You can read the previous installments in this series here:
- Part One: 1954-1955 (In the Beginning…)
- Part Two: 1956-1957 (Peak Presley)
- Part Three: 1958-1959 (Out of Sight)
- Part Four: 1960-1962 (Tug of War)
- Part Five: 1963-1964 (Ten Years In…)
- Part Six: 1965-1967 (When it Rains it Really Pours)
- Part Seven: 1968 (Coming Back)
PART EIGHT: ALIVE
As Elvis ended 1968, he did so with more optimism for the future than he’d had in nearly a decade. His film career was nearly finished, his TV special was drawing rave reviews, record sales were climbing and once again he was the talk of pop culture. Work still needed to be done, however, to maintain the momentum, not only as a music artist but also as a celebrity. After all, Elvis was no ordinary musician. From almost the beginning of his career he’d been a superstar, with film after film giving him added exposure to the spotlight. Now, with only one movie left to film, a bittersweet reality set in, Elvis needed something else that was big to keep him at the level of exposure he was used to. Without it, he’d become “just another musician” and that was not a position he (and especially not his financial handlers) wanted to find him in.
Fortunately, Kirk Kerkorian of the International Hotel offered him a deal unlike any a major musician had received before. Instead of touring the country nonstop to earn income, Elvis could settle down in Las Vegas and let the audience come to him. There had been musicians to perform in Las Vegas before (Sinatra was famous for it) but never had there been such an extended-commitment signed to such a high-profile singer. Despite an early flop in Vegas in the mid-’50s, a lot had changed over the years and Elvis was ready to redeem his past misstep. His natural flashy character that had been cultivated over a decade-and-a-half of movies fit like hand-in-glove with the new and improved night live scene of Las Vegas. Elvis took the offer and signed a deal that would—little did he know—define the rest of his life.
Before reporting for duty in Las Vegas, however, Elvis needed a new “soundtrack” as it were. He needed a new catalog of music to accompany his newfound career renaissance. The NBC special was a great first step, but other than two big numbers (“Memories” and “If I Can Dream”), it was short on new material.
The “Comeback Special” (as it would later be called) had sufficiently heated up the anvil; the time to strike was now. After the relative ineffectiveness of the Felton Jarvis/Nashville recordings (other than How Great Thou Art, no major LP was produced and only a few modest hit singles were released), Elvis sought a change in venue and direction. As it turned out, the perfect place for him was right in Memphis, a mere ten miles away from Graceland’s front gates.
Lincoln “Chips” Moman founded American Sound Studio in North Memphis in 1967 with a focus on fusing black gospel with white country (with a healthy helping of classic “Memphian” Rhythm & Blues). The studio closed its doors in 1972 and today is merely a footnote in rock history, but during that half-decade, the little rat-infested building in the ghetto produced 100 hit records (from artists like Aretha Franklin, BJ Thomas, Petula Clark, Dusty Thomas and more), almost all of which under the obsessive direction of perfectionist-producer Chips Moman.
Moman was thrilled to work with Presley, and had to bump some guy named Neil Diamond off his schedule to do it. Diamond agreed to move things around if Elvis agreed to sing one of his songs (he did). Despite the bright spotlight that was always on Elvis (and especially now in the post-NBC Special days), Moman did not temper his managerial style. He had no qualm stopping a take mid-way through to tell the King he was getting sloppy, or to tell the band they were off the rails. The material Elvis brought, along with the songs Chips knew Presley would be perfect for, was all given careful attention and countless takes, with Elvis going hoarse by the end of each Dusk to Dawn session. It paid off, and the soul he brought out of Elvis was as much a creative comeback on vinyl as the NBC Special had been on video.
Elvis walked into the studio on Monday night, January 13th, 1969. It was 7pm when Chips hit the record button and the night session didn’t end until sunrise at 5am. That this was going to be a special marriage was obvious from the first recording Elvis and Chips tried together: “Long Black Limousine.” Instantly upon hearing it, the creative influence of the producer is felt, as church bells ring to hint at the funeral-theme in the lyrics. Elvis sang it like it was a Gospel hymn and Chips arranged it so that the orchestra could play a big part in its mood: A horn accompaniment was spotlighted during a middle eight that, in earlier times, would have simply been knocked out with a basic guitar solo. This was a big production. It wasn’t Sgt. Peppers or Pet Sounds, but for Elvis, it was a totally different ballpark.