Miracle Legion – “Me and Mr. Ray” (1989)

May 3, 2009 at 1:09 pm (Fran Fried, Music, Reviews & Articles)

March 5, 1989 Waterbury Republican review by Fran Fried of this now somewhat-forgotten CT band…


Miracle Legion, Left to Their Own Devices, Succeeds 

New Haven’s twins of different mothers, Mark Mulcahy and Ray Neal, have always seemed to have, like some real sets of twins, their own separate little world and language. We don’t understand either many times, but we take it all for what it is.
Their creative core is the insular world of twins, a secret club locked to even those closest to them – which is what led to what happened the first week of last July; the rhythm half of the band, tired of being left out of the creative process, took a walk and left the two to their own devices.
Now, this could have been a low point. Their album Surprise Surprise Surprise and their ensuing EP Glad, which Rough Trade banked upon to be successful on the college charts and beyond, were boring flops. They had no bandmates and their future was uncertain.
But a funny thing happened.
A day or so after the split, Mark and Ray – with the occasional help of a guitarist friend – took the Night Shift stage in Naugatuck for their scheduled gig and, stripped to the bare essentials, played a full set which brought out the best in their music. They were much more enjoyable as a duo (and I hate to admit it, knowing a couple of people who’ve been given the musical cold shoulder by them), as they turned their sudden bit of adversity into a plus.
Thus, they decided – to Rough Trade’s chagrin – to go into the studio by themselves (first a place in Boston, and when that didn’t pan out, Prince’s Paisley Park in Minneapolis). With the enhancements of a studio setting, plus the ambience of their bare-bones sound intact, the end result is a pleasant surprise, surprise, surprise – even better than their two-man live shows.
This, finally, is the record with all the excellence promised when a little EP called The Backyard spread like a national-park fire from the Elm City across the country and the Atlantic four summers back.
Their sound, for the most part, is acoustic-based adult folk-rock flower-child innocence and optimism and frailties wrapped into tidy rustic bundles (and often abstract lyrics). Again, I hate to say it, for the reasons above, but comparing this record to the last two, it’s safe to conclude that Mark and Ray were weighed down by having a full band.
Their sound had been murky and plodding, to say the least. This time, unencumbered by extra musicians unless necessary, all their subtle delicacy is brought forth for the first time since The Backyard. Songs like “And Then” (accentuated by minor chords) and the poppy “Even Better” (with some tight harmonies, to boot), bear this out, as does “You’re the One Lee” (pronounced “only”), a breezy strummer showing hope in the face of doubt. Also notable, for its tightly woven harmonies which come off as a locomotive whistle in spots, is “Old Is New.”
They also manage to show absolute force, long buried, when needed. In fact, the first song, “The Ladies From Town,” puts you on notice, with its lonesome harp and desperado strumming. “If She Could Cry,” from the Hank Williams school of honky-tonk, comes through as well. And “Pull the Wagon,” which starts in an acoustic trot and ends in a furious electric gallop as the intensity builds, stands by itself.
It’s funny how life works. Back in the heady days when Miracle Legion was compared to R.E.M. and New Haven’s old Grotto was packed with fans who bestowed a sort of demigod status upon Mark, the group never followed through on its potential. Now that the New Haven scene has scattered and their large area following has dwindled, they’ve come through with possibly their best overall effort. Just something to ponder, mind you.

Fran Fried

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Stephen Rudko – “Reinventing Elvis: The American Sound Studio Sessions”

May 3, 2009 at 12:15 pm (Elvis Presley, Reviews & Articles)

An article on Elvis from the webzine Perfect Sound Forever. There is no exact date on this, but appears to be from 2007-08…

It was bitter cold the evening of January 13, 1969, in Memphis, Tennessee. Producer Chips Moman and the searing band of musicians he had assembled at American Sound Studios were waiting the arrival of Elvis Presley and his notorious retinue. It would be the first evening of a scheduled ten day recording venture. It would also be the first such session for Presley outside of Nashville or Hollywood since he cut his last side for Sam Phillips at Sun Studio in 1955.

 The next few weeks were to be a milestone in Presley’s career. On his own initiative, with considerable encouragement and prodding from his friends, he would slip from under his agent’s conservative and protective control to work with one of the hottest house bands and one of the hottest producers in the country. He would break many well-worn habits that had put his career in neutral. He would make a sustained effort to recreate himself and re-establish his musical dominance. And he would assemble strong new material for an adventurous live act set to open July 31st, later that year in Las Vegas.

That Presley would rise to and seize the occasion now seems, viewed through the layers of legend shrouding every aspect of his life, a done deal. Elvis had only to show up at American Sound and spin wax into gold. But on that cold evening, at 827 Thomas Street, in a dilapidated, black section of his adopted hometown, the jury was still out.

 Elvis’s decision to leave Hollywood and return to the live stage had been slow in coming. For ten long years, he had dedicated his career to filming B-quality musicals at the grueling schedule of three or so a year. The profits were certain. Elvis would never lose money at the box office. But the receipts began to dwindle as the years went by and the quality of the material he accepted through his agent, Colonel Tom Parker, remained consistently mediocre. For Elvis, motivation was never about money. Presley had become bored and restless. And he was embarrassed.

 There had been a few early films that had challenged him, even inspired him: Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, King Creole. But after his discharge from the army in 1960, he became trapped in a revolving door of lightweight vehicles, usually set in exotic locals with one excuse after another to strap him in cars, helicopters or boats. Some were notably better than others, but none tended to stretch or risk the leading man. The plots were as formulaic as the music. Take for example, “Song of the Shrimp” from Girls, Girls, Girls (1962), or “El Torro” and “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” from Fun in Acapulco (1963), or “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” from Easy Come, Easy Go (1967).

 Presley resented that the financial success of his films, as silly and trivial as they were, enabled the studio to realize more ambitious and risky projects. Rumor had it, and so Elvis believed, that Hal Wallis’s Beckett, with Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, was financed largely on the windfall from Blue Hawaii. Elvis was paying for the Oscar triumphs of others.

 But Presley’s real problem was not the poor quality of his films (the sets for Harum Scarum, 1965, were cardboard leftovers from Cecil B. De Mille’s Anthony and Cleopatra) or the formulaic plots (he called them travelogues) or the grind of the work itself (it had started out as fun with lots of horseplay and, of course, lots of girls, but even that had become routine) or that he would never be taken seriously as an actor (he would be offered a meaty part in Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born, but would slink away from the challenge). The real rub was that making movies “24/7” had taken Elvis away from his life’s blood: the fans.

And that had left him behind the times. When Martin Luther King was shot and killed just miles away from Graceland on April 4, 1968, and riots erupted across the country, Elvis was singing to Dominick, a bull in Stay Away Joe, his 26th film. The evolution in recording technique and the intensely provocative sounds of the turbulent decade never reached one of his soundtracks. Presley, the revolutionary, the leader of his generation had fallen completely out of touch with an audience he could neither recognize nor trust. He was in serious danger of becoming irrelevant.

The first steps toward recovery came in early 1968. He refused to renew movie contracts and opted to appear in a December television special sponsored by Singer. Part of the special would be taped in front of a live audience, the so-called “pit” segment, in which he appeared in black leather with musicians from his early years: D. J. Fontana, Scotty Moore, Charlie Hodge, and Alan Fortas from the Memphis Mafia. For the first time in seven years, Presley performed live. And when all was said and done, after all the worry and uncertainty, Elvis proved definitively, not just to his stalwart fans, who would be there to the bitter end anyway, but to himself that he still had that intangible “it.”

Many of the songs were nostalgic, “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” “Mystery Train,” etc. The fans always wanted to be reminded of the good old days. But there were some refreshing new sounds, “Memories” by Billy Strange and Mac Davis, and “Guitar Man” by Jerry Reed, which Elvis had recorded the previous year.

 Most importantly, there was the gospel-bluesy “If I Can Dream,” written especially for the close by musical director, W. Earl Brown. Elvis resisted Colonel Parker’s standing order that the special close with a standard Christmas carol and avoid any kind of social comment. Steve Binder, the producer, felt a message song about peace, humanity and brotherhood would be a bold and fitting send off. Binder sold the idea to Elvis:

Earl sat down at the piano and played it through. Elvis sort of sat there listening. He didn’t comment; he just said, “Play it again.” So Earl sat there and played it again – and again. Then Elvis started to ask some questions about it, and I would venture to say Earl probably played the song six or seven times in a row. Then Elvis looked at me and said, “We’re doing it.”

It was a significant and unusual moment. Elvis rarely over-ruled Parker, and it demonstrates the confidence he felt as he began to retool his image.

 The Singer Special was an enormous success and insured a lucrative contract in Las Vegas for the coming summer. An eager audience waited for him, and as generous and as forgiving as his fans had always been, he would have to meet great expectations. Elvis needed something new to communicate, music to address a mature and intelligent audience. He needed records. He needed hit records.

 The day after his 34th birthday on January 9, 1969, Elvis met with RCA producer, Felton Jarvis, in the Jungleroom at Graceland to discuss going to Nashville to record what he hoped would put him back on top of the charts.

 Jarvis (1936-81) was the off-beat type of guy that appealed to Elvis – he kept a boa constrictor in a burlap bag in his office. Before coming on board with RCA he had produced Fats Domino and Gladys Knight. He also made the hit Shiela for Tommy Roe.

 Jarvis got his job after Elvis summarily dismissed an indifferent Chet Atkins in 1966. The incident reveals Presley’s attitude at work.

One night at a session in RCA’s Studio B [in Nashville], Elvis looked over and Chet Atkins was at the console with his head down, asleep. Elvis watched him through the whole damn take, and he never woke up. Elvis waited ’til the session was over, and then he told either Colonel Parker or Tom Diskin [Parker’s assistant, ever present at recording sessions], “I don’t want that son of a bitch here anymore.”

Felton had a respectful, hands-off approach. He basically let Elvis run the show. He even allowed him to record gospels songs at their first session, sharing a sensitivity to Presley’s interests that the singer never forgot (these tracks would become the basis for Presley’s second Grammy award winning gospel album How Great Thou Art). Felton’s primary job was to coordinate recording sessions with Colonel Parker’s office. He never picked songs for Elvis or had any say in choosing musicians. Remarkably, the final say on the band came from the Colonel, sometimes through Tom Diskin.

Jarvis seemed to energize Elvis, often imitating his moves while he sang. Elvis genuinely liked him, and they shared a mutual respect and admiration. In 1970, Elvis pulled strings to find Jarvis a kidney for a much needed transplant and then paid for the operation. Later, Presley insisted that Felton accompany him on his tours, hardly a necessity, and when RCA complained that Jarvis was neglecting the other artists for whom he worked, Elvis simply hired him away to be his personal producer. He wanted Jarvis, like so many others, to be at his beck and call. Around 1976, the weary entertainer in a moment of eerie candor confided to the astonished producer, “I’m just so tired of being Elvis Presley.”

Freddy Bienstock, manager of Hill and Range Music Publishers, brought the songs to the RCA sessions. H & R owned the subsidiary companies Elvis Presley Music and Gladys Music. Under the publishing arrangement, Elvis and the Colonel and H & R received a percentage of the songwriters’ royalties when Elvis sold their songs. A kind of double dip that could really add up fast. Bienstock would report the recording arrangements personally to Parker so that Presley could be intimately managed from afar.

There was a problem inherent in the Hill and Range set up that had been and always would be a thorn in the side of success. Initially, when Elvis was the hottest act on the planet, songwriters would willingly cough up profits to have him record (and quite possibly score a hit) with one of their songs. As the industry changed and more artists hit the charts selling millions, and as Elvis’s sales continued to decline, writers became increasingly reluctant to share royalties. With Parker and H & R insisting on a slice of the pie, the quality of the material presented for Elvis’s consideration began to suffer seriously. For the ‘69 sessions to succeed, there would have to be a way around petty, third party interests.

 The traditional RCA recording method had been long proscribed. Elvis, just as he had at Sun, stood in the middle of the room with a live band around him, often with his harmony group. There was very little over-dubbing. Nashville wasn’t equipped. Elvis preferred it that way, playing off the musicians spontaneously and performing physically. But the style limited the producer’s ability to create and fine tune, and in the end the product could suffer.

With the success of the Singer Special, everyone expected to see Elvis on top of his game. But Presley was known to ape the demos he chose. If he found the material uninspiring, he would simply go through the motions. The sessions could also degenerate into mayhem depending on Presley’s mood, which could be fickle and which his entourage was always quick to pick up on. It was more or less their job to make sure he was happy and that meant tending to and encouraging his slightest whim. One especially important member of that often maligned crew was Marty Lacker.

Lacker first met Elvis at Humes High when they were both in school. In 1960, Elvis invited him out to Hollywood for the Kid Galahad shoot, and Marty stayed on, a made man in the Memphis Mafia. In 1964, Lacker became foreman of the group, Presley’s personal secretary and check writer. He lived for a time at Graceland in a garage apartment with wife and daughter and served as co-best man with Joe Esposito at Elvis’s Vegas wedding in ‘67.

In 1966, Lacker took a promising position to start a new company called Pepper Records and that had him moving and shaking in the Memphis music scene. Before long he was doing production work with Chips over at American Sound Studios, where Red West, Elvis’s childhood friend, was doing session work. Lacker was very impressed: “They were all white guys, but to hear them play you’d swear they were black.”

 Chips Moman founded American Sound Studios in 1965, after finding himself devoid of any real controlling interest in the Stax studio he had helped to create. He was determined to never be cheated again. Around him he gathered a dedicated band of immense quality: Bobby Wood, John Hughey, Tommy Cogbill, Mike Leech, Reggie Young, Gene Chrisman, Ed Kollis, and Bobby Emmons. Collectively, they would place 125 records on the charts over a span of five years.

 American Studios was literally located in the ghetto. After King’s assassination, Memphis was a tense place to be, especially in the black neighborhoods. So Moman kept dogs around and occasionally put a guard on the roof armed with a shotgun to watch over the parking lot.

Lacker knew American’s sound was right for Elvis. It was more commercial and country than their rival, soul oriented Stax. Chips’ technique was also up to date. He would cut a rough vocal track with the rhythm section, setting the structure and tone of the song. Later he would sweeten or orchestrate, adding horns or strings. The artist would then be called back in to lay down the main vocal tracks.

Whenever Lacker mentioned how great working with Chips would be, Elvis would say, “Well, I’ll think about it,” or “One of these days soon we’ll try it.” And Chips would needle Lacker about when Elvis was going to come in and record. “When are you going to tell Elvis to let me produce a record?” But what could Lacker tell him?

 Lacker was sitting there in the Jungleroom that January evening, seething, as he listened to Elvis and Felton finalize the dates for Nashville. He began to unconsciously shake his head back and forth (his head was big, bald and round and as a result his nickname was Moon). He fought back his frustration. Elvis snapped at him, “What the hell’s the matter with you?” and Lacker got the opening he needed to lay it on the line one last time: What about Chips? His band is on fire, turning out hits with big stars – hell, Dusty Springfield came all the way from Britain to work with him just to get that Memphis sound. Why don’t you just try Chips and American?

And [Elvis] said, “Well, maybe someday I will.”
Then everybody got up to go in the dining room, but I just sat there [cursing]. I didn’t want to go sit at the table and hear them talk about the Nashville session…
Well it wasn’t two minutes before Felton came out and said “Elvis wants to see you.”
I said, “Felton, I don’t want to go in there. With all due respect to you and Nashville, I really don’t want to hear about it.” And he said, “No he wants to talk to you about cutting in Memphis.” Well, I was out of that chair in a flash.

Lacker only had four days to set it up. Elvis was on a tight schedule. He still had to shoot one last picture, Change of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore, for MGM, and he had to get busy preparing a live act. Then there was the problem of studio time. Elvis wanted to begin on Monday, but Neil Diamond had been scheduled in that slot. And Elvis worked at night, through the early hours of the morning. How accommodating would Chips be?

Lacker called Chips at his home to let him know that Elvis was willing to give American a go. He let him know the constraints, emphasizing that it had to be a closed session, no guests, no publicity. And he reminded him of the scheduling conflict that would have to be resolved. Diamond was a pretty big star himself. Chip’s exact words were, “Fuck Neil Diamond. Neil Diamond will just have to be postponed. Tell Elvis he’s on.”

Colonel Parker had lost control of his number one asset during an evening dinner at Graceland. His greatest fear was being realized. Elvis had actually made a major decision without seeking either his advice or permission. The question for Parker became how to keep the situation from spinning totally out of his sphere of influence.

Jarvis was too close to Elvis to be counted on to keep a real eye on things. Besides, he had abdicating his position to Chips. He might be able to play a part in post-production, but Chips’ take charge, no bullshit attitude ruled out any serious input in the studio. Parker could only send Diskin and RCA vice-president Harry Jenkins to the sessions to make sure everyone on the gravy train was having his interests considered. Those interests may have been primarily Parker’s, but they were also, the Colonel genuinely felt, Elvis’s. The two, of course, were inseparable.

Oh, and Parker could also send music, lots and lots of music from the Hill and Range catalog. On that count, he thought he was well set up, believing that he had practically placed an insider in Presley’s camp.

Lamar Fike was one of Elvis’s oldest and closest personal friends. At the request of Elvis’s mother, Gladys, he had accompanied Private Presley to Germany, where he served as chauffeur and valet. Throughout the years he would be an integral part of the organization. He survived the wholesale housecleaning in 1976, which resulted in the backlash, tell-all book, Elvis, What Happened? From early on his corpulence and feisty attitude marked him as Elvis’s general whipping post. But Fike was trusted and always played an important role. He introduced Elvis to Jarvis in 1966, in an attempt to lure him away from Hollywood and back to Nashville. After the American sessions, he would run lights for the stage show in Vegas. In the ‘70’s, insulated from Elvis’s often violent mood swings, he would work advance on the countless tours. He would also serve as one of Presley’s pallbearers.

 Fike started working at H & R in 1962, at times in close association with Parker and the home office. And though Fike was a champion of H & R, and worked on their behalf and had practically been placed in the job by the Colonel, he was a team player. After all, what was good for H & R was making money for Elvis too.

 Fike was selling one song, “Kentucky Rain” by Eddie Rabbitt and Dick Heard, that he had a really good feeling about. Elvis wasn’t too impressed, but Fike was persistent. Elvis had to cut it, it was that good, and if he didn’t somebody else was going to chart with it. It was a smart call and Fike would later feel proud. When “Kentucky Rain” was released in 1970, it stayed nine weeks in the top 100, reaching #16. And according to plan, H & R took 50 percent interest in the song and Elvis’s subsidiary took half of that.

Chips began to prepare for Elvis. He pulled songs from his own library he knew Elvis could sink his teeth into. Some he had cut with other artists, some hadn’t worked out just right. “Suspicious Minds” was one. Chips had recorded it with the song’s writer Mark James in 1968 for Scepter, but the record never made the charts. Chips thought he had a good chance with Elvis whose voice and intensity were perfect for the song. When the time came to cut the tracks, Chip used same arrangement as with James (played by the same band), believing that only Elvis was the missing ingredient to a hit record. He was right. It was the last time Elvis would have a number one record on the Hot 100.

Lacker briefed Chips on how Elvis was used to working, on the right things to say and do. Chips wouldn’t need to tell Presley when he was off key or when he made a mistake. And musically he needn’t meddle. Elvis knew what was right for him, he had been doing this a long time. But Chips ignored Lacker’s unsolicited advice. He wasn’t about to curb his talent just to spare Elvis’s ego. The studio was his to control, the band his to direct, and well, Chips figured that when somebody hired him to do a job they were trusting him to go ahead and do it.

(In a January 2007 e-mail, Lacker disputes this, saying: “I did not tell Chips what to say or not say to Elvis. I did tell him about the security and closed session aspect but that’s all. One of the things I knew and respected about Chips was that he was in control of his sessions and I would never tell him what to say or do.”)

In 1994, Chips remembered:

Hindsight’s 20/20 I guess, but I didn’t really think anything so special about getting the chance to record Elvis – not when it happened. Oh, it was okay, but to tell you the truth, we were so busy producing records in Memphis back then (and a lot of ‘em were hits ‘cause we were hot at the time with Neil Diamond and a lot of other stars) that we had to actually work a double shift and cut Roy Hamilton during the day and Elvis at night in order to do those albums. He only had so much open time on his schedule. Now don’t get me wrong. I had always liked Elvis. I always loved his music, especially the early years of his career, but I just went in to work on it like any other project – no big deal. You see, most everybody in Memphis kind of took Elvis for granted – didn’t pay any attention to how big a star he really was. Remember, he was a hometown boy. He’s bigger now in Memphis than he ever was in his best days when he was alive.

The sessions began as scheduled that Monday evening. To Chips and the band it was business as usual. If anything, they were suspicious of all the hype. They were also proud. Elvis was coming to them, to get their help, their sound. They were used to working with big stars and with big egos and Elvis was known to have one of the biggest. But they were also used to producing good material and Elvis hadn’t been doing that for quite some time. Presley was going to have to prove himself. Even so, when Elvis pulled into the back parking lot, Bobby Wood could just sense he had arrived.

I just felt his presence. I felt him. It was almost like Christ was out there or something. There was no doubt about it. I tell you what, I got chill bumps when he came in. I couldn’t help it. It just happened. You knew he was there.

“What a funky, funky place,” Elvis muttered when he entered, possibly to calm his nerves. He was trailed by his regular bunch of guys: Fike, Lacker, Joe Eposito, Sonny and Red West, WHBQ deejay George Klein, and of course Jarvis. Tom Diskin from Parker’s office was there to keep watch, so was Freddy Bienstock, representing H & R, and RCA’s Harry Jenkins. Three or four of the boys on a well established cue pulled cigarette lighters out when Elvis stuck a thin cigar in his mouth. The band cringed.

Chips thought it an aggravation to have all those people around. It was an aggravation for everybody. Elvis was always playing to the guys, always trying to say something cute, keep them laughing. It could get pretty hectic. But for whatever reason, Elvis needed his friends around. They made him feel comfortable. It may have seemed phony to everyone else, but this was the real world to Elvis Presley.

That first night, after a hesitant beginning (everyone needed to get comfortable with one another and Elvis seemed to have opening night jitters), it became clear, and was a particular relief to the musicians, that Elvis meant business. He responded positively to Chips’ direction, and listened attentively even when Chips interrupted him in mid song, admonishing Elvis to “try it again.” It was the same attentiveness and focus Presley had paid to Binder and the Singer Special.

Chips only recorded three songs that evening, “Long Black Limousine” by Bobby George and Vern Stovall, that Chips introduced, “This Is the Story” by Arnold, Morrow and Martin, from Freddy Beinstock and H & R and “Wearin’ that Loved On Look” by Dallas Frazier and Al Owens, which Lamar had brought in. Even so, the session didn’t break up till four the next morning and everyone seemed satisfied. On the ride back to Graceland, Elvis turned to the guys in the back and told them what seemed obvious. “Man, that felt really great. I can’t tell you how good I feel… I really just want to see if I can have a number one record one more time.”

 For the first three days, the sessions went according to plan. Elvis wanted to record some songs that Chips really had no interest in (“Yesterday,” for example), and he would back away until Elvis got them out of his system. Then the cold which had been bothering Presley for weeks came back with a vengence. Elvis stayed at Graceland for a few days to recuperate while Chips cut background and laid down some rhythm tracks for a few new songs.

 Chips had a song by Mac Davis that he knew would be a hit, “In the Ghetto” (Lacker disputes this, saying that Elvis “brought that to the session on a tape of Mac Davis’ songs that he got from Billy Strange who at the time was with Nancy Sinatra’s publishing company who had Mac under a writer’s contract”). Elvis liked Davis and his songs, like “A Little Less Conversation,” but he wasn’t sure about this one. It was a message ballad about the cycle of poverty in the ghetto. It was not typical of what Elvis recorded and it went against the Colonel’s no politics rule. In a press conference in 1972, Elvis made this philosophy clear when asked what he thought of war protesters and whether he would refuse to be drafted: “Honey, I’d just soon to keep my own personal views to myself. ‘Cause I’m just an entertainer and I’d rather not say.”

 George Klein really didn’t think it was a good song for Elvis and told him so, but Chips was insistent. Elvis said he’d think about it.

 Back at Graceland, Elvis and the guys were going through the demos the Colonel had sent from H & R. Elvis was distraught. They were running out of good songs and this batch was just awful. Why wouldn’t they send him some good material for a change? Marty spoke up: the H & R situation was costing Elvis hit songs. Elvis needed to consider music which the Colonel didn’t have a bonus interest in. Presley sat for a while, grinding his teeth and nervously bouncing his leg, language that was an indication that the keg was about to blow.

And finally it did. Business was business, but from now on everybody was going to bring in songs. And if they had the publishing rights, well, OK, but if not, and they were good songs, then the hell with it. He was going to cut them anyway.

Klein, whose radio connections were significant, immediately got on the phone and secured “The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” from Neil Diamond. Klein also had second thoughts about “In the Ghetto.” He had been thinking about it the day after and his advice had been a mistake. When he told Elvis he thought the song would be a hit, Presley grinned, “No shit, I’m cutting it tonight.”

 Back in the studio, Elvis began work on “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto.” It was obvious that these were going to be big records. Diskin and Bienstock began to get antsy. They caught Chips alone in the hall and started working on him, trying to get a piece of the songs he owned. Finally Chips had had enough.

Gentlemen, I thought we were here to cut some hit records. Now if that’s not the case, let me tell you what you can do. You can take your fucking tapes, and you and your whole group can get the hell out of here. Don’t ask me for something that belongs to me. I’m not going to give it to you.

Surprisingly, RCA’s Jenkins chimed in with Chips. The session was going well. Everybody was going to make out just fine. There was no need to let the whole thing unravel.

Diskin was furious and sought out Elvis to plead his case. But Presley had already made up his mind. He wasn’t going to let the home office or H & R or RCA for that matter, ruin his session. He politely told Diskin to let him and Felton and Chips handle things.

 Presley then did something which surprised even Chips. He asked the producer how they could eliminate the hassels, and Chips told him to just get everyone out of there. And that was it.

Diskin grabbed the hotline to the Colonel’s office and, frustrated and perplexed, spelled out the circumstances. Elvis was going his own way. He didn’t want them around. They had absolutely no control.

Colonel Parker bristled. There was nothing he could do except tell Diskin to cut out immediately. That would teach Elvis a lesson: “Come back here right now, and let him fall on his ass.”

 Many critics and fans alike have often claimed that if only Elvis had taken more control of his career, had trusted his own instincts, made the movies and recorded the music he really wanted, if he had just gotten rid of the Colonel entirely, his career would have been much better off. It’s hard to argue with the Colonel’s success, but it may be said with certainty that in this instance, without being tied by the Presley machine, Elvis rose to and met every challenge.

 Marty Lacker puts it succinctly:

So Elvis fell on his ass, all right. In twelve days, he cut thirty-six sides. Four of them were singles – “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and “Kentucky Rain,” and all but the last were gold, even though Kentucky Rain was a substantial hit. And the two albums that came out of it [From Elvis in Memphis and From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis] went platinum. That’s some falling on your ass.

When Elvis walked into American Sound Studio that January evening, he hadn’t had a top five record since 1965. He would never get as high on the charts again as he did with Chips Moman. Elvis himself believed that he had recorded some of his best material. He did so with focus and effort, and by asserting a kind of independence which was unusual for him. But it was an independence tempered by a willingness to work with and be guided by a producer he had never met, in a studio he knew by name only. Desperate for a number one record, Elvis took chances he would never take again.

In 1973, when recording at Stax (also in Memphis), bad habits and boredom returned. During a Monday night session, he had the guys buy a television so he could watch the football game (the TV was left behind when he left). Larry Nix, the engineer, remembers the cookie cutter mentality.

They’d bring a song in… Elvis would listen, and he’d go do it. The song would be done identical to the demo. That dumbfounded me. There was no imagination, no “Create a little bit here,” you know! Felton Jarvis was the producer, but all the production was already done on the demos. They just copied them.

Elvis never returned to American partly because of the divisions it created in his organization and the hassles with his management. But also because he didn’t need to or want to take any more chances. The success of the records and the ensuing act in Vegas spurred him into a flurry of tours and live performances, the whirlwind of which echoed the relentless manufacture of films in the ‘60’s. He would rise to meet the challenge of the Satellite Special from Hawaii, Aloha, but this was almost entirely based on his standard, well-worn repertoire.

By 1974, Elvis didn’t even want to record. He went the year without producing a single side. At the RCA session in March of 1975, Elvis managed ten songs in just three days. Quickly trying to meet his obligations before yet another Vegas opening, the songs were chosen without any sense of direction and did nothing to boost his flagging sales. In 1976, he decided he might just as well record at Graceland, and RCA built a studio of sorts in the Jungleroom. But after six uninspired days and only a handful of songs that showed any real promise, he refused to come out of his bedroom, and RCA packed up and went home. The next year he showed up a day late for a session in Nashville. Elvis was so disconcerted by his girlfriend’s ongoing rejection that he wouldn’t even leave his hotel room. He left for Graceland the next day. In 1977, he all but collapsed while filming a television special for CBS.

 But the American sessions stand as a personal triumph for Elvis, a performer at a turning point, an artist who that Winter in Memphis, was again sharp, eager, and alive. And the music he created there will always prove it.



 1) Clayton, Rose and Dick Heard, eds. Elvis Up Close. Atlanta, Georgia: Turner Publishing, Inc., 1994.

 2) Dickerson, James. Goin’Back to Memphis. New York: Schirmer Books, 1996.

 3) Gordon, Robert. It Came from Memphis. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.

 4) Gray, Michael and Roger Osborne. Elvis Atlas, A Journey through Elvis Presley’s America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996

 5) Guralnick, Peter. Careless Love, The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.

 6) Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis, The Rise of Elvis Presley. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994

 7) Lacker, Marty, et al. Elvis, Portrait of a Friend. Memphis, Tennessee: Wimmer Brothers Books, 1979.

8.) Nash, Alana, et al. Elvis Aaron Presley, Revelations from the Memphis Mafia. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

9) Osborne, Jerry. Elvis, Word for Word. New York: Harmony Books, 1999.

 10) Pierce, Patricia Jobe. The Ultimate Elvis, Elvis Presley, Day by Day. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

 11) Worth, Fred L. and Steve D. Tamerius. Elvis, His Life from A to Z. Chicago, Illinois: Contemporary Books, 1988.

Stephen Rudko


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