Dickey Lee, Mike Stoller, and Mark James wow during Elvis Songwriters Showcase
During the annual Elvis Week festivities in Memphis, Tennessee, Graceland hosts a smorgasbord of opportunities for fans from all over the world to experience contemporaries who knew Elvis Presley beyond the public’s surface perception.
One of the more intimate events sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises was the inaugural Elvis Songwriters Showcase unleashed on August 11, 2012, just five days before the 35th anniversary of the superstar’s untimely passing.
In a behind the music environment in a state of the art tent featuring air conditioning and a giant screen projecting video over an entertainment stage, Sixwire frontman and occasional Elvis tribute artist Andy Childs interviewed songwriters Dickey Lee [“She Thinks I Still Care”], Mike Stoller of Leiber and Stoller [e.g. “Hound Dog”], and Mark James [“Moody Blue”]. A short video presentation highlighting their contributions to Presley’s vast musical discography served as an introductory piece.
Born and raised in Memphis, Lee was part of Sun Records’ roster for a minute in 1957 and eventually accumulated hit records as a singer on both the pop and country charts with “I Saw Linda Yesterday”, “Patches”, “Laurie”, “Rocky”, and “9,999,999 Tears.” But his greatest claim to fame is the ubiquitous honkytonk weeper “She Thinks I Still Care,” co-written with Steve Duffy. First recorded by George Jones in 1962, Presley tackled it during his penultimate studio session in the Jungle Room 14 years later and chose it as the B-side of “Moody Blue.”
Arriving late for the early portion of Lee’s session, I nevertheless heard a fantastic story about Elvis actually making him a milkshake at Graceland one evening in the early ’60s. How many folks can make that claim?
When “She Thinks I Still Care” was composed, Lee contacted Hill & Range courtesy of Lamar Fike, an original Memphis Mafia member who represented Presley’s music publishing company. Fike said Presley was interested in cutting the song. Unfortunately, Fike apparently forgot the conversation and years transpired. “She Thinks I Still Care” had been a massive career record for Jones, spending six weeks at number one. Presley heard it again and wanted to wax it to vinyl. Fike admitted that Presley was in consideration to cut the song first. Presley exclaimed, “Lamar, you son of a bitch!”
The sole surviving member of the most illustrious songwriting team in 1950s rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues, Stoller’s entrance led to considerable fanfare. Lyricist and partner Jerry Leiber succumbed to cardiopulmonary failure in 2011.
The duo wrote an astonishing 24 songs for Presley between 1956 and 1973. Eight climbed into Billboard’s Top 20 pop chart and three of those were number ones — “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Don’t.” Alongside Otis Blackwell and collaborators Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Leiber and Stoller were the most crucial songwriting contributors in Presley’s early career. Of course, the Drifters, the Coasters, Peggy Lee, Stealers Wheel, and plenty of additional artists cut Leiber and Stoller tunes over the decades, sometimes with the duo behind the production console.
It was a shame that Stoller chose not to play keyboards while he was onstage, as he is certainly capable [he tinkles the ivories in the Jailhouse Rock film]. Stoller admitted that the Songwriters Showcase was the first time he had seen Presley performing “Bossa Nova Baby” in Fun in Acapulco.
Leiber and Stoller were not paid or credited for their production work on the Jailhouse Rock sessions. While the songwriters were only two years older than Presley, he constantly referred to them as “Sir.” Childs asked the musician what he was most proud of in his distinguished career, and Stoller replied that bringing African American culture to mainstream white America meant a great deal to him.
James’s stroll onstage signaled the showcase’s finale was drawing near. An unassuming, down to earth, gentle giant of a gentleman, James composed the King of Rock and Roll’s best-selling single, “Suspicious Minds”, as well as “It’s Only Love,” “Always on My Mind” [co-written with Johnny Christopher and Red West], “Raised on Rock”, and the country pop disco-leaning showcase “Moody Blue.” Before “Suspicious Minds” bought him multiple homes, James counted B.J. Thomas as a close compadre, penning “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Eyes of a New York Woman” for the blue-eyed soul singer.
Armed with an acoustic guitar and keyboards, James is a former child musical prodigy capable of playing a dozen instruments. A stripped down guitar rendition of “Raised on Rock” was particularly revelatory. Playing the solos simultaneously with the rhythm fills, James proved that the song, which was only a minor hit for Presley, might take off in the hands of the right millennial artist. The expression of exhilaration on Childs’ face was a sight to behold.
Demonstrating his knowledge of Presley’s seismic 1954–1955 Sun Records tenure, a completely unrehearsed, one-verse rendition of “Baby Let’s Play House” had the crowd cheering repeatedly. Whatever that certain “it” factor may be, James unequivocally retains it. All in all, the Elvis Songwriters Showcase was an excellent Elvis Week kick-off and has turned into a frequent Graceland presence.
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