Elvis Presley Life in Musicby Ernst Jorgensen
Ernst Jorgensen has made a lifelong study of Presley, and as the director of RCA's Elvis recordings catalog for the past decade he has been granted exclusive, unlimited access to the label's tape vaults and archives. With Elvis Presley: A Life in Music Jorgensen puts us in the studio for every single session of Elvis's twenty-four-year career, from the first acetate… See more details below
Ernst Jorgensen has made a lifelong study of Presley, and as the director of RCA's Elvis recordings catalog for the past decade he has been granted exclusive, unlimited access to the label's tape vaults and archives. With Elvis Presley: A Life in Music Jorgensen puts us in the studio for every single session of Elvis's twenty-four-year career, from the first acetate he cut as an eighteen-year-old truck driver in 1953 to the series of concerts recorded just before his death in 1977. At the heart of the book is an unparalleled collection of data on the recordings themselves: From complete musician rosters to master-take information, this collection sets a new standard for recording-session guides. Behind such statistics, though, is the story of Elvis Presley the recording artist - master synthesist, driven perfectionist, a one-man industry brought down by the very system built to support him. In a narrative rich with anecdote and insight, Jorgensen reveals how this ambitious singer worked tirelessly to create the sounds he heard in his own mind - and how, even when business or personal trials overwhelmed him, the music was always at the center of his life.
- St. Martin's Press
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Elvis Presley: A Life in Music
The Complete Recording Sessions
By Ernst Jorgensen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Ernst Jorgensen
All rights reserved.
Music in the Air
When Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935, the music he would one day make famous was already all around him. It was in the churches, in the juke joints, on street corners, on the radio, wherever friends gathered. All of the elements he would eventually incorporate into his music, however he and the passing of time would transform them, were already part of the lifeblood of East Tupelo, Mississippi, and of the American South.
Coming up on thirty-nine years after that January day, Elvis found himself in Memphis's Stax Studios, one of the many musical melting pots that had sprung up in the twenty years since he had first tried singing professionally. Into his head popped a few lines of a half-remembered tune, "Columbus Stockade Blues," and as he had so many times before he crooned them out loud, as much for himself as for anyone else who was listening. His cousin Billy Smith was there, and Elvis joked, "Hey man, that song is old. I did that when I was three years old." Chronologically, at least, it was possible: The song was already well established by 1938, having first been recorded by Thomas Darby and Jimmie Tarlton in 1927, the same year Henry Burr and Al Jolson both had big hits with "Are You Lonesome To-Night?" The music Elvis was absorbing in 1938 and every other year of his childhood, the music he loved and sang and recorded, came from every genre and walk of life.
Nothing meant more to him than the music of the church. In a quote reproduced in the liner notes of his first religious album, his mother, Gladys, recalled, "When Elvis was just a little fellow, he would slide off my lap, run down the aisle, and scramble up to the platform of the church. He would stand looking up at the choir and try to sing with them. He was too little to know the words, of course, but he could carry the tune." While Elvis was still in knee britches, the Golden Gate Quartet was preparing to make their first recordings, including a number of songs Elvis would later sing and record. "I know every religious song ever written," he was known to say. Elvis frequently cited country and western (C&W), rhythm and blues (R&B), and gospel as his musical inspirations, but he also knew and loved the work of pop stars such as Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, and even semioperatic singers such as Mario Lanza. All through his life, in private and professionally, he would hum, sing, play, and record songs dredged up from his musical memory, as if to remind himself and everyone around him of where it had all come from.
It's impossible to be sure exactly when Elvis first decided to become a musician. He recalled later that his father told him, "I haven't met a guitarist who was worth a damn." But it was his father whose lovely baritone voice could be heard around the Presley house throughout Elvis's childhood, singing gospel and country songs. His parents were the ones who gave him his first guitar; his uncles gave him his first few lessons. Perhaps the earliest indication came at the age of ten when he climbed on the stage at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair, stood on a chair, and came in fifth singing Red Foley's "Old Shep" before a talent-show audience. Later, we know, he hung around WELO, Tupelo's radio station, hoping the local celebrity and singer Mississippi Slim would show him a few chords or tell him a few stories about the stars he'd met. By those early teenage years, he seems to have singled music out as his future.
The little family — Vernon, Gladys, and Elvis — moved to Memphis in 1948 and into new musical surroundings. Memphis was cosmopolitan; Beale Street was full of the blues, and the region's radio stations played "race records" featuring the music that became known as rhythm and blues. There are many stories of the teenage Elvis hanging around in various musical spots around town — some substantiated, others not — but everyone remembers hearing him sing and seeing him with his guitar, and many noticed his changing appearance. By his last year in school he'd made a point of setting himself apart from his classmates, assuming a personalized dress code right out of the Lansky Brothers' window. But even as he was starting to align himself with the look of R&B (and honky-tonk) stars, the only things he seems to have sung himself were ballads. After he became famous, he recalled never having "sung a fast song" until his first official recording session. Dixie Locke, his steady girlfriend in those years, remembers hearing nothing from him but songs like "Tomorrow Night" and "My Happiness." At the Lauderdale Courts, where he and his family lived during his early high school days, neighbors heard him sing songs made famous by Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold, and Joni James. He made passing attempts to get some of the older, more proficient aspiring musicians in the Courts to teach him a thing or two, but it wasn't so easy: His neighbor Lee Denson recalls being forced by his mother (a friend of Gladys) to help Elvis out with a few guitar pointers, and remembers his young pupil's slow progress.
Over the years, most of Elvis's friends and acquaintances came in contact with his shy but always persistent attempts at singing. To them it might have seemed like a dream, but Elvis's wish to become a singer was always more of a hope, a hope to make something good or even glorious out of his undefined future. To many he seemed like a loner, but he was always hanging around, watching, listening — waiting to make his move.
The story of that move is legendary. One day in the summer of 1953, Marion Keisker was sitting at her desk at the Phillips Recording Studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. Out of 706 Union, studio owner and operator Sam Phillips ran a record label called Sun; the Alabama native had opened the facility in 1950, looking to record some of the many African-American players around Memphis and the rich farmland of the Mississippi delta south of the city. What he tapped into was an exploding R&B scene, already one of America's most exciting. The music had become increasingly popular with the fading popularity of big bands after World War II, and all over the area — in Memphis, across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas, and down in Helena, Arkansas, and Clarksdale, Mississippi — black acts were doing good business luring new and exciting sounds out of their rich blues heritage. Sam Phillips recorded B. B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Joe Hill Louis, and many others at 706 Union. He had even recorded what would later be deemed the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner's "Rocket 88." The little studio also had a service facility where anyone off the street could make a two-sided acetate record for $8.25, There were other, cheaper, less professional places to make recordings around town, places other young musicians used, but Elvis chose Sun. He would later say that he wanted to surprise his mother. Perhaps; more likely, though, what moved him was his burning, unexpressed desire to make music and to become a star.
Marion Keisker worked for Sam, and with him. She also had her own radio talk show, and a feeling for music. When she asked the nervous, almost unintelligible young man, "What kind of a singer are you?"he responded instantly, "I sing all kinds." "Who do you sound like?" she persisted. "I don't sound like nobody," was his response. He was hoping, he said, that she could recommend someone who was looking for a singer. Maybe he was just trying a little salesmanship; in fact, he sang very little but ballads, and to the untrained ear, we now know, he sounded like plenty of other local C&W singers. To Marion, though, there was something there — a stronger yearning? A deeper passion? A greater determination? Whatever it was, she wanted to keep an eye on it; after the kid had made his acetate she made herself a note: "Good ballad singer. Hold."
1. Private Recordings 1953: Memphis Recording Service (Sun Studio)
Guitar: Elvis Presley
The Great Performances
That's When Your Heartaches Begin The King Of Rock 'n' Roll
"That's When Your Heartaches Begin" ends (with the words "that's the end") just after what would normally have been a midsong recitation, although it's not clear whether this was intentional.
That day, with only the most fundamental of guitar skills, Elvis strummed and sang a twenty-year-old ballad called "My Happiness," following it up with the 1951 Ink Spots hit "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." The sound must have been exactly what his family, friends, and neighbors had been listening to for years, while the repertoire reflected a music business where the lines of genre, race, and social origin were already being blurred. "My Happiness" had been a pop record, a country record, and a jazz record before Elvis got to it; his version was sung as a kind of half-confident plaint. The other side — a song he'd return to for years — was filled with aspiration. If he had hoped for instant recognition, or for Sam Phillips to come out of the control booth to talk to him, he was sadly disappointed. Marion duly noted his name and number, but weeks and months went by and he heard nothing.
January came — or possibly several months after that; these dates are still elusive — and finding he couldn't stand it anymore he started dropping by the studio to talk with Miss Keisker. Around the same time he tried out for a place with the Songfellows, a kind of apprentice group connected to Memphis's very popular gospel quartet the Blackwood Brothers. He was rejected; he couldn't sing harmony, they said, and that was that. He didn't make any other outright moves to further his career. He never joined a band, or formed his own group, or tried out on the radio. But eventually he did make it back to Sun and paid to cut another acetate.
2. Private Recordings (Sun Studio) January 4, 1954: Memphis Recording Service
Guitar: Elvis Presley
I'll Never Stand In Your Way
Platinum: A Life In Music
Hy Heath/Fred Rose 67469–2/1997
CPA5 5102 It Wouldn't Be The Same Without You
Jimmy Wakely/Fred Rose
This time he chose a new pop song from Joni James, "I'll Never Stand In Your Way," which was also out in a country version. For the other side he sang "It Wouldn't Be The Same Without You," from a record by the respected country singer Jimmy Wakely. There had been little progress since the last recording. The plaintive, insecure, but strangely passionate voice seemed to hold no commercial promise whatsoever. And so Elvis went back to waiting, stopping by the studio every now and then, determined for something to happen. It had to, he wanted it so much.
Then, on June 26, Marion called. Could he be there by three? "I was there by the time she hung up," he later joked; she suspected he'd run all the way, all charged up with the idea that Mr. Phillips might have found something for him.
The previous year, Sun had had a sizable hit with a group called the Prisonaires, all residents of the state penitentiary in Nashville. Their song, "Just Walking In The Rain," had been written by another prisoner; now Sam had a tune from yet another inmate, this time a ballad called "Without You," and he thought it might suit the quiet young singer. It might have, but Elvis couldn't find a way to do it; nevertheless, Sam invited him to keep singing — to let him hear whatever other songs he knew. The older man encouraged the boy, listened and tried to understand him, but when it was all over he didn't really know what to suggest. He only knew there was something there. "I have one real gift," Sam Phillips later said, "and that gift is to look another person in the eye and be able to tell if he has anything to contribute, and if he does, I have the additional gift to free him from whatever is restraining him." It didn't happen that afternoon, but sometime over the next ten days it did. Sam's insight and his patient persistence would help make him one of the most inspired and productive record producers of American vernacular music.
At around the same time a young guitar player, Winfield Scott "Scotty" Moore III, was also hanging around the studio, and eventually Sam gave his band, Doug Poindexter's Starlite Wranglers, a chance to record. Scotty had ambition — he wanted to work in the record business — and Sam liked him a lot. One day over coffee he suggested that Scotty contact a young ballad singer Sam was thinking of recording, to see if they could work something up for a session. Scotty wasn't given any further direction, but he knew that if he wanted to get something going with Sam he should at least give it a shot. He called the young singer and arranged to meet him. Bill Black, the Wranglers' bass player, would come along too; Bill's younger brother, Johnny, was one of the young musicians Elvis had hung around with in Lauderdale Courts, in a loose group that also included Lee Denson and the Burnette Brothers, Johnny and Dorsey.
Because everyone worked during the week, the trio met at Scotty's house the following Sunday and began by working their way through all the songs that Elvis could think of. The two older musicians were left with no distinct impression of his singing ability, but they were impressed with his outrageous appearance. He had arrived dressed in a black shirt, pink pants with a black stripe, white shoes, and a slick hairdo, all sideburns and ducktail. The very next evening, after work, the trio took their rehearsals to the studio, where a determined Sam Phillips seemed ready to get to the bottom of the situation — to try to understand why it was that he couldn't seem to shake the idea of this kid.
3. Studio Sessions for Sun July 5–6, 1954: Sun Studio, Memphis
Producer/Engineer: Sam Phillips
Guitar: Scotty Moore
Bass: Bill Black
Guitar: Elvis Presley
I Love You Because
Leon Payne — Fred Rose Music
That's All Right
Arthur Crudup — St. Louis Music/Wabash
Harbor Lights Elvis: A Legendary
Performer Vol. 2
J. Kennedy/H. Williams — Peter Maurice
Blue Moon Of Kentucky
Bill Monroe — Peer International
The RCA master of "I Love You Because" is a splice of takes 2 and 4, leaving out the spoken part. When Elvis transferred to RCA, the company received a tape referred to in Steve Sholes's notes as " 'That's All Right' plus two other selections"; it is unclear whether these "other selections" were Presley recordings.
Back in the studio, this time with Scotty and Bill, Elvis once again tried everything he could think of. Sam recorded him singing Leon Payne's country hit, "I Love You Because," with little success; it wasn't that Elvis was bad (save for the dismal recitation in the middle), but what was the point in Elvis doing the song when it had already been done better? Then, toward the end of the night, Sam was in the control room doing something when he got caught off guard by what would become the most significant musical moment in his, Elvis's, Scotty's, and Bill's lives. Patience might not have been the frenetically busy Sam Phillips's most obvious virtue, but it was one of his most important, as the hours he spent with Elvis and the boys were finally proving. In four years of work with local black musicians, he'd found their talent was frequently obscured by a lifetime of insecurity, and waiting for musicians to shake those feelings of "inferiority" and get beyond their natural fear of failure naturally took patience. Sam had always believed in the amateur spirit; to him it was only with fresh, unjaded nonprofessional musicians that truly creative and innovative work could be done. Now — if he could believe the sound coming over the monitor — his patience was finally paying off. After all his failures, Elvis was starting to warm up.
Excerpted from Elvis Presley: A Life in Music by Ernst Jorgensen. Copyright © 1998 Ernst Jorgensen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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