If you're on the lookout for previously unreleased complete outtakes, you'll probably be disappointed with FTD's recent classic album treatment of How Great Thou Art. But if you, like me, want to "walk into the studio" and listen to Elvis and his group of musicians and singers as they develop the different arrangements, then you're in for a treat.
Most if the full running outtakes (and a couple of the false starts, too) have already been released through the years, the majority of them on the two FTD albums Easter Special (2001) and So High (2004). In fact, I've only discovered four "new" complete takes on How Great Thou Art, three of which are from the actual May 1966 sessions: "If The Lord Wasn't Walking By My Side" (take 1), "Where No One Stands Alone" (takes 1+4 spliced) and "Without Him" (take 14). The last one, "We Call On Him" (take 7) is from the September 1967 sessions. To be fair, there's also two nearly complete takes, where Elvis for some reason or other misses the ending: "Where No One Stands Alone" (take 3) and "You'll Never Walk Alone" (take 8), but that's it.
Not that it matters. Getting a front seat in RCA's Studio B in Nashville and being able to listen to Elvis' new producer Felton Jarvis directing the session with his supportive comments and encouragement, offers a valuable insight into how the recordings took place and how the songs evolved. This is what makes the classic album releases such gems, at least in my book, and How Great Thou Art is no exception.
The album follows the by now well known pattern used on previous releases. On disc 1 there's the original album as well as bonus songs (in this case "You'll Never Walk Alone," "We Call On Him" and "If Every Day Was Like Christmas" ) and the first takes. Disc two is full of more session outtakes.
Among the first takes I have to mention "Without Him" where you at times can hear a squeaking noise that is Elvis shoe sole! Unfortunately the dialog is missing where Elvis notices this and laughingly points out, "That's my shoe sole! That's the wrong soul, man." (The event is described in detail by Ernst Jorgensen in his The Complete Recording Sessions.) Another great first take is "So High" where Felton Jarvis urges Elvis and the band to"swing on!"
But the real fun starts with the second disc where you really get a chance to listen to Elvis at work, thanks to more takes of every song in a row. The five takes on "Stand By Me" (5-7, 9 & 10) is a good example of this. Elvis can't see the lyrics as the lights are turned down in the studio and mutters after an abandoned take, "That's not the right lyrics, I'm singing another song. Give us just a little bit of light." To me it then sounds like someone is rummaging around in a box of matches!
A demanding song for Elvis was "Where No One Stands Alone," proof being the grand finale that Elvis recorded a couple of times as a work part to be spliced to the rest of the song. The ending always sends a shiver up my spine, and apparently Felton Jarvis felt the same way, exclaiming at one point: "It sounded great, Elvis. God, I was scared to death."
The second take of "Farther Along" is a strange on. The first couple of words on the second verse are missing ("When death has come and") and instead it starts with Elvis singing “Taken our loved ones." To me it sounds like the take has been edited. Really odd. Unfortunately neither the booklet nor the cover offer any information about this.
"By And By" is one of the fast numbers, in fact so fast that Elvis mixes up the lyrics. "We try to do our best when we wonder how to test," he laughs. "Sounded like you said what the hell is this," somebody in the studio shoots back as everybody cracks up. (Another question mark here is why take four is listed as a false start on disc 2 while in fact take four is a complete one included on disc 1.)
Hearing Elvis sing "I come to the piano..." after the intro played by Floyd Cramer (or is it David Briggs?) on the first take of "In The Garden" is a funny moment. It's easy to imagine Elvis walking towards the piano while singing this, making the pianist look up and loose his way among the keys.
Elvis did sixteen takes of "Somebody Bigger Than You And I," although not all of them are included here. But there's enough of them to realize that the key of the song is raised after a couple of takes as Elvis has a problem with the lower notes. It's also clear he's commited to the song, proof being a work part being recorded on this song as well for the ending to be perfect.
In fact, it's Elvis commitment during the whole May 1966 sessions that makes How Great Thou Art such a great listening experience. Featuring two CD's packed with inspirational performances, FTD's latest classic album release offers, to use a well worn expression, great value for money.