Review: Elvis Presley, “Elvis at Stax”
The distance from 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard , or Graceland, to Stax Records’ headquarters at 926 East McLemore Avenue is just a little over 5 miles. So when RCA Records came calling on the once and future King in mid-1973 to fulfill an obligation to record 24 songs (a 10-song album, four single sides, and a 10-song “religious album”), the studio founded by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton seemed to be the perfect locale. Recording at home in Memphis had always brought something special to Presley’s music, anyway, from his very first sessions for Sun Records at 706 Union Avenue, to his 1969 dates at Chips Moman’s American Sound at 827 Thomas Street. The American sessions yielded hits like “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain.” Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, might have been anxious to rekindle that magic, but Moman had relocated American Sound to Atlanta and then Nashville. And so Stax it was. Elvis’ July and December 1973 sessions on McLemore Avenue yielded material for three albums: Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake (1973), Good Times (1974) and Promised Land (1975). The completed Stax masters, plus numerous alternate takes and outtakes, have now been collected by RCA Records and Legacy as the new 3-CD box set Elvis at Stax (88883 72418 2, 2013).
The Stax sessions have been documented on numerous occasions in the past, most notably via a series of expanded reissues from the mail order/online collectors’ label Follow That Dream. FTD expanded Raised on Rock in 2007, following with Promised Land in 2011 and Good Times in 2012. Selections from all three releases can be found on Elvis at Stax in newly remixed form, though not every alternate take from the FTD discs has been reprised here. Rather than taking a strictly chronological approach to the sessions, the new box is arranged in segments. The first disc presents The R&B and Country Sessions: The Outtakes. Disc 2 commences with The Pop Sessions: The Outtakes before presenting the complete set of July 1973 master takes. Finally, the third disc offers up the eighteen December 1973 masters.
Elvis at Stax marks a significant, large-scale effort to unify these recordings; in Presley’s lifetime, these landmark recordings were only issued on albums in tandem with material recorded elsewhere. Not only are these songs important to his career, but they also occurred during a pivotal period for Stax itself. When Elvis entered the Soulsville, USA studios, Stax was riding high thanks to Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” and the monumental Wattstax concert. But by the time Promised Land was originally released and 1975 was out, the once-mighty record label’s offices would shutter.
After the jump, take a trip to Memphis!
The July 1973 sessions don’t reveal the turmoil that plagued them. The singer’s team was frustrated by the limitations of Stax’s 8-track recording console at a period when other studios had already switched to 16-track. In addition, Stax didn’t boast much in the way of an isolation area, and the in-studio headsets all shared the same mix, making it difficult for the crack musicians to hear themselves. Still, Elvis soldiered on with his band – James Burton and Ronnie Tutt from the road, plus many of the American Sound players and a full complement of nine background vocalists – through the evening of July 23, scheduled to be the last. Elvis had nailed his vocals, and agreed to return the following night. On July 24, Burton, Tutt, Reggie Young and Tommy Cogbill couldn’t make it, so they were replaced by Stax’s house band members Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums) plus Bobby Manuel, a protégé of Steve Cropper’s, and Johnny Christopher on guitars. This would prove the only time during the Stax sessions that the label’s personnel played key roles. After eleven takes of Les Reed and Barry Mason’s “Girl of Mine,” Elvis realized that his personal microphone had been stolen during the day. He departed, not to return.
For all the turmoil, though, the July 21-24 sessions yielded ten completed masters (vocals on “Sweet Angeline” were overdubbed by Elvis in September) and one unfinished song. Elvis hoped to repeat the success of Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds” with a recording of James’ “Raised on Rock,” on which he name-checks “Chain Gang” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Of course, he had a hand in creating what we think of as rock, and wasn’t raised on it, but no matter. Elvis delivered a persuasive vocal over tough guitar licks on the driving melody, and channeled some of the fire of his earliest days in his performance. Elvis also turned to Tony Joe White (“Polk Salad Annie”) for two tracks recorded in July, “For Ol’ Times Sake” and “I’ve Got a Thing About You, Baby.” The former found Presley in reflective mode, and his strikingly subtle, pained vocal may be the best he recorded at Stax. It’s a crisp, thoughtful recording, with the band completely on Elvis’ wavelength for the simple, acoustic arrangement. “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” is more rollicking, with the background choir adding a touch of gospel over the tinkling piano and twangy guitars.
The traditional country-pop of “Take Good Care of Her” – a hit for Adam Wade in 1961 and Sonny James in 1966 – fit Elvis like a glove. Though brief, the Stax sessions allowed the artist to revisit many of his musical sides. He even revisited the music of two old friends, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Though Leiber and Stoller provided Elvis with many of his most enduring songs – “Jailhouse Rock,” “Treat Me Nice,” “Trouble” – they had ceased writing for The King after a difference of opinion with the Colonel. At Stax, Elvis recorded their funky slab of R&B, “If You Don’t Come Back,” and the less exciting “Three Corn Patches.” Both “Just a Little Bit” and especially “Find Out What’s Happening” show The King eager to rock and roll, with the former boasting one of the slinkiest R&B grooves laid down by the band at Stax.
Despite the presence of “Duck” Dunn, Al Jackson and one-time M.G. Bobby Manuel, “Girl of Mine” doesn’t have much of a Memphis soul sound. Instead, it’s a gentle, countrypolitan affair with a chorus melody that recalls “Easy Come, Easy Go” – the Jack Keller/Diane Hildebrand song famously recorded by Bobby Sherman, not the Ben Weisman/Sid Wayne song introduced by Elvis. The Stax section also played on “Sweet Angeline,” another ballad which is even statelier than “Girl of Mine.”
Elvis didn’t return to McLemore Avenue until December. When he re-entered the Stax studio, it was with RCA’s 16-track mobile unit and a new band anchored, again, by Burton and Tutt. Norbert Putnam and David Briggs of Muscle Shoals were also part of this new line-up. Again, the material chosen was from a variety of sources. Recording between December 10 and 16, Elvis drew on the catalogues of singer-songwriters from the folk (Tom Jans, Danny O’Keefe) and country (Jerry Reed, Larry Gatlin, Waylon Jennings) worlds. Dennis Linde, of “Burning Love” fame, returned to the fold. A Chuck Berry tune took a spot alongside some big European numbers, and Elvis even tapped the songbook of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant of “Bye Bye Love” and “Love Hurts” fame.
Again, Elvis indulged both his rock-and-roll and middle-of-the-road instincts. A distinctly bittersweet air permeated many of the songs chosen, from Tim Baty’s “Thinking About You” to Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms.” “Mr. Songman,” penned by Donnie Sumner (nephew of Elvis’ backup singer J.D. Sumner of The Stamps), takes on the air of a cry-in-your-beer barroom sing-along: “So here’s another dime for you, Mr. Songman/Sing the loneliness of broken dreams away if you can/Yes, it’s only me and you, Mr. Songman/Won’t you take away the night, sing away my hurt, Mr. Songman?” Even more of a country weeper was Troy Seals and Danny Rice’s “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me Back In),” delivered with an un-ironic tenderness. Danny O’Keefe’s vivid slice-of-life “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” became somewhat of a latter-day standard for Elvis, its melody and lyrics beautifully elevating the ordinary into poetry.
Asking the Lord to “Help Me” in Larry Gatlin’s song of the same name, Elvis sounds particularly comfortable. “My Boy,” in which the narrator attempts to comfort his son in the wake of a divorce, cut even closer to the bone. With its sweeping French melody that teeters on the edge of bombast, the song could have become treacly in the hands of a lesser artist, but Elvis invested it with conviction and sheer believability. It’s one of a few tracks here adorned with brass; Red West and Johnny Christopher’s funky “If You Talk in Your Sleep” is another to benefit from the orchestral treatment with both horns and strings. Elvis himself is brassy – san horns! – on Rory Bourke’s “Your Love’s Been a Long Time Coming,” another big ballad in the mold favored by the singer in his later years. More restrained is “Spanish Eyes,” the Bert Kaempfert song already associated with Al Martino and Engelbert Humperdinck. It might be the least soulful track ever laid down at Stax, but Elvis’ reading is certainly as enjoyable as that of the other gentlemen who had recorded it.
But “If You Talk in Your Sleep” wasn’t the lone rock song here. Dennis Linde’s “I Got a Feelin’ In My Body” isn’t as ferocious or as melodic as “Burning Love,” but is nonetheless imbued by Elvis and his singers with true church fervor. The band sounds as if they relished the chance to tear into Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” and to Jerry Reed’s breakneck “Talk About the Good Times.” In Reed’s song, also infused with a spiritual bent, the singer is actually reminiscing about childhood, family and loved ones, “when a friend would meet you, and a smile would greet you” with “good, old-fashioned love.”
Elvis at Stax would be a landmark release simply for bringing the Stax masters together; even the most diehard Elvis fan will likely admit that most of his original album releases weren’t crafted or packaged with an eye to posterity or even to a standard matching that of his performances. But the box set adds 27 outtakes and alternate takes that allow listeners to trace the evolution of a song. This is a fly-on-the-wall experience, with plenty of stops, starts and in-studio chatter. For those not familiar with the Follow That Dream titles (from which most of these outtakes and alternates are drawn), Elvis at Stax offers a rare and immersive look at how Presley, producer Felton Jarvis, and their talented band developed each song into a memorable recording. Elvis is frequently looser on these early takes, and sometimes more tentative; the rolling tape captures him joking around, but also fiercely committed to getting each song just right. Elvis even riffs a bit, such as singing a few lines of “Softly, As I Leave You” while readying his pipes for a try at “Loving Arms,” or clowning, grand opera-style, before “If You Don’t Come Back.” Sonically, these tracks are just as crisp as the finished masters for a true “you are there” feeling.
This Memphis soul stew is housed in an 8 x 8” slipcase similar to that of last year’s Prince from Another Planet. Like that set, the discs slide in and out of slots in an illustrated folder. A 42-page softcover book is also enclosed, containing an introduction by Roger Semon, a lengthy essay by Robert Gordon, and a full track listing with all relevant session information and complete discography. The book is generously illustrated, too, with well-captioned photographs of Elvis and assorted memorabilia relating to the sessions. (Trivia: What was Stax’s hourly rate for studio use? According to one bill reprinted here, it was $70.00 for the July sessions.) Vic Anesini has marvelously remastered all three discs, and the outtakes have been newly remixed by Steve Rosenthal and Rob Santos, the box set’s co-producer with Ernest Mikael Jorgensen.
Touching on all of the styles that shaped the one and only King – pop, R&B, country, gospel, and of course, rock and roll – Elvis at Stax chronicles some of his last truly great studio sessions. As such, it’s another essential release as part of Legacy’s streamlining and repackaging of his vast musical catalogue. When push came to shove, nobody took care of business quite like Elvis Presley.