The 1970s were not kind to Elvis Presley. Personal loss, drug abuse, chronic health issues, massive weight gain, an insane touring schedule, and a return to mediocre material–these factors led to his ultimate demise thirty-six years ago today.
While it is indeed true that Elvis’s material in 1970s do not hold up to his greatest recordings–thanks, in part, to an overproduction of his material, with overwhelming horn sections and backup singers often muting the power of his voice. It would be wrong, though, to say that everything he did in the last seven years of his life is mediocre. In honor of the late singer, here are five songs that are not only fine performances, but are easily some of his best-ever performances.
“Heart of Rome”: This song, released in 1971, was the B-side to “I’m Leaving.” This single is a prime example of the general failure of the Presley organization–not recognizing a hit single. “Heart of Rome” should have been the A-side, because it’s an amazingly powerful song. Considering it references Rome, it’s no surprise, then, that the song is immensely European, with Elvis turning in an utterly amazing, almost operatic performance, with sweeping string sections, blaring horns, this obscure little song was one of Presley’s strongest-ever vocal takes. It’s all over-the-top and grand, and comparisons to Scott Walker are not incorrect. Why this song was regulated to obscurity? Who knows.
“Promised Land”: This spirited single, released in October of 1974, was a funky, raucous cover of a Chuck Berry number, and would later become a live favorite. It’s one of the true highlights of his Stax sessions, and was one his biggest hits after the overwhelming success of “Burning Love,” charting at #14 in the US, and #9 in the UK. The B-side, “It’s Midnight,” is a maudlin orchestra country ballad, and though it’s not one of his best songs, it sounds great, even if Presley’s voice is buried low in the mix.
“Hurt”: Much like “Heart of Rome,” this single, released in March 1976, finds Elvis returning to the powerful Italian singers he favored as a young man. Originally a hit for Timi Yuro, his version adds the powerful background singing of JD Sumner & The Stamps, as well as the fine piano playing of David Briggs, and though it’s over in a brief two minutes, it’s still a powerful number. Recorded at his penultimate recording session in February 1976, it could easily have been a toss-off, but it shows that Presley could still bring his a-game even as he was half-assing it.
“Moody Blue”: What would be his penultimate record–and the title of the final album of his lifetime–was released in December of 1976. One thing to remember about Presley is that his career fluctuated between utterly dreadful lows (the military, the cheesy movies, the b-quality material after his comeback, divorce) and stupendous highs (the initial post-military return, the 68 comeback and Vegas, “Burning Love”). Creatively speaking, “Moody Blue” is interesting; it’s a song that finds Elvis in a rather contemporary form. Concurrent with the “urban cowboy” movement–and even a touch of disco–the song is a surprising dance number. It’s a great number, and though it never broke into the top thirty in the US, in the UK it was a minor hit, charting in the top ten. Its B-side, a cover of the classic country number, “She Thinks I Still Care,” is a strong vocal performance for a song that’s overproduced and obviously lackluster.
“Way Down”: This, his last single, was released in June of 1977, mere weeks before his death, and for this final fling, Elvis is getting back in touch with the sexy, lascivious side. Like “Moody Blue,” the sound is definitely more in touch with the contemporary style of the times, and though it’s notable for being Presley’s last single–and not his strongest performance–it shows that Elvis was not washed-up. The B-side, “Pledging My Love,” is an ironic performance, in that it’s the final song on his final single, and yet, it’s a tribute to the 1950s sound that produced him. It suffers slightly from overproduction (as do most of the songs from the October 1976 Jungle Room sessions), but, again, it’s Elvis.
It’s easy to write off Elvis Presley’s final years–and understandably so–but to write off these songs would be a shame, and though neglected or ignored in the greater scope of the man’s history, they are far from inferior songs.