In Session: Elvis’ 1969 revival, Part I

By  Gillian G. Gaar

Elvis' 1968 comeback special paved the way for the legendary 1969 Memphis sessions. AP Photo.

Elvis’ 1968 comeback special paved the way for the legendary 1969 Memphis sessions. AP Photo.
Elvis Presley saw 1968 end at the same location where he’d seen it begin: the Thunderbird Lounge in Memphis.

That’s where he hosted a New Year’s Eve party for the second year running, celebrating with his family and friends, with entertainment provided by a host of acts, including Flash and The Board of Directors, Vaneese Starks, The Short Cuts, B.J. Thomas and Billy Lee Riley.

And he had good reason to be optimistic about the coming year, for a change. A few weeks prior, on Dec. 3, his television special, simply titled “Elvis,” had aired to critical raves and excellent ratings. His latest single, “If I Can Dream,” which had dramatically closed the special, was on its way to being his highest-charting single since 1966, while the show’s soundtrack album would become his first Top 10 hit since 1965’s Harum Scarum.

“There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home,” Jon Landau famously wrote in Eye magazine about the special that launched Presley’s creative rebirth.

As Ernst Jorgensen, who would later produce Presley’s CD reissues, noted in his book “Elvis Presley: A Life In Music,” “[The TV special] only gave Elvis’ record sales a modest boost at first, but its real effect was much broader and deeper. It re-established his place as a dominant force in American music and culture.”

After years of wandering in the Hollywood wilderness, the message was clear: Elvis Presley was back.

Studio time

The challenge now was to fulfill all that promise.

Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, was already laying the groundwork for Presley’s return to live performance in the summer of 1969 at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. And a studio session had been scheduled for January, Presley’s first non-soundtrack session in three years. 

In keeping with the spirit of change now around him, Presley also made the decision to record in his hometown of Memphis for the first time since his days with Sun Records. The resulting sessions at American Studios would take Presley back to the top of the charts and produce some of his most acclaimed work.

The January session had originally been scheduled to take place at RCA’s studios in Nashville, Tenn., where Presley had been regularly recording over the past decade. But a number of people in Presley’s entourage now had ties to American.

Marty Lacker (who served as co-best man at Presley’s wedding) had just started working at the studio, and Red West (a Presley bodyguard who also worked as an actor) was hanging out there regularly, working as a songwriter. The studio’s co-owner, Lincoln “Chips” Moman, had produced tracks for Memphis DJ George Klein, another longtime Presley friend.

Moman himself had been pushing for Presley to check out American, telling Klein in his typically blunt fashion, “When’s Elvis gonna get some good songs, man? When’s he gonna quit cuttin’ that crap?”

Each man pointed out that Moman had assembled a formidable group of in-house musicians at American: Reggie Young (guitar), Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech (bass), Bobby Wood (piano), Bobby Emmons (organ) and Gene Chrisman (drums). Over the previous 18 months, an impressive 64 records that had been recorded at American, by artists like The Box Tops, Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield, had all hit the charts.

Presley was intrigued both by the idea of capturing some of Moman’s hit sound and the fact that the studio was only a short drive away from his home at Graceland. Sessions were duly set up to begin on Jan. 13, five days after Presley’s 34th birthday, with Moman readily postponing a Neil Diamond session that had been previously scheduled. Along with Moman, Presley’s regular producer since 1966, Felton Jarvis, would also be on hand, providing a familiar face in the control booth.

Presley had a cold when he first arrived at American that night and was a bit taken aback by the studio’s condition, which was run-down enough for a host of rats to feel comfortable taking up residence; “What a funky studio!” he announced, responding to hearing rodents scuffling around.

For their part, the musicians weren’t overly impressed about working with someone of Presley’s stature, having already worked with many big names by then. But, they were surprised by the charisma he exuded before work even began.

“You’d know he was in the room when he walked in,” said Reggie Young. “You hear stories about people that have that effect on people, and I never thought anything about it. But Elvis really did. He just kind of commanded his space. You definitely knew he was there.”

With the sessions not tethered to any film soundtrack, the vastly improved quality of the songs recorded was immediately apparent from the very first number laid down, “Long Black Limousine,” the somber story of a woman who leaves her small town, vowing to return in a luxury car one day, only to have it turn out to be her own hearse. It set a melancholy tone that carried through the subsequent work, with most of the songs addressing pain and loss.

“This Is The Story,” “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” “You’ll Think Of Me,” “A Little Bit Of Green” and “I’m Movin’ On,” all recorded on the 13th and 14th, each dealt with failed (or failing) relationships; only “Gentle On My Mind” was an unabashed love song. The songs also clearly evinced an adult sensibility; not only was it apparent that the days of songs like “A Dog’s Life,” “Do the Clam” and “Yoga Is As Yoga Does” were well over, gone also were songs with moon ’n’ June sentiments about love lasting “’til the end of time.” Many of the songs recorded at the American sessions had a bittersweet quality to them, reflecting a life of experience, with its attendant sorrows as well as its pleasures.

Presley quickly won the musicians’ respect for how hard he worked. His vocals were recorded as the musicians worked out a song’s arrangement, with the understanding that he’d recut a final vocal later. Nonetheless, he gave his all during the early takes, with sax player/arranger Glen Spreen marveling at how he’d effectively give a full performance in the studio, even standing behind a baffle.

“He was back there just like he would be onstage, doing gyrations and the whole thing — because that was just the way he sang,” Spreen told biographer Peter Guralnick.

And despite his cold, Presley himself felt re-energized by his work in the studio.

“Man, that felt really great,” he told his friends on his way home after the first session. “I can’t tell you how good I feel.” He later said he never worked harder in the studio than he had during the sessions at American.

Presley’s cold gave his voice an appealing roughness, but after two nights, when he developed full-blown laryngitis, he took time off to recover. But the Memphis Boys kept working, spending the 15th and 16th recording backing tracks for four more songs, in the expectation of Presley cutting his vocals later.

“Don’t Cry Daddy” and “Mama Liked the Roses” undoubtedly hit a chord with Presley, as both dealt with the death of a mother, though “Mama” was more lyrically subtle than “Daddy.” Both could have become unbearably maudlin in the hands of another singer, but Presley’s restrained delivery gave them an affecting poignancy.

“Inherit the Wind” and “My Little Friend” were flip sides of the same kind of love song. In the first, the singer is leaving a relationship; in the second, the singer is one mourning a lost relationship. Backing tracks for “Come Out, Come Out” and Mac Davis’ “Poor Man’s Gold” had also been laid down, but Presley never recorded a vocal for either of them. He offered “Angelica,” another song considered for the sessions, instead to R&B singer Roy Hamilton, one of his idols, who was recording at American during the day. Hamilton took Presley’s advice and duly recorded the number, releasing it as a single.

Stay tuned for Part II of our look back at Elvis’ 1969 Memphis sessions!

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