As that other musical chameleon Neil Young has noted, “Rust never sleeps.” The King was no longer gone, but he had not forgotten that the most important rule for an artist is not to stay the same. His revolutionary act was to become an adult.
When reporters asked John Lennon about his thoughts on the death of Elvis Presley, the former Beatle wryly commented that he thought the King died when he went into the Army. The conventional wisdom is that when Elvis returned to recording after his release from the service, he was no longer a rock and roller. It is true that he did start recording mellower music, such as “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, but while critics have noted the transformation of Elvis from hillbilly stud to church-going G.I., this discussion usually ignores what was going on in the larger culture during the same period.
1960, the year of Elvis’s return, was also the year of the first court case involving rock and payola (deejay Alan Freed was convicted and fined), the US U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, Civil Rights actions like the Greensboro sit-ins increased in the American South, and John F. Kennedy was elected president. It was a time of change, and the 25-year-old Elvis too was not the same as he was when a teenager. Like other entertainers of his era, he wanted to grow from being a teen idol to an adult entertainer -- and in 1960, the most successful musical star was Frank Sinatra. No wonder Elvis’s first move was a return to television as the guest star on the Frank Sinatra Times Special that included a segment where the two men sang each other’s songs in tribute to each other.
The King’s first album upon returning could have been made by the Chairman of the Board. Elvis, who flopped in Vegas back in 1956, was being primed as a Rat Pack type of performer. Who could blame him for not wanting to be a teen idol? Presley’s voice was still strong and clear. He could belt out the blues one minute (e.g., Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby”) and then sound sophisticated the next (e.g., Little Willie John’s “Fever”) without changing character. It was all show business, baby, and a little shtick never hurt anyone.
That doesn’t mean Elvis got worse. Indeed, he was more successful than ever. Going away had only made his audience’s hearts grow fonder. They too had grown older. He just became a different type of entertainer. As that other musical chameleon Neil Young has noted, “Rust never sleeps.” The King was no longer gone, but he had not forgotten that the most important rule for an artist is not to stay the same. His revolutionary act was to become an adult. He could have kept on making Sun Records-style music like Carl Perkins had when he signed to Columbia Records, but Elvis had bigger ambitions.
Elvis Is Back! was a big success, reaching number two on the Billboard album chart soon after being issued. While the album yielded no hit singles, he quickly released three of his biggest records recorded during the same period, including the number one “Stuck on You” and the two ballads “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. The new RCA Legacy release of the album includes the original 12 songs, plus the hit singles recorded in the same year, plus the complete 1961 LP Something for Everyone and his hit singles from that period. These include the sneering rocker “Little Sister” and the scorcher “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”.
The title Something for Everyone explains what Elvis had become. After leaving the Army, he was crooning Italian style ballads, punching out Chicago blues, singing doo wop harmonies with the Jordanaires, returning to country roots, and just about every other musical genre that had formed him as an artist. The main difference was that in an earlier era, he had combined the different modes. Now he was performing them separately. Lennon was not completely accurate. Elvis still rocked. He just did much more than that, and if that made him a square, it’s clear he and his fans did not care.