A new review by j. poet on Crawdaddy!, Oct. 19th, of this massive, ultimate, limited-edition 30-CD box set of everything Elvis ever recorded, good bad and indifferent!
Back in 1959 RCA released For LP Fans Only, which included some of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records outtakes along with a few RCA singles that had never been put on an album before. For LP Fans Only set the standard for RCA’s Presley reissue program. They slapped together old tracks, outtakes, and B-sides, gave them what they hoped were catchy titles, and released them. They put together hundreds of haphazard compilations and collections over the years, most with no liner notes, session information, or recording dates. Almost anything with the Presley name on it sold, so the albums kept coming. Even after his death in 1977, they Read the rest of this entry »
In honor of Elvis, who passed away 33 years ago today…
A June 1972 Newsday piece about The King…
I was never an Elvis Presley fan when I was a kid. In fact, I couldn’t stand him. As it happened, I heard “Don’t Be Cruel” three or four times before I learned Elvis was singing it, and once I had admitted to myself that I was hooked on that song, it was no real sacrifice to extend my reluctant enthusiasm to “All Shook Up.” But I never understood the excitement over “Heartbreak Hotel”–I considered the Stan Freberg parody exceedingly witty–and refused to even listen to “Hound Dog” or “Love Me Tender.” Read the rest of this entry »
Recent review from the PopMatters website, by Christel Loar (Aug. 13, 2009), of the new remastered and deluxe edition version of Elvis’ greatest album — From Elvis in Memphis (1969), that came out months after his triumphant 1968 comeback TV special.
This is posted in honor of the 32nd anniversary of the King’s passing. Gone, but never forgotten…
Hot on the heels of the phenomenal success of his so called “‘68 Comeback Special,” aired that December on NBC, Elvis Presley made one of the smartest moves of his career. He returned to Memphis, for the first time since his days with Sun Records, to record an album.
From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition is the result of those 1969 recordings, and 40 years later, it’s easy to see why so many fans and critics consider this the pinnacle of the King’s powers as an artist. It’s Elvis at his best, and fully aware of that fact. He’s surrounded by top-notch writers and musicians and, as with the television performance, he’s clearly having fun doing something he loves. He’s in the best vocal shape since before his stint in the army, and he’s quite possibly more open to various styles and sounds than when he did his first Sun sessions.
Disc one of the Legacy Edition follows the 12 original From Elvis in Memphis tracks with four bonus recordings from the sessions, including a cover of “Hey Jude” that, although Presley plays fast and loose with the lyrics—or possibly, just doesn’t know them very well, given his laughter at the end of the song—is yet another surprising example, among many on this album, of both the power of his voice and his willingness to pull from all sorts of musical sources.
Disc two adds the ten tracks, also from the 1969 Memphis sessions, initially featured on the first half of From Memphis to Vegas – From Vegas to Memphis, which has seen some of its songs reissued over the years as Back in Memphis, and as parts of various compilations. These, along with four single mixes of album tracks and six non-album singles, round out the Legacy Edition release for a total of 36 tracks from Elvis’s sessions at Chip Moman’s American Studio. The singles appear in their original mono format and include both the chart hits, like “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Don’t Cry Daddy,” as well as their B-sides, such as “Any Day Now,” “You’ll Think of Me,” “My Little Friend,” and “Rubberneckin’.”
Extensive liner notes for this set were written by the Memphis based authors, filmmakers, and historians Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams, whose works include the books “It Came From Memphis” and “The Elvis Handbook” and the documentary filmsRespect Yourself: The Stax Records Story and Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies. In addition to those notes, the accompanying booklet features several wonderful photos of Elvis with his Memphis band and back up singers and of his opening night in Las Vegas. A complete list of musicians at the sessions and details of the overdubs is also included.
Of course, it’s still the music that really sets this set apart. The newly remastered recordings allow listeners to experience every nuance of Elvis’s phrasing and delivery, and it’s truly difficult to choose specific tracks that stand out among such singular performances. On the first disc, “Any Day Now” and “In the Ghetto” are naturally the clinchers, but “Power of My Love” is a stunningly, well, powerful mid-album dark horse. On the second disc, one might argue that it’s all about the singles, but that would do grave injustice to Elvis’s masterful interpretation of Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” which is a true testament to his unique ability to pay tribute to the artists he loved while simultaneously making a song incontestably his own.
With the fortieth anniversary of the recordings—and the remastering, repackaging, and releasing as a complete collection—From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition has, at long last, given these tracks the treatment they deserve as some of the best music Elvis Presley ever made.
If Elvis’ 1968 Comeback Special was the sound of a king, lean and hungry, reclaiming his throne, then this album, released on June 17, 1969, is the sound of Elvis solidifying his powers and proving that the TV special was, indeed, no fluke.
Elvis returned to Memphis on January 13th of that year to record for the first time since he left Sun Records back in 1956. After many years of terrible movies that brought diminishing box office returns and vapid songs that Elvis hated singing, he was clearly ready for a change. His career was on a severe decline, artistically and commercially. He had flailed through the past several years with no direction and little enthusiasm. With the TV special, though, there was hope. He had some momentum and he wasn’t about to concede an inch. He knew this was his last chance to get his career back on track, and start producing music of substance and quality again – to prove that he was no washed-up relic from the distant past. After recording “If I Can Dream” for the special, the year before, he noted, “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in.”
And so set the stage for this album. He went to American Studios, run by producer and songwriter Chips Moman, where dozens of hits were being recorded at the time by this young hotshot. Moman was skeptical, though, as to whether Elvis could still turn out anything of worth, as were the house session musicians. Moman was in awe of Elvis, but he was not about to let that interfere with his judgement. He meant business, and expected the same from Elvis. Everyone’s fears subsided in an instant. Elvis arrived, ready to work. He proved himself right away with a brilliant recording of the song “Long Black Limousine,” whose subject deals with a girl returning to her hometown, after seeking fame and fortune – only the vehicle she’s returning in is a hearse. The poignant subject matter was certainly something that reflected Elvis’ situation. Was he back in Memphis to reclaim former glories or to be buried? Judging from his impassioned reading of this old country song, the answer is clear: this was to be no funeral. As he states in the first line of album opener “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” “I had to leave town for a little while.” Well, he’s definitely back. Sometimes, you really can go back home again.
From there, it just got better. Elvis recorded one soon-to-be classic after another. There were so many, in fact, that some were held over for future albums. Others, like the brilliant “Suspicious Minds” or “Kentucky Rain,” were released as singles only – returning him to his hitmaking glories. One of the most underrated recordings of his career came with a marvelous reading of the then-current Jerry Butler R&B hit, “Only the Strong Survive.” Elvis’ version more than holds its own, as he turns this song into an autobiographical anthem – his statement of purpose. With the inspired background vocals, excellent playing by the musicians and the slightly speeded-up chorus, perfection was achieved. Elvis never sang better. Elsewhere, he recorded great versions of country tunes like Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and Eddy Arnold’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Hands)” (complete with false starts). On the bluesy “Power of My Love,” Elvis sounds hungrier than he’s ever sounded in his life. The man is ferocious and ready to take prisoners.
Elvis showed with this album, that, as always, he could handle any type of material – rock & roll, country, R&B, ballads, blues – you name it. His soulful reading of the Burt Bacharach ballad “Any Day Now” (a hit for Chuck Jackson in 1962), is another highlight. Again, Elvis proved, once and for all, what a truly breathtaking singer he could be when given the right material. “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” is also given a beautiful reading, with excellent backing by the musicians. Elvis proved during these sessions that he had developed a newfound maturity as a singer. As great as he was in his earlier days, he could have never pulled off these kinds of performances during that time.
The album closes with his classic recording of the Mac Davis topical song “In the Ghetto,” which became a big hit for Elvis. This poignant song, which he sings with understated subtlety and heartbreaking pathos, never fails to move. In a few short, simple lines, this song, and Elvis’ reading of it, conveys the tragedy of the unending cycle of poverty. The song can bring you close to tears. And so the album ends on a sad, but emotional high. Elvis clearly wanted people to walk away with something on their minds beside merely feeling entertained.
From Elvis in Memphis made it to #13 on the Billboard charts when it was released. It set up his triumphant return to live performing and proved his comeback special was only a warmup. His resurgence and commercial fortunes would continue for a few more years before the concerts started to become as much of a grind as the movies had been. Elvis grew bored, his marriage collapsed, his health declined, his pill-taking increased, and it all ended in unspeakable tragedy, as we all know. The momentum couldn’t be sustained indefinitely. None of that takes away one single thing, though, from what he accomplished in a small Memphis studio in the early part of 1969. As the liner notes to the new expanded edition of this album state, “A comeback is, damn it, still a comeback.” And with this collection of songs, Elvis certainly proved one thing – he was back, better than ever.
elvis son of tupelo.
elvis mama’s boy.
elvis the twin brother of Jesse who died at birth and was buried in a shoe box.
elvis drove a truck.
elvis was recorded at sun studios by the musical diviner sam phillips.
elvis was managed by colonel tom parker, an ex-carnie barker whose last act was a singing canary.
elvis was the most famous singer in the world since king david.
elvis lived on his own street.
elvis liked to play speed cop.
elvis had a monkey named scatter before anyone.
elvis wore a cape at the white house when he was presenting nixon with two silver pistols.
elvis was a member of the drug squad.
elvis wore eye make up, just hangin’ out.
elvis wore a gold nudie suit and trained his lip to curl.
elvis was macho, but could sing like a girl.
elvis was not a big talker.
elvis was articulate in every other way.
elvis dyed his hair black to look like valentino.
elvis held a microphone the way valentino held nitanaldi in blood and sand.
elvis dressed black long before he dressed in black.
elvis sang black except in lower registers where he was a student of dean martin.
elvis admired mario lanza.
elvis delivered the world from crooning.
elvis was a great crooner.
elvis had a voice that could explain the sexuality of america.
elvis was influenced by jim morrison in his choice of black leather for the ’68 comeback special.
elvis invented the beatles.
elvis achieved world domination from a small town.
elvis was conscious of myth.
elvis had pharoah-like potential.
elvis was made by america, so america could remake itself.
elvis had good manners.
elvis was a bass, a baritone, and a tenor.
elvis sang his heart out at the end.
elvis the opera singer.
elvis the soap opera.
elvis loved america, God, the bible, firearms, the movies, the office of presidency, junk food, drugs, cars, family,television, jewellery, straight talkin’, dirty talkin’ gameshows, uniforms, and self-help books.
elvis like america, wanted to improve himself.
elvis like america, started out loving but later turned on himself.
elvis body could not stop moving.
elvis is alive, we’re dead.
elvis the charismatic.
elvis the ecstatic.
elvis the plastic, elvis the elastic with a spastic dance that might explain the energy of america.
elvis fusion and confusion.
elvis earth rod in a southern dorm.
elvis shaking up an electrical storm.
elvis in hollywood his voice gone to ground.
elvis in las vegas with a big brassy sound.
elvis the first rock’n’roll star with scotty moore, bill black, and dj fontana.
elvis with james burton and ronnie tutt.
elvis the movie star made three good films: viva las vegas, flaming star, and jailhouse rock.
elvis the hillbilly brought rhythm to the white race, blues to pop, and rock’n’roll to where ever rock’n’roll is.
elvis the pelvis, swung from africa to europe, which is the idea of america.
elvis the kung fu would come later.
elvis built a theme park he later called Graceland.
elvis woke up to whispers.
elvis thought of himself as a backslider.
elvis knew guilt like a twin brother.
elvis called God every morning then left the phone off the hook.
elvis turned las vegas into a church when he sang “love me tender”.
elvis turned america into a church when he sang “the trilogy”.
elvis was harangued by choice; flesh vs spirit, God vs rock’n’roll mother vs lover, father vs the colonel.
elvis grew sideburns as a protest against tom jones’ hairy chest.
elvis would have a president named after him.
elvis was one of the boys.
elvis was not one of the boys.
elvis had an acute intelligence disguised as talent.
elvis broke priscilla’s heart.
elvis broke lisa marie’s heart.
elvis woke up my heart.
elvis white trash.
elvis the memphis flash.
elvis didn’t smoke hash and woulda been a sissy without johnny cash.
elvis didn’t dodge the draft.
elvis had his own aircraft.
elvis having a laugh on the lisa marie in a colour photograph.
elvis under the hood.
elvis cadillac blood.
elvis darling bud flowered and returned to the mississippi mud.
elvis ain’t gonna rot.
elvis in a memphis plot.
elvis didn’t hear the shot but the king died just across the lot from.
elvis vanilla ice cream.
elvis girls of 14.
elvis memphis spleen shooting at the tv reading corinthians 13.
elvis with God on his knees.
elvis on three tvs.
elvis here come the killer bees head full of honey, potato chips and cheese.
elvis the bumper stickers.
elvis the white knickers.
elvis the white nigger ate at burger king and just kept getting bigger.
elvis sang to win.
elvis the battle to be slim.
elvis ate america before america ate him.
elvis stamps, elvis necromance.
elvis fans, elvis sychophants.
elvis the public enemy.
elvis don’t mean shit to chuck d.
elvis changed the centre of gravity.
elvis made it slippy.
elvis hitler, elvis nixon, elvis christ, elvis mishima.
elvis marcus, elvis jackson, elvis the pelvis.
elvis the psalmist, elvis the genius, elvis the generous.
elvis forgive us.
elvis pray for us
elvis aaron presley (1935-1977)
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.
One of Elvis’ early rockabilly classics on Sun Records, produced by the late, great Sam Phillips, who co-wrote it with Junior Parker.