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Book Review: Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback by Gillian G. Gaar

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When it comes to Elvis Presley, most people tend to remember him in two distinct eras. One, as the rebellious rock and roll firebrand who forever changed the face of American culture with songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” even as he shocked the older generation with his appearances on television programs like The Ed Sullivan Show (shot from the waist up as they were).

The other Elvis we remember more sadly is, of course, the bloated, more Vegas-y caricature of himself he had become in the years leading up to his death. It’s not at all surprising that when America chose to honor the King with a postage stamp, they chose the former, far sexier Elvis over the latter.

But Seattle based author Gillian G. Gaar’s Return Of The King explores another Elvis altogether. For lack of a better description, you could call this third version of Elvis the “comeback Elvis.” In this very well written and researched book, Gaar conducts new interviews with longtime fans and associates to gain a better perspective on Elvis’ comeback period from roughly 1968-1971.

During his carefully crafted, latter-day resurgence — which began with the now legendary 1968 NBC TV Special most now refer to as “the comeback special” — the King would record what many feel to be some of the strongest work of his career in songs like “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds,” and albums like From Elvis In Memphis.

By 1967, after a string of bad movies accompanied by equally lackluster soundtrack albums, the once mighty “King Of Rock And Roll” had become largely irrelevant. With the sixties’ rise of the Beatles, followed in short order by Bob Dylan and the psychedelic rock of groups like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, the youth of America by now regarded Elvis as outdated and uncool — a fact of which the King himself was painfully aware.

In Return Of The King, Gaar revisits how an interesting group of players ranging from Elvis’ notoriously controlling manager Col. Tom Parker to record company and television executives engineered his miraculous, if brief, artistic comeback — even as they often seemed to be working against each other. Garr paints a particularly vivid picture of the intimate concerts taped in the NBC studios that would become the comeback special.

For fans, her detailed, song-by-song descriptions of these shows are the real collective high point of the book. They instantly transport you there in such a way as to send you scrambling to dust off that old DVD copy of the 1968 comeback show.

Equally interesting are behind-the-scenes accounts of the various attempts by Parker and others to water down the presentation in such a way as to potentially sabotage it. The backstage stories of a very nervous pre-show Elvis (he repeatedly asks anyone willing to listen if “you think they’ll like me?”), reveal a far more insecure and even vulnerable King Of Rock And Roll than one would normally picture in such a towering figure of American culture.

Gaar also recounts the American Studios sessions for From Elvis In Memphis, an album many regard to be his finest. As was the case with the comeback special, Parker and various RCA suits nearly derail the album over issues like publishing rights. But ultimately producer Chips Moman, along with the seasoned crew of Nashville session musicians, is able to rein the session and the egos in by asserting control in a way that Elvis was previously unaccustomed to. Here again, Gaar’s detailed account of the sessions is an eye-opener.

From there, Return Of The King jumps right off into Elvis’ subsequent decline, following the triumphs of 1968-1971. What’s never fully explained here is how or why Elvis’ allowed this to happen after fighting so hard to regain control of his career, and especially after winning that battle. Exactly why the same record company practice of glutting the market with inferior product is repeated — particularly after it had already come close to destroying his career once before — is never really made clear, nor is why Elvis himself once again surrendered complete control over these decisions to Parker and others.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.