LEAD SISTER: The Story Of Karen Carpenter by Lucy O’Brien

If ever a girl seemed destined to marry her childhood sweetheart, have 2.7 children and become a ‘home-maker’, it was Karen Carpenter. Unfortunately for her, it didn’t happen that way. Blessed with a deep, honey-drenched and distinctively pure contralto voice, and a natural talent for the drums, she became one half of the Carpenters, the brother and sister easy listening duo that in the 1970s sold over 100 million records and rallied behind the Stars & Stripes for Republican America when all around them the rock world was bent on delivering something entirely different, musically, politically and socially. This brought renown and anguish in opposing measure, and when anguish won Karen died from anorexia, aged just 32. 

        This, in a nutshell, is the story adeptly conveyed by Lucy O’Brien in Lead Sister, the first biography of Karen Carpenter that I have ever read so I can’t compare it with others. Judging from the diligence reflected in her earlier work, however, and the list of interviewees at the back, among them myself, it’s a safe bet to assume it’s the best yet. 

        Among them myself? Yes. In complete contrast to the kind of music to which I was inclined, the first substantial interview I did when I arrived in Los Angeles as Melody Maker’s man in America in the autumn of 1973 was with Richard and Karen Carpenter at their family home in Downey, a conservative suburb south of LA. Then aged 27 and 24 respectively, I was astonished that they still lived with their parents in this comfortable detached house, at the back of which was their own recording studio and music room where we sat down and talked for an hour while Agnes, their mum, delivered tea and biscuits. 

        Lucy O’Brien spoke to me about this encounter and it’s relayed in her book. “They were really sweet people,” I told her. “They struck me as the kind who got dressed in their Sunday best and went to church. Karen looked like a bank teller, not Hollywood flash at all, no glamour, no tights and plunging neckline. At that point I was immersed in the rock scene, men in denim shirts unbuttoned to the waist and girls flaunting themselves. Richard looked like an estate agent. They seemed like a suburban couple, even though they were brother and sister.”

        Sweet as they were, they seemed strangely naïve about the rock world, set apart from it yet rubbing shoulders in the charts with the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Stones. In this respect they were the American equivalent of Abba*, creators of precisely produced pop perfection that catered to a large but undemonstrative constituency discomfited by the vigorous sedition of long-haired musicians in faded jeans with wailing guitars and sleazy habits. 

Lucy O’Brien traces the Carpenter family’s upwardly-mobile journey from the East Coast of America to the West when Karen was 13, not an age when girls appreciate being separated from their friends, as I learned myself when we yanked our 14-year-old daughter from West London to deepest Surrey and all hell broke loose. But I digress. Karen was on the timid side and, even then, concerned about her weight. A bit of a tomboy, she found a life for herself through the drums, which she played in her school’s marching band. The vocals came later. Richard, meanwhile, was a musical prodigy, expected to become the star of a hard-working, all-American, Christian family keen on self-improvement. 

As with any determined act, there are false starts but eventually their hard work and talent win out, and by the end of the Sixties they have secured a contract with A&M Records for whom they would record their most successful work, which OBrien analyses comprehensively. Richard and Karen befriend the strata of musical families you would expect, the Boones, the Jacksons and the Osmonds, one of whom, Alan, ‘dates’ Karen when the pair meet in Las Vegas but it’s unlikely the dating went much further than simply holding hands. 

While this is no rags to riches story – the family’s work ethic ensures a degree of comfort from the outset – it seems to enact the American Dream insofar as honest toil, clean living and deference to the Flag will be rewarded. Unfortunately, the family, especially mother Agnes, smother Karen who feels unable to break away, “like a bird in a gilded cage”, even as her star rose and the money rolled in. Boyfriends are kept at arm’s length, not least because Agnes believes they must be gold diggers. In the meantime, Karen worries about her image, her looks, her clothes and – most pressingly – her weight, even though in realty she has no need to. 

        With the benefit of hindsight and medical texts published since Karen’s death, O’Brien addresses the cause of her demise perceptively and in ways that leaves readers in no doubt that the need to conform to an unwritten law that female entertainers must be thin leads to her undoing. “I never thought of her as fat but she had that complex,” says video director Clare Baren. “Now you can have a big ass and be a huge star, like Lizzo. But it was different for women in the 1970s. All those handling her career were men. I’m sure she got told, ‘You have a big ass’ by the wrong people, many times.”

        Similarly, friends note that when Karen did finally manage to break away from the family home, moving into a luxury apartment building at the age of 26, she appeared to suffer from OCD. “Her clothes were hung exactly a quarter of an inch apart and rigidly grouped according to type,” notes one, while her pal Olivia Newton-John says her apartment was “always immaculate. She was very clean, very tidy.” Compulsive tidying, notes O’Brien, was reminiscent of Agnes. 

        In a more enlightened age, better advice would have been sought and given but when the Carpenters were on top of the world this wasn’t available. It’s no surprise, then, that the second half of Lead Sister charts Karen’s foreseeable decline, a sorry tale exacerbated by brother Richard’s increasing dependence on sleeping pills. Psychotherapy proved ineffective – she’s economical with the truth about the medication she’s taking – and the failure of her brief and somewhat hasty marriage to Tom Burris seems to have been the last straw. When the end came, it was sudden. On the morning of February 4, 1983, Karen awoke at her parents’ house, went downstairs to make coffee and returned to her bedroom where she suffered a cardiac arrest. She died in hospital shortly afterwards.   

        While acknowledging that Karen’s death will forever dominate her story, O’Brien concludes Lead Sister by returning to her theme of how outside pressure was its prime cause. “Karen kept her battle secret,” she writes, “but many younger female singers – like Taylor Swift, Kesha, Halsey and Lady Gaga – are critiquing that cultural idea of thinness. What contributed to Karen Carpenter’s isolation was the belief that anorexia was shameful and taboo. Younger women, emboldened by Third Wave and MeToo feminism, are calling for more support.” 

        Lead Sister, a salutary tale, offers just that. 


*While both acts chose to sweeten one of their most popular songs with a children’s choir to an extent that would see off an entire hospital ward of diabetics, there are notable differences between Abba and the Carpenters. Abba relied exclusively on their in-house songwriting team, principally Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, but the Carpenters cast their net wider for material, reinterpreting tested classics alongside Richard’s own songs, and the ratio of ballads to up-tempo material is much higher in the Carpenters’ oeuvre than it is in that of Abba. Perhaps more importantly, the Carpenters are Conservative with a capital C, while Abba, musically bolder, sexier and more visionary, are apolitical. Nevertheless Universal, which by the turn of the millennium owned the catalogues of both acts, saw fit in 2000 to release a hits compilation called Carpenters Gold, no doubt hoping to emulate the extraordinary success of Abba Gold eight years earlier. In a further bid to attract a similar demographic, the packaging was identical. 



I met David Crosby only once, and briefly at that, in Denver in 1974, but his passing hurts not just because a rebellious spirit, wonderful harmony singer and great songwriter has been silenced but because Crosby will always remind me of my great friend Johnny Rogan, The Byrds’ foremost biographer. 

        Had Johnny not left us 2021, he would undoubtedly have been on the phone to me this morning to talk about Crosby, and for ages too. He would also have been called upon by someone to write something for a magazine or a website, an obituary, a tribute, an epitaph, or at the very least been asked for a quote by someone who was writing about Crosby and needed an expert to guide them. Since Johnny can’t be here to do that in person, I hope he will forgive me for using his 1,200-page Byrds book Requiem For The Timeless (Volume 1) as the basis for this post about Crosby, a tribute of sorts to both of them. 

        The Byrds was unquestionably Johnny Rogan’s favourite group and David Crosby was certainly Johnny’s favourite Byrd, and his favourite musician from CSN&Y too, even though he wrote a separate book, Zero To Sixty, about Neil Young. In Requiem you can read everything you could possibly want to know about Crosby, from his birth in 1941 to 2012, the year the book was published. Had its author been writing still, I’m pretty sure he’d have started work this morning on a new chapter for Requiem Volume 2 which tells the stories of the six former Byrds, now seven, who have passed away.

        That’s speculative, of course, but around 1980 Johnny caught up with Crosby, then addicted to freebasing, in London “at a small guest house in Denbigh Street” and tried to take him to a pub, The Lord High Admiral “to see a different world but he wouldn’t be distracted from his stash”.

        “His descent into freebase hell later in the decade could not disguise a resilient spirit,” writes Johnny. “He was a burning mass of passion, pride, hubris and regret, but blessed with a clear-eyed, almost painful honesty, that was genuinely moving. Always the most articulate of The Byrds, he gave me the best interview of my life. It was an extremely moving experience, never to be forgotten.”

        The interview lasted two days, afternoons and evenings, and in the course of their conversation Crosby showed Johnny a picture of the Mayan, his boat. “He suggested a visit to San Francisco and even dangled a tentative, if unlikely, book project. It was difficult not to be swept along by the sheer force of his passion. He seemed to care more about The Byrds and its legacy than [Roger] McGuinn did at the time, and was more trusting than [Chris] Hillman and a better communicator than [Gene] Clark.”

        Later in the book, referencing the same interview, Johnny writes: “Despite [the drugs] Crosby remained lucid, sharp, and thoroughly in command of proceedings, as though the drug was no more potent than a packet of cigarettes. …. [He] still looked in good shape, dressed casually but cleanly, ate well and was conducting his business affairs with assiduous skill and clarity. His acoustic performances were a joy to behold and his articulation onstage and off was undiminished by his habit. He could talk for entire afternoons and evenings, answering often difficult questions with a precision and perspicuity beyond the power of his fellow Byrds…

        “Always a barometer of emotion, Crosby could be arrogant, immodest, humble, aggressive and terribly loving. Temperamentally, he was the perfect foil for McGuinn. It was difficult to imagine two more strikingly different personalities: passionate forcefulness versus cool deliberation. Crosby’s passion for The Byrds, as for all his music, was positively tangible.” 

        The introduction to Requiem closes with Johnny acknowledging the greatness of The Byrds. “By then [the 1980s] they were part of rock’s history rather than its future. Nevertheless, their influence was everywhere and the phrase ‘Byrds-like’ had virtually become a cliché. By the end of the decade, their past was being reassembled in the manner of an archaeological dig, courtesy of the many unearthed tapes recorded during their golden era… Gloriously, their music continues to resonate with new meaning as well as reaffirming the beauty of a treasured past.”

        Thanks Johnny, and David. 

(The photograph of David Crosby, taken in 1965, at the top of this post appears in Requiem For The Timeless Volume 1 and is credited to CBS Records.)



Musical Anglophilia in the USA was rife when I lived in New York way back when. It revealed itself in magazines like Trouser Press, the first Beatles fan convention ever to be held anywhere and High Numbers t-shirts on sale outside Madison Square Garden when The Who played there in 1974, and it’s pleasing to note it’s still alive and well. This Jem Records album, released last October, exemplifies the ongoing depth of fondness for Pete Townshend’s songs among bands a generation or two down the line from him, Roger, John and Keith. 

        If the virtue of an album of covers can be measured at all, then surely it hinges on two issues: the enthusiasm with which the artists tackle the songs and the imagination displayed in their interpretations. On the first count I’ll give this record 100% and on the second 75%. Not all the 10 bands on the 14-track CD elect to add their own design to the originals, but those that do invariably trump the ones that stick to The Who’s own arrangements. All of them, however, relish in the opportunity to pay tribute to a songwriter they greatly admire and a band whose pioneering spirit no doubt inspired them. It’s the sound of respect, and love too. 

        The record opens back to front, by which I mean Lisa Mychols and her band Super 8 opt to begin ‘Baba O’Riley’ with the melody and tempo of the violin solo heard normally at the end, over the synthesiser loop, played here on guitar or mandolin, very quickly, so much so it sounds a bit like a plucked harp, at least until the power chord that launches the first verse, ‘Out here in the fields…’.  It’s great to hear it sung by a girl, melodically, double-tracked after the ‘Don’t cry…’ refrain, so it sounds like a choir, the way Abba might have recorded it, and for the best part of one minute the coda cunningly resolves into the chorus of ‘Who Are You’, vocals crossed with the violin part until, like The Who, it reaches a crest then stops. Whoever sequenced this album took their cue from The Who, who were no fools to chose ‘Baba’ as Whos Nexts opener.

        ‘I’m Free’ by the Grip Weeds begins with four shaky chords played in the style of Link Wray before the main riff clangs in, and sounds much like The Who, only a bit more metallic, until a guitar solo thats out on a limb. For the most part it’s played straight, as is ‘Let My Love Open The Door’ by The Midnight Callers, apart from a spiky little riff between verses. So, too, is ‘The Seeker’ by Nick Piunti, all crashing guitars amid a fat, wall-of-sound production. 

        The plane crash solo before the ‘It’s a girl Mrs Walker…’ refrain lifts The Anderson’ Council’s version of ‘Glow Girl’, giving it an unexpected but welcome twist, as does the similarly untamed ending. This contrasts markedly with ‘I Can’t Explain’, Lisa Mychols & Super 8’s second contribution. As with ‘Baba’, they take the song well out of Who territory, instilling it with a cool, jazzy feel that reminds me of Peggy Lee singing ‘Fever’. It’s mostly acoustic, with finger snapping and a bluesy harmonica joining in at the end, and a trace of electric guitar, all nicely low-key.

        Jonathan Pushkar follows party lines on ‘The Kids Are Alright’, perfect power pop, while The Gold Needles, a British band, enhance ‘So Sad About Us’ with a brass section, possibly synthed, to emphasise the neat little up-and-down riff that’s always a pleasure to hear. 

        On their second contribution The Grip Weeds take on the onerous task of covering ‘A Quick One’ in all its complexity, with a few nice variations too, all from their singing guitarist Rick Reil. I liked the newly-constructed, chiming solo after the first section, the smooth slide in the ‘Soon Be Home’ bit and Beatle-ish guitar line – a hint of George’s part in ‘And You Bird Can Sing’ – that precedes the next part, sung here by Kristin Pinell, their secret weapon, hitherto largely unheard but appropriate since these lines are surely meant to be sung by she who sat on Ivor’s lap. Closing with what was once known as a rave up, I have no doubt the group had enormous fun recording ‘A Quick One’. My only complaint is singer Rick over emoting a bit on the spoken parts. 

        The Weeklings, whose day job is a Beatles tribute act, sound anything but weak in ‘I Can See For Miles’. Perhaps wisely, they opt to stay true to The Who’s magic blueprint, with drummer Joe Bellia channelling his inner Moon to perfection. The Anderson Council return with ‘Mary Ann With The Shaky Hand’, prefacing their arrangement with a full-tilt choral intro before stepping back to contrast the verses, sang over a nicely played solo guitar, with full-tilt choruses. As they did on ‘Glow Girl’, they add a newly-conceived but far from unwelcome guitar part and close out with the choral idea they used at the start. 

        Richard Barone is more laid back than Roger on ‘Let’s See Action’, no bad thing, and his words are echoed more or less throughout, the whole concept adding a bit more gravitas to a song I always felt was a bit of a throwaway. A synthesiser line threads its way into this version, replacing Pete’s guitar part. 

        The Gold Needles return for a suitably psychedelic take of ‘The Good’s Gone’ that reminded me of Syd’s Pink Floyd, and the album closes with an unlikely mash-up of ‘Substitute’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by Airport 77, who call it ‘Substifool’. It works, too, with the synthesiser riff threaded in here and there, Roger’s shout making an unlikely appearance half way through, and John’s bass part high in the mix at the close. 

        Finally, at the very end, we have a pretty good Keith impersonator yelling “Jem Records” in the same style the real Keith once yelled “Track Records” for Sell Out. A nice touch. 


JEFF BECK – Trying Something Different

“I’ve no idea what I do on guitar when I get up there,” Jeff Beck told me in 1976. “I don’t have a clue musically what it is when I’m working the fretboard. It’s all totally by ear. I don’t even watch my fingers which is good because if someone ever poked my eyes out, I’d still be able to get a job.”
        Getting a job never worried Jeff Beck. Throughout his career he was wilfully nonchalant about job security or what might be beyond the next horizon. What he was secure about, though, was his own talent, an extraordinary dexterity that astonished his peers. Most of them will happily admit he was eclipsed only by Hendrix. 
        Then again, I don’t think anyone, not even Hendrix, explored the sonic possibilities of a Fender Stratocaster more than Jeff Beck. In his hands, an invariably pristine white Strat with a rosewood neck became a tool box, a paint brush and, eventually, a laptop. Picking predominantly with his thumb and, occasionally, fingers, he conjured up a palette of sound as broad as the horizon, a cello, a trombone, a weather event, a hot rod, you name it. He pulled and pushed on his whammy bar and even fiddled with his tuning heads, and adjusted the pick-up, tone and volume controls while applying his own unique string bending and hammering techniques, playing chords, runs, scales and arpeggios, and single notes that flew off like sparks or sustained until he whipped his hand off the neck for a second then reconnected elsewhere in lightning time. For Jeff it was effortless, as if his hands and fingers had minds of their own, and while doing what he did, sometimes grinning, sometimes wandering purposefully around his stage, he always, like really always, looked outrageously fucking cool. I once wrote that Jeff could impress an audience while performing on a block of wood with strings made from rubber bands. Make that one rubber band. 
        My long interview with Jeff from which the quote above was extracted took place backstage at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island in New York before a show with the Jan Hammer Group, and the chief sub at Melody Maker chose to headline the 2,000+ word piece I wrote LIVE WIRED BECK. It was apt. Beck was a live wire. Though I never saw him playing one, I have no doubt he was adept on acoustic guitar but for me he was always an electric guitarist and an electrician to boot, the kind of craftsman who would spend many happy hours taking his instrument completely apart with a screwdriver and pliers, then tamper a bit, perhaps rewire a pick-up or the control knobs, or adjust the action by fiddling with the bridge, then reassemble it piece by piece, and finally plug it in, turn the volume up to 11 and check the results by playing the same scales he learned as a teenager. By all accounts he could strip a car and reassemble it, so doing the same with an electric guitar would have been child’s play to him. If his reassembled guitar didn’t sound like it did before, or like anyone else, the experiment was worthwhile.
        This need to alter things was reflected in the restlessness that characterised his career. Unlike his two great ex-Yardbirds rivals Eric and Jimmy, he never stayed in one place too long. “I don’t like the responsibility of having a permanent band because I don’t work that much,” he told me in that same interview, the only one I ever did with him. “I can’t have a group hanging around my neck all the time because I can’t provide them with enough work. I’m not the type to say, ‘Come with me for all time. We’re buddies in this forever’ to musicians.”
        In this respect, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Jeff was working in the wrong genre, that his talents might have been better suited to jazz, in which musicians switch and rove far more than they do in rock. He half agreed when I put this to him, but while acknowledging that Page and Clapton found greater acceptance and, consequently, greater fame because they stuck with groups, he cared little about the situation. “It doesn’t take much to work out why it’s happened that way,” he told me. “They’re band-type players who form groups, whereas I’ve gone from pillar to post and I’m too elusive for the average person to be able to latch on to what I’m doing. 
        “I’m indecisive in what I do and you can understand people preferring to get into something that’s more permanent. I’m too mobile. I’ve probably got a lot of the old sound still in me, but my mind is miles away from it. I can’t put myself in the same comparative class as Page or Clapton because I’m strongly jazz-influenced, whereas they’re flat-out white rock and roll with stereotyped vocalists with fancy clothes and all that.
        “I mean... it’s all right, I’m not knocking them, but I couldn’t see me doing it. I’d just be another one of the bunch if I formed a band like that. I like to feel that I’m at least trying something different. I’m making a good living at it. I’m not starving by any means.
        “I would hate to live and die in the same band. That wouldn’t be my idea of fun at all. A lot of these groups stay together because they are insecure individually.”
        I began this little tribute to Jeff Beck with a comment on his lack of insecurity. In 1984 I happened to be sitting behind him at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road where the film This Is Spinal Tap was having an invite-only UK preview. It’s no secret that Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel, played by Christopher Guest, was the spitting image of Jeff, perhaps even modelled on him. While some musicians might have been insulted, or just a bit miffed, by this evident parody, it gives me enormous pleasure to record that Jeff laughed his head off throughout the entire movie. No insecurity there, I thought. 


SPECTOR – Sky Documentary

There was no more pathetic sight than the prison shots of Phil Spector, wrinkled and bald, his dignity in ruins, his vanity undone, his arrogance tamed; the great record producer – some say the greatest ever – reduced to little more than a husk. Most of the interviewees in Spector, the Sky documentary film aired this week, believe he got his just deserts and it’s hard to argue with them, though his daughter Nicole does her best and a handful of figures from his past, musicians and studio hands who’d worked with him long ago, draw more attention to his accomplishments than to the way it all ended.

        The story unfolds over four hour-long episodes: how Lana Clarkson was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, working on the door at the Los Angeles House of Blues when Spector, whom she failed to recognise, turned up very late and very drunk. Two ‘dates’ had already abandoned him that night but he was still on the prowl for female company, so he coerced Clarkson into accompanying him back to his palatial home where he shot her in the mouth, the penalty for declining to accompany him to the bedroom, as was alleged in court at two separate trials, the second of which saw Spector found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19-years in prison, where he died in 2021.

        On the previous day, The Sunday Telegraph Magazine had published an interview Spector gave to the writer Mick Brown a few weeks before. It was the first interview the famously reclusive Spector had given in 25 years, and when news of Clarkson’s murder reached the Telegraph’s offices in London Brown’s colleagues were concerned that something he had written might have triggered events. Brown, who went on to write the book Tearing Down The Walls Of Sound: The Rise & Fall of Phil Spector, is the most prominent, and lucid, of all the interviewees in the documentary because he straddles both camps, acclaiming Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ production style, as do many in the film’s first hour, yet siding with the prosecution as Clarkson’s fate and its consequences dominate the film’s later episodes. He’s also eloquent on Spector’s madness, or eccentricity, or genius, or whatever you want to call it. 

        The producers go to great lengths to avoid the errors of judgement that clouded those Spector obituaries that devoted the lion’s share of space to his music while mentioning Clarkson merely as a footnote. Over the four hours we learn as much about the life and career of Lana Clarkson as we do about the life and career of Phil Spector, his far greater celebrity of less weight than the need to present an evenly-balanced portrayal, with comments by Spector acolytes repeatedly countered by those who knew and admired Clarkson, among them her mother. The oft-used, pejorative, description of her as a ‘B-movie actress’ is soundly disparaged by her friends, as are suggestions by Spector’s defence team that she was ‘washed up’ and might have had reason to deliberately kill herself. 

        I would have been 11 years old when Phil Spector first arrived in my consciousness. ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ was playing on the jukebox in the coffee bar just across Mill Bridge in Skipton, where I often listened to records in those days. The melody was very simple, trite even, but there was something about the way it was recorded, a haunting quality that accentuated the love-struck singer’s palpable sincerity, that appealed to me, and I liked the way the middle-eight ramped up the emotion, that soaring high note, and how it resolved into the verse via a tidy descending run. Within a month I had badgered my parents into buying it for me, a 7-inch single on the invariably dependable black and silver London American label, same as Jerry Lee, Eddie Cochran and the Everly Brothers. I have loved the records that Spector made ever since, including those by Beatles John and George. 

        In a December 24 post about the virtues of Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, I recalled that around 44 years after first hearing ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, on February 3, 2003, I was having lunch with Richard Williams, an old Melody Maker colleague, at the precise moment – 5am in California, 1pm in London – when Clarkson was shot. The purpose of our lunch was to discuss Omnibus Press, of which I was editor, republishing Phil Spector: Out Of His Head, Richard’s critical study of Spector’s work, first published in 1972 and long out of print. While unbeknownst to us Spector was being taken into custody, Richard and I were concluding an agreement that saw Out Of His Head, with a new introduction and revised conclusion, appear in the shops later that year. Cynics no doubt thought its reappearance was motivated purely by the events of that day in LA but this was not the case – it really was an astonishing coincidence – though I can’t deny the circumstances didn’t strengthen my resolve to get the new edition out promptly. Today, almost twenty years later, its still in print. 

        Nevertheless, the timing of our lunch was still a bit weird, but weirdness clung to Spector like a limpet, as this documentary makes clear, and maybe this happenstance was simply another manifestation of Spector-related weirdness. This is a repeated theme in the film and it connects with Spector’s credo that timing, good and bad, is what really matters in life; not just Hal Blaine’s immaculate sense of timing as his snare launches the chorus of a fabulous Ronette’s record, or how A Christmas Gift For You was stymied through being released on the same day that JFK was shot, or even how Mick Brown’s interview appeared the day before Clarkson lost her life, but how the timing and sequence of unforeseen events really does govern our lives. This gripping documentary hinges on that exact same premise  a tragedy of timing for everyone involved.



Eighty-eight years ago today at shortly after four in the morning Gladys Presley gave birth to twin boys at the wooden shack she called her home in Tupelo, Mississippi. The first child was stillborn but the second, who arrived about 35 minutes later, survived to become America’s most popular singer ever, one of the most successful recording artists of all time and a man who, though it was never his intention, changed the world for the better.

        Elvis changed my life insofar as his was the first music that really excited me, and that led to a career writing about it. Elvis is widely referred to as the King of Rock’n’Roll but, in reality, his work stretched across every area of popular music: rock, ballads, country, R&B, soul, blues, pure pop and even light opera if you consider ‘O Sole Mio’ (aka ‘It’s Now Or Never’), by his own admission his favourite recording, which was written in 1898 and also recorded by Pavarotti. 

        Eternally fascinated by Elvis, in 2016 I completed a novel about him, Caught In A Trap, which I’d been working on for years. The book imagines a scenario in which he is kidnapped, the motive to compel him to perform for the kidnapper’s Elvis-worshipping wife. The sub-plots involve the bonding that occurs between Elvis and his kidnappers, how he opens up to them about his life, and what happens when he is obliged to conduct himself in public, unrecognised, when he is released. Caught In a Trap, published in 2017, was today ranked number 1,534,115 on Amazon’s book chart, so there’s room for improvement there, not that this excuses my shameless plug. 

        To mark Elvis’ birthday, I’ll revisit an earlier post. My favourite Elvis songs are ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Suspicious Minds’, but instead of writing about these pretty obvious choices here’s a list of ten others, some not so well known, that I also love.


Young Elvis at his frolicsome best, a joyful blend of country and rockabilly. With a spring in his step, he and his Sun crew create a new genre. I particularly like the way Scotty shifts to the off-beat on the middle eight.

RIP IT UP (1956)

The best way to understand why Elvis was light years ahead of Bill Haley & The Comets is to listen to their respective recordings of this song by Bumps Blackwell. Elvis tears into it like he means business, like it really is Saturday night and he feels fine, and the ball really is jumping, while poor old Bill Haley just shuffles along like his Saturday night will end with a whist drive and a cup of Ovaltine before the pillow beckons. Little Richard’s original version is pretty good too, but I’ll take Elvis every time.


This was the original title of ‘One Night’, as recorded by its writer Smiley Lewis, but it was too risqué for the fifties, so Elvis toned it down to ‘One Night (With You)’ on his recording, released in January 1957. The unadulterated version, with Elvis as sexed up as anywhere else in his catalogue, remained in the vaults until 1985 when it appeared on a CD compilation called Reconsider Baby. No wonder the girls screamed.


One of Elvis’ loveliest ballads, as sincere as anything he ever recorded and for my money far better than the more well-known ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ which is taken at the same slow tempo. From the Jailhouse Rock soundtrack. I also have a heartfelt live version of this song by Aaron Neville.


I hadn’t paid much attention to this song until I heard Bruce Springsteen perform it at Wembley Arena in June 1981 on his River tour. As Bruce explained, Elvis followed his dream and this gave it an importance beyond its rather lightweight pop veneer. At just over 90 seconds, it’s very short and sweet but Elvis sings it with consummate professionalism, a pop master at work.


This cover of an early Bob Dylan song appeared on the otherwise worthless Spinout soundtrack album in 1966, recorded on May 27, 1966, at RCA’s studios in Nashville during sessions for the gospel album How Great Thou Art. Elvis was taped singing two verses of ‘I Shall Be Released’ too, and like the only other known recording of Elvis singing a Dylan song – ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ – it was the product of a spirited jam session. When I worked for RCA between 1979 and 1980 I suggested to the A&R department that unedited versions of these songs might make a decent double A-sided 12” single or an EP called Elvis Sings Dylan. No one was interested.


This morality tale takes on greater meaning in the light of its autobiographical symbolism. Opening with an ominous tolling of what appears to be a monotonous funeral bell, its the story of a girl who’d left behind her poverty-stricken background to find riches but paid the ultimate price for her sins. Elvis’ intense vocal turns the song into a kind of Biblical parable, his voice weary and despairing, perhaps drawing an analogy between his own life and, morbidly prescient, the way it would end.


By Barrie Mann and Cynthia Weill, Elvis in pure pop mode. The live version I have, on his 70s Masters set, finds him in wonderful voice, missing a beat on the first verse and then, for reasons unexplained, acknowledging a burst of applause that inspires him to a great performance.


Another emotion-packed vocal performance, surely aimed at Priscilla whenever he sang it live. This was Elvis’ last release of 1972 coupled wwith ‘Separate Ways’; a much-covered country song first recorded by Gwen McCrae that same year. The Pet Shop Boys released a version of the same song in 1987.

DANNY BOY (1976)

Elvis tackles ‘The Londonderry Air’ with both respect and reserve. This is proof positive that towards the end of his life, when his health and personal life was falling apart, he could still summon up those extraordinary vocal skills when he was sufficiently inspired by a beautiful melody; a master singer indeed. Lovely background vocals too.