So far, the 1960s had seen mixed fortunes for the King. When he was good, he was great (see (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame), and when he was bad, he was execrable (see Wooden Heart). He wasn’t always guaranteed to top the charts in the US anymore, but record buyers in the UK were still sending nearly every release to number 1. The problem, in part, was the fact he was stuck on the movie treadmill, forever churning out sugary musicals that also demanded soundtrack albums. In 1960 he tried to wrestle control, starring in the straight drama Flaming Star. He insisted on cutting back on the songs, and it featured only two. However, it performed poorly, and when his next drama, Wild in the Country (1961) did the same, it was back to the light-hearted, song-packed romances that audiences loved.
Blue Hawaii was the first, and most famous, of three Elvis films shot on the island. He starred as former soldier Chadwick Gates (!), and his mother was played by Angela Lansbury. No, Lansbury hasn’t always been old – she was only ten years older than he was, in reality. He arrived in Hawaii to record the soundtrack and shoot location filming in March 1961, and both Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) and Can’t Help Falling in Love were considered the strongest material to release together as singles before the film’s release in late 1961. Eventually they toppled Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ The Young Ones after its six-week run at number 1 on 22 February. This single is perhaps the finest example of just how all-over-the-place quality control had become in the Presley camp.
Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) was written by Ben Weisman, Fred Wise and Delores Fuller. Weisman was nicknamed ‘The Mad Professor’ by Elvis, and held the record for having had the most number of songs recorded by Presley – 57 in total. Fuller was once the girlfriend of cult low-budget film director Ed Wood, and had starred in his 1953 docu-drama Glen or Glenda and this was her first published song. Weisman was keen to combine Hawaiian music with the dance craze ‘the twist’, born via Chubby Checker’s cover of The Twist in 1960.
Hats off to Elvis again for trying different styles, but this is one of his poorer singles. I quite like the initial couplet ‘The way she moves her hips to her finger tips/I feel I’m heaven bound’, but it’s downhill from there. It probably works as a scene in Blue Hawaii (I’m not going to watch it to find out, I doubt I’ll ever watch an Elvis musical), but as a single, it’s ill-judged at best. Unlike the flip side.
Can’t Help Falling in Love fully deserves its classic status, and is Elvis’s finest ballad. It came from the songwriting team of Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss, who were responsible for the 1961 English-language version of Mbube for the Tokens, which they renamed The Lion Sleeps Tonight. 20 years later Tight Fit went to number 1 with their version. Can’t Help Falling in Love wasn’t an entirely original track either – the melody was taken from the 1784 French song Plaisir D’Amour by Jean-Paul Egide-Martini (who was German, despite his name). Apparently, Elvis’s associates and film producers disliked the demo, but he insisted on recording it. Yet another sad example of the fact that Elvis may have been better off without some of his team and allowed to make his own decisions more often.
Elvis purrs the lyrics beautifully, the production is intimate and, well, pretty much perfect. The Jordanaires, often overused, make for the perfect vocal accompaniment. Hal Blaine is the drummer here, and the session drummer went on to become one of the most in-demand session drummers, playing with the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, among others. The lyrics hint that Elvis is perhaps involved in an illicit relationship (‘Shall I stay?/Would it be a sin?’), but ultimately it doesn’t matter – he’s surrendering to his emotions (‘Take my whole life too’… ‘Some things are meant to be’). However, in Blue Hawaii, the song features in a scene in which he presents his love interest’s grandmother with a music box for her birthday. This version starts with the music box as the backing, before transforming to the single version.
It soon became apparent this was one of Elvis’s best songs, and Can’t Help Falling in Love became the finale of his live shows in the late 60s and 70s. It lost some of its magic though, as it was played faster than the intimate original recording. It came the last song Elvis performed on TV, closing his 1977 special, Elvis in Concert, and the last song he ever performed, at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis on 26 June that year. Less than two months later, he was dead.
In 1993 it topped the charts once more, via a rubbish reggae-lite cover by UB40. More on that another time. For me, the best use of this song came at the hands of Jason Pierce’s space-rockers Spiritualized. He added it to the end of the title track to his strung-out free-jazz, gospel and psychedelic masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space in 1997, mixing it in amongst Pachalbel’s Canon and lyrics of obsessed love, to astounding affect. Unfortunately, the Presley estate objected (perhaps due to the drug overtones of the album?) and blocked the use after the earliest pressings. Pierce was forced to re-record the track, adding his own lyrics, which he now claims to prefer (there’s not a lot in it, but I prefer the original). However, in 2009 Pierce planned to release a deluxe edition of the album, and permission was granted to return the ‘Elvis mix’ to the start of the album, providing he rename the track Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (I Can’t Help Falling in Love). This seems a bit rich, considering Peretti, Creatore and Weiss borrowed so much of the melody in the first place, but that’s the music business for you.
Elvis’s tenth stint at number 1 lasted a month. On 26 February, the Irish Republican Army officially called off its Border Campaign in Northern Ireland, calling to a halt its attempt to halt British rule and unite Ireland. On 15 March, the Orpington by-election marked the start of the Liberal Party’s revival when Eric Lubbock caused an upset by defeating expected winner, Conservative Peter Goldman.
Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special): Ben Weisman, Fred Wise & Dolores Fuller/Can’t Help Falling in Love: Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore & George David Weiss
Producer: Steve Sholes
Weeks at number 1: 4 (22 February-21 March)
Novelist John Lanchester – 25 February
Comic book artist Simon Bisley – 4 March
Altered Images singer Clare Grogan – 17 March