Author Gillian G. Gaar reconfigures an excerpt from her acclaimed book for an exciting new reissue revolving around The King’s most underrated era
It was January 13, 1969, and the 827 Band was hanging out at American Sound Studio in Memphis, waiting on the King. Elvis Presley, that is, who was going to record in Memphis for the first time since 1955.
The musicians — whose informal name came from the studio’s address, 827 Thomas Street — were used to working with big names, and affected nonchalance about Presley’s imminent arrival. “It’s funny, I thought, ‘Oh well, Elvis is coming in,’” recalls guitarist Reggie Young. “But when he walked in, we were all kind of taken aback. I was amazed at my own reaction; I thought, ‘Man, that’s Elvis!’ He had that charisma about him, and I think we all kind of backed up a step and went, ‘Whoa!’”
What the musicians didn’t realize was that Presley was nervous too. While acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan took rock music into exciting new territory during the 1960s, Presley had been stuck on the sidelines, throwing away his talents in an increasingly dreary series of movies. But now he was clawing his way back. The TV special Elvis, which had aired the previous December, had done much to restore some of his credibility. And the American Sound sessions would be his first non-soundtrack recordings in three years; it was make or break time.
Presley’s sessions at American Sound, in January and February 1969, produced an astonishing array of outstanding songs that showed that after all those years of movie soundtracks, Elvis Presley had finally grown up. The American Sound songs dealt with adult themes. Not the fantasy of romantic love common to pop songs, but the kind of perspective that comes with hard experience, the acknowledgment of life’s struggles as well as its joys; infidelity (“Wearin’ That Love On Look”), fading love (“Any Day Now”), surviving heartbreak (“Only the Strong Survive”). Now, the most extensive look at the sessions has been made available on American Sound 1969, which presents the songs in the order they were recorded, taking you through the sessions step by step.
At the time Presley recorded at American Sound, the studio was in the midst of a record run that would see 122 records recorded at the studio hit the pop or R&B charts through 1972. “Magazines like Billboard and Cash Box, they all had a different chart, and we was in every one of ‘em one week except Classical,” organist Bobby Emmons notes with pride. The studio’s main producing force was Lincoln “Chips” Moman, who would oversee the sessions with Presley’s usual producer, Felton Jarvis.
American Sound was a highly creative environment, where the musicians had great autonomy. “We offered, I think, a little more than just being individual players,” says Young. “It was a creative band, everybody had great ideas. And there was no time restraint on us; it was really loose. We had time to really work out the arrangements.”
The musicians were also used to speaking their mind. When Presley asked Young what he thought of a demo, Young didn’t hesitate saying he didn’t like it, to Jarvis’ chagrin. Jarvis also took exception to Moman’s daring to give Presley directions in the studio. But Moman and the musicians were impressed with Presley’s work ethic. “Oh, I was just blown away by his professionalism and his talent as a vocalist and his feel as a performer,” says Emmons. “Elvis came in there to work. He came in there working harder — he reminded you of a 16-year-old kid that had never had a record, but he wanted one bad. And he just worked like a champion. He was the leader of the band, like he’s supposed to be.”
The creative atmosphere encouraged Presley to stretch out. He’d been hesitant about recording “In The Ghetto,” fearing its plea for tolerance might be too outspoken for a performer who’d never expressed much of a political viewpoint. But when Moman said he’d simply give it to another artist, Presley finally agreed to record the song. His immediate environment undoubtedly provided further inspiration, as trumpet player Wayne Jackson points out: “We were actually in the ghetto, and here was Elvis singing a pertinent song about the South and about the social climate of the day. He’s singing, and chills went all over me.”
As the song developed over the course of 23 takes, bassist Mike Leech became increasingly anxious to participate. With the bass chair already occupied by Tommy Cogbill, he decided to add timpani. “That was a pure accident. If I’d found a spoon or something to make a sound that would be good for that cut, I would have played it. But the timpani seemed like that fitted pretty good.”
AUDIO: “In The Ghetto” (Take 20)
“There’s not that many artists that can do it the way Elvis could do it,” says Emmons of Presley’s performance on the track. “Elvis was just phenomenal. He didn’t have any tuning machines and we wasn’t cutting out big chunks of his vocal from another track and making a composite track or any of that stuff. He was just singing it from top to bottom. We didn’t ProTools anything — the only pro tools over there was lug wrenches and jacks and stuff like that. Hammers and saws.”
Another session highlight was “Suspicious Minds,” which Moman had previously cut with the song’s writer, Mark James. Presley’s management pushed Moman to give up his publishing to the song, but he stood firm, sure that Presley’s version would be a hit. That was obvious when the basic track had been laid down; even without the horn overdubs, it was clear the song was going to be a winner. “When we got through with that recording, everyone’s pants were down around their ankles, and we were just going ‘Well, goddamn!’” says Jackson.
“Before all the strings and horns and background vocals and stuff went on, it was just a little five, six piece band,” says Emmons of the songs. “A lot of it could have come out and hit just like it was. It would have probably turned music in a different direction. Elvis was plenty strong enough and we were doing plenty good enough to have been a band without all that decoration.” But Mike Leech and Glen Spreen, who provided arrangements for the tracks, were excited about adding additional character to the tracks.
AUDIO: “Suspicious Minds” (rehearsal)
“I wanted to use things that were different,” says Spreen. “Like Elvis never had strings like cellos and French horns playing together, never had any counter melodies where the track would go one way and the strings would go another way — where the track was going down, the strings are going up. The strings were never syncopated with Elvis, so I wrote a lot of syncopated strings. And I wrote a lot of voicing that was lower, because if Elvis had strings, which he rarely had, they were just real bland, and not very melodic. I wanted to be a lot more expressive; I wanted to do things a lot different.”
Overall, the backing instrumentation gives the songs, even the more upbeat ones, a darker, melancholy feel. “Yeah, that was me at the time,” Spreen says. “I was just that way. I was very serious and I had a classical background, so that played into it.” And he remained unhappy about the arrangement for “In the Ghetto.” “The last part, right after Elvis says ‘In the ghetto’ for the last time and the strings come in, they strings don’t come in on the right beat, and they don’t come in together. And we must have worked on that for thirty minutes.” It didn’t keep the song from reaching the Top 5.
The tracks were initially released on the albums From Elvis in Memphis and From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis. But Presley Elvis never returned to American, though the sessions at the studio would give him some of the biggest hits he’d had in years. It was obvious he’d enjoyed himself, and he later said he never worked harder in the studio than he had at American.
“Elvis liked the idea of being hot again,” says Emmons. “You can’t be as talented as him and work as hard as he did on those sessions and not be pleased that they were received well by an audience that had just been staying away in droves for the last few years.”
(The physical edition of American Sound 1969 is only available from shopelvis.com. The set is also available digitally)
VIDEO: American Sound 1969 trailer
Adapted from the book Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback, by Gillian G. Gaar