A must-own new collection chronicles Elvis Presley’s Music City USA era
When Elvis Presley entered RCA’s Studio B in Nashville on June 4, 1970, he was riding high.
After spending much of the previous decade lost in the wilderness of Hollywood, churning out an increasingly dire series of movies, he’d finally managed to turn things around. His 1968 TV special, Elvis, had been a critical and commercial success. His 1969 sessions in Memphis — his first since the 1950s — had added to his catalogue of hit albums and singles. And his return to concert appearances in Las Vegas that summer had been a triumph.
He spent 1970 building on that success, with another sold out run in Las Vegas in January and February, followed by a string of dates at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Then it was time to head back into the studio. From June 4 to 8, Elvis recorded 34 complete songs (and two then-unnamed jams), adding another four to the stockpile when he returned to the studio for a quick one day session on September 22.
The songs appeared on a succession of albums and singles released at the time, and have now been compiled in a new four-disc set, From Elvis In Nashville. But it’s not a straight reissue; all the tracks are presented in undubbed, newly mixed versions, alongside another two discs of outtakes. The recordings depict Elvis at a crossroads in his career, taking a bit more control as he sought to chart a new course for himself in a new decade.
Elvis had first recorded in Nashville in 1956, when Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana were his backing band. In the 1960s, he worked with session players like Floyd Cramer, Bob Moore, and Boots Randolph. Now, his producer Felton Jarvis set him up with a cast of newer players, dubbed the Nashville Cats: Norbert Putnam (bass), Jerry Carrigan (drums), David Briggs (piano), Charlie McCoy (harmonica, bass, organ), and Chip Young (rhythm guitar). James Burton, from Elvis’ live band, was added as well.
Neither Putnam or Carrigan had met Elvis before. Putnam admits to being “terrified” at the notion of meeting a performer he so admired. “I was wondering if I’d be up to the task. I remember I stood in the bathroom at RCA that night, and just before I went out there I said, ‘Dear God, don’t allow me to fuck up this session.’”
Carrigan was equally impressed by Elvis’ charisma. Jarvis had the musicians jamming on Mystery Train to greet Elvis as he walked in the door. “Let me tell you something,” says Carrigan. “When that door opened and he walked into that room, it was unbelievable. Mouths just dropped open, every one of us. I couldn’t believe it. And I quit playing and was shaking. We all quit. You knew a star had walked in the room.”
Elvis was quick to put everyone at ease. He never seemed in a hurry to get down to work, spending hours hanging out with the boys in the band before any recording was done.
“We had lots of time telling jokes and cuttin’ up time,” says Carrigan. “Playing football in the parking lot and all that stuff. It didn’t matter, we were getting paid. That’s what Elvis wanted to do. If that’s what he wants to do, let’s do it. He’d put on karate exhibitions.” They were also amused at Elvis’ apparent need to change outfits throughout the sessions. “They would bring his big valet case in with his clothes,” says Carrigan, “and he would change his clothes three, four times a night, like he was on a show. It was unbelievable.”
He was relaxed in the studio as well, preferring to sing live with the band. “He would take a hand microphone, like you’d have in concert,” says Putnam, “and he would walk over in front of the rhythm section in the middle of the studio; normally, the singer’s behind baffles. And with the lead sheet in one hand, and the mic in the other, the King would start to perform the damn song while we played it out. RCA Studio B was a very small studio, and he’s literally ten feet in front of us. And we’re not wearing headphones; we can actually hear that vocal, we can hear it loudly.”
The songs were recorded quickly, with a master take often being the second or third take, to the musicians’ dismay. “There were times I wanted to re-do a song, thought it could feel better, thought we could change it,” says Carrigan. “We all did. But we didn’t have the privilege of having our way.”
Indeed, the musicians were taken aback by the overly enthusiastic behavior of Elvis’ entourage to his work. “Even after the first take of a song, the control room would erupt with people leaping into the air and proclaiming Elvis a god, right?” says Putnam. “You can imagine this, they all work for him. He had court jesters that worked for him. It would have been distracting, but we became used to it, you know? And Elvis knew it was kind of bullshit too. But sometimes he would sort of buy into it.” As a means of trying to record a few extra takes, Putnam and David Briggs resorted to asking Elvis if they could do another take “because I’ve got a great idea going into the chorus.” Elvis always agreed.
The songs were a mix of contemporary material, and the older country songs that Elvis loved to revisit. Songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water, I’ve Lost You, Twenty Days and Twenty Nights, and Mary in the Morning were modern pop songs that addressed adult concerns, full-bodied numbers that Elvis could sink his teeth into. But other songs, like When I’m Over You, Sylvia, or This Is Our Dance were far less distinguished.
VIDEO: Elvis at RCA
“We didn’t like playing them,” says Carrigan of such songs. “They were hard to play. They didn’t have any feel, they didn’t make sense, they weren’t laid out well — nothing was good about the material. You can do just so much. If you don’t have a melody or a strong rhythmical feel to go with it, you don’t have anything. We wound up with nothing and we’d have to fabricate it all, including Elvis, to even make it what it was.”
But instead of demanding better material, Elvis would simply go along, then veer off and start performing the songs he was really interested in. After work on When I’m Over You was done, Elvis promptly went into Eddy Arnold’s I Really Don’t Want To Know, giving it the kind of soulful performance that had been noticeably missing from many of the newer songs. He followed that with Bob Wills’ Faded Love, then turned in a bravura performance of Ernest Tubb’s Tomorrow Never Comes. “Yeah, that was a rockin’ beast,” Carrigan says of the song. “He wanted to cut a bunch of old stuff, and that’s what we did. It was fun. We had a lot of fun, lots of fun.”
Regardless of the material, the musicians were all impressed with Elvis’ prowess as a singer. Speaking of “There Goes My Everything,” Putnam says, “That damn vocal just tells you everything about Elvis Presley. He went for it on the first take. He’s not being cool, he’s not being conservative. It’s like he’s standing up at the plate and he’s already got two strikes, and here comes this fast ball, and he’s going for it, and he’s going to knock it out of the park. The reason we loved Presley above almost all the others was that he was like a raw nerve. When he got up there, the red light came on, he’s going to fucking kill it, he’s going to knock it out of the park. He’s not holding anything back. And for us, as a rhythm section, it meant we had to be there as well.”
Carrigan still feels that recording was rushed, overall was rushed. “I like all of it because Elvis was such a great guy and I enjoyed playing on it. But as far as good sounding records, no, they didn’t sound good. They had the equipment to do it with, they just didn’t take the time.” But Putnam enjoys the more relaxed feeling, especially on the Elvis Country album that was drawn from the sessions. “That whole record is loose, you see,” he says. “I was amazed at how loose my playing was; I was playing like I had no fear of making a mistake or doing anything wrong. I was sort of going for it all the time, like Elvis was. He really influenced us to be loose — ‘Don’t worry about it, just go for it!’
“And it really was like a live Elvis concert. We did it so quickly. And you realize the engineer didn’t have a chance to work on the songs either. It was like, ‘Well, the King’s ready to go, I guess turn the red light on and let’s hope for the best, you know.’ And I think in view of that, those recordings are excellent. In view of the way they were done, and the pressure everyone was under, the fact they could be loose and fluid, it was just a wonderful thing to hear.”
Now the performances on From Elvis In Nashville, stripped of their string and horn arrangements, reveal what a powerful singer Elvis had become. Even lighter fare like Cindy, Cindy has a toughness not fully evident on the final released recording. Not as bluesy or brooding as the songs from the 1969 Memphis sessions, From Elvis In Nashville shows Elvis eager to strike out into new territory, still full of optimism, still able to lose himself in the music, still doing what he could do like no other performer on earth.
Partly adapted from Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback by Gillian G. Gaar
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