'The First Cut Is The Deepest'

Elvis on the Creative Edge

Part 1 - The Exploration

By Piers Beagley

"When I was called to make my first record, I went into the studio and they told me what they wanted me to sing and how they wanted me to sing it. Well, I tried it their way, but it didn't work out so good. So while most of 'em were sitting around resting, a couple of us just started playing around with 'That's All Right', a great beat number. We were supposed to be resting for ten minutes or so, so we just did it natural. It came off pretty good.." - Elvis, August 1956.

That beautiful understatement from Elvis describes the magic moment in July 1954 when he, Scotty Moore & Bill Black just "stumbled upon" the sound that would be the key to unlock the door of a culturally stagnant post-war Middle America.

This would be the keystone of Rock n' Roll. This would change pop music culture, youth expectation and our world forever.

In 23 years in the recording studio Elvis was a rare performer as, unlike many others, he recorded an incredible number of styles of music from Gospel to Blues, from Ballads to Funk and managed to imbue them all with a passion that seemed to come from his very soul.

If you look a little closer you can also discover that the real delight and creative edge of Elvis' recordings can often be found at that very first moment when the engineer starts the tape and Elvis and the band record a song for the first time.

Elvis just loved to sing and get lost in the music, as he told a reporter in 1956...
"So that's how I got my practice in singing, just experimenting around and singing with the other kids and having a good time"

In the studio Elvis usually selected his songs from a pile of demo 45s supplied by his music publishers. Some he would spontaneously choose to record while others would be discarded. The normal practice was that Elvis and band would run though the song a few times, making adjustments along the way and getting the audio mix correct, until Elvis felt happy enough to put it down on tape.

Bones Howe, who was studio engineer on the NBC Special, explained how working with Elvis was unusual. "He came to the session, picked the songs, and if something in the arrangement was changed he was the one to change it. Everything was worked out spontaneously. Many of the important decisions normally made previous to a recording session were made during the session. He was the forerunner of everything that is record production today."

On the first attempt more often than not someone in the band missed a note or maybe Elvis fluffed the lyric. This meant that the song was usually recorded another few times before being suitable for release. However it was frequently on that very first take where the pure innovative spirit of Elvis and the group was captured, showing them at that special creative edge.

This was what happened at that very first recording session at Sun Studios where, without any real constraints, as Elvis said in 1956 "Well, sir to be honest with you, we just stumbled upon it."

While Elvis' sheer talent and rebelliousness was the key to his success, we can already witness the company constraints of RCA Victor being placed on his work, even in the fifties.

The perfect example of the raw creative edge being recorded on the first take, yet ending up smoothed away for 'domestic consumption', is found on 'Shake, Rattle & Roll'. Although it is only Elvis' second recording session for RCA, on Feb 3rd 1956, the rawness of the first take is a true delight.

With the session running low on RCA provided material it was Elvis who suggested they record an old favourite 'Shake, Rattle & Roll'. However, instead of singing the more commercial version that Bill Haley had recently had a hit with, Elvis performed his version of Joe Turner's original.

While there is discussion amongst the group about what to do Elvis hums the melody to the band and says, "Just play along with me"!.

Elvis' voice is raw with energy and this first complete version has Elvis including the extra verse "Well you wear them dresses the sun comes shining through, I can't believe my eyes that all that mess belongs to you"!

Along with the lyric …
"I went over the hill, way down underneath
You make me roll my eyes
And then you make me grit my teeth

What was Elvis singing about?! This certainly wasn't the Bill Haley popular hit version! (In fact Bill Haley's hit didn't even start with the lyric "Get out of that bed"!)

However by the finished Master (Take 12) producer Steve Sholes had decided not only that Elvis should drop the sexually suggestive verse but also that the rawness be smoothed out by adding, unnecessary, backing vocals. This was actually a unique situation since Elvis and the band overdubbed the vocals themselves. This would not happen again and The Jordanaires would join Elvis as his permanent backing singers from the July 56 'Hound Dog' session onwards.

As Elvis himself said, explaining total absorption in his music. "The minute the music started, I wasn't me anymore. I couldn't have stopped moving around if I'd wanted to."

This version of 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' along with the delicious rawness of 'Lawdy, Miss Clawdy' (Take 1) demonstrate that, even in the fifties, Elvis' first recorded vocal often had a special edge over subsequent versions.

Listening to the complete studio recordings you can observe that it is more often than not the band that messed up, causing the need for another take, rather than Elvis himself. Until recently the luxury of hearing these complete session tapes was a treat only found on bootlegs but luckily, for Elvis fans, more and more of these brilliant and educational moments have been released in the past 10 years by both BMG and also the FTD (Fan Club) series.

While Elvis' pure talent, vision and forcefulness was enough to keep all of his music fresh and alive at his 50's recording sessions there can be no doubt that the smooth pop of the 1960s, (which had emerged while Elvis was in the army), once again bottled up the raw emotions of American youth.
It was during this bland period that sweet ballads & light pop would dominate the charts with a large amount being written in a production-line fashion in New York's Brill Building. Seeing this pot of gold and wanting to grab his share Colonel Parker would also try to smooth out the rough edges of 'his boy' and place him in wholesome family movies with associated Soundtrack LPs.

However, away from these soundtrack commitments, Elvis could still record some beautiful and innovative songs. Unfortunately, more often than not, the excitement recorded on a first take would be smoothed away to try and conform to the blandness that RCA thought the record buyers were wanting.

Amazingly Elvis did still manage to create some occasional edgy performances from some surprising bland product but these again would be filed away into the vaults while the later smoother takes were released on Soundtrack LPs.

From the early sixties just compare the fabulous raw, wailing, blues of 1961's 'Give Me The Right' (Take 1) where Elvis seems to be on his knees begging "Why make me plead for something you need?" to the final poppier version (take 4) released on the 'Something for Everybody' LP.

In the movie songs there is even delight to discover in something like 'Rock-A-Hula Baby', the last song that was recorded that day for 1961's 'Blue Hawaii' session. As they roll the tape the band shouts "No one knows it yet" and Elvis says "Hold it!" In the unprepared state the first take breaks down immediately & Elvis suggests to Ray Walker, of The Jordanaires, "Can you do it (the intro) in a bass voice?" The first complete recording, take 3, has a suggestive rawness, with ringing guitars along with a spontaneity that would disappear by the final Master (Take 5).

(Note - This first complete version is incorrectly labelled Take 1 on the extended 'Blue Hawaii' CD)

Not only did the Rock n' Roll numbers get lost in the mix but Elvis' ballads were often close to perfection when he sang the very first version. These takes were usually with a simpler, less developed, arrangement which would help show off not only the sincerity that Elvis discovered in the lyrics but also demonstrated just how developed, full, and rich his voice had become since being in the army.

'That's Someone You Never Forget' Tk.1 is a perfect example where Elvis sings a composition by his friend Red West, with a lyric suggested by Elvis himself. This version is almost an acoustic 'run through' before they decided to add Hank Garland's electric guitar to the mix. The feeling is very understated with Elvis' vocals never sounding better nor more delicate. With just a slight touch of D.J Fontana's bushes on the drums, along with some vocal fill-in by The Jordanaires, it is breathtaking. Listen to this once and think of Elvis singing about Priscilla, who was still waiting for him in Germany. Listen to it again thinking of Elvis singing about the desperate love for his Mother he missed so much.

With Elvis becoming more and more trapped by his movie Soundtrack recordings it would take some foreigners, The Beatles and their compatriots, to once again open the pop music doors to creative & innovative song writing. Interestingly this would happen again later in the seventies, near the end of Elvis' life, when the Sex Pistols found themselves breaking down similar doors as chart music drifted towards bland conformity.

From Elvis' point of view it wouldn't be until the later sixties that he managed to reassert his creative importance in pop culture with his 'American Studio' sessions of 1969. However the first glimpses of this fantastic re-emergence can be found as early as 1966 and 1967.

An example is the real joy to be found in Elvis' version of The Clovers' 'Down in the Alley'. Recorded in a break during the religious 1966 'How Great Thou Art' sessions it was already 4am when producer Felton Jervis announced "Funksville, Take One" as the band started to play. Here was a bluesy rocker that allowed Elvis and the band to really let loose. (Elvis' previous session had been for the movie 'Spinout' including such awfulness as 'Smorgasbord' and 'Beach Shack'!).

No wonder 'Down in the Alley' sounds so damn fresh with Charlie McCoy's harmonica mixing in with Boots Randolph's sax. Elvis and Charlie Hodge sing out their souls "We'll have a ball, and that ain't all.." and all this controlled chaos ends fabulously in a classic drum roll from Elvis' dual drummers, D.J. Fontana & Buddy Harman.

Similarly 1967's September sessions found Elvis recording gold material with both 'Big Boss Man' and 'Guitar Man'.

The first complete recording (take 2) of 'Big Boss Man' has some fabulous prominent guitar picking by Jerry Reed along with the delight of Elvis throwing in some enthusiastic adlibs of his own that would be missing on the final master. Listen out for his fabulous "Big Boss Man, ay ay ay" (@ 1.07) and also Elvis singing the bass line towards the end. There's even a false fade on the track at 2.50 (where the final Master, Take 11, finishes) but Felton brings the fader back up as the band keep on rockin'.

In 1969 we find Elvis recording in very different circumstances, working back in Memphis at 'American Studios' and under the guidance of Chips Moman. Hearing any early version of 'In the Ghetto' from these sessions is an incredible experience. Takes 1 & 2 capture a clarity and purity that seemed to get a little lost in the overdubs and mixing of the final Master. Elvis could never do a bad performance of this classic song but with beautiful light guitar work and an exquisite vocal it becomes more poignant and sincere than ever. The first complete version, take 3, can be found on the 'Platinum' box set.

While the early sixties had RCA trying to smooth the edge off Elvis' Rock n' Roll, by the seventies we find that producer Felton Jervis basically did the same thing by using excessive overdubs. Too many of Elvis' 1970 recordings became unnecessarily buried under layers of infuriating orchestral sweetenings.

At the time even Elvis fans like myself started to become disillusioned by these all too saccharine releases. I began to wonder where Elvis' enthusiasm for great music had disappeared.

Luckily for us, with Elvis' back catalogue being resurrected by Ernst Jorgenson & Roger Semon, we can now discover that Elvis was still involved and producing some excellent recordings that, more often than not, had their musical edge removed by post session overdubs.

Listen to Elvis' pure funk and involvement on 'I Got A Feeling in My Body' take 1 recorded at Memphis' famous STAX Studios. The band is producing a soulful stew and there is an inspired moment at 2.32 when Elvis kicks out some karate moves singing "I got a, got a - Hot Damn, phew!"
How great to hear that the boy from 1956 who "couldn't stop moving with the music" was still there within Elvis in 1973.

While Elvis still recorded some great rockers in the seventies his personal life had fallen apart which led to him identifying more and more with emotional ballads, pouring his sadness and loss into some amazingly personal songs. Some of these are the most powerful recordings of his whole career but again they seemed to lose their edge once they were overdubbed & 'sweetened' for final release.

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' Tk.1 from June 1970 is a beautiful and delicate example. Here, while Elvis does seem a little tentative trying out the lyrics, this version almost sounds like him singing the song alone at the piano. While not as polished as the final take this version does capture a fragile & delicate moment. If you ever visit Studio B in Nashville, where this was recorded, the original piano that David Briggs used on this song is still there and the ambience that you can hear on this fabulous recording still resonates in the air.

Another beautiful example is Don Maclean's 'And I Love You so' where Elvis bares his soul to his current girlfriend Sheila Ryan who was actually in the studio that day. Elvis says at the start "Step here Sheila and let me sing to you baby". The simplicity of this first version, which lacks both the reverb and overdub of the final version, has Elvis almost whispering the lyrics into your ear, whereas the string-laden final mix had Elvis sounding like he was singing from the bathroom!

Elvis' final recording session took place in the Jungle Room in Graceland in late 1976. Here Felton Jervis went as far as re-recording most of the instrumental tracks before release along with yet more overdubbing with strings and horns. Unfortunately these orchestral overdubs, editing and the added echo really spoilt something very special. While it is true that these are mostly sad, sentimental songs, which obviously reflect Elvis' mood at the time, they are also fragile, gentle songs sung with a passion and feeling that should never have been tampered with. Listening to Elvis' full, raw, unedited version of the classic Johnny Ace song 'Pledging My Love' makes you despair when you compare it to the inconsequential version released on the flip side of the 'Way Down' single. In fact most of the tracks released on the disappointing LPs 'From Elvis Presley Boulevard' & 'Moody Blue' met a similar fate.

Hearing these original recordings on the sensational FTD 'Jungle Room Sessions' CD is an incredibly emotional and moving experience and essential to understanding Elvis' final studio recordings.

The emotional first take of 'It's Easy For You' is a perfect example that captures Elvis seemingly singing about his own life, which was by then spinning out of control. While I never enjoyed the over produced final version, here Elvis' voice has a fragility & emotion to it that is really moving.

Recorded in his very own home he pleads ..
"You don't have to face the music,
You don't have to face the crowd…
I had a wife and I had children,
I threw them all away"

At the start there is a great moment of honesty as Elvis explains himself to the band ..
"I get carried away very easily, emotional son of a bitch!"

In today's world of digital technology and Studios I wonder whether Elvis' spontaneous approach to recording would be appreciated. Would he still have been allowed to warm up with Gospel sing-a-longs before getting down to business? There is no doubt that the cost of modern studios would be prohibitive to this approach. While there is a possibility that Elvis might have built a studio for himself, had he continued working in a company environment they would have inevitably opted for Elvis recording vocal overdubs as the cheapest option.

With a desire for a technically cleaner & purer sound today's groups rehearse time and again to get to that audio perfection while overdubs are also the norm. Under a scenario like this, Elvis' recordings would have probably become more emotionless & blander as the working environment became increasingly boring for him with the lack of band interaction and studio involvement. (Just listen to his Soundtrack LPs recorded in this manner for proof.)

It is also worth mentioning that Elvis' spontaneity & involvement didn't only show itself in the studio but also in his live concerts as well. It is obvious that the appeal of singing to the Las Vegas casino audiences soon wore off for Elvis, along with having to sing oldies like 'Don't Be Cruel' every night to please his fans. The real excitement in his later concerts came with the spontaneously chosen songs that he may have sung only once live. Listening to 'Danny Boy' from Tucson 1976 or Elvis' only live version of 'Rags to Riches' from New Year's Eve 1976 you can hear his commitment and involvement in these songs.

Similarly, Elvis' first live performances of a new song can really delight. This makes bootleg CDs like 'Opening Night 1972' or 'From Sunset Boulevard, August 19th 74' such a joy to listen to. But that is another journey to take at another time.

With more and more Elvis material becoming available there is always something new to discover in his recordings and it will be a sad day when this path of discovery finally ends.

In the same vein the last word should come from Elvis himself
"Yes, I've been lucky. And you know something? I just feel sometimes like it's all a dream, like I'll rub my eyes and wake up and it'll all be over. I hope not. I hope it never happens. I hope it never ends.


This paper was originally published in 2003 as part of The First Online Symposium on Elvis Aron Presley.

GO HERE for Part 2 of this paper.

Click here for more insights into essential Elvis releases-

Elvis - The Jungle Room Sessions

Elvis- The Memphis Sessions

Elvis Is Back!

Elvis Presley - The First LP

Elvis: On Tour The Rehearsals

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