'The First Cut Is The Deepest'
Elvis on the Creative Edge
Part 1 - The Exploration
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.
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
This would be the keystone of Rock n' Roll. This would change
pop music culture, youth expectation and our world forever.
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.
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"
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.
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."
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
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."
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
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"!.
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"!
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
- This first complete version is incorrectly labelled Take
1 on the extended 'Blue Hawaii' CD)
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.
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
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
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.
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'!).
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.
1967's September sessions found Elvis recording gold material
with both 'Big Boss Man' and 'Guitar Man'.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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,
How great to hear that the boy from 1956 who "couldn't
stop moving with the music" was still there within
Elvis in 1973.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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"
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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