Elvis Presley’s “Frankie And Johnny” Reviewed
Unlike “Harum Scarum”, which was simply awful, “Frankie And Johnny”, both 25th album and movie, was a missed opportunity. Not to make Elvis Presley contemporary again, in 1966 it would take a little more than that, but as a singer capable of jazz and as an actor, capable of updated French farce. So close, you can taste it but… it just wasn’t there.
The movie was all anomalies for Elvis: he portrayed a degenerate riverboat gambler tempted from the love of his life by a red headed vixen in a retelling of the 1904 song, often, very often, covered. Three couples on different trajectories in a Moliere inspired sex romp is what it boils down to. With the great Harry Morgan (you remember him from MASH, right?) as Presley’s best friend, and Donna Dixon with zero of her Beverly Hills affectations, as Frankie, the story plays out as low key sex comedy on the Mississippi.
But soon you notice the complete lack of black people, in New Orleans, on a showboat, in the 1800s. I’ll admit it was a matter of time and place and the mid-1960s wasn’t a hotbed of integration (though, cmon “Showboat” the 1927 dealt with racism), but think of this, what if Presley had hired a great swing combo, Louis Armstrong’s All Stars for instance, to play behind him? What would you have had then? One of the plot point hinges on Morgan selling a song to a New York publisher, just there, just somewhere in the background of the story, was a Presley and Parker hall of mirrors. Plus where else can you hear Presley namecheck Stephen “father of American music” Forster?
Presley wasn’t into it.. he looked as ill as you’ll have found him till then, drugged, hooded, overweight and his features have lost their lushness. Presley looks bored and sad at the same time, if they’d tightened the script, and he’d played it better, it was his for the taking.
The same is true of the album, not as bad as you’d think, “Frankie And Johnny” has Presley freed from some of Sid and Roy’s mainstream songwriting while they write a coupla period pieces. Best of all, you get to hear Presley sing the title track and a “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” medley. Neither of these are great versions but neither of them are bad versions either. They are actually a little depressing because you just know how Presley could sing all three songs to a standstill , to the place where he owns and he doesn’t do it, the needs of the matinee idol stop him from digging deep enough. Near the end of “Frankie And Johnny” he lets loose for a couple of bars and his voice soars in but then he settles back down for the coda. It is like he is resisting himself. If only they’d hired Armstrong for the medley,for the counter melody if Armstrong had taken “When The Saints Go Marching In” might have saved it from Frankie And Johnny‘s sad high of 25th on the charts.
There is more, Sid and Roy’s dance hall “Petunia, the Gardener’s Daughter”, performed on stage on the showboat, actually did the job, it sounded 19th century vaudeville, a smart funny little song. “Chesnay” is a fine Gypsy genre exercise, and if the rest is just the same old same old, by the standards of what we’re discussing, that’s enough to save the album from infamy, There is a minor Doc Pomus song somewhere, “What Every Woman Lives For” as well. Just a missed what if story. For album #26 he is back in Hawaii.