Robert Johnson: “What do you think your place in the entertainment world two years from now will be?”
Elvis Presley: “I’ll tell you, Mr. Johnson. I wouldn’t say because the entertainment world is so unpredictable, and people change and times change. It would be hard to say, really. I wouldn’t try to answer that. The only thing I can say is that I’m trying to make it acting, and it takes a long time and a lot of work and a lot of experience. But I’m trying to make it that way. If I can get established that way, I’m okay. But I don’t know how long the music end of it will last. I don’t know how long I’ll last. I got no idea, really.”
The above question-and-answer exchange occurred during a press conference at the Claridge Hotel in Memphis on February 25, 1961. The meeting with journalists took place prior to Presley’s two live shows at Ellis Auditorium later that day. One of the few probing questions asked of Elvis at the press conference came from Robert Johnson, a Memphis Press-Scimitar staff writer. (Many of the other queries dealt with trivial subjects, such as Elvis’s love life, his automobiles, and his favorite foods.)
Considering it all these years later, Elvis’s response to Johnson’s question helps to explain why the coming mid-sixties became a wasteland in his career. At the time of the 1961 press conference, Elvis's career had revived nicely after his two years away in the army. His first three post-army single records—“Stuck on You,” “It’s Now or Never,” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”—had all been blockbuster #1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1960. And his current release, “Surrender,” was on its way to the top, as well. His appearance on Frank Sinatra’s TV special, broadcast in May 1960, drew huge ratings, and in theaters G.I. Blues became the 14th top grossing film of that year.
However, as Elvis clearly indicated in his response to Johnson’s question, he had no clear plan for how he wanted his career to develop in the remaining years of that decade. He lacked confidence that he could make it as an actor and wasn’t even sure the “music end of it would last.” Harboring self-doubt and indecision, he seemed willing to let the vagaries of the entertainment business determine the direction of his career.
Although the next two years (1961-1963) were fairly successful for Elvis, cracks were beginning to appear in the King’s crown. At the time of the February 1961 press conference, Elvis was riding a wave of five straight #1 records. Of his eight single records over the next two years, though, only one, “Good Luck Charm,” would reach #1, and another, “One Broken Heart for Sale,” would be the first ever Presley RCA regular release not to reach the top 10 on the Hot 100.
Blue Hawaii was the eighth highest grossing film of 1961, but in the 1961-63 period, none of Presley’s other eight films, while profitable, ranked high with critics or theatergoers. Elvis never appeared on network television during those critical years, and only twice, in Memphis and Honolulu in 1961, did he appear on stage.
By allowing himself to be locked into a steady stream of movies, in which he had no input in either the scripts or music, Elvis found himself with no room to maneuver when The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion hit the U.S. starting in 1963. Statements he made at the 1961 press conference in Memphis revealed a lack of confidence and vision that inevitably led to a decline in Presley’s relevance in the mid to late sixties.
• A dramatic role … “I’m not ready for that”
While asserting that his goal was to make it as an actor, Elvis was timid about his chances of doing so. “I would like to play a dramatic role, but I’m not ready for that either, really,” he said at the 1961 press conference. “I haven’t had enough experience in acting. And again, until I’m ready for it, it would be foolish to undertake something very dramatic.”
He admitted that he knew next to nothing about his next movie, which would begin shooting just a month later. “It’s a kind of a drama,” he told the assembled journalists. “It’s called Blue Hawaii. That’s all I know about it right now.” He also had no input or knowledge about the songs in the soundtrack. “I haven’t recorded it yet. I couldn’t tell you anything,” he confessed.
As for his future movies, Elvis conceded that he would have very little creative involvement. “It’s up to the studio, mostly. But you can rest assured that there’d be music an almost all of ’em. There has to be.”
• Music … “I don’t like to take chances”
When asked about the kinds of music he’d like to record, Elvis stated he had some definite ideas. “I’ve always liked all kinds of music. I mean, I don’t just like rock and roll. I appreciate all types of music,” he declared. But …
“I have to do what I can do best and so I do the rock stuff … I don’t like to press my luck too far. I don’t like to take chances, you know. As long as I’m doing okay now, I don’t want … I mean, why change it until I got reason to change it? If what I’m doing now … if it doesn’t go over anymore, then I’ll have to change or do something.”
Presley’s reluctance to “take chances” with his music during the mid to late sixties led RCA to release soundtrack songs and discarded recordings from the past. By Elvis Presley standards, the period between January 1964 and April 1969 was a musical Siberia. The only one of his 25 single record releases during that period to reach the top 10 on the Hot 100 was “Crying in the Chapel,” a gospel track recorded five years before its 1965 release.
• TV … “Too much television kind of hurts movies”
By 1961 Elvis had granted Colonel Parker the authority to keep him off of television and the stage, two types of exposure that had been key to Presley’s rise to fame in the fifties. Elvis had appeared on Frank Sinatra’s TV special in May 1960, but he hinted at the 1961 press conference that such appearances would be avoided in the future. He dissembled, “Because of the movie contracts I have, I’m pretty tied up in movies right now and too much television kind of hurts movies a little bit.” There would not be another Presley TV appearance until his 1968 NBC special.
In 1961 it seemed possible that Elvis might soon take his act back to the people. The same day of the press conference, he did two live shows in Memphis, and he announced he’d be doing a benefit performance for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii a month later. But Elvis didn’t sound too enthusiastic about getting back on stage. “I like personal appearances best,” he proclaimed in 1961. “Although I don’t know about today, because I haven’t been on stage in a little over three years. I’ve almost forgotten a lot of the words to the songs I used to do. And I haven’t had much of a chance to rehearse with the band.”
A journalist asked him directly, “Do you plan to go barnstorming again anytime soon?” Elvis responded:
“Well, the Colonel could probably answer that better than I. There’s nothing planned right now. I know that eventually we’ve got to do a European tour to all the countries like … that presented these awards and things, you know. But I don’t know exactly. “
Then Elvis looked to Colonel Parker for help. “Are we gonna be doing any?” Parker responded cunningly, “We’re waiting for a good offer.” Of course, we know that after the Pearl Harbor concert, Elvis would not set a foot on stage again until his Las Vegas engagement in the summer of 1969.
• A lack of vision plagued Elvis
While Elvis avoided TV and live performances in the sixties, The Beatles used both strategically to eclipse Presley as the biggest act in show business at home and abroad.
Elvis’s statements at the 1961 Memphis news conference clearly revealed a lack of confidence and vision that would weaken his status in the tumultuous entertainment business of the 1960s. Pointing this out should not be taken as criticism, but rather as an indication of the doubts and worries that plagued Elvis as he left the last vestiges of his youth behind and prepared to move forward in his career as an adult.
Elvis Presley performed amazingly in the moment. Put in a recording studio, in front of a camera, or on a live stage, he was capable of fantastic things. He was not capable, though, of setting goals for the future and having the confidence to take the perilous steps required to achieve them.
Presley’s career was a unique one full of ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments. The remarkable rise to fame in the fifties was followed by the near banishment in the army for two years. Then came the revival of his career with the musical and film successes of the early sixties, followed by another decline in both areas during the latter sixties. The ’68 TV “Comeback Special” and his return to live shows in Las Vegas fueled another resurgence. Finally, another fall, this one slow and fatal, ended it all in the mid-seventies.
• Up-and-down career made Elvis’s life interesting
It’s pointless to play the “what if” game with Elvis’s career. He was arguably the greatest entertainer of the twentieth century, and yet for many of his fans, that is not enough. They envision an almost perfect career for Elvis, if only someone (usually Colonel Parker) hadn’t held him back. In the end, Elvis bears responsibility for every decision made in his career, including those he made himself and those he allowed others to make for him. Of course, Elvis’s life and career were much more complicated than can be explained in under 2,000 words. Still, the bottom line is that Elvis was at the helm of his career, and since he didn’t know his destination, it was impossible for him to maintain a steady course.
Finally, there’s no need for Elvis fans to regret the up-and-down course his career took. It’s what made his life such an interesting and authentic American story. Each spectacular height he reached would not have been so celebrated had it not been preceded by a fall. — Alan Hanson | © September 2015
“I have to do what I can do best and so I do the rock stuff … I don’t like to press my luck too far. I don’t like to take chances, you know. As long as I’m doing okay now … why change it until I got reason to change it?”