Elvis and the Band
by David Lewis
1971: noone could quite believe it: not his father, not his now-unemployed band; not any of the hangers-on. Not Priscilla, who was quite relieved, really. But Elvis, sick of the exploitation, the mistrust, and, really, sick of not being in control, sacked Tom Parker. It was the Memphis sessions. Chips Moman had told him he was fat and lazy. A man had a choice. Accept it. Or change. The Colonel was comfortable and wanted Elvis comfortable to ensure his own continued comfort. So the break came.
Parker tried fighting; but as Elvis’s attorneys dug into Parker’s past, they found stories that Parker didn’t want told. Once they realised that 1) he didn’t have a US passport; 2) he didn’t have a US passport because he wasn’t eligible for one 3) he wasn’t eligible for one because he was illegal immigrant and 4) he was an illegal immigrant for allegedly terrible reasons, the case was theirs. A large, punitive settlement was put in place, but more importantly, the spell had broken. A nearly twenty year business and personal relationship was shattered permanently.
All Elvis wanted, really, was to sing great songs: not just songs for the charts, and really, not just crowd-pleasing rubbish. The music he grew up on, gospel; country; blues; folk: he had combined it and that’s what he wanted to sing. Some said (particularly the PR team Parker put together) that he had invented rock and roll. Elvis knew that this was nonsense. He had just taken his music, and with Scotty and Bill, mixed it all around somehow, and … changed the world. He had changed the world! Parker – how he hated the name now – had squandered it.
Elvis started, very quietly, looking for new management. So many crooks, so many wannabe Parkers. He found a secretary he could trust, and this woman – a Memphis girl – made some very discreet phonecalls. Eventually, the search was narrowed to two potentials: Allan Klein and Albert Grossman. A couple of private investigators, some lawyer searches and the deal was done. Klein was too dodgy, too mercenary. His dealings with the Rolling Stones, in which, through the rapier of a contract, had seen him get the Jagger/Richards catalogue, legally, had turned Elvis off. Grossman had issues, but he had managed one of Elvis’s favourite songwriters; one of his favourite young singers; and several other acts. He also seemed to like good, American music.
Once the cunning Grossman got wind of the contract of a lifetime, he went for it with all the skill and salesmanship he could muster. The first thing to go was the movies: Grossman agreed that Elvis needed to get back to his roots. He got Elvis back to basics: cut his hair, got him dressing more plainly. Now, to put a product out. Grossman knew an album and a tour was essential. Elvis considered calling the TCBs, but Grossman talked him out of it: it was time for a new Elvis – the TCBs could stay together, and tour. Grossman would even let them use Elvis in promotional material. But he had a better idea for Elvis and a band.
Elvis needed a very special group of musicians: and Grossman had them on his books. They’d started as the backing for Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas boy who’d gone to Canada and made good. They moved solo for a bit, when Bob Dylan picked them up. After Dylan had his motorbike accident – (how jealous Elvis was at the time: how he’d yearned to find some excuse to stop) – they all retreated to a house up in Woodstock in New York. Elvis had heard of “Music from Big Pink” and the second album, known as the Brown Album, but he’d not heard them. Grossman gave them to him and Elvis took them home.
He was blown away. Harmonies cascaded around each other. The keyboard swirled and whirled. The bass was melodic and solid. The drums; the drums. The piano reminded Elvis of his own playing. Elvis heard a guitarist every bit as good as James Burton and Scotty Moore and Hank Garland. But it was the voices that sold him. ‘Take a load off Fanny/Take a load for free/Take a load off Fanny/ and… and… and.. put the load right on right on me.’. How did you write a song like that? Or ‘Jawbone’? or ‘Unfaithful Servant’? or ‘King Harvest (has surely come).’ It was new, it was different, yet it was familiar. Elvis could smell the streets of Memphis; the sweat of the church his parents took him to as a boy; the dust of the seemingly endless roads between tiny gigs throughout the South West. The inside cover of the album had their families. A sprawling picture of wives, children, parents. This impressed Elvis. They hadn’t dropped out. They weren’t hippies. It was as if these boys – Canadians! – had somehow squeezed the sponge that was Elvis’s musical memory, and with the juice had delivered a pungent, rich and delicious musical cocktail.
The key to the albums was ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Elvis played it over and over. The voice: not the one which did ‘Unfaithful Servant’ (though it was warm, full, surprising and open) not the one singing ‘Whispering Pines’ (which was like an angel) but the one who took the lead in ‘The Weight’. It sounded like it was right from the South, and the words, meaningful by themselves, seemed to carry the whole history of the South. He rang Grossman.
Grossman knew the Hawks would consider Elvis. And the Band (as they were known) did not consider anyone. Eric Clapton was summarily rejected by the band with two keyboard players with the curt ‘we already have a guitarist’. John Simon, who had played tuba on ‘Rag Mama Rag’ and had produced the albums had been rejected. Elvis though was Elvis. Grossman was sure he could wrangle it.
It was a brief meeting, which turned into a long jam session, which turned into a new version of the Band. They didn’t need a lead singer: but Elvis was not just a lead singer – he was the ultimate lead singer. All of them had idolised him as kids… emotionally, this was bigger than Dylan. None of them had been folkies – not in the sense of not knowing traditional songs (which they all knew), but in the sense that they were rock and rollers. Elvis was their guide, their idol, their model.
Elvis took to Rick and Levon immediately. Garth seemed distant at first, but was full of life and fun, once he was drawn out, or drew himself out. Richard was … quieter, perhaps. A funny man, an outgoing man, but with a melancholy. Robbie was very shy, very quiet. He might have been rude, but Elvis doubted it. He apparently didn’t like performing, and was a shrewd businessman.
Between them, there were 25 instruments. Elvis thought he’d play rhythm acoustic. Levon moved from drums to mandolin. Levon was from Arkansas, and the voice was explained. Just like that. Richard moved to drums from piano – Elvis thought he looked awkward but the beat was solid. Garth played keyboard, accordion, piano, sax. Robbie only played guitar, but the songs were superb and, ultimately, the guitar playing was sublime. Rick played bass, fiddle, guitar. All with no effort.
Over the evening, the deal was hammered out. Elvis would only get publishing for any songs he wrote. This was a significant change from Parker, who wouldn’t let Elvis record a song unless he got a credit.
The concert would have the original Band play for the first half, and then Elvis would sing the second half. Elvis made sure he didn’t fight hard for more concessions: he wanted this gig. He had more money than he could spend – this was about his soul, not his body. The final number was ‘Dixie’, sung by Levon, which segued into ‘American Trilogy’, sung by Elvis. It was magnificent. The music lifted them, and no audience would resist.
Elvis watched the interactions closely. For the first time since 1956, he felt right. He felt alive. And he felt he could change the world. Again.