Forty years ago today - August 16th 1977 - Elvis Aron Presley passed ...into a stunningly successful new phase of his career. All this week at SteynOnline, we're marking the anniversary, starting with my look at the early days and the man who invented Elvis. This is a favorite song of mine from the middle years - and by a composer with a very particular distinction. This essay is adapted from my book A Song for the Season:
One night in 1976, at a party at the Las Vegas Hilton, Presley informed the crowd that they had a distinguished guest among them: the man who'd written more Elvis songs than anybody else.
Wow. Was it one half of Leiber and Stoller ("Hound Dog") or Pomus and Shuman ("Mess O' Blues")?
No, it was Ben Weisman.
Oh, come on. Ben Weisman. He wrote "Do The Clam", "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad" and 55 other numbers recorded by Elvis over the years.
How did that come to pass? How did Ben Weisman become Master of the King's Musick?
Well, as with so many other curious decisions in Elvis' career, the answer lies with Colonel Parker. The all-time superstar rock'n'roll manager was a nickel'n'dime carney barker until the end: Parker exercised total control over Elvis and handled him very badly. A few hours after the King's death, the Colonel told a member of Graceland's "Memphis Mafia", "This changes nothing." But, in fact, it did. After the death of her husband, Priscilla Presley and other interested parties discovered just how little money Elvis had been generating under Parker and decided it was a time for a far more professional level of exploitation. No more breathtakingly stupid giveaways - like the 1973 sale of Presley's recording masters to RCA for a mere $15 million.
But that was only one of Parker's more obviously inept deals. At the other end of the scale were a series of more subtly disadvantageous arrangements. For example, early in the King's Hollywood career, the Colonel decided to give Hill & Range Music an exclusive deal to provide the songs for Elvis movies. Hill & Range weren't a team of publishers called Bud Hill and Earl Range but the authentically rustic appellation chosen for the company by two Austrian immigrants called Jean and Julian Aberbach when they figured the big bucks were in country music. A couple of years later they diversified into rock'n'roll, and their staff writers were ordered to diversify likewise. They included among their number a man called Ben Weisman, who wound up doing the heavy lifting on a lot of brainless Elvis "musical" "comedies" through the Sixties. Hence, those 57 song credits.
Weisman died in 2007 at the age of 85, and, if he was never in any danger of being mistaken for Irving Berlin, he wrote a handful of big pop hits ("Let Me Go, Lover" is one of those insinuatingly overwrought Fifties ballads that define the era) and a handful of smaller songs that really aren't bad ("Love In The Afternooon" is one of Barbra Streisand's better tracks from the early Seventies). And in between came all the Elvis stuff. He was, he liked to say, a classical guy, trained at Juilliard and already pushing 40 by the time he got into the rock'n'roll game. Elvis called him "the Professor", because, alongside the King either in biker leathers or Vegas catsuit, Weisman had a tweedy academic mien. But it's hard to hear much in the way of scholarship in his music or lyrics. He wrote "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes", which Bobby Vee turned into one of those quintessential kiddiepop hits of the early Sixties. I love the way there's absolutely no connection between the bouncy-bouncy tune and the paranoia of the lyric:
They say that you're a runaround lover
Though you say it isn't so
[Pom-pom pom-pom pom]
But if you put me down for another
I'll know, believe me, I'll know...
As for the central idea - that "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" and they're all watching you - that's dealt with rather more effectively in the Edward G Robinson movie of 1948. And its deployment in Weisman's song was spoiled for me years ago when the late Kenny Everett on Capital Radio in London launched into a lurid riff on what an icky image it was.
Still, it did well enough for Weisman, and "Wooden Heart", adapted from a German folk song with the help of Bert Kaempfert, did even better. (See this year's Mark Steyn Christmas Show for Tim Rice's Yuletide postscript to that song.) Did you know Kaempfert, a German bandleader, played a critical role in the careers of three English-language pop icons? He wrote Sinatra's biggest hit of the Sixties ("Strangers In The Night") and Elvis' biggest movie hit ("Wooden Heart"), and he was the first person to sign the Beatles for a commercial recording session, when he needed a back-up group for Tony Sheridan's versions of "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean" and "Ain't She Sweet". But, to be honest, even Ben Weisman can't relieve the Teutonic lugubriousness of "Wooden Heart" for me.
So, if I had to name my favorite Weisman hit, it would be this appealingly daffy song from the 1961 film Blue Hawaii:
The way she moves her hips
To her fingertips
I feel I'm heaven bound
And when she starts to sway
I've gotta say
She really moves the grass around...
Rock'n'roll scholars are frightfully sniffy about more or less everything Elvis did after the Sun sessions with Sam Phillips, and certainly whatever tolerance they're prepared to extend to the early years at RCA - "Heartbreak Hotel", "Jailhouse Rock" - has pretty much vanished by the time we get to Blue Hawaii. But I must say "Rock-A-Hula Baby" never fails to cheer me up. In my disc-jockey days, RCA used to release Elvis collections every 20 minutes and every time I opened one up I'd run through the track listing and wind up playing "Rock-A-Hula". Hawaii has an honored place in American song literature since it first entered Tin Pan Alley consciousness just under a century ago with "Hello, Hawaii, Are Are You?", "Song Of The Islands", "Hawaiian Butterfly", "On The Beach At Waikiki", "Yaacka Hula Hickey Dula", "Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo", etc. There's long been a lively niche for songs about the intersection of mainland American culture with the tropical paradise - one thinks of "Since Maggie Dooley Learned The Hooley Hooley" (1916), not to mention the lively plot of another song from the same year, "They're Wearing 'Em Higher In Hawaii":
Henry Meyer was a buyer
Buying ladies wear
He took a flier to Hawaii
Studied fashions there...
You can guess how things are going to wind up: when Henry doesn't return to work, his boss heads out there and finds "Meyer in Hawaii weaving skirts of hay". Ben Weisman's notion of cross-cultural pollination was almost as inspired. "Music for the film Blue Hawaii was a challenge," he recalled many years later. "Because of the locale, I thought the music should have a Hawaiian flavor, but with a rock beat. At the time, the twist was very hot, and I found that the twist and the hula were perfect together. Out of that combination 'Rock-A-Hula Baby' was born."
The twist meets the hula? How come nobody thought of that before?
Got a hula lulu
That Rock-A-Hula baby of mine...
Weisman wrote it with a couple of other Hill & Rangers, Fred Wise and Dolores Fuller. Miss Fuller is best known as the main squeeze of famously bad director Ed Wood (Sarah Jessica Parker played her in the movie). In the late Fifties, she'd starred in Wood's Glen Or Glenda and Bridegroom Of The Monster, but she bust up with him over the cross-dressing thing. Hal Wallis, the producer of Blue Hawaii, was a friend of hers and she was hoping he'd give her a part in the film and re-start her career. Instead, he said: "If you can write, why would you want to act?" And he got her an introduction to Hill & Range and Ben Weisman. "Rock-A-Hula Baby" was the first of many Weisman-Fuller songs. The staffers at Hill & Range were assignment writers who didn't sit around waiting for the muse to descend, but for jobbing hacks they were professional: when a fellow comes up with "a hula lulu from Honolulu", you can't complain he hasn't thought through the concept.
Alas, the Hill & Rangers rarely hit such heights again, to the point where, come the recording sessions for the Easy Come, Easy Go soundtrack in 1967, Elvis was reduced to complaining to the engineer: "What am I supposed to do with shit like this?" But he did the shit anyway, and in a couple of takes. As Elvis observed in another context: Weisman say only fools rush in...
At that party in the Vegas Hilton, the King was more appreciative of his court composer. And chewing the fat till dawn they discoursed on many matters musical. "He wasn't looking too good," recalled Weisman. "His eyes were puffy and he'd gotten very, very heavy. And he took me over to the piano where the guys were singing and he said, 'Ben, there's a song I love called "Softly As I Leave You".'"
Indeed. It's by Hal Shaper, the husband of my sometime agent, as it happens, and one of those ballads that for a few years in the Sixties just about everyone had a crack at. And in the wee small hours in 1976 a bloated jumpsuited Elvis gave a private performance of the song to Ben Weisman. "After he did it, he said: 'This is not a song about a man who's leaving his girlfriend. It's a song about a man who is going to die.' I didn't know what to say, but I knew there was trouble coming. As Elvis held my arm, I could feel his hand shaking. It made me feel as though mine was shaking, too. And that was the last time I saw him."
A year later Elvis was dead. Weisman's tale is a rare anecdote freighted with premonition for a guy who by that stage in his life supposedly gave little thought to anything other than the next cheeseburger. Oh, to be the young King of just 15 years earlier and to have no more pressing problem than getting your hands on a compulsive hula lulu:
Although I love to kiss
My little hula miss
I never get the chance
I wanna hold her tight
All through the night
But all she wants to do is dance...
Just because you went to Juilliard doesn't make you Mozart, but a decade or so after Presley's passing Weisman was still so shaken by the loss of his friend that he went back to what he called his "classical side" and composed a so-called Concerto For Elvis. Each to his own. But I'd bet on "Rock-A-Hula Baby" as Ben Weisman's gift to posterity:
Got a hula lulu
That Rock-A-Hula baby of mine
A- well, a-Rock-A!
~adapted from Mark's book A Song for the Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your special code at checkout for special member pricing.
We'll have more Elvis tomorrow. And, if you're one of the many Elvis impersonators among our Club members, do feel free to weigh in in the comments. For more information on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.