From King Creole To Private Presley

Oct 6, 2011

The Elvis Presley story is full of “what ifs” that were trumped by manager Col. Tom Parker dictating “what is”. By 1957, the Colonel had reportedly turned down at least two movie opportunities, basically because the producers couldn’t guarantee the requisite million dollars upfront. One was a serious role opposite Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker. Another would have been a shot in the musical comedy The Girl Can‘t Help It.

Although the Colonel was famous for not sticking his nose into the creative process per se, he did snuff out one of the most promising musical alliances in Presley’s career. The writing/producing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had a demonstrably positive effect on the Presley bottom line. Elvis took their song “Hound Dog” to number one, had hits with “Love Me” and “Treat Me Nice”. Their presence in the studio took the “Jailhouse Rock” sessions to a new level. But when Elvis asked the duo specifically for a pretty ballad, rather than going through the chain of command, they presented it directly to Elvis. For Col. Tom this was an unpardonable breach, an affront to his absolute power, and represented a chance that someone could sell Elvis on recording a song for which they didn‘t own the publishing rights. For Leiber and Stoller, this was the beginning of the end of their association with Elvis.

The song that set up the situation was “Don’t”. Elvis recorded the song at Radio Recorders in Hollywood in the September, 1957 sessions that also yielded his Christmas album material. Released in January of ’58, it spent a week at number one in March. Around this time, Leiber and Stoller made an appearance on the TV show What’s My Line, stumping their first three questioners before being detected by Dorothy Kilgallen.

There was a drama playing in the background at this time which overshadowed the success of the single. In December of ’57, Elvis received “the letter” from the President of the United States. It was the one which began with the word “Greeting,” the one which seldom ever came at a good time, and the one which immediately changed a guy’s life one way or another. Elvis responded to the Selective Service draft notice with a request for a 90-day deferment, so that he could finish his present movie commitment for the film King Creole.

There were offers from the Air Force and Navy for cushy morale and recruiting positions, but the non-commissioned Col. Parker realized that any preferential treatment would be a PR nightmare. No, Elvis would swap his gold lame for olive drab, six-figures a month for two-figures and change, and the title of “King Of Rock” for the rank of Private Presley.

But for the moment being, time was short and there was a movie to shoot. A Stone For Danny Fisher was originally intended as a vehicle for actor James Dean, but his death in 1955 tabled the project. Not only was the name changed, to King Creole, but also the setting was swapped from New York to New Orleans, and the lead character was switched from a boxer to a singer. Casablanca director Michael Curtiz was at the helm of the project, filmed at Paramount Studios in LA, and on location in the Crescent City.

Leiber and Stoller provided songs for the movie, and were at the initial recording sessions. Jerry Leiber got pneumonia and wasn’t able to travel to Hollywood for further production. While he recuperated, Col. Parker sent the most unusual contract; a blank piece of paper with two lines at the bottom for the writers to sign. When questioned, Parker said there was no mistake. Just sign it, he said, and he would fill it in later. The writers suggested counter offer, in a few short words, indicated that their direct involvement wasn‘t necessary in the Colonel‘s future plans.

The film was the fourth for Elvis, and his final in black-and-white. Co-stars included Walter Matthau and Carolyn Jones. Carolyn appeared in the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and received an academy award nomination for The Bachelor Party. Children of the 60’s remember her primarily as Morticia, matriarch of TV’s Addams Family. Those 60’s kids also remember “Trouble,” one of the King Creole soundtrack songs revisited a decade after its initial release, on the ‘68 NBC-TV special.