'Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues'
One of Elvis' most admirable attempts to shake up what had become a fairly rote stage show -- at least in terms of song selections -- happened on Aug. 19, 1974, the opening night of his summer engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Scrapping "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and "See See Rider" and the usual routine, he opened with "Big Boss Man" and forsake most of the '50s hits, too, for some more interesting material, including "Down in the Alley," "It's Midnight" (which became a staple for a short while), "I'm Leavin'," "If You Talk in Your Sleep," "Promised Land" and a song he had recorded but performed live only once -- Danny O'Keefe's elegiac, "it's past time to grow up" lament, "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues."
Elvis' live take of "Good Time Charlie" is a fine performance and also one of two songs during the '70s to showcase rhythm guitarist John Wilkinson on stage (the other being Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain"). He appears to be engaged and in great spirits, a far cry from the September tour a month later. (Arriving for a concert at College Park, Maryland, an obviously stoned Elvis fell while getting out of his limo and gave a performance so listless that one fan on an audience recording of the show can be heard to say, "He's lost it!") To his credit, he somewhat bounced back the following night, but a later show on the same tour is nearly as bad.
Anyhow, during "Good Time Charlie" back in August, Elvis tries to joke his way through parts of the song that hit too close to home. After he sings the line, "You play around, you'll lose your wife," he quips, "Already done that!" And when he sings "You play too long, you'll lose your life," he appears to utter, "Almost did that, even." (Whatever he says, Charlie Hodge breaks into laughter.) Tellingly -- tragically -- he chooses not to sing one line in O'Keefe's original version:
Got my pills to ease my pain; can't find a thing to ease the rain...
I don't say that with any judgment or sense of irony. I just think doing so would hover over a truth Elvis didn't or couldn't touch, even in song.
The critics were kind -- excited even -- by the new show, but the fans didn't care for the changes. The next night he brought back the same basic setlist he'd been singing for a couple of years and would continue to use -- with a few glorious exceptions -- until the final curtain fell in June 1977 at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. It was a chance to break the monotony, give him a challenge he desperately needed in hindsight, but, alas, it wasn't to be.
Thankfully, the show was recorded and is available on CD as "Nevada Nights" on Sony/BMG's excellent (albeit expensive) FTD label, which has been turning out true treats these last few years for serious Elvis fans.
I will be highlighting some of Elvis' lesser-known songs and hidden gems with Bradley Reeves on WDVX-FM's "East Tennessee Quiver" at 11 p.m. (Eastern) Thursday, Aug. 15. Tune in locally on 89.9 FM, 102.9 FM or online at www.wdvx.com. Call or email the studio with your favorite Elvis request. The only "rule" is the song must be a non-hit.