Posted by Susan Doll on April 7, 2014
For the third and final post in my informal and unintended series on Elvis Presley, I was inspired by the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which airs on TCM on Tuesday, April 15, at 5:00am (actually Wednesday, but it is listed as Tuesday night on the TCM schedule). Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles Presley’s engagement at the International Hotel in the summer of 1970. The film airing on TCM is the 2001 special edition, a reworked version of the original. A producer named Rick Schmidlin discovered unmarked cans of unused footage for the film in MGM’s storage facilities in an old salt mine in Kansas along with the original 16-track recordings. The tracks were digitally remixed for the special edition, and unseen footage of Elvis in rehearsal and on stage replaced non-concert scenes from the original. For me, one of the most interesting parts of this documentary is the show of celebrities and stars who lined up to see Elvis at the International, including Juliet Prowse, Charo and her husband Xavier Cugat, Dale Robertson, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Cary Grant.
Elvis knew and admired a variety of stars and performers throughout his career. This makes sense considering his success in different arenas of show business (recording; films; live performance and his eclectic personal tastes in entertainment and music. The latter served him well in developing a unique musical style and sound not once but twice—in 1954 and in 1968-1969. Below are just a few photos of Elvis’s show-biz acquaintances, associates, and admirers. You are not likely to find a more diverse circle of celebrities associated with one entertainer.
The year 1956 represented Elvis’s break-through into the mainstream market via his contract with RCA, his controversial television appearances, and his first film, Love Me Tender. Prior to that, he toured regularly with other regional acts on the country-western circuits, including Faron Young and fellow Sun Records star Johnny Cash.
Much of the South was still segregated during the 1950s, a tricky situation to navigate for a white performer singing rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and country. Not only did African-American fans attend his concerts, but Elvis made personal appearances on black radio. In December of 1956, he made a walk-on appearance to support the WDIA Goodwill Review, a fund-raiser for Memphis’s WDIA, the first black radio station in the South, and one of Elvis’s favorites. Elvis was a fan of Bobby Blue Bland, and the two were photographed together several times in the mid-1950s, including at the Goodwill Review.
Elvis more than admired Jackie Wilson and Roy Hamilton; he often emulated Wilson’s singing style while performing “Don’t Be Cruel,” and he sang some of Hamilton’s songs in concert. In the 1960s, he went to see Wilson perform at a club in Hollywood called The Trip and invited him to visit the set of Double Trouble. The photo at left was taken at that time, and Wilson reportedly carried it with him. Tragically, the singer experienced a disabling stroke while onstage in 1975. Elvis offered to pay the hospital bill but ended up sending Wilson’s wife a check instead. In 1969, Elvis made his first major album in years at American Sound Studio. While Elvis recorded during the nights, Roy Hamilton was making an album at American Sound during the daytime. Elvis gave one of his scheduled songs, “Angelica,” to Hamilton to record. Sadly, not one of these three unique singers were destined to live long: Wilson died at 50 in 1984, never recovering from his stroke; Hamilton passed away a few months after his recording session at age 40; and Elvis died in 1977 at 42.
In the mid-1950s, Elvis was aligned with the young generation of actors taking over Hollywood in the wake of James Dean. For a while, he hung with that crowd while in L.A. and sometimes invited them to Memphis. He dated Natalie Wood and Tuesday Weld, remaining friends with Weld into the 1960s. Weld was barely 18 when she costarred with Elvis in Wild in the Country in 1960, but she was already a Hollywood spitfire, unafraid of living life to the fullest. Nick Adams met Elvis in the mid-1950s and became part of the singer’s inner circle, even going on tour with him to handle some of the driving.
During the 1960s, a more mature Elvis became enamored with the bright lights and good times of Las Vegas—long before he became the city’s sell-out performer. While in Vegas, he sought out pop singers such as Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, and Johnnie Ray, whom he admired for their distinct vocal stylings. Though never best friends, he cultivated professional associations with them.
When Elvis became a major movie star during the 1960s, everyone from gospel singers to European royalty dropped by the set to meet him or to hang out. Jackie Gleason, who had hired an unknown Elvis to appear on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show back in 1956, thought the unusual singer would not last because he saw Elvis’s style and sound as a gimmick or fad. Presley surprised Gleason by adapting his career to meet the changing times, which the veteran entertainer respected. In the early 1960s, Gleason would occasionally visit Elvis on the set in Hollywood.
On July 31, 1969, Elvis opened at the International—his first concert appearance in several years. The owner of the International, Kirk Kerkorian, asked his friend Cary Grant to attend the opening to add to the publicity value of the event, but Grant seemed to enjoy himself without prompting from Kerkorian. By the time Elvis was near the end of his first set, Grant was on his feet applauding furiously. The movie star returned the following year for the concert recorded for Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. This time Cary Grant came as an Elvis Presley fan.
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