This is an expanded version of the article, first posted January 11, 2010.
Elvis Presley wasn’t kidding. He was back and wanted our undivided attention. Excelling in a medium not easy for rock and rollers, his performance on the ’68 Singer TV special declared, in fact pretty much shouted, that he hadn’t lost a step. Elvis could still rock. He sang the tender ballads with poise. Once again,the guy was on top of his game. He still mattered.
Over the next year he would solidify his presence on the pop music scene. He began a series of concerts in Las Vegas. More importantly he would record several vibrant and substantial songs. The jokes about “Do The Clam” could end.
Presley offered social commentary on the hits “If I Can Dream” and “In The Ghetto” during a time of rage in America and much of the world. After seeming irrelevant for most of a decade, he appeared in tune with the concerns and accelerated pace of the late ’60s. Yes, the music world had experienced many changes, indeed for the better, in his years of drift. Now the drifting days were behind him. Elvis Presley was marching along to the rock and roll beat and perhaps could be among the leaders of the march.
Hopes were justified on August 26, 1969, less than 2 weeks after the conclusion of the Woodstock festival, with the release of his single, “Suspicious Minds.” The song was not only terrific, it confirmed Presley’s return as a dominant rock and roller. “Suspicious Minds” climbed the American charts, reaching the top spot on November 1. His future efforts were eagerly awaited. Would he continue in the spirit of the new times?
He stayed busy, recording such hits as “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “Kentucky Rain,” commendable if not stellar releases. It appeared there were no plans to push the envelope further. Presley and the Woodstock Nation would not be marching together after all.
Presley’s approach on “Suspicious Minds” was daring and confident. Most of the succeeding releases were pleasant and comfortable. A 1970 album, Elvis Country, featured some finely wrought covers of “There Goes My Everything,” “I Really Don’t Want To Know” and “Faded Love.” The album had the hit singles and critical acceptance, but Presley wasn’t breaking new ground. He might have produced a classic album had he and his band stoked the fires that made “Suspicious Minds” so exciting. But that wouldn’t happen again. Elvis had personal distractions that kept him from rocking the boat. He could still deliver quality work yet the bold moments were few and far between.
Nearly all biographies on Presley focus on his troubled personal life. Problems less evident previously became more apparent in the early ’70’s. He had regained a place on the pop charts but became more addicted to a wide variety of drugs. His life was spinning out of control and even though he loved to sing, laziness and indifference had set in. The likelihood of his fully embracing a great and challenging new song was slight. Artistically, Elvis Presley would not reinvigorate his career as Frank Sinatra did with his in the ’50s.
But now and then Presley would find a song worthy of his attention and extra effort. “I’m Leavin’,” recorded in May ’71, was such a song. Written by Michael Jarrett and Sonny Charles, “I’m Leavin'” is moody and restrained. Presley did not rely on his pipes to carry this song. Instead he depended on his artistic sensibilities to get the song’s story across.
“I’m Leavin'” has Presley assuming the role of a lover with no place to turn but away. The lover feels unwanted and unnecessary. There’s hesitation when it comes to making that first step. Insecurities come to mind. He mulls it over. Leaving seems the thing to do.
Presley’s vocal performance captures the sadness of a despondent and defeated lover. He wonders where he will go and laments the emptiness inside him. He declares his intentions to leave. Life as he has known it comes to a stop. The song evokes the feeling perfectly. The music is soft and slow but picks up during the bridge as the lover wrestles with his thoughts. He’s “living from day to day, chasing the dream.” The feeling conveyed recalls the sentiment in “Suspicious Minds.” Then Elvis sang “I can’t walk out.” This time there’s no choice.
In Careless Love, The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley, biographer Peter Guralnick wrote of the Nashville sessions in which Presley and his group “committed a good deal of hard, sustained effort” to “I’m Leavin’.” They were not rushing through this one. Between takes, Presley acknowledged his fondness for the song, saying, “Phew man, it’s tough, but the thing is worth working on.”
Presley was sure “I’m Leavin'” would be a hit. Unfortunately, it did not catch on, peaking only at 36 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over the decades since, however, the song’s popularity has grown. Listeners have been pulled in by the song’s haunting melody and Presley’s understated vocals. It may be considered an “art song,” similar to Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise.” The stories in both songs, after all, reflect confusion and weariness. Great artists ably portray those with insecurities as well as those happy and contented. On “I’m Leavin’,” Elvis Presley fills his role perfectly, revealing the talents he too often failed to cultivate. The song is another reminder of what could have been.
. . . Six months after this story posted, Michael Jarrett, co-composer of “I’m Leavin’,” contacted Like The Dew with kind words, inspiring a little more conversation. Jarrett proved willing to discuss all things Presley. He was, Jarrett says, “the man who changed my life.”
Feeling Fast Vibrations . . . Early 1970. The light’s red at Sunset and Vine. Among those making the rounds in Hollywood, looking for work and hoping for the big break are Michael Jarrett and Sonny Charles. Behind the wheel is Charles, and as they stop at the corner, Jarrett looks to his right and sees Elvis Presley. Yes, it was him, Jarrett remembers, as if it were yesterday, “I was in the passenger seat and looked over and there he was driving his black Stutz Bearcat, wearing his famous sunglasses. He looked over at me and smiled and I smiled back. He had another person with him. The light turned green and away they went. Little did I know at the time how our lives would connect.”
Less than a year and a half later, Michael Jarrett, hustling his songs in Los Angeles, got the break of his life. Elvis Presley recorded “I’m Leavin’,” a song Jarrett had written, with help from Charles, the previous fall. Another Jarrett song,”I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day,” was also recorded by Presley around the same time as “I’m Leavin’.” Jarrett believed he was on top of the world. There’d be no Stutz Bearcats in his future, but the Presley association left a great impact on his life.
“I’m Leavin'” wasn’t a top request of the housewives flocking to Presley concerts in the ’70s, but it was favored by Presley. He included it in concerts from July ’71 through December ’75, sometimes introducing it as “one of my favorite songs.” It’s also been highly regarded by Presley followers who’ve spent much time taking in his career. A reader of elvis-collectors.com mentioned playing “I’m Leavin'” for young people previously indifferent to Presley. Most of them, fans of Nine Inch Nails or aficionados of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” were drawn to the dark quality and sadness of “I’m Leavin’.” Hopefully, as many young people did with the works of Johnny Cash, they’ll give Presley further consideration.
Michael Jarrett told Like The Dew that “I’m Leavin'” was “a radical departure for Presley fans in ’71,” saying the song “was considered esoteric to the market in those days.” It reminds him of when he first arrived in Hollywood “shopping my songs to publishing companies and producers.” Their advice was, “Michael, your songs are esoteric, if you want to be a hit songwriter, go home and listen to Top 40 radio and write songs like that.” Being “tenacious and stubborn,” Jarrett says, “I refused to write crap…. still do.”
This story continues “The Southern Song of the Day” series.