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Elvis Presley: Way Down South In Dixie
For many Southerners — or should we say, for many white Southerners? — hearing Elvis Presley sing “Dixie” was almost as good as The King personally delivering Moon Pies and RC Cola to the door. They must have thought Presley’s timing impeccable. His recording of “An American Trilogy,” which included “Dixie,” was released in 1972, when the South was in the early stages of the debate regarding the playing of “Dixie” at high school football games, etc. So here was Elvis, declaring the anthem of his native region important, deserving of its rightful place with other great American songs.
“American Trilogy” opens with the first verse and chorus from “Dixie,” sung softly and slowly. From there the trilogy moves on to the chorus from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Christian hymn filled with imagery of Lincoln, heroic Civil War battles and slaves being freed. The trilogy is filled out by a verse and the chorus from “All My Trials,” a song based on a Bahamian lullabye that became part of the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. It had been recorded by the the likes of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, The Seekers and Peter Paul and Mary. That’s not the crowd one associates with Presley, but the blending of hopes and beliefs may have been the point of Mickey Newbury when he constructed the medley in 1970.
Mickey Newbury had recorded his own version of “An American Trilogy” in 1970 and it charted briefly. In his career, Newberry recorded several albums popular with fans of the “outlaw” movement in country music but none gained a wide acceptance with either the country or rock audiences. Still, his songs were covered by an array of country and pop performers such as Andy Williams, Eddy Arnold, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Tom Jones. Perhaps his most interesting song was one that Kenny Rogers and The First Edition recorded in 1967, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” with its druggy references and psychedelic instrumentation. According to some, Jimi Hendrix said it was his favorite song. Whatever, it was a big hit and no doubt paid some bills for both Newbury and Rogers, who was then light years away from the cocktail country music schtick that would make him famous by the late seventies.
In 1972, Presley had more new hits besides “An American Trilogy.” This was also the year of “Burning Love” and “Always On My Mind.” And Presley was hitting the road, no longer only performing in Las Vegas hotel ballrooms. He was playing the hockey and basketball arenas of the nation, particularly those in Middle America. But he also played New York City. Madison Square Garden. A live recording was assembled from the MSG concerts and it moved up the charts, all the while receiving a favorable review in Rolling Stone. However, the reviewer called “An American Trilogy,” by then already a major part of Presley’s shows, pretentious.
“An American Trilogy” was one of the BIG songs in the Presley concerts and would remain so for the rest of his life. As with his rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” Elvis would trot out all the bells and whistles in the pre-laser era for “An American Trilogy.” It stirred the audiences. By golly, it made audiences proud to be part of the South, proud to be American and maybe even less negative toward those “outside agitators” in the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps the audiences were on to something. In his second biography of Presley, Careless Love, Peter Guralnick said the song could have almost stood for an anthem of national reconciliation.
It’s doubtful that Presley had any such motives. In his arena concerts, he gave his fans something from all sides of his persona. The rocker. The tease. The man who wanted to be loved tenderly. The boy who loved his mama. The good Christian. The patriot. But what his fans saw over the last five years of his life was not Elvis, but an impression of Elvis Presley. Yes, the pipes were still there. He could still rock out. Just listen to his 1974 studio version of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” or “Trouble,” a hit single the following year. It was obvious why he was still called The King. But his concert appearances did not spark lasting enthusiasm unless one’s desire was just to see the guy.
However, he did end up adding to a civil conversation about “Dixie” as well as recording a slew of groundbreaking hits. Not bad, even for a hunk-of-burning-love.
Any Old Way You Do…. June 2, 1973. The Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, Georgia. Three weeks earlier the Allman Brothers Band, on a triumphant tour with a new album, Brothers and Sisters, due in a couple of months, took the stage. That evening, they owned the stage as few had in Atlanta. It was a memorable performance, but also top of mind were three upcoming concerts at the Omni, less than three weeks away, by Elvis Presley. Not since June of ’56, when he gave three shows at the old Paramount Theatre, had Presley played Atlanta. Finally, the large southern town that considered itself “The Next Great International City” would again host the King of Rock and Roll.
But it was hardly a rock and roll crowd that filled the Omni three straight nights in June ’73. Presley fans in their 30s and 40s were largely put off by the rock and roll journey that commenced at the hop and traversed through Woodstock, Altamont and beyond. Too much unrest associated with the world of rock. Settling for the mundane, those folks missed out on a lot of great music. They even missed out on work of two musicians who provided so much of the spark in Presley’s concerts. It’s interesting to note that Presley’s guitarist, James Burton and drummer, Ronnie Tutt, played on Gram Parsons’ GP and Grievous Angel, both among the best 100 albums of all time, and recorded over a ten-month period in ’72 and ’73 during breaks from the Presley gigs. No doubt the same folks who ignored the Parsons albums then would be astounded at what great music they avoided and still do.
I saw two of the three Presley concerts at the Omni that June ’73 weekend. And, yes, it was a thrill to see the guy. Only three weeks after hearing Dickey Betts play that red guitar, Burton’s opening licks on “That’s All Right” came ringing out. “Hey, this is going to be great,” I thought. However, things slowed to a predictable pace. The Presley who’d cut loose now and then just a year or two previously in Las Vegas would just rock a bit and certainly not rock the boat. Later I wondered if Burton and Tutt ever played the Gram Parsons albums for him. If so, his love for genuine American music would’ve caused him to embrace the Parsons material. That would’ve been something. What would his fans at the Omni have thought about that?
As it was, the assembled those nights in Atlanta seemed happy – sometimes delerious – with every Presley move. Scott Cain, an entertainment writer for The Atlanta Journal who preferred writing about movies over music, gave Presley the proverbial thumbs-up in his review of the first night’s show. In his review, Cain wrote little of the music itself, mentioning only two of the songs (“Blue Suede Shoes” and “How Great Thou Art”) that Presley sang. Instead, the focus of the review was on Presley’s complexion and grooming:
Item: Elvis looks great. His coloring is good. The hair is still longish but now has the fashionable dry look and that’s a welcome change from his greasy kid-stuff days. He has broad shoulders, yet retains a trim and athletic appearance. He wears the now familiar white outfit which has a lot of these spangles that are dearly beloved by country music stars. The costume comes complete with heavily decorated belt and flared trousers.
So there you have it: Elvis Presley the clean-cut, well-dressed number one draft choice taking care of business. Never mind the music. As for the reporting on Elvis in Atlanta, it only got worse.
On April 30, 1975, Elvis was back at the Omni. So was Scott Cain of The Atlanta Journal. In his review of this concert, Cain mentioned some of the songs Presley did, referring to “That’s All Right, Mama” as an “antique.” The readers also learned of the 50 scarves Presley gave away and his impact on the females assembled whenever he wriggled. One fan was so overcome that she hurled a bright green bra to the stage. Although it wasn’t what he intended, Cain reported on Presley-in-decline and how it was going down:
Elvis’concerts are not so much musical events as hilarious social occasions…. The important thing is that Elvis keeps it light. His shows are one laugh after another. The audience is as vital to the performance as the star.
That’s the way it was. It wasn’t about the music, not even for the man with the greatest voice of all. And it certainly wasn’t rock and roll. It was past time to give up on Elvis Presley renewing on the promise, as hoped in the late ’60s. The new promise of rock and roll would hit Atlanta twice the next 11 months in the person of Bruce Springsteen. First, in August ’75 at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom and then on March 26, 1976 at the Fox Theatre. Peachtree Street hadn’t experienced such good rockin’ since Elvis Presley played the Paramount, less than a mile south, in 1956. After the Springsteen concerts, no bright green bras were reported missing.
Elvis Presley sings “An American Trilogy:” httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpM3pQDezrU
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