#89: A Mess Of Blues by Elvis Presley
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. His twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley, was stillborn. When he was eleven years old his parents bought him a guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Store. As a result Elvis grew up as an only child. He and his parents, Vernon and Gladys, moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948. The young Presley graduated from high school in 1953. That year he stopped by the Memphis Recording Service to record two songs, including “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. Elvis’ musical influences were the pop and country music of the time, the gospel music he heard in church and at the all-night gospel sings he frequently attended, and the black R&B he absorbed on historic Beale Street as a Memphis teenager. In 1954, Elvis began his singing career recording “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” at Sun Records in Memphis.
In late 1955, his recording contract was sold to RCA Victor. In 1956 he had his first #1 record titled “Heartbreak Hotel.” He had a sound and style that uniquely combined his diverse musical influences and blurred and challenged the social and racial barriers of the time. Bill Haley & His Comets ushered in the rock ‘n roll into mainstream culture in 1955 when “Rock Around The Clock,” appeared in Blackboard Jungle – a film about juvenile delinquents and anti-social behavior in an inter-racial school. The song became an anthem for teenage rebellion.
However, it was Elvis in 1956 who ensured rock ‘n roll was here to stay with his swiveling hips and R&B infused songs with sexually suggestive lyrics. He had his first number one hit with “Heartbreak Hotel” in February 1956. He starred in 33 successful films, made history with his television appearances and specials, and knew great acclaim through his many, often record-breaking, live concert performances on tour and in Las Vegas. Globally, Elvis Presley has sold over one billion records, more than any other recording artist.
Between 1956 and 1957, Elvis Presley continued his chart-topping ways in Vancouver (BC) with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, “Hound Dog”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Love Me Tender”, “Too Much”, “All Shook Up”, “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”, and “Mean Woman Blues” peaking at #1.
During this chart-topping streak, one of Presley’s Top Ten hits in Vancouver was “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley“. Another was “Treat Me Nice”.
Elvis kept on topping the charts into 1958 with “Don’t”, “Wear Your Ring Around My Neck” and “Hard Headed Woman”. He also starred in several films. His second film, Loving You, was released in 1957. Though it was not featured the film, the song “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” made it onto the Loving You Soundtrack album.
But during his chart-topping ways, he got a letter from Uncle Sam. Sergeant Elvis Presley served with the U.S. Army from March 24, 1958, to March 2, 1960. Meanwhile, Presley managed to climb to the top of the charts once in 1959 with “Big Hunk o’ Love”.
His return to civilian life saw a return to a string of successful single, album and film releases. In April 1960 Elvis topped the Billboard Hot 100 with “Stuck On You. His followup, “It’s Now Or Never”, also topped the pop charts in August 1960, including in Vancouver. The B-side, “A Mess Of Blues”, also charted on CKWX as a double-sided number-one hit.
“A Mess Of Blues” was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Jerome Solon Felder was born in Brooklyn in 1925. He contracted polio and walked with crutches in his youth. He eventually spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair. Felder wanted to become a blues singer and billed himself as Doc Pomus because he liked it better than Jerome Felder. He wrote magazine articles for R&B recording stars. He began songwriting and wrote “Lonely Avenue” for Ray Charles in 1956. Pomus had a big break when he co-wrote “Young Blood” for the Coasters, together with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The single climbed to #8 on the Billboard pop chart in 1957. In addition to the songs mentioned above that Doc Pomus co-wrote with Mort Shuman, he also wrote “She’s Not You” for Elvis Presley and “Don’t Try To Change Me” for the Crickets.
With lag irons and a wheelchair, Doc Pomus gained a lot of weight. But he was the life of the party. He spent a quarter of a million dollars in earnings by 1963 and his wife left him for a career on the stage. In a review of Alex Halberstadt’s Lonely Avenue: the Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, Christopher Hawtree writes that after his wife left, “Another young woman, Shirlee, came along, stayed – and shied as much from a gun-waving Phil Spector (who gave the grateful Pomus a blank cheque) as she did from the homespun gamblers with whom Pomus augmented funds. Such sessions ended when the Mob moved in, one participant ending up in the East River. Another friend’s death inspired Looking for Mr Goodbar.” Doc Pomus died of lung cancer at the age of 65 in 1991.
Mortimer Shuman was born in Brooklyn in 1938. Teaming up with Doc Pomus in 1957, they cowrote “Turn Me Loose” for Fabian; “A Teenager In Love” for Dion and the Belmonts, “Hushabye” for the Mystics, “Go, Jimmy, Go” for Jimmy Clanton; “This Magic Moment”, “Sweets For My Sweet” and Save The Last Dance For Me” for the Drifters; “Surrender”, “Little Sister”, “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, and “Suspicion” for Elvis Presley; and “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” for Andy Williams. In the mid-60s Shuman wrote “She La La La Lee” for the Small Faces.
“A Mess Of Blues” is a song about a guy who gets a letter from his “baby,” letting him know she “can’t come home.” He’s going crazy. He can’t eat. He can’t sleep. “Everyday is just blue Monday.” The latter line is a musical nod to the 1957 number-one R&B hit “Blue Monday” by Fats Domino. As he’s going crazy, can’t eat, can’t sleep and has the blues, he plans to “get the next train” so he can be with her.
“A Mess Of Blues” peaked at #1 in Vancouver, Philadelphia, Toronto, Salt Lake City, Jacksonville (FL), Pensacola (FL), and San Francisco, #2 in Seattle, #4 in Los Angeles, #5 in Kalamazoo (MI) and San Diego, #7 in Denver, and #9 in Providence (RI). Internationally, “A Mess Of Blues” peaked at #2 in the UK, #4 in Norway, #6 in New Zealand, #11 in Australia, #20 in Belgium, and #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America.
In November 1960, Elvis was back at number-one with “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. His chart-topping ways continued in March 1961 with “Surrender”. The album from his first film on return from serving in Germany, G.I. Blues, was a best-seller at the box office (#2 on Variety Magazine for the year 1960) and a number one album in October 1960. He released His Hand In Mine, a collection of sacred gospel music and in November, 1960, began to record his 6th studio album, Something For Everybody. It went on to become his 13th hit album.
In September 1961, in Vancouver Presley topped the charts with “Marie’s The Name (His Latest Flame)” and “Little Sister”. Late in the fall the King of Rock n’ Roll had another Top Ten hit titled “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. The song was from the soundtrack from the film Blue Hawaii. The title track charted on the record surveys on Top40 radio in Vancouver in the winter of 1961.
In 1962 Presley released his seventh studio album, Potluck. From that album the song “Kiss Me Quick” would peak at #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. But his song, “Suspicion”, climbed onto the CFUN chart in the summer of 1962. Also in 1962 Elvis was filming a number of movies. The first to be released in the summer of ’62 was Kid Galahad, which included the song “King Of The Whole Wide World”. Presley also enjoyed hit singles with “Good Luck Charm” and “She’s Not You”.
His next film, Girls! Girls! Girls!, was released in late October. However, the debut single from the soundtrack, “Return To Sender”, was released in September prior to the film appearing in theaters. In Vancouver (BC) the title track from the film, “Girls! Girls! Girls!” also charted on the C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY.
Elvis continued to enjoy more Top Ten hits between 1963 and 1965. His most notable hits were “One Broken Heart For Sale”, “(You’re The) Devil In Disguise”, “Witchcraft”, “Bossa Nova Baby”, “Such A Night”, “Ain’t That Loving You Baby”, “Crying In The Chapel” and “Puppet On A String“.
After 1965, Elvis found it increasingly challenging to enter the Top 30. Between the end of 1965 and the winter of 1968 Presley released 22 singles and only four of these made the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 30. But in 1969, Presley had his best year since 1962 charting three singles into the Top Ten with “In The Ghetto”, “Suspicious Minds” and “Don’t Cry Daddy”. Between 1970 and 1983 Elvis released 36 singles, including eight posthumous singles. Of these, “Burning Love” and “The Wonder Of You” were his most successful and six others made the Top 20 on the Billboard charts.
Over his recording career Elvis Presley earned 14 Grammy Award nominations including for Record of the Year with “A Fool Such As I” (1959) and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (1960) and won six Hall of Fame Awards. After his comeback tour in 1968 Presley had continued to tour extensively, with 168 concerts in 1973, a pace he kept through the mid-70’s. By 1976 he was suffering from multiple ailments: glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, all believed to be related to prescription drug abuse. He died on August 16, 1977, and a funeral was attended by over 80,000 mourners. His legacy continues to live on. There were also numerous sightings of Elvis including around the 40th anniversary of his death in 2017.
November 28, 2022
graceland.com (Elvis bio)
“Elvis Presley: Rock’s First Icon,” Rolling Stone, September 22, 1977.
Paul Lichter, The Boy Who Dared to Rock: The Definitive Elvis, (Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1978).
Elizabeth Nix, “7 Fascinating Facts About Elvis Presley,” History.com, July 1, 2014
Wendy Sauer, Elvis Presley: A Complete Reference, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984).
“Doc Pomus Biography,” Felder Pomus.com.
“Mort Shuman Dies 52; Devotee of Jacques Brel,” New York Times, November 4, 1991.
Christopher Hawtree, “The Last Dance of Doc Pomus,” Telegraph, UK, August 16, 2007.
Alex Halberstadt, Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus, De Capo Press, 2007.
“Sensational Sixty,” CKWX 1130 AM, Vancouver, BC, August 8, 1960.
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