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By Mahnuel Muñoz

By March 1966, when the single “Frankie And Johnny” was released, the world expected little more from Elvis Presley than another inconsequential new film to entertain his fans and fill his own and other people’s coffers, and the corresponding soundtrack made up of songs serving the simple plots.

Music, more than ever, is the wall on which artists record their messages about the events that disturb human beings, and in the public Elvis there seems to be nothing left of the incendiary young man who a decade ago arrived galloping on the back of rock, like a beautiful Attila.

But the restless artist, the troubled and spiritual man that Presley has become, despite not seeing any way out of the infernal film carousel in which he is trapped, never gives up expressing his musical and human longings, as faithfully attested by the private recordings of that time and the studio gems, among which the LP “How Great Thou Art” stands out, by right. Even when he has before him the sample of horrors that is often a soundtrack, he manages to polish with his voice and interpretation that piece with possibilities that sneaks into the repertoire and dazzles as he always did, adding a touch of his purest essence.

With “Frankie And Johnny” Elvis returns to the terrain explored in 1958 with the songs of “King Creole”, adopting a dixieland sound that fits like a glove to the southern feeling that underpins his singing, and gives a vocally brilliant and emotionally honest performance that, unfortunately, goes unnoticed in the musical reality of his time, monopolized by the Beatles, Stones, Dylan and other prophets who, ironically, had driven the revolution by drinking from the folk sources to which “Frankie And Johnny” belonged.

Originally titled “Frankie and Albert,” this traditional murder ballad was inspired by a real-life crime committed by a woman named Frankie Baker in 1899. Frankie discovered that her lover, Albert Britt, had been with another woman and took revenge by shooting him in St. Louis. Baker was later acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

The origins of the song as we know it today are unclear. It was officially published as “Frankie and Johnny” in 1904 and was credited to lyricist and composer Hughie Cannon, author of, among others, “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Baley” although some claim the author may have been a singer named Bill Dooley

Countless versions over the years have provided many variations of the song. Sometimes the couple are “lovers” rather than “sweethearts.” Johnny’s mistress may be Alice Pry or Nelly Bly. Sometimes Frankie is cheered on by onlookers as she shoots Johnny and is exonerated; other times, she is executed. 

Some of the most notable versions up to the day Elvis made his own were those by Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash (who turned Johnny into a clubbing guitarist) or Sam Cooke (who turned it almost into a soul party). In Elvis the song takes on a more dramatic tone, because he narrates it in the first person and, unlike other flatter predecessors, it builds to a crescendo towards the ending. The King performs with the bite of his post-adolescence, which had been slowly diluted in the Hollywood asepsis. The band of winds and woodwinds around him is simply untouchable, they are so hot; among the musicians is Gus Bivona on sax, a veteran who had cut his teeth in the swing era with Bunny Berigan, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey

The soundtrack to “Frankie And Johnny” is quite interesting, especially when compared to the rest of Elvis’ film output from that period.

Article written and provided by Mahnuel Muñoz.

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