The year of 1961 saw rock in a dormant phase, at least creatively. But Elvis, country boy and ex-truck driver that he was, was hard at work -- recording, making movies, even sneaking in a benefit concert here and there for lucky fans. And in between, he and his newly-dubbed Memphis Mafia partied hard, indulging the King's passion for freewheeling Las Vegas and preparing the transformation of Graceland from a family stronghold into a young playboy's royal court. A change was taking place in Elvis, however, both personally and in his public persona; and while it was a very subtle one, the implications were staggering for his career and his well-being. Like so many other icons, the events of Presley's fundamentally mundane yet spiritually vacant "middle period" would have a profound effect on how he behaved once he got his groove back.
The chief culprit in this transformation was a movie called Blue Hawaii, released near the end of '61 (no doubt to drive home the fantasy of King Elvis ruling over a magical warm land during those desolate winter months). Far from his worst movie, it nonetheless establishes the pattern of the dozen-and-a-half or so movies that came afterward, truly horrible vehicles most of them. In Elvis' early film days, he was groomed as a star, in the same way Marilyn Monroe was -- a trainable talent whose magnificent charisma could translate, with some coaching in the basics, to a real acting career. Now that idea was gone, and in its place a travelogue, Elvis as a dress-up doll who could be cut from his pattern page and inserted into any scenario.
One look at the songs Elvis had started to sing told the whole story. Blue Hawaii did feature a sure-fire hit, a song that not coincidentally happened to rank with his finest pre-Army work: the ballad "Can't Help Falling In Love." But even that achievement was a rewrite of a French standard. The rest of the soundtrack album is filled with bad travelogues and worse jokes, novelty songs, most of them: "Ito Eats," "Slicin' Sand," "Ku-U-I-Po." The closest any of this gets to rock is the dismal "Rock-A-Hula-Baby." 1961 did see some singles (recorded in Nashville AND Hollywood, disproving the myth that Elvis needed to stay close to home) that could stand up next to his earlier work, songs like "Surrender," "I Feel So Bad," "Little Sister," and "(Marie's the Name Of) His Latest Flame." But only "Sister" could be said to have been a real rock number. Elvis Presley was heading into irrelevance, and as the world began to groove to soul, Motown, and the Beatles, the web of comfort he allowed to be spun around him would nearly choke off his muse.