Elvis Presley: Frankie and Johnny

Elvis is taken for a ride on a riverboat

There are a number of commonly held misconceptions about Elvis Presley’s film career: Elvis couldn’t act, his movies were all throwaways, and the soundtracks were populated entirely with substandard material. But key films in the King’s catalog show that he could indeed act, if called upon, there are several high-quality dramatic and musical films in Elvis’ oeuvre, alongside many good lightweight romantic musical comedies, and his soundtracks are laced with hits and terrific albums sides. To measure the highpoints of Elvis’ soundtrack catalog by virtue of the low points (of which there are admittedly many) is to miss out on a valuable dimension of Presley’s musical career.

1966’s Frankie and Johnny was Elvis’ twentieth film, and co-starred Donna Douglas who was then starring on television’s Beverly Hillbillies. The soundtrack was recorded in Hollywood with the usual mix of West Coast studio players (including guitarist Tiny Timbrell), and longtime Elvis associate Scotty Moore. The Jordanaires are replaced here by the Mello Men on background vocals, and a brass section (trumpet, trombone and tuba) was brought in to give a New Orleans edge to several of the songs. The songwriters included many of the usual crew, such as Sid Tepper, Roy C. Bennett, Ben Weisman, Sid Wayne, Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, and the trio of Florence Kaye, Bernie Baum and Bill Giant.

Many of the album’s songs are meant to evoke the era of river boats and music calls, but they’re campy, faux-Dixieland theatricality doesn’t survive the transition from film to soundtrack album. Elvis sounds as if he’s being forced to march along to “Down by the Riverside,” though he loosens up for the second half of the medley with “Saints Go Marching In.” Pomus & Shuman’s “What Every Woman Lives For” would be a more appealing blues if the message wasn’t so retrospectively sexist (though, to be fair, it is Elvis singing, and it’s possible that every woman does live to give him their love). The revival “Shout it Out,” though lyrically light, gives Elvis a chance to rock it up, and the blues “Hard Luck” features Charlie McCoy on harmonica.

Several of the tracks feel under-arranged, as if producer Fred Karger was in a hurry to get these tracks finished. Perhaps when you have the film’s director Fred De Cordova (of Tonight Show fame) waiting on you and you’re asking Elvis to sing mediocre material, you get what you can get. Sony’s reissue features a four-panel booklet and no liner notes discussing the music or its making. The 27-minute running time suggests that the earlier import two-fer or Follow That Dream’s collector’s edition might be more compelling to Elvis diehards. Still, the budget price and remastered sound make this reissue attractive. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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