So much for the long-held notion that Elvis Presley had simply thrown away his own gifts by the 1970s. In fact, these soul-soaked sessions at Memphis’ legendary Stax Studios show an artist still deeply committed — for now, at least.
How much of that has to do with working within those hallowed halls, we’ll never know. But over a dozen days in July and December of 1973, Presley managed to coax out some 28 songs — three of which became late-period Top 20 hits. Interestingly, Presley had never recorded at Stax before then, despite living less than 10 minutes away in Graceland. His 1969 comeback recordings (including “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto”) had been done at American Studios in Memphis, but Chips Morman had since closed up shop — leading Presley to new environs.
Something important happened there, a last gasp of fizzy artistry from a singer about to disappear into his own jump-suited myth onstage, though you would have been hard pressed to put it all together before now. The bulk of these efforts would be scattered about a trio of recordings beginning with 1973′s Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake, including 1974′s Good Times and 1975′s Promised Land. Presley’s Stax tracks were blended with material put to tape elsewhere, however, blunting their ultimate impact.
The 3-CD Elvis at Stax — due August 6, 2013, from RCA/Legacy — puts a frame around this special moment, then enlarges it. The sneer that seemed to be forever working around Presley’s smile fit right in, of course, with the tough, swaggering music long associated with Stax. But as this set pairs those original 28 masters with 27 interesting outtakes, it also offers new insights into just how meticulous, how lovingly crafted and focused, these seemingly care-free recordings had always been.
Sure, Presley had gotten much of the way there on instinct (just as Stax legends like Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, and Sam and Dave had), but this kind of magic really isn’t magic at all. It’s work, and a lot of it. Elvis, for instance, would have a hit with Tony Joe White’s “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” from these sessions, but it would take 15 tries to nail it to his satisfaction.
Presley was making song selections that hit home, and working in his own backyard. That part came easy. Getting it just right often did not. “Girl of Mine” took 11 takes; “You Asked Me To” needed 6; “If You Talk In Your Sleep” was mastered from take 9. The sessions, which included guitarist James Burton and Elvis’ regular working band — though Donald “Duck” Dunn, Al Jackson Jr., Steve Cropper protege Bobby Manuel and some Muscle Shoals sidemen occasionally chipped in — would stretch into the wee hours.
Yet, it was over in the blink of an eye. The schedule came together so quickly, in fact, that Isaac Hayes — and this is an incredible image — ended up having to move his studio schedule around to accommodate things. Presley and his manager Tom Parker had recently sold the singer’s complete back catalog to RCA, for a then-whopping $5.4 million, and part of the deal called for two new singles, and two new 10-song albums — one devoted to pop and another to gospel music.
The Stax stuff would, sadly, became grist for the mill, only notable if you listened closely on albums populated with blended sessions. Even so, “Promised Land,” “If You Talk In Your Sleep” and “My Boy” were each Top 20 smashes. “Mr. Songman” went to No. 35, “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” to No. 39, and “Raised on Rock” to No. 41.
Unfortunately, Presley wouldn’t return to Stax, passing away on August 16, 1977. A posthumous single, “I’ve Got a Feeling in My Body,” would follow in 1979 — providing yet another glimpse into this largely forgotten time. It’s a moment finally placed into proper perspective with the lovingly compiled, utterly revelatory Elvis at Stax.