The recently released Presley box set may boast an accurate geographical title, as the King did cut the material—much of it superb—at Stax Studios in Memphis. But whatever opportunity Presley had to engage Stax talent and Stax soul was a lost opportunity.
BY STEVE WILSON
“If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Thus spoke the man behind the revolution that was Sun Records, Sam Phillips. He found a few guys who sort of fit that bill (Jerry Lee Lewis, for one), but none as charismatic as a kid from Mississippi named Elvis Presley.
As John Lennon observed, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” Of course that’s coming from a dreamy, hyperbolic English teenager. But Lennon spoke for millions his age, millions who hadn’t heard Howlin’ Wolf, another Phillips protégé, or Robert Johnson, or Skip James, or … anyone darker than blue. And in truth, Elvis’ vaunted “blackness,” which became either a mantle of credibility or larceny depending on point of view, was exaggerated. He was kid who listened to WDIA (the black voice of Memphis), but who was just as plugged into the Grand Ol’ Opry and crooners like Dean Martin. Elvis contained multitudes to be sure, but he wasn’t Brian Jones or Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, deep students of the sounds of black America.
And by the early Seventies he played relatively little rock ‘n’ roll for someone who was supposedly the ‘King’ of the damn idiom. And as for “sounding black,” what did the King do when he booked Stax Studios in his hometown of Memphis for sessions in 1973. Stax Studios, right? Hey, a great opportunity to marinate in Memphis’s black heritage. Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes – the potential to track with the Booker T. & the M.G.’s as your rhythm section … Dang! Maybe cut some of the classic songs from Hayes and Porter and Otis Redding, yeah baby!
Nope. He brought in his own band, granted estimable talents like James Burton on guitar and Ron Tutt on drums, and did what he did in the early Seventies, cut a mixed bag of songs with varying degrees of personal and artistic investment. Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition, a beautifully annotated 3-disc set from RCA Legacy Recordings, finds him in fair fettle for this stage of his career – still in good voice, generally engaged, capable of truly moving work when the right elements combined, capable of dreck when they didn’t.
Elvis at Stax collects all the final masters and some of the more arresting outtakes from those July and December sessions in 1973. Not that every single lick here wasn’t released on some odious Colonel Tom Parker (pictured above, with Elvis and “friend”) processed release or another, typically mixed with other unrelated songs from sessions recorded God knows where. Parker and RCA’s greedy, manipulative management of the Presley catalog is legendary. It would be an insult to Boxcar-fucking-Willie, let alone an artist of Elvis’s magnitude. From the haphazard track selection and sequencing, to the shabby packaging (ever count the number of white jump suit/live action shots that passed for record covers?), the disservice done to a great artist by his record company remains nonpareil. Elvis at Stax, discreetly packaged, replete with complete credits for musicians, singers, and studio personnel, and excellent (if fawning) Robert Gordon liner notes, is a nice corrective.
After listening attentively to the outtakes that comprise almost half of this set, it’s clear this is material for the Elvis devotee, lovers of half-assed arrangements, studio chatter and forgotten lyrics. On the other hand the finished masters from these sessions contain some real treasures. From among the July 1973 masters, two tracks leap from the pile. Leiber and Stoller’s “Three Corn Patches” is a southern slice of life (by two guys from Baltimore and Long Island) – Presley’s affinity for their tunes is well documented. It rocks with authority and Elvis gives it a reading that sounds like he might just have a thing for this chick “four cotton fields away.” And Piney Brown’s blues classic “Just a Little Bit,” the readymade from which a million blues songs have been spun including Junior Well’s “Snatch it Back and Hold It,” is given a New Orleans groove. It makes you wish that some enterprising producer might have cracked the grip of the Memphis Mafia and gotten the King to cut a record in New Orleans with Cossimo Matassa, Dave Bartholomew, and Allen Toussaint. Hmm, or maybe a Joe Turner tribute record (he recorded “Shake, Rattle and Roll”). Sure, the Colonel would have gone for that!
There’s more to love from the December 1973 masters. The King’s urgent, swinging take on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” finds him in playful voice and Burton’s Berryesque licks are fondly derivative and fresh at the same time. The rough and tumble croon on songs like “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and “Thinking of You” show how much Bryan Ferry dug Elvis, the former’s Norman Whitfield style funk arrangement hinting at some new avenues for the artist; James Burton doing his best Dennis Coffey. Dennis Linde’s “I Got a Feelin’ in my Body,” with its percolating groove, is another slice of contemporary funk; unfortunately it’s undermined by the Chipmunk backing vocals. The Jordanaires this ain’t. The same shticky backing vocals haunt tracks like “You Asked Me To.” Presley sings this Bill Joe Shaver/Waylon Jennings tune with plaintive authority, but the choir of diabetic angels is so thick that it buries rather than supports the emotion of his performance. For Elvis and producer Felton Jarvis at this point it was reflexive – if it’s not up-tempo, drag out the lachrymose singers and strings. This they borrowed from the country aesthetic of the time, and it did country artists few favors; such excesses laid the foundation for the radical curative of “Outlaw Country,” and artists like… Jennings and Shaver.
Presley’s take on Tom Jan’s “Loving Arms” is a revelation. The singer opens himself to the song, avoids his own tics and clichés, and almost sounds like another singer. Jerry Reed’s “Talk About the Good Times” is basically Joe South-lite, but its neo-gospel feel lets Presley hit a confident groove. And “Your Love’s been a Long Time Coming” is a minor triumph from these dates. Presley is fully invested, the “you got me hummin’ lyric is (intentionally or not) a small nod to Stax, and the swelling string and back up singers actually reinforce the emotion in the song rather than drown it.
Otherwise, these sessions are stricken with Elvis Seventies Malaise. Presley and his producers indulged his capacity not simply for crooning, but sheer schmaltz. Too many of these songs are treacle. Neither fish nor fowl, neither soul nor country, but crap Bobby Goldsboro might’ve passed on. And while songs by Tom Jans, Billy Joe Shaver, and Waylon Jennings are all right and good here, too many of the less stellar tracks sound like inferior, Kris Kristofferson wannabe shit, songs solicited from the publishing houses on music row with little regard for the artist’s emotional identification. And the near absence of any deep soul, blues or other material from African-American writers is striking. Elvis’s increasingly Vegas-centric world was moving farther and farther daily from the Tupelo soil and the Memphis sounds (not just rhythm ‘n’ blues, but hillbilly music) that once nourished his musical soul.
Elvis at Stax is an accurate geographical title. He cut these tracks at Stax Studios, to be sure. But whatever opportunity Presley had to engage Stax talent and Stax soul was a lost opportunity. And that’s called sad.
Less than four years after these sessions were completed, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll departed this mortal coil. Had he survived he might have lived to be rehabilitated by Rick Rubin, like his old pal Johnny Cash. Instead he died bloated and full of pills, ensuring a morbid cult of idolaters who will eventually create a nominally Christian faith of some sort with Elvis as Jesus’ right hand man.