A Date With Elvis: A Guide To Costello And Collaborations

Terry Staunton looks at the strange and frightening world of Elvis Costello collaborations

Following on from his recent mammoth interview with Elvis Costello, Terry Staunton gives us his whistle stop introduction to the man’s best collaborations.

A Black And White Night with Roy Orbison [1989]

The soundtrack to a HBO TV special, filmed in monochrome at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, with Elvis (on guitar, organ and harmonica) lining up in The Big O’s A-list backing band alongside Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and others. The only “new” song in a set otherwise comprised of the pop legend’s biggest hits was the Costello-penned ‘The Comedians’, a version of the track from his own Goodbye Cruel World album, with reworked lyrics tailored to Orbison’s broken-hearted stage persona.

GBH with Richard Harvey [1991]

Costello’s second soundtrack score (after 1988’s The Courier) was commissioned for Alan Bleasdale’s TV drama about corruption in local politics, starring Robert Lindsay and Michael Palin. It was entirely orchestral with no vocal contributions from Elvis, but the series’ main theme also formed the basis of ‘Couldn’t Call It Unexpected’ from his Mighty Like A Rose album released the same year. He worked with composer Harvey again on Bleasdale’s next small screen project, Jake’s Progress, although Elvis’ links to the playwright stretch back to acting roles in Scully and No Surrender.

The Juliet Letters with The Brodsky Quartet [1993]

Triggered by a newspaper story about a Verona academic who collected letters written by real people to Shakespeare’s fictional star-cross’d lovers, Elvis and the renowned string quartet constructed a song cycle based on various forms of correspondence (the reading of a will, communiqués from divorce lawyers, a suicide note, a front line soldier’s letter home, etc). A modest success on its release, continued interest in the Quartet among classical music fans has, 20 years later, made it one of his biggest sellers.

Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears with Wendy James [1993]

Following the demise of Transvision Vamp, the band’s singer appealed to Costello for material for her debut solo album. Elvis responded by writing ten songs with his then wife Cait O’Riordan, allegedly over a single weekend, several of which spoke directly to James’s disposable pop star past and self-aggrandising media image as a Ladbroke Grove hipster (‘Puppet Girl’, ‘Do You Know What I’m Saying?’, ‘London’s Brilliant’). A handful of Costello’s original demos turned up as B-sides on his own records.

Deep Dead Blue with Bill Frisell [1995]

Recorded live at London’s South Bank Centre during Costello’s stint as curator of the annual Meltdown festival, Frisell’s eclectic guitar stylings and jazzy harmonics dominated the covers material (Charles Mingus’s ‘Weird Nightmare’, the title song of the musical Gigi). They also brought fresh light and shade to minimalist arrangements of lesser known songs from the Costello canon (‘Love Field’, ‘Poor Napoleon’).

Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach [1998]

Initially brought together by director Allison Anders to write a song (‘God Give Me Strength’) for her 1996 film Grace Of My Heart, the Elvis and Burt partnership blossomed into a full album’s worth of material, much of it informed by the iconic lovelorn pop classics Bacharach forged with lyricist Hal David decades earlier. One track, ‘I Still Have That Other Girl’, earned Costello his first Grammy, 20 years after he and Chic were among nominees who lost out on the Best Newcomer gong to disco duo A Taste Of Honey. A Broadway musical inspired by the album is currently in pre-production, with additional songs to flesh out the story.

For The Stars with Anne Sofie von Otter [2001]

Swedish mezzo-soprano von Otter dipped her toe in a more populist pool with an album produced and arranged by Costello, who also duetted on several tracks. Covers of The Beach Boys, ABBA, Paul McCartney and Tom Waits shared space with Elvis oldies (‘I Want To Vanish’, ‘Baby Plays Around’) and songs written specifically for the project, pitched between mainstream pop classicism and the chamber music Costello had earlier explored with The Brodsky Quartet.

The Girl In The Other Room with Diana Krall [2004]

Jazz pianist and singer Krall’s first album after becoming the third Mrs Costello was a marked departure from the six collections of standards she’d previously released. Although hubby himself didn’t perform on the record, he co-wrote six of the tracks with his spouse, some of which addressed the recent death of Diana’s mother. A version of Elvis’s ‘Almost Blue’ also featured, alongside covers of Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits.

Il Sogno with the London Symphony Orchestra [2004]

Like The Juliet Letters a decade earlier, Costello’s first ballet score, commissioned by the Aterballeto Dance Company of Italy, took its inspiration from Shakespeare, the music forming the basis of a dance suite set to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It gave Elvis the only chart-topper of his lengthy career to date, albeit in the Billboard classical chart.

My Flame Burns Blue with The Metropole Orkest [2006]

Recorded live at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland, Costello and Attraction/Imposter Steve Nieve joined forces with the country’s energetic 52-piece big band to reinterpret works by jazz giants Charles Mingus and Billy Strayhorn, while also giving former glories from their own catalogue a fresh lick of paint. Most notable was the reupholstering of both ‘Watching The Detectives’ and ‘Clubland’ into epic pieces inspired by the music of bygone film noir soundtracks.

The River In Reverse with Allen Toussaint [2006]

After calling on New Orleans legend Toussaint as an arranger in the past, this full collaboration came after the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, the title track first written for a US benefit concert. The album comprised a further half dozen co-writes, alongside new versions of choice cuts from Toussaint’s back pages (‘On Your Way Down’, ‘All These Things’). The pair continue to work together, Toussaint a recurring fixture in the house band for Costello’s short-lived music and chat TV show Spectacle, currently running in the UK on the Sky Arts channel.

Welcome To The Voice with Steve Nieve [2007]

This is a short opera composed by Costello’s long time keyboard player of choice, with libretto by his partner Muriel Teodori, drawing on figures from Greek mythology and placing them in a modern industrial setting. Elvis was given the plum role of the villainous Chief Of Police, with other characters voiced by Robert Wyatt and Sting.

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