Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Following That Dream (Part 2)

Here follows the second part of the article “Following That Dream,” that I wrote for the Elvis International magazine. This part focus on the Classic Album series.

But it was with the launch of the Classic Album series in 2003 that FTD opened the doors wide to the different studios where Elvis worked during his career, and let us experience the recording sessions first hand. By releasing Elvis’ original albums in deluxe 7” size packaging together with an accompanying booklet and most of the times a second CD full of outtakes (many of them previously unreleased) we are offered a fly-on-the-wall experience of how Elvis and his group of musicians and singers develop the different arrangements of the songs in question.

I, for one, love to put my headphones on and time-travel to a recording session, listening to the laughter, banter, tuning of instruments and discussions taking place among Elvis and the musicians as they work out intros and make progress with the songs. Let me illustrate with a few examples, taken from the FTD classic albums Jailhouse Rock Volume 2, Blue Hawaii, How Great Thou Art and Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas.

Starting with Jailhouse Rock Volume 2, I've always thought the title track must've been a demanding song for Elvis, and listening to the last couple of takes confirms that. “I don’t think I’m gonna make it all way through,” he says after take 8 and then goes on recording just the ending. Another highlight is the first movie version of “Treat Me Nice,” where not only the tempo changes during the course of the 19 takes of the song, but also the beginning and the ending. “That’s a hit,” Elvis jokes after the third take and a bad ending by the Jordanaires.

Overall, Elvis seems to be in a good mood during the Jailhouse Rock sessions. “How bad you want me to get,” he laughs after the second take of “Young And Beautiful” (jail version). The only time he seems irritated is while recording the second version of “Don't Leave Me Now.” “Seems like everybody is holding down, we can’t get any feeling out of it this way,” he mutters after the first couple of tries of the song.

Moving on to Blue Hawaii, the FTD version of the soundtrack offers a fascinating insight into the making of one of Elvis’ biggest selling albums. The first takes of “Rock-A-Hula Baby” are worth the admission alone. When Elvis for some reason stops singing 40 seconds into the second take, the band just keeps going, seemingly unable to stop. “Hold it,” Elvis shouts, then laughs, before launching into the third take, delivering a wild and cooking performance. Another highlight is the making of the movie version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” Elvis going through 26 takes of the song (12 of them are included on the FTD album). “Damn pants too tight,” he says before take 14. The following takes shows Elvis having trouble with the slow tempo of the song “I can’t hold a note worth a damn,” he sighs after abandoning take 22.

Slicin’ Sand” might not be called a classic, but many of the 12 takes included are fun to listen to. One example is take 6 which has Elvis throwing in an extra verse: “Sand in my toes, sand in my hair, sand in my sandwich but I don’t care.” Elvis worked hard with “No More,” going through take after take of the song. As they all sound pretty similar, I was wondering about this, until I read today in Ernst Jorgensen’s A Life In Musicthat the writer of the song, Don Robertson, was invited to the studio that day. Elvis obviously wanted to show him that he was serious about the song.

Next in line is How Great Thou Art, recorded in May 1966. 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 great listening experience. The five takes of “Stand By Me” are good examples 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.” “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. 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 lose his way among the keys.

One of the last albums FTD released in 2011 was Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. Elvis seems to be having a good time from the start during the session that took place in Nashville during two nights in May, 1971. While producer Felton Jarvis and the musicians discuss the beginning of “It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You)” featuring a celeste, Elvis throws in a line of “Merry Christmas Baby.” David Briggs follows suit, hammering away on the celeste. “I gotta hold you guys down, man,” Elvis laughs. Admittedly, he sounds a bit annoyed when the second take breaks down, complaining that the lyrics aren’t written out, but then works hard through a couple of more takes before settling on take 7 as the master. The previously unreleased take number 5 is a highlight, with Elvis pushing the boundaries of the song, the result a looser and less polished version than the master.

The FTD treatment of Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas also reveals a more intimate and sensitive side of the 1971 Christmas recordings, with the help of outtakes not being overdubbed in any way. One example of this is “If I Get Home On Christmas Day.” When originally released in October 1971, Felton Jarvis had just about used every trick in the book when it came to making overdubs on it, adding strings, horns and a lot of backing vocals. Listening to the alternate takes, especially the early ones, you can almost be fooled into thinking it’s another song, it sounds so much more intimate.

As promised, those were some examples from the Classic Album series that give you an idea of how Elvis practiced his craft. I love the feeling of “being thrown” into the studio like that, and on occasion, see the recording sessions in a different light. For example, in his book Careless Love, Peter Guralnick writes that Elvis “was no more at ease than he had been at that strange session the previous September” while recording the songs for Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. Maybe that was the case, but it’s not something I found evidence of while listening to the outtakes provided by FTD's treatment of the album.

To be continued on July 27 (Part 3) ...


Leslie Anne Tarabella said...

Love your blog. I thought you may want to take a look at my recent post about Elvis here:

Per said...

Thanks for a great blog. But what does this mean?

“To me it then sounds like someone is rummaging around in a box of matches!”

Thomas said...

Thanks for the praise, both of you! And for the link to a nice written post, Fairhope Sypply Co. Per, the sentence "To me it sounds like someone is rummaging around in a box of matches" refers to the fact that there was a candle on the piano, at least there was during the recording of "Love Letters," according to Ernst Jorgensen in his book A Life In Music. So I assume the candle was there when Elvis recorded "Stand By Me" as well, and therefore matches were required.