‘The Elvis is Back! Sessions’ Deluxe Box-set REVIEW
Released back in December 2019 this was the fourth in FTD’s “Complete Sessions” series.
A beautiful 4-CD set in a "tape-box” slipcase, with fold-out packaging plus 28-page book this was a gorgeous way to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Elvis’ all-important return-from-army Studio B recording sessions.
Back in March 2005 FTD released its first “Classic Album” of a non-soundtrack recording session which was the 2 CD ‘Elvis Is Back!’ set. At the time, with delightful 18-page booklet and audio mastered by Sebastian Jeansson, it raised the bar for all the “Classic Albums” that followed.
Focusing on such a crucial recording session with such astounding results (7 Gold Records) it would soon become one of EIN’s most-played FTD sets and one of their biggest sellers.
As a recording artist Elvis was the greatest interpreter of all-time and for the early part of his career his recording sessions usually took around 10 studio attempts to cut the Master. In the fifties, packed full of enthusiasm, these fluffs would often be caused by either the band or Elvis tripping up over something quite simple.
Returning to recording in the sixties Elvis would usually spend a little more time working from the rough-first-take, sometimes changing the arrangement, before cutting the final Master.
Again this would often take around ten takes and it is this that makes Elvis’ “Complete Sessions” so enjoyable and work surprisingly well.
It is only when Elvis and the band spend over 30 similar takes getting relatively nowhere with a soundtrack song (33 takes of ‘Loving You’!) or even twenty-three takes working away on the glorious ‘In The Ghetto’ that it gets wearying listening to every take one after the other.
Luckily with the ‘Elvis Is Back!’ sessions it was only three of the first four songs of the session where Elvis felt he had to keep working towards a total perfection that he believed was required. And with it being his first studio recordings in almost two years – with RCA execs there to witness whether the boy still had it - you can certainly forgive him for that!
The vast majority of session outtakes were released on the ‘Elvis Is Back!’ Classic Album – where FTD also first used the fine idea of presenting ‘The First Takes’ after the session Masters.
Another sixteen outtakes were included on FTD’s 2015 “Elvis Golden Records Volume 3” Classic Album release.
Here for the 60th anniversary FTD now presents the ‘complete sessions’ - although the tape of ‘I Will Be Home Again’ and whatever Elvis did with take 1 of ‘Reconsider Baby’ is sadly missing.
Following on from previous “Complete sessions” there is plenty to explore for Elvis collectors.
The 4 CDs are in a four panel fold-out with the joy of fans being able to pore over various RCA paperwork and tape boxes.
The photos of Elvis from his RCA photo shoot in Germany look fabulous.
The large 8-inch 28-page booklet is a superb upgrade from the Classic Album release.
Three pages feature a very interesting look at the importance of the session by Elvis author Alan Hanson.
Elvis fans all realise how astounding the outcome of this all-important 1960 RCA session was so it is quite a revelation that The New York Times was so scathing..
"Rumors have been coming back from Germany that we would hear a new, matured Presley when he had finished his Army stint . . . As the numerous pictures that cover the sleeve attest, the sideburns are gone but the features cleared to view show no signs of advancing maturity. Nor do his conceptions as a vocalist seem to have progressed. In fact, the vivacity that contributed to the surface excitement he once generated is largely missing from these performances, leaving them strangely drab and lackluster."
The fact that RCA shipped nearly 1.3 million pre-orders of Elvis’ new single within a week is a reflection of the importance of the session. Elvis recorded ‘Stuck On You /Fame and Fortune’ late in the Sunday evening of March 20th and by Tuesday morning the 45rpm was being pressed in three RCA factories and were shipped to customers the following day.
The booklet also features some fascinating letters from Col Parker to Elvis including.. “I called Vernon today .. if possible to not set up any appointments with anyone at your home while you are there this week. …. as the pressure is pretty heavy”
The Album Release and Single Releases are also examined.
It is fascinating that the ‘Elvis Is Back!’ singles got both regular MONO and “Living Stereo” releases. This would soon stop.
It is also noted that Elvis would personally complain about the audio quality of ‘It’s Now Or Never’ telling Col Parker that it did not sound as good as his test pressing. Elvis’ intervention would cause RCA to re-master the single which caused the 45-RPM release to be delayed.
There is a wonderful letter included from Sammy Davis Jr to Col Parker suggesting he arrange a “Welcome Home” party for Elvis at a classy restaurant with “all of Elvis’ friends”.
He charmingly writes, “I dig this whole idea Colonel, what do you think of it?”
With pages of memorabilia, international record covers, RCA documentation as well as the photos of Elvis in this all-important period the booklet is a true delight.
One page of memorabilia, with a note from 1961 about the 'NASHVILLE ALBUM' stating "Nothing to destroy in New York"
The photo shows Elvis presenting his new album to the doorman at the Hollywood Knickerbocker hotel.
Elvis returned to RCA Nashville’s Studio B on March 20th 1960, just 15 days after coming home from his army stint for Uncle Sam.
Elvis had been away from the music scene for nearly 2 years and the charts were no longer full of the excitement of fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll but had given way to a smoother sixties-sound. Elvis knew only too well that just one year out of the music business can kill your career and, although he had made some home recordings while in Germany, Elvis hadn’t recorded in a Studio since June 1958!
While 1968 is named as Elvis’ ‘Comeback’ year, nothing could have been more important than this 1960 session & no one could have been more concerned than Elvis himself.
The key to this particular release is being able to hear Elvis and his band’s creativity in full glory as the tapes are rolling. Having the session in chronological order, and in such beautiful audio quality, is a feeling close to actually being there eavesdropping on Elvis as he effortlessly cut some of the most important songs of his whole career.
After all, in early 1960 Elvis Presley’s future career would hinge on just two nights of recording at Nashville’s Studio B. Had Elvis not created such vital, emotional, quintessential million-selling music on these two crucial nights he just might have been relegated to the fifties Rock ’N’ Roll vaults along with Gene Vincent, Bill Haley and the like.
But straight out of the army, and distanced from the new smooth pop of the day, Elvis seemed totally at ease whether singing the sublime harmony-laden doo-wop of ‘Thrill Of Your Love’; cool pop, ‘Stuck On You’; sultry jazz, ‘Fever’; latino passion, ‘It’s Now Or Never’; heartbreaking ballads, ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’; steamy blues, ‘Reconsider Baby’ or just plain down-&-dirty rock’n’roll, ‘Such A Night’. Whatever the type of music, Elvis seemed totally at home and unstoppable.
Whether Elvis actually considered the true importance of these sessions is impossible to tell from the music alone, as the passion seems to flow from his soul so naturally. Elvis hardly ever sounds stressed, while his newly found vocal range and perfect song choices define the second most important recording session of his life.
AUDIO QUALITY: While audio engineer Sebastian Jeansson’s audio work on the earlier FTD Classic Album sounded truly fine, fifteen years later he has now got even more out of these sixty-year-old tapes and they absolutely shine in their audio glory. He is also credited with "audio restoration".
Playing them on a good quality HiFi is like being there as engineer Bill Porter laced up the Scotch magnetic tape on his Studio B Ampex three-track tape machine and hit “Record”.
You can hear the slight background tape-hiss start and then musicians chat before Bill Porter announces, “You ready? Let’s cut one.”
It is ‘Make Me Know It’ Take 1 and the pressure on Elvis and the band must have been immense.
Just two days earlier, in the same studio, Nashville’s outstanding 'A Team' band had worked with The Everly Brothers recording their #1 pop classic “Cathy's Clown”. Surrounded by great musicians now it was Elvis’ turn to prove that, after 2 years in the army, he still was a dynamic and creative force.
Elvis’ original guitarist Scotty Moore was there, along with The Jordanaires and, in an inspired move, Elvis had decided to use two drummers for a more forceful sound. D.J Fontana was back, working alongside ace session-drummer Buddy Harman.
RCA Studio engineer Bill Porter had been selected for this huge task on the strength of his recent 16 chart successes. Surprisingly this was his very first recording session with Elvis.
As Porter recalls, "The musicians began arriving by 6:30, and Elvis came in about 8:40 surrounded by bodyguard, Army buddies and old pals. Anyone watching them clown around, practicing karate moves and talking about mock tank battles, would have found it hard to believe that there was the slightest pressure surrounding the session. But I felt a tension in the (control) room, I really did.
"About 9:30, we got down to the business of recording. Everything started smoothly enough, but as I was getting the balance on the first song, I became aware of an air of anticipation behind me. Turning around, I saw that executives had sprung up in that control booth faster than mushrooms in a cellar! Right beside my elbow was Colonel Tom Parker, VIPs from RCA plus Steve Sholes. And when Elvis did the first tune they didn’t say anything to me… No one said a word! - but what they didn't say spoke volumes!"
Elvis always rose to a challenge and tended to produce his best work under pressure. When the session finished there could be no doubt that, from his explosive first recording ‘Make Me Know It’ to the very last moment (as dawn was breaking on the second night’s work) ‘Reconsider Baby’, this might be the greatest music that Elvis would ever produce.
On the first night Elvis, as always, warmed up with gospel numbers as well as favorites such as ‘I Got A Woman’ (why, oh why weren’t the tapes rolling?!).
The true session began with the exciting feel of Elvis blasting away his Army despondency on Otis Blackwell’s ‘Make Me Know It’ and the nice doo-wop touch of ‘Soldier Boy’ – a song that Elvis had played with and also home-recorded while in Germany.
While nearly all of these recordings have been previously released, this new set does feature around 20 new outtakes (or false starts) which all help enhance the excitement of eavesdropping on these sessions.
The all-important ‘Make Me Know It’ includes six new outtakes which all go to show the pressure Elvis was under. On previously unreleased take 5 Elvis misses his cue, “I’m sorry. Once again” he says. On a delightful Take 12 Elvis messes up the lyrics mid-way through, “you won’t have no… shit” to which someone exclaims “oooh, yeah!” It all goes to capture the great camaraderie present in the studio, and with eight takes falling apart under the 1 minute mark the multiple attempts don’t get that repetitive. It would be another 7 attempts before they created the cool master. Listening to them all in sequence, knowing that the RCA execs were watching, you can easily “feel the tension” that Bill Porter referred to.
‘Soldier Boy’ similarly features some neat new outtakes. On early attempts the group struggle to get their timing in sync, while on previously unreleased take 4 Elvis goes off on a delicious tangent mid-song which causes him laugh and stop the song. Previously unreleased take 8 is the first attempt at the faster tempo and features Elvis’ cool whistle afterwards, demonstrating just how relaxed he was feeling. Again seven takes falter short of 45 seconds so the whole session flies by. Totally sublime work.
(EIN NOTE: There was a pretty minor digital glitch on FTD’s first pressing of CD2 'Soldier Boy' Take 15. Minor but once you hear it, it is noticeable - @ 0427 "That she was "CLICK" .. meant" This was due to a mastering fault and so FTD replaced the disc for free.)
The obligatory million-seller 'Stuck On You' was next but Elvis’ musical genius, as well as his newly-matured voice, really shone through on the final three tracks of the night, 'Fame and Fortune', 'A Mess Of Blues' and 'It Feels So Right'.
The first take of ‘Fame and Fortune’ (previously on FTD’s Elvis' Golden Records Vol. 3) is the perfect start as the group feel their way, “Elvis, show them what you want to do” asks a Jordanaire. With nine complete takes this is the only track on the set – glorious as it is – where listening becomes a little repetitive. It is actually a neat coincidence that this song is split across the two discs. A new treat is to have never-before-released 'Fame and Fortune' final takes 14 & 15 which were spliced together to create the master.
‘A Mess Of Blues’ take 4 with Elvis enthusiastically clicking his fingers, and a with a noticeable warble in his voice mid-way through is one of my absolute favourites, especially as it all falls apart within sight of the end with Elvis laughing “oh, hell” along with the group. Again relegated to FTD’s “Elvis Golden Records Volume 3” it is great to have this in context here.
Just 2 days later, more than one million copies of Elvis’ new single ‘Stuck On You / Fame and Fortune’ would be shipped to the dealers and five days later in Miami, Elvis would sing both sides of the single on Frank Sinatra’s "Welcome Home Elvis" TV special - which is also featured in the booklet.
A new photo to me, a private 'Welcome Home Elvis!' party March 5, 1960 at a hotel in Trenton, N.J.
The second and final studio session would take place on April 3rd with the recording of a series of more classic material including ‘Fever’, ‘It’s Now Or Never’ and, at The Colonel’s suggestion, an old 1927 Al Jolson hit ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’!
A new addition to the band that night was saxophonist Homer “Boots" Randolph who added some brilliant touches, making tracks like ‘Like A Baby’ into the dirty blues it needed to be.
‘The Girl Of My Best Friend’ (a UK double A-Side with ‘A Mess Of Blues’) took a while to create the awesome master with some major change of tempo along the way. Listening to the full session here, featuring three new outtakes, one can understand just how hard Elvis was working to get the feeling just right. New take 8 is sublime and only fails halfway through due to Elvis delightfully fluffing the lyrics, “I’m sorry man, I forgot the goddamn words”. The master was only 2 attempts away.
While the Gold singles are well-known, two tracks also stand out as some of Elvis’ most important recordings of all-time. ‘Reconsider Baby’, recorded in one magnificent live-take, captures Elvis as he is consumed in the passion of the music and working with such a great band.
Just like his first Sun session in 1954 it is Elvis’ acoustic guitar that drives the song. In a moment of profound spontaneity, the wailing sax of Boots Randolph (his first true solo with Elvis!) combined with Elvis’ intense vocal is hard to beat.
(Note: There may have been an earlier attempt of some unknown duration, but the tape has been lost)
Similarly, Elvis’ growling moan on‘Such A Night’ pushed this lightweight Drifters’ song into another league all-together. The full session, with Elvis’ famously funny intro where he keeps missing the start, plus some extremely fancy Scotty Moore jazzy guitar that is missing from the final version, is classic eavesdropping. Here the new idea of using dual drummers Buddy Harman and D.J. Fontana never would be bettered, helping urge Elvis to an awe-inspiring performance.
While Elvis was never recognized as a song-writer, his all-important contribution as an arranger/producer is perfectly demonstrated here. Elvis’ whoop of joy at the end really says it all!
And what a contrast to the session when ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ follows. This full session is a truly exciting insight into the creation of this million-seller. New previously unreleased takes here include ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight? work part #2’ and surprisingly the complete Take 5 that was used as the main section of the final release. Now we get to hear Elvis’ exclamation “shit” as The Jordanaires go off-key at the very final note! Fascinating stuff.
It’s a true shame that the final session tape with all the attempts at ‘I Will Be Home Again’ and ‘Reconsider Baby’ has never been found as it would have been so interesting to hear Elvis’ studio banter and last night thoughts as this stunning session came to its end in the early dawn.
In an amazing two nights work Elvis recorded eighteen classic tracks including seven Gold records! Disappointingly when the LP ‘Elvis Is Back!’ was originally released, it surprisingly did not sell as well as expected, and ‘G.I. Blues’ released six months later would sadly do much better.
With the ‘All Shook Up’ similar-sounding ‘Stuck On You’ rush-released as a “safe” first single it would actually sell only half as well as the very different sounding ‘It’s Now or Never’ and ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ that followed.
Had ‘Elvis Is Back!’ included just one of these mega-selling hit singles from the same session (‘Stuck On You’, ‘It’s Now or Never’, ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’) there is no doubt that it would have made a bigger impression and possibly sold a million. Even the chart topping Everly’s put their biggest-ever single ‘Cathy’s Clown’ on their 1960 LP “A Date With The Everly Brothers”!
Overall Verdict: This IS the definitive release of Elvis’ crucial 1960 RCA post-army session. At last all the session outtakes in chronological order - including some very exciting previously unreleased material – and all beautifully remastered by Sebastian Jeansson. Elvis was at a creative peak full of excitement and singing with a smoother, more mature, new beauty and strength to his voice. Listening to Elvis’ every line and creative mis-step is a joy. With such powerful music plus beautiful packaging - the slip-case, the documentation and the 28-page booklet – this set is immaculate and a concept that Elvis collectors have always dreamed about. It was 1960, after nearly two years locked away with Uncle Sam yet, ‘Elvis Is Back!’ and no one could deny it! An essential purchase for Elvis collectors.
Review by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN August 2020
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
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Note the review images are low-res personal scans and are far worse quality than the stunning images in the FTD release.
|'The Elvis Is Back! Sessions' - Special 4-CD Deluxe release.
FTD December 2019 release #506020-975139
Album produced and art directed by Ernst Mikael Jørgensen & Roger Semon.
Audio restoration and Mastered by Sebastian Jeansson.