|It's Now Or Never, Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding
Robert Gordon doing Elvis Presley sounds like a natural. People have been asking for it since Robert's Private Stock days, but Robert was always afraid of being tagged another "impersonator". Over the years, he has sporadically done Elvis covers, and they served as tantalising glimpses of what we could expect from a Robert Gordon "Elvis" album. Standouts include his fabulous, highly individualistic interpretations of 'Love Me' and 'It Feels So Right', both from the early 90s. They were recorded once again for this album, only this time sans the individualism.
"Reunited with legendary guitar hero Chris Spedding for the first time in 13 years...", the cover blurb proudly claims, a somewhat fraudulous statement, since it totally ignores a major CD & DVD release ('Rockin' The Paradiso', Last Call, 2006) as well as four reunion tours. Anyway, let's dispose with the formalities and put the disc in the player...
Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding
A Mess O' Blues
This track opens with Johnny Neel's lovely rolling piano and some great fingersnapping, and right from the get-go the band hits a solid groove. Robert sounds totally at home, and delivers an outstanding vocal performance. Brilliant.
I Beg Of You
The high standard continues with a sizzling version of El's 1957 rocker 'I Beg Of You'. The band's playing on this great track is bold and chunky, while Gordon sings the lyrics with great authority. Check out the great interaction with the Jordanaires. Another highlight.
Don't Leave Me Now
This Leiber & Stoller composition from the MGM movie 'Jailhouse Rock' is a fine performance, though it sounds a bit too regimented to me. Robert's 1979 live version from the 'Move It' import album (Crown Electric, 2005) is a notch better, in my view.
I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone
Why they selected this song is beyond me, as it's not Robert Gordon material at all. His voice sounds rather formal and stiff, and in parts very strained.
Peace In The Valley
Not too sure about this one either. Gordon sings the song in a very deep register, and frankly speaking, it does very little for me. Some excellent harmonies by the Jordanaires though.
Don't Be Cruel
Quite a good version actually, but Elvis' version is so definitive that all other versions suffer in comparison. I wish they would have chosen more of Elvis' lesser known tracks for this album, instead of zeroing in on the early classics.
Lawdy Miss Clawdy
Very faithful to Presley's early RCA version, but Robert's voice is not as dynamic and vibrant as Elvis'. Maybe that's an unfair comparison, but since all of these versions are musically so close to the originals, direct comparisons are inevitable. No doubt a better idea would have been to go for a more individualistic approach, much like the aforementioned version of 'Love Me' from the 'Greetings from New York City' album?
My Baby Left Me
This track is a mess. How this one made it past Quality Control is beyond me. Robert's voice sounds very 'flat' and uninspired. Maybe this was cut at the end of the session? The band's playing on this is below par too, too fast and with no real groove. Next.
A solid version with confident vocals by Gordon. I played this one back-to-back with the Elvis version, and one element that is sadly missing is the 'tongue-in-cheek' delivery that made the Presley version such a knockout track. Spedding copies Scotty's guitar solo, which the latter once described as "ancient psychedelia", but the rough edges are now smoothened out. A great pity in my view; as Scotty stated in an interview a couple of years ago, it's the errors & the bum notes on the original recordings that are the real gold!
I like this one a lot. Robert does a great job on mimicking Elvis' sincere vocal delivery, and his interaction with the Jordanaires is quite simply sensational. Pure class.
Trying To Get To You
Ouch! What is this?! Robert's voice sounds very flat on this track, almost nasal, and he's really straining on the bridge. Probably another 'end of session' track, or maybe the material is simply not suited to his voice. It seems that there's also a slight synching problem on this track, as the drums sound a bit off here and there… the groove's not quite right.
Baby I Don't Care
Ah, this is much better! Gordon is in great voice and the band is tight, especially the amazing Johnny Neel on piano. This version is very respectful towards the original, and therein lies part of the problem with this album. You constantly expect Robert & Chris to break out of the role as 'museum curators', and add some of their own unique 'oomph' to the proceedings, but it just doesn't happen. So what you're basically left with is a series of quaint period pieces. That doesn't mean that they don't have their charm, because most of them do, but I really feel that the album would have benefitted from a more adventurous approach. Just listen to Bruce Springsteen's brilliant reworkings of Elvis favorites like 'Follow That Dream' and 'Wear My Ring Around Your Neck'… truly a lost opportunity.
It's Now Or Never
I've never cared much for this song, and Robert's version didn't win me over either. While his singing is good, he also sounds quite formal and distant, and in places his phrasing seems rather unnatural (poor breathing control?). The musicianship on this version is excellent, particularly some fine mandoline-style guitar that adds greatly to the Napolitan flavour.
It Feels So Right
A lesser-known track from one of El's finest albums, 'Elvis Is Back' (1960). An inspiring choice, and a splendid performance. This track really brings home the point that I made earlier, that the album would have benefitted from more originality instead of Xeroxing Presley's classic hits.
Young & Beautiful
Superlatives fail to describe the sheer beauty of this performance. Robert's singing on this track is outstanding, and his phrasing is just immaculate. The band's playing is tasteful and understated. Add the legendary Jordanaires to that and you have one of Robert's best-ever performances. The only criticism I have is that at a little over 2 minutes it seems quite short, but thanks to the 'repeat' button on my CD player I can enjoy this landmark performance as much as I want to.
Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding
All in all, it's certainly an interesting album, but there's no denying that there are a couple of below par tracks. I've mentioned the somewhat sterile production, and the fact that the approach is probably a bit too respectful, too historical. And perhaps they focused so much on getting certain small details right, that in the process they forgot about the components that made Elvis Presley the greatest performer of our time: raw emotion, spontaneity, and that element of fun.
I realize that these components are abstract and cannot be translated into notes and charts, but for me this album really makes you realize what we lost in 1977. With all respect to Robert, who is a fine performer and a great singer, but there's only one Elvis and even 30 years after his death, there's no one that can fill the man's shoes.
However, taken on its own merits this is a fine album, with a couple of truly excellent performances, most notably 'A Mess O' Blues', 'I Beg Of You', 'Love Me' and 'Young & Beautiful'. Although 'The King & I' as a whole is not as strong as its studio predecessor 'Satisfied Mind' (Jungle Records, 2004), these tracks alone make this release a worthwile purchase.
More Robert Gordon:
Robert Gordon, Rockabilly Bad Boy
Move It - Unreleased Rec. 1978-1992
Robert Gordon & Danny Gatton
The Official Robert Gordon Website
Reviewed by Arjan Deelen, 2007
Used with permission