Blue Hawaii is cheap and plentiful and thoroughly entertaining.
A 2017 Guardian article confirms the crate digger’s suspicious mind: Elvis Presley memorabilia isn’t worth as much as it used to be. On the right day, dollar bins and thrift stores might be clogged with well-loved Elvis vinyl that you can pick up for less than a bag of circus peanuts. Which is a good way as any to dig into an oversized legend that for younger generations has become something of a punchline, or worse, in the Public Enemy lyric, something to be chastised. But the soundtrack to Blue Hawaii, cheap copies of which are plentiful online and in the wild, is a far more curious piece of cultural history than the Firestone Christmas albums that often share its musty space.
The 1961 movie was the first of three big-screen vehicles for the King shot in the 50th state, and it’s one of the better examples of a formula that sent Elvis to various foreign lands: G.I. Blues had the Army Elvis stationed in Germany, for instance; Fun in Acapulco had a swimming Elvis (a strong argument for the theory that Elvis movies are his generation’s Esther Williams movies) who fled to Mexico after he caused a tragic accident in his family trapeze act (the resulting fear of heights makes this Elvis’ Vertigo, but that’s a subject for another piece).
Typically, each Elvis-around-the-world feature gives him the opportunity to take on some of the local flavor for his music. The trouble is, the Mexican rhythms or German schlager, at least as imagined by his producers and frequent “technical advisor” Col. Tom Parker, didn’t do Presley’s natural gift any favors. Which makes Blue Hawaii stand out; for once, the musical chameleon benefits from the regional traditions, or at least the commercialized version of it. Elvis’ smooth timbre turns out to be a natural fit for the islands’ signature slack key; after all, if a good half of Elvis’ pop heritage came from country music, the Nashville pedal steel is at least a kissin’ cousin to the opening tunings of Hawaii–which, as legend has it, came from 19th century Mexican cowboys.
But that’s not all you get. The repertoire is all over the place, from a title ballad that originated with Bing Crosby in 1937 and was fairly definitively recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1958 for his own travelogue, Come Fly With Me. If Old Blue Eyes delivered the lyric with a mature worldliness, Elvis crooned lines like Dreams come true/ In blue Hawa-a-a-i with a silky, hammy seduction, all the better to lure the local women.
There’s throwaway rock ‘n’ roll like “Almost Always True,” which slides the rockabilly guitar fills to approximate the sound of the islands, and even sillier stuff like “Rock-A-Hula Baby,” but the slight attempts to merge the King’s country & western-R&B with Hawaiian kitsch are endearing—even the absurd “Ito Eat,” which lasts all of 84 seconds. The tropical percussion and “native” chorus homage to somebody who “Never get enough of fish and poi” is for better and for worse the epitome of Elvis the musical traveler. It’s completely understandable if this very track, which after all had a place on the bootleg compilation “Elvis’ Greatest Shit, might represent all that was wrong with mid-century American tokenism or appropriation or what have you, but it’s hard for this writer of South Pacific heritage to see it as anything but the silliest example of Elvis’ omnivorous appetite for local flavor; it’s that very inability to recognize boundaries that send the young Elvis, who lived on the edge of white and African American neighborhoods in Memphis, to absorb everything he heard and give it his own voice—a voice that eventually became the most globally successful voice of the pre-Beatles era.
After all – much as Elvis would play the ecumenical genre tourist wherever he hung his hat, he gave aspiring stars around the world something to dream about; this weird white guy from America with the wiggling hips and big lips and the friendly sneer that drove girls wild was a fascinating template. Before the late-career fatigue set in and the cornball mannerisms overwhelmed what made him such a unique force, Elvis at his best seemed so much himself, so comfortable in his shaking skin, that even those who impersonated him could find their own voice in his example: look at Tom Jones, for the example you know, or Argentina’s Sandro, for an example you probably don’t know. Elvis was such a distinct brand that when he was franchised into all these fragmented parts around the world, you could see the inspiration intact, and that was okay.
The album has one all-timer of an Elvis ballad in “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and even that demonstrates his ability to touch any kind of music and make it his; its source is an 18th century French ballad. But what makes Hawaii so simpatico with Elvis can be heard in the corny “Ku-U-I-Po.” With pedal steel exotica and sliding croon, it shamelessly panders to the island milieu, and it’s an absolute delight. You may not be able to find essentials like the Sun Sessions or Elvis’ 1956 RCA debut for a dollar, but Blue Hawaii is cheap and plentiful and thoroughly entertaining; it’s got all the surface depth of a tiki party, but there are enough layers there if you listen and think about it while you hula.