“He sang America’s social revolution. He was the heir of the American popular music” Mort Shuman, 1985
WRITING FOR ELVIS – MORT SHUMAN
© 1991 Mort Shuman
"For many people, the most important aspect of my songwriting career was the number of songs I wrote for Elvis (16 or 20 or anything, in between, it all depends on who’s counting and so much for the archives). It didn’t matter that there were some other songs which were more important and of which I am somewhat prouder, or that many of the Presley songs were illustriously unknown film fodder and deservedly so. It didn’t and doesn’t matter that there are others who wrote at least twice as many for him as I did, people like Ben Wiseman, but perhaps its because Ben never wrote a definitive Elvis song that his name is not mentioned along with Doc and Jerry and Mike and Otis and myself, I guess.
So even though I never thought it was what my writing was about, when Elvis time came round to Tin Pan Alley, everyone was mobilised.
In the beginning there was one studio for making demos.
Associated on 7th and 49th on the 4th floor. Nat was the jovial, pipe-smoking boss who engineered, bookept and swept floors, he then got Warren Schatz to sweep and engineer and then Jerome Gaspar who would up Head of A+R at Epic. It was an old 4-Track machine and you listened on those metallic ampex speakers. The room was nice and large so the conditions were comfortable. When the call came out, Associated was booked solid for 2/3 weeks. Day and night, people who you never sawa otherwise all of a sudden were congregating in front of the Turf Bar and Grill which was on the ground floor of the Brill Building. On the other side of the entrance was Jack Dempsey’s restaurant. Some of these people lived in the country and came up for Elvis time. So there they were, all with a song to write or to sell or to sing and all the songs in a Presley mode. No other event got Broadway buzzing like an Elvis record or film.
Some of the writers, (like myself) fancied themselves singers and players. For the less multi-faceted there was a pool of singers and musicians ready to out- Evlis and his retinue in style and interpretation, singers like Jimmy Breedlove and Danny “Run Joe” Taylor.
The little waiting room at the Studio was full of some of the greatest writing talent on the scene at the time, just coming out, waiting to get in, picking up dubs, or just hangin out.
Otis Blackwell, “Daddy Rollin Stone”, from Brooklyn. Otis was this little black streetwise hustler. You couldn’t get more urban and yet this man was one of the prime innovators of the rock-a-billy style with songs like ‘All Shook Up’, ‘Stuck On You’, ‘Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot O’Shakin”. I met Otis when I was pitching my first song up at Atlantic Records. Otis was a father to Doc and me, he opened doors, helped us in so many ways. There was a great solidarity then due to the concentrated atmosphere of our professional lives. Otis might be talking to Aaron Schroder who was always in a hurry. Aaron was pure music business, wheelin’ and dealin’ all the time writing with many clever and habile. I’m sure he made a fortune and is now into unit trusts or farm machinery. You would never pick him to be anything creative.
One of his partners was only that, J. Leslie McFarlane, one of the greatest characters of Rock & Roll bar none and one of its most original talents. John Leslie and I wrote for a while when I was winding down with Doc. We never wrote for Presley together but we did do “Little Children”. I always thought John wrote best by himself even though his songs were not always very accessible.
Here is an example; its called “Weeds”:
“The seeds of love were planted
the first day that we met
I thought our love would blossom
But much to my regret, there are
Weeeeds, Weeeeeeds, Weeeeeeeeds
Growing in the garden of
The garden of love”
Can you imagine Elvis recording that? John Leslie used to go to publishers with his arm in a sling and a patch over his eye, say that he’d been beaten up and ask for an advance. They’d give it to him but he’d forget which arm he had in a sling and they’d see him the next day bandaged up in a different way. He made a couple of my years worthwhile.
The song Doc and I wrote specifically for Elvis was ‘A Mess of Blues’. ‘A Mess of Blues’ was a typical Doc Pomus expression: he loved the word ‘mess’ and he loved the blues, so ‘Since you’ve gone’, I’ve got a Mess of Blues’ was perfect. It was only a B side in the States but a lot of people picked up on it because they felt Elvis was returning to his roots.
We wrote ‘Little Sister’ in the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood. I had a guitar with me and I started fooling around with a riff which had nothing to do with the rhythm on Elvis’s record. I had a very fast, driving guitar thing going and Elvis slowed it down by half. Doc came up with his inimitable R&B classic lyrics, which are really great. ‘Little Sister’ is among the Elvis records that I love best, and Ry Cooder did a cover version that was different again and I loved that too. It grooved and funked along and it worked just as well, so sexy too. I also love Dwight Yoakam’s version of’ Little Sister’, which was a big country hit. I went to see him at the Town and Country and thought he was great country entertainer.
I cant deny it – I stole Bo Diddley’s riff for ‘His Latest Flame’. Everybody loves Bo Diddley. I don’t know one blues or rock musician who doesn’t love Bo Diddley. He is so special. I once saw Bo playing in the afternoon on some dinky fair, and yet the rhythm he was playing was one of the pillars of rock ‘n’ roll. It was his rhythm but there’s no reason why someone shouldn’t take it and do something else with it. After the Bo rhythm in ‘His Latest Flame’ we get to the middle eight where the song breaks and becomes something totally different. The record of ‘Little Sister’ and ‘His Latest Flame’ is pretty much my favourite Elvis 45, not because Doc and I wrote both sides but because they were two really strong songs, sung well, played well and produced well. In America, both sides went into the Top 10, which doesn’t happen very often.
Doc and I never got to meet Elvis, but I didn’t feel bad about it at the time. Now I realise that I would have at least liked to have shaken his hand and told him who I was. As it is, he gave strangers Cadillacs – and I never even got a Christmas card! For all the years that I submitted songs to Elvis, there was only one time when his people contacted me. They were trying to figure out the piano sound I had on the demo for ‘His Latest Flame’. I had used some kind of echo in the middle eight but it was a fluke and I didn’t know what I was doing. They couldn’t fathom out what it was so they used straight triplets, which was also okay.My greatest kick at the time was in writing the songs and in making those demos. ‘Surrender’ was never anything that I felt great about – we just did up an old song, ‘ Come Back To Sorrento’, but there’s a point in the demo of ‘Surrender’ where it breaks and we went from minor to major with singing, ‘Won’t you please surrender to me?’ Elvis did that exactly the way I did it, which made me feel good. It was nice to feel he was really listening to those demos."