This post is dedicated to Michael Jarrett.
”This is a hit for sure,” David Briggs says after the first take and looks up from his piano.
From the other side of the room Terry Blackwood and Joe Moscheo, two of the members of the gospel group the Imperials, nod their heads in agreement.
Elvis, clad in a black, wide-shouldered, V-necked, high-collared jacket trimmed with leather and gold, shares their confidence. The song seems to offer him the challenge he needs, after the assignment of recording his second Christmas album as well as material for a third religious album.
Gone is the Christmas tree with its empty wrapped boxes that has been standing in the center of the room, and with it the drudgery of working on Christmas songs in the midst of spring.
On this the second-to-last night of the session, producer Felton Jarvis is determined to get Elvis to record some contemporary material that can give them a much-needed hit. And the first song of the evening, Michael Jarrett and Sonny Charles’ “I’m Leavin’,” might be just what they are looking for.
But it’s a demanding song. The second take lasts for only about a minute before Elvis stops singing.
“No, me, sorry, I was a little behind on that ‘lonely’, right?” he asks the Imperials that sings harmony with him.
Together they run through, very informally, the unusual structure of the song, starting with the last part of the first short verse and the start of the next, then discussing the ‘la la la’ refrain and the bridge.
“After that first bridge we did ‘la la la la la la …’.” Elvis starts singing to demonstrate.
Then Charlie Hodge, easy recognizable in his white and blue patterned shirt, turns to the Imperials to explain.
“We got it. We know what it is. It’s just the ‘la la’s’ done twice, each line twice, Joe Moscheo answers back, a slight note of irritation in his voice.
“Ah, yeah, we’ll try that too in the middle,” Elvis says to smooth things over.
“OK, we’re rolling, count it out,” Felton Jarvis then orders.
What follows is a beautiful third take of the song, to which Elvis and his musicians commit a good deal of hard, sustained effort.
Elvis changes the quality of his voice to emphasize the despairing nature of the lyrics. This, together with the delicate acoustic guitar work by James Burton and Chip Young, as well as the harmony between Elvis and the Imperials, lends the song a haunting quality.
“Phew, man that’s tough,” Elvis declares after the ending. “But this thing is worth working on.”
To listen to the studio outtakes of “I’m Leavin’,” play tracks number 5 and 18 on disc 2 of FTD's Elvis Now released last year. (Take 3 was first made available on FTD’s I Sing All Kinds in 2007.) This post was inspired by the article “The terrible beauty of I’m Leavin’” by Paul Simpson published at the Elvis Australia website.