis was considering during his army service, as was…
Such A Night; another Doo-Wop song, this time an upbeat number first cut by The Drifters, though Elvis could have been just as easily been influenced by the UK No. 1 by Johnny Ray from the same year (1954.) it’s a dirty song, about of all things, sex, I know scandalous. Ray’s version was initially banned by the BBC. Elvis & the band bump & grind their way through the track making it seem all too easily. Elvis grunts & growls in all the right places, & Boots Randolph plays some impressive sax. As great as this track is, & it is, one has to wonder if 1958 pre-army Elvis would have given the song an extra edge & made the whole thing sound that little more dirty & dangerous. Still great, it’s just we end up with a Pop-Rocker, slick & professional, as opposed to a raw slab of Rock ‘N’ Roll.
It Feels So Right; the first of three tracks with a definite Blues feel. This was the only one of the three that wasn’t an authentic Blues track, instead been written by frequent Presley writers Ben Weisman & Fred Wise. What’s to say, it’s a slinky, dirty Blues grinder. The crew deliver with great guitar licks & backing vocals. Oh yeah, & Elvis delivers possibly his sexiest vocal, perfect. The song was later used in the Elvis film, though I haven’t seen still assume it’s rubbish, Tickle Me.
Girl Next Door Went A Walkin’; co-written & originally recorded by Thomas Wayne (You’re The One That Done It, Tragedy) this might considered a The fairly lightweight Pop song typical of 1960, yet the sweet lyrics & Elvis’ breezy vocals make the tune irresistible. This, along with I Will Be Home Again, make up the album’s weaker tracks. However, this simply means, instead of great, they’re merely very good. Like A Baby; any signs of the album slowing down is instantly dispelled by this great Jessie Stone written song originally recorded by R&B singer Vicky Nelson ;not to be confused by Ricky.) Her version isn’t bad, but pales into insignificance next to The King. The band are shit hot & really cooking. Elvis uses his higher vocal range to full effect. The result is one of his finest recordings. Boots Randolph on sax blends perfectly with Elvis & the band adding that extra special sleezy touch. The result is a fine slinky Blues performance.
Reconsider Baby; & we save the best till last. Elvis covering the 1954 West-Coast Blues track on Checker by its writer Lowel Fulson. It’s one of the few true Blues songs Presley recorded, & perfectly demonstrates why so many, including yours truly, feel he should have cut an entire Blues album. It’s a perfect record. This great tracks shows us three things; Firstly, Elvis wasn’t simply a bandwagon jumper, he had a real knowledge & feel for the Blues. He grunts & says ‘yeah’ in all the right places, & eggs the band on for an extra instrumental break. This has blistering results, the drums are pounded for all they’re worth, what a drum-break. Boots also delivers his best sax work yet. Second, it shows Elvis knows what he’s doing in the studio. He may have officially had a producer, & they played an important role, but there’s no doubt who’s in charge here. Elvis often instructed & worked with the band on how he wanted the arrangement to be. This track glows & you can tell how pleased Presley is with the results. Most importantly, it shows Elvis could play guitar. Much bollocks has been written about Elvis’ inability at playing guitar, yet on this & the previous track he strums away nicely on his Gibson acoustic. Let’s not forget also that he was the important rhythm player on his groundbreaking Sun recordings. His playing, while not exceptional, is pretty darn good & exactly what the song needs. This brings this fine album to an exciting end. I’ve only recently really got into the Blues, so have only just realised how great this recording is.
To conclude, if you don’t have this album, get it. Vinyl, CD, 8-Track, it don’t matter, just get it. Along with From Elvis In Memphis, it’s arguably Elvis’ greatest studio album. Fantastic 10/10.