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That’s Someone You Never Forget: A song for Gladys?

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Über das besondere Verhältnis von Elvis zu seiner früh verstorbenen Mutter Gladys Love Presley ist schon viel geschrieben worden, ein Aspekt blieb dabei bislang allerdings weitgehend außen vor: Inwieweit gibt es Songinterpretationen, die Elvis seiner geliebten Mutter gewidmet hat? Dieser spannenden Frage geht der englische Journalist und Autor Paul Simpson in seinem englischsprachigen Gastbeitrag für The Memphis Flash nach.

A song for Gladys by Paul Simpson

Written by his friend Red West, Elvis’s criminally underrated ballad That’s Someone You Never Forget sounds like a haunting ode to his much mourned mother.  In the spring of 1961, Elvis Presley asked his friend Red West: “How about coming up with a song with the title of That’s Someone You Never Forget?”

West sat down at the piano and did just that. He worked out the melody first and then penned lyrics that, as Peter Guralnick noted in Careless Love, the second volume of his Elvis biography, “contained sentiments that under ordinary circumstances would have been assumed to be about an ex-lover, but in this case it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that Elvis might be singing of his mother.”

  • Elvis mit seiner Mutter Gladys in Memphis 1956 - Foto: Michael Rose: Elvis Presley A Moment In Time

Red was desperate to succeed as a songwriter – Presley had already mentioned his friend’s ambitions to publisher Freddie Bienstock. Knowing how mercurial Elvis could be, West took the song to Gold Star Recording in Hollywood and made a demo that Presley promised to record.

For West, that day couldn’t come soon enough. He must have been on tenterhooks when he accompanied Presley into RCA’s Studio B in Nashville on 25 June 1961. Officially, as Ernst Jorgensen notes in Elvis Presley A Life In Music, their goal was to cut two songs for a single – a requirement they would fulfil spectacularly by recording (Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame and Little Sister. Presley and his musicians were in no hurry. They took 12 takes to master Kiss Me Quick, an entertaining, if lightweight, retread of It’s Now Or Never, before turning to West’s ballad.

The sincerity of the King’s vocal made it instantly clear that he was taking That’s Someone You Never Forget very seriously. The ambiguous yearning at the heart of the song inspired him. Yet West was worried. As he told Ken Sharp, for his book Writing For The King, “Every time he’d start over and say ‘Hold it! Hold it!’, I’d think he’s gonna lose interest.” Far from it. Presley took seven takes until he was satisfied, determined to get his phrasing absolutely right.

Whooshing wind sounds from Elvis and the Jordanaires introduce a haunting, evocative ballad that is, as Jorgensen notes, “built around an acoustic guitar, with Bob Moore’s understated bass, Buddy Harman’s brushes on the cymbals; with slip-note touches from Floyd Cramer”.

The end product is an intense, otherworldly sound that is more than vaguely reminiscent of Bobby Vinton’s version of Blue Velvet (No. 1 in the US for three weeks in 1963) and feels like a natural candidate for the next David Lynch movie soundtrack. In a recent interview, Lynch praised the “sweet sadness” of Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel and sweet sadness is a quality That’s Someone You Never Forget has in abundance.

Audio: That’s Someone You Never Forget (1961) –  The Complete Elvis Presley Masters

At one point, Elvis asked the songwriter: “How do you like the arrangement, Red?” West’s subsequent interviews reveal that this was one of the proudest moments of his life. And it deserved to be. That’s Someone You Never Forget was never going to sell a million but, as Jorgensen noted, “its sincerity gave it a timeless quality that some of Elvis’s recent work had lacked”.

The lack of specificity in West’s lyrics meant that, at its heart, That’s Someone You Never Forget was a song about longing, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, as Elvis was sitting in RCA’s Studio B, he thought he was singing about his mother, who had died on 14 August 1958 at the age of 46 (though her son thought she was 42).

Gospel singer Jake Hess recalled that Presley liked to close his eyes when he sang in the studio “because he wanted to have a picture in his mind at all times“. While only Elvis can say with absolute certainty, it seems more than likely that the pictures in his mind during this recording were of his mother.

Gladys was the someone Elvis never forgot. Nine months before he recorded West’s song in Nashville, he had hurled furniture around Graceland in fury when Vernon’s second wife, Dee Stanley, had replaced his mother’s curtains. In Elaine Dundy’s book Elvis And Gladys, there is a heartrending glimpse of Elvis’s despair on his return to Memphis after his mother’s death. Asked by Aunt Lillian – Gladys’s sister – if he had been to his mother’s grave, he confessed he couldn’t bear it. His aunt told Dundy: “And then he got up and just walked down to the fence and stood there looking out at nothing – just missing her.”

Red West didn’t write many songs for Elvis but the few he did were among the singer’s most personal. In the early 1970s, as Presley’s marriage fell apart, Red would suggest Always On My Mind and write Separate Ways, prompting Elvis to tell him: “You’re killing me with these songs, man.”

By keeping the lyrics to That’s Someone You Never Forget just vague enough – the singer misses holding hands and the things they planned rather than passionate embraces – West gave Presley licence to express his grief in code. In the song’s most intriguing line, the song warns that the others who pass the singer’s way, declaring their love, will never replace the one who waits for him. The singer’s predicament is made more ambiguous by the use of the second person. The song would be more straightforward – and less effective – if it had been called That’s Someone I’ll Never Forget.

Given just how deeply Elvis missed Gladys – he would remain convinced that, as the song says, she was waiting for him, albeit in heaven rather than on earth – his performance of West’s song is beautifully measured. There are none of the Mario Lanza-style theatrics that made It’s Now Or Never so distinctive. The interplay between him and the Jordanaires is nicely judged. His vocal is rueful, reflective and restrained. Even when his voice climbs to sing “her memory is with you yet” – and he turns up the volume to declare “but you know they will never replace” – the tone is regretful, sincere and pained with no hint of falsity or bombast.

Some of the best popular music uses misdirection to weave its magic. The Teddy Bears’ To Know Him Is To Love Him, is ostensibly a yearning romantic ballad, although Phil Spector’s lyrics for his first US No. 1 were inspired by the words on his father’s gravestone. Of more direct relevance to Elvis, Johnny Tillotson wrote It Keeps Right On A Hurtin’ after his father’s terminal illness. The King’s cover of this country ballad on From Elvis In Memphis has a similar ambiguity to West’s song: eleven years after his mother’s death, it kept right on a hurtin’. The loneliness he sings of with such conviction in Tillotson’s ballad never really left him for long.

In one sense, it doesn’t matter what That’s Someone You Never Forget is about. It remains enduring proof that Elvis could say more with someone else’s song than many writers could say in their own book. It reminds us that, as Nick Tosches put it, “ There was more mystery, more power, in Elvis, singer of Danny Boy, than in Bob Dylan, utterer of hermetic ironies.” The mystery at the core of That’s Someone You Never Forget – and the singer’s emotional attachment to the narrator’s plight – has made the hypnotic ballad more resonant with each passing Elvis-less year.

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