< Part Nine: 1971-1972 (Peaks & Valleys)

2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the sudden death of Elvis Presley. The singer, movie star and globally-known entertainer had been a mainstay in popular culture since he burst onto the scene over twenty years prior. Known for his southern charm, his manic on-stage gyrations, his many cookie cutter film roles (with accompanying soundtracks) and countless hit records, Elvis is considered by many the greatest entertainer ever to live. Numerous outlets hailed him as the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century, despite only operating for a fifth of the century and only living for less than half of it. The acclaim is deserved, not only for the work he did between 1954-1977, but also for the impact he continues to have on the world today. “Elvis” today is no longer just the name of a singer/actor. “Elvis” is an icon. “Elvis” is an institution.

Elvis is the king, transcendent above other singers, actors or otherwise-entertainers.

As fellow Memphian and legendary musician B.B. King quipped, “Elvis is worth more dead than he was when he was alive.” Today, in the fortieth year since his death, his life and legacy remain a source of great interest to longtime fans as well as neophytes. A look back on his history as a musician, an actor, and just as a man pulled in every direction by the rapid winds of fame, is proper on this anniversary year.

You can read the previous installments in this series here:


The momentous success of the Madison Square Garden concerts the previous June was a distant memory by the time Elvis turned the calendar over to 1973. The singer’s regular Vegas diet of uppers in the night and downers in the day had become an every-day sort of diet, as his body had developed a dependency on prescription drugs. The malaise and despondency that would consume him in his final years was not yet evident, as he was relatively happy with live-in girlfriend Linda Thompson, although in the year to come—as his divorce date approached—his mood would sour considerably. Things seemed okay for the most part, but it was a mirage; the foundation was cracked and the house of cards was ready to fall.

The success of the New York City shows, though supremely satisfying to Elvis, were immediately dwarfed by the monumental event scheduled for the middle of January. Madison Square Garden had gotten a monkey off the singer’s back that he had only imagined was there. As it turned out, New York loved him as much as the rest of the world. Now he would be tasked with performing for the rest of the world, in a special concert held in Honolulu.

The idea of hosting a benefit show for Hawaiian singer-songwriter Kuiokalani Lee came late in the development; initially the show was all about Elvis. Colonel Parker promoted it as a global concert for all those across the globe who couldn’t get to the states to hear the king of rock and roll in person. That might raise the question: Why didn’t Elvis ever fly to England or Italy or Germany or Japan or anywhere and host an international concert? The reason is simple, despite occasional suggestions by Elvis, his manager always shot the idea down for one reason or another (poor overseas security being the biggest excuse) because “Colonel” Tom Parker was actually Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, an illegal immigrant from Holland. Despite numerous offers for big big money, the kind Parker normally would never turn down, he rejected all offers for an overseas tour because he feared being exposed and deported. Traveling overseas meant acquiring a passport and acquiring a passport meant filling out an extensive questionnaire which certainly would have revealed his illegal status. Not even Elvis knew his manager was living in America illegally and despite occasional inquires, Presley was never the kind to argue about business decisions…which was arguably his worst flaw as a businessman.

Parker was inspired by Richard Nixon opening United States relations with China and saw a golden opportunity for Elvis, not only to reach the eyes and ears of fans around the world but also to make new fans (and thus new record buyers) at the same time. A satellite broadcast of this magnitude had never been attempted before. The closest comparison was the “Our World” TV special that aired across Europe in June, 1967. An estimated 700 million people watched that broadcast, but the difference between it and the special Elvis would host boiled down to one significant detail: Elvis was a one-man show. The “Our World” broadcast featured artists from nineteen different countries, who performed their talent from various studios across Europe (the most famous of which was The Beatles’ premiere of “All You Need is Love”). Those various segments were controlled and directed by the hub station at the BBC’s headquarters in London. Elvis’ special would not be one segment of nineteen; it would be Elvis and only Elvis for the duration. It was the same sort of groundbreaking significance that happened with the 1968 TV Special (the first of its kind to star only one performer) only on a far grander scale. Never before would so many televisions be tuned in to see one man.

The event was to be a showcase of Elvis’ global celebrity, but on New Years Day, Elvis was in no shape to be seen by anyone, much less the world.

Elvis had gained considerable weight in the months following the New York shows, but as he had done to get in shape back in June, he went on an intense diet and exercise regiment in order to look his best in mid-January. The timetable was contracted however, so Elvis was forced to try alternative forms of weight loss procedures. One such procedure involved daily injections of protein taken from the urine of a pregnant woman.

It sounds crazy because it is crazy.

By the time he landed in Hawaii he looked even slimmer than he had in June. He was tanned and rested, and looked more energized than he had in months. However despite conflicting reports that say he had taken a break from prescription drugs, his eyes still had that perpetually-glassy look that signified over-medication, and his speech was slurring worse than usual in an interview he gave as soon as he stepped off the helicopter. All signs pointed to Elvis’ pill bottles taking the flight with him.

The concert’s director-producer was Marty Pasetta, a veteren TV director with multiple Academy Award Ceremony broadcasts and TV gameshows under his belt. To prep for the event, Pasetta attended a typical Elvis concert but found it to be, in his words “boring.” The biggest problem was that Elvis kept within a small radius around the mic stand and didn’t offer much from a TV production side that would captivate a viewer for the length of a whole broadcast. That’s his opinion, and he’s welcome to it. Nevertheless he sat down with an art director and mapped out some designs for the stage, including mirrors that reflected the audience, giving the TV viewer a shot that made it seem like Elvis was playing to a sea of people that stretched endlessly, as well as a big screen behind the stage that spelled out Elvis’ name in light in all the different languages of the countries receiving the broadcast. He also had an idea to get Elvis near the edge of the stage (which would be only six feet above the ground), allowing him to interact more directly with the audience; Pasetta envisioned beautiful Hawaiian ladies draping flower leis around his neck throughout the concert.

Pasetta approached Col. Parker with his laundry list of suggestions, eager to sell him on what might make for a more appealing broadcast. Parker, ever the stick in the mud, dismissed his plans by saying that he didn’t like any of them and that Elvis wouldn’t want to do them. The lights were distracting, Parker said. The mirrors were unnecessary, Parker said. He didn’t want Elvis near the people. When Pasetta said the stage would be wide enough that Elvis could approach the people or not at his own discretion, Parker said no, his boy would not get close to them.

So Pasetta pulled a Steve Binder and went straight to Elvis.

And as Steve Binder discovered in 1968, Pasetta found out that Elvis was more receptive to new ideas than his manager said he was.

Pasetta went to Elvis’ Las Vegas hotel room, accompanied by what he dubbed “Elvis’ goons” (Red West and Jerry Schilling), who escorted him to a black square table with four chairs. Pasetta was instructed to sit on the south end while the goons sat east and west. After ten minutes of waiting, Elvis appeared, decked in a big overcoat (in Las Vegas) and feather hat, and sporting sunglasses that covered half his face. Presley sat down at the north end and said not a word. Pasetta decided it was now or never so he launched into his spiel. He told Elvis his ideas, and why he thought they would work, but first he said “I saw your show last week. Your music is amazing, but your stage presence is boring, I don’t know what to do with you for ninety minutes, so I have a few ideas…” and as he reached down to grab his sketch book, the goons each produced a silver handgun and placed it on the table. Ignoring them, Pasetta said “if we do this, we’ll put on a performance that will show people why everyone flocks to you.”Elvis remained quiet throughout the whole presentation and didn’t move until Pasetta dropped his last bomb, saying “oh and by the way, you’re gonna have to lose weight. Like twenty pounds.” At that, Elvis leapt from his chair, threw his hat across the room like Oddjob and grabbed Pasetta in a bear hug, saying “you’re the first person who’s been honest with me! You want me to lose weight, I’ll do it!”

He ended up losing twenty-five pounds, in fact.

Even though he didn’t like Pasetta’s biggest suggestion of making the stage three-pronged (so that Elvis could walk down a runway and be surrounded by his audience), he went along with it—despite his worry that he would lose his way and fall off—because he wanted to try whatever was necessary to make the show a hit and because he appreciated Pasetta’s candor.

In order to differentiate the show from the one he just finished in New York, Elvis arranged an almost entirely-new set-list. Of the twenty-three songs he performed on the live broadcast, only a third of them had also been featured in Madison Square Garden six months prior. Another third were songs he had played live in the past, but were not frequent numbers. The final third were songs either entirely new recordings or at least had never been recorded live before.

Needing an outfit befitting the moment, Elvis called on Bill Belew (who, by this point had designed over a dozen different outfits for Elvis between 1968-1972) to create a look that embodied the spirit of America that he’d be projecting to the world. Belew came back with a suit that is now one of the two most iconic outfits the man ever wore (along with his black leather suit from 1968), called simply “Aloha.” Stark white, with a gem-studded pattern forming an American bald eagle. The eagle is everywhere on the suit: One draps across his chest, another is on his back. One adorns his cape, while a smaller one sit on the back of his high collar. Smaller ones appear on each bicep, two each on his legs, six encircle his midsection, hidden behind his enormous belt, whereupon four more eagles were placed, and golden stars pepper the outfit everywhere.

Silly as it may be to say, the design never goes too far, as some of his 1972 suits did (his gaudy red “burning love” suit is a particular eye sore). Originally a massive, floor-length cape was crafted, with Elvis having the idea that he’d hide behind it (like Dracula?) during the opening “Also Sprach Zarathustra” number, and then drop the cape to reveal…himself in all his glory. The cape proved too heavy and awkward to handle, however, so it scrapped…but not until Belew spent weeks crafting it! A smaller, no less stunning cape was made to replace it, however. The whole costume does exactly what the man wanted: It made Elvis look like a million bucks and not-so-subtly projected the 100% “Americanism” of his super-stardom.

The show was originally scheduled for the week before Thanksgiving, but MGM asked Parker to delay the show until the new year, to avoid conflicts with the Elvis On Tour release. Instead, Elvis flew to Hawaii to play a concert series in November and to hold a press conference hyping the now-January event. It was around that time that Elvis and Col. Parker received a letter from a columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, who said that since the live special would offer free admittance, and since Elvis had recorded “I’ll Remember You” a few years back, he might think about making the show a “donations-only” event, with proceeds going to the Kui Lee Cancer Fund (the “I’ll Remember You” singer and song-writer had died of cancer in 1966 at age 34). Parker leapt at the chance to show Elvis in a philanthropic light, and with that the pieces were in place. In the end the show raised over $75,000 dollars.

In case of technical difficulties, a full dress rehearsal was filmed with a live audience two days before the concert was set to air, as though it was the January 14th show. Should something go wrong with the live feed, Pasetta would simply switch to the January 13rd recording. Despite the intention to make the two shows identical, there are several differences between them. For one thing, there were two “Aloha” suits provided for Elvis by Bill Belew, with one slightly baggier than the other. The rehearsal show featured Elvis wearing the baggier suit, which didn’t fit him nearly as nicely as the other. His hair was also longer, drooping lazily over his eyebrows and hanging sloppily over his sideburns.

The two biggest differences are the belt that Elvis “parted with” and the additional songs Elvis decided to sing during the live show.

Bill Belew worked tirelessly on the whole outfit, including the belt Elvis wore with it. A thick White strap with several gold chains looping across the bottom and twin american eagles in the front, the belt’s a real work of art. Which is probably why Elvis thought it would make a nice gesture to gift to actor friend Jack Lord (from the hit CBS show Hawaii Five-O). Poor Belew had to stay up all night crafting a replacement belt.

There’s a running gag here that we’ll return to later.

In terms of the music, the rehearsal concert is a little livelier, although he botches the lyrics to “Burning Love” (which was a fear that kept him from performing it at Madison Square Garden), but it would be years before anyone outside of the Honolulu International Center would hear it (RCA would release the Alternate Aloha LP in 1988).

Three songs were recorded for the live broadcast that weren’t done in the dress-rehearsal, though two of them were favorites from his 1969-1970 Vegas run, “Johnny B. Goode” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The other additional song is a medley of “Long Tall Sally” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On.” The former was drawn from his 1956 catalogue and the latter came from his 1970-1971 country recordings and album (although the famous Jerry Lee Lewis version dates back to 1957).

The reason for the additional material was due to the rehearsal timing out to only 50 minutes. It wasn’t until the day of the live broadcast that Pasetta received word from his assistant that they were ten minutes short of the time allocated for the broadcast. Panicked, Pasetta made a beeline for Elvis’ dressing room, telling him they needed to do something to stretch things an additional ten minutes. Elvis, calm as a cucumber, said to him “No problem, we’ll sing a few more.”

“Where?” Pasetta asked him, bewildered, holding up the script of the night’s activities.

Elvis took the pages from him and casually jabbed at spots in between songs, “here, here and here” he said.

And just like that, they found their ten minutes.

In terms of “new” songs Elvis debuted, there was “Steamroller Blues,” a James Taylor number he wanted to record in the studio a year before. Hearing it live shows how much Elvis could have done with it had he been given the chance to make it a proper record. In fact, the live version here was released as a B-side to the song “Fool” that was recorded in 1972. The “Fool” song flopped and failed even to chart but “Steamroller Blues,” though it was the flip-side song, managed to reached #17 on the Hot100.

After being dissatisfied with his studio-version of “My Way” Elvis vowed to make the song work in a live setting. Here he performs it—with the aid of sheet music because the second verse always tripped him up—and proved his instincts right, drawing a huge ovation for his sincere take on the song Sinatra declared “too self-indulgent.”

Midway through the show Elvis announced a desire to sing “probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard” which prompted the band to lead him into an old Hank Williams number from 1949, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Elvis’ version, as he often did, was packed with much more raw emotion than the simple honky-tonk sound Williams pioneered.

“What Now My Love” is another Sinatra song, but the differences in his version and Elvis’ are night and day. Sinatra sang the song—whose lyrics tell the story of a man contemplating suicide after losing his love—like a cabaret showman. Elvis sings it like it’s a melodrama, pouring passion into his delivery and making it one of the best performances of the night, and an interpretation infinitely better and more appropriate to the subject matter than Sinatra’s take.

After introducing his band, Elvis turned to “Welcome to My World,” a mid-60’s country song made famous by Jim Reeves. Elvis’ version is almost identical, but it worked well enough that RCA plucked it from the album years later and gave it the lead on its own record (a hodgepodge collection of various songs from 1957-1973) that unexpectedly went gold.

Elvis had already been performing “An American Trilogy” for a year when the Aloha concert aired. The master version was recorded and released and promptly died on the charts. But Elvis loved the song and loved performing the song, and with each rendition he improved upon his previous performance. Many songs from his 1972 set-list were scrapped in prepping for this show (“Proud Mary,” “Never Been to Spain,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “For the Good Times”) but considering Elvis’ desire to put on an American spectacle, there was no way he wasn’t going to play the song. The version he recorded here is the best take the man ever did of the song.

Remember the belt Belew had to remake for Elvis after he gave the original away to the “Book em Danno” guy? He did it again: While soaking up the cheers of the crowd after “An American Trilogy” Elvis tossed his replacement belt (which looked just as splendid as the original) into the crowd, forcing Belew to make a third belt for Elvis to use during his Las Vegas engagements later in the year.

Just before his customary show-closer, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Elvis burst into a take on the song that was his last #1 of the 1950’s, “Big Hunk O Love.”

And then, at the end of the show, just for kicks and giggles, Elvis tossed his American-eagle-gem-studded cape into the crowd in a moment of reckless abandon and euphoria (poor Bill Belew worked for weeks on that thing). Elvis took his bow, mouthed “thank you” to the audience, and disappeared behind the curtain. The telecast went off without a hitch, much to the relief of Marty Passeta, Col. Parker, and everyone involved.

For all its acclaim, the concert itself was actually one of the weaker ones that Elvis did around that time. The MSG show before it and the big Memphis homecoming show in ’74 would both outclass it. The biggest criticism was how stilted Elvis was throughout. It was as though the hugeness of the moment made him decide to strip away a lot of the playful banter that made his shows so delightful in the first place. This Elvis seems stiff, overly-procedural in the way he moves from one song to the next. If it wasn’t for who he was you might wonder what all the fuss was about and why he was at the center of a TV broadcast that more people watched live than the moon landing.

And yet, even if you never had heard of the man and even if you had no idea what you were watching…to see the show is to understand his appeal.

It’s such a unique thing; here was a man who never wrote one song all by himself, a man who—by 1973—rarely ever actually played (not just mimed playing) a guitar on stage, but was content to smile while brilliant players like James Burton shredded their way through “Johnny B. Goode.” He stands on stage wearing a giant one-piece bird-emblazoned suit and cape, and slurs his way through country, rockabilly and quasi-opera ballads. Why does it work? It does because the sheer force of his charisma and magnetic charm compels it to work. The show may not have been his best concert, but it was his magnum opus; it was his greatest achievement, and if the record 1.5 billion spectators have anything to say about it, it may remain the single greatest achievement by a solo entertainer in history.

Meanwhile, everyone in the United States was watching the Super Bowl.

Though the double-LP soundtrack of the concert was released worldwide in February (and hit number-one), the concert itself did not air in the states until April, due to the live broadcast coinciding with Super Bowl VII (wherein the Dolphins completed a 17-0 perfect season).  The American broadcast was stretched to ninety minutes with the help of some extra material, recorded early in the morning after the live concert. A tired and—in behind the scenes footage—visibly irritable Elvis recorded a version of “Early Morning Rain” as well as four songs from the Blue Hawaii soundtrack to an empty arena and a director determined to squeeze a little bit more out of an exhausted entertainer that had just played to a third of the population of the world.

With the concert behind him, Elvis returned home to a looming divorce that soured his mood the closer it came. With the divorce would come a hefty settlement and a big chunk of change being given to Priscilla. That, plus Col. Parker’s tremendous gambling debts necessitated a new source of revenue. Parker’s idea was to sell the rights to Elvis’ back-catalogue (all music recording from 1954-1972). At the time, there was no market for “oldies” and most of Elvis’ early music—that today is considered timeless—was simply out of date and out of fashion, with little continuing value. Other than specialty records such as his Gospel and Christmas albums, none of Elvis’ 1950’s or early 1960’s music was selling with any consistency anymore. RCA agreed to buy the rights to the catalogue for only five-and-a-half million dollars. Parker took the deal and, remarkably, ended up walking away with more money out of it than Elvis did.

Negotiations also included expectations both sides had concerning Elvis’ future music releases. RCA wanted more Elvis records in stores each year, and Parker relented, albeit by convincing RCA to allow fewer songs to be featured on a “full” album. Parker thought he could send Elvis to the studio for a few days a year, churn out thirty songs and release three lightweight albums into perpetuity.

He did not anticipate how quickly Elvis’ enthusiasm for anything work-related would deteriorate.

Meanwhile, RCA needed a follow-up album of studio material, and after the big success of the Aloha special and double-LP soundtrack, they wanted it out as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Elvis had not stepped into a recording booth in a year, so RCA dug into their recently acquired bag of songs. In charge of compiling the new album was Joan Deary, who had previously overseen the Madison Square Garden and Aloha from Hawaii live albums due to Felton Jarvis taking ill. Joan was a long-time executive at RCA, having begun in 1955 as a secretary working for Steve Sholes (Elvis’ first producer at RCA) and took greater oversight of Elvis’ material after Felton Jarvis resigned from the company to work for Elvis directly.

Deary envisioned a quasi-sequel to the Aloha album, by featuring the extra music Elvis recorded for the American broadcast, as well as several live songs he had recorded in 1971-72 that had yet to be released on an album. One of which was a song entitled “Blues Jam” which was actually a live recording of “Reconsider Baby,” a song Elvis had previously recorded in studio in 1960. RCA didn’t even know what they had with Elvis’ library.

Felton Jarvis reasserted his authority over Elvis’ record-releases, however, before Joan Deary could make her mark. He stripped away much of Deary’s song-selections, including the post-Aloha recordings (which would have constituted half the album), and pulled from the vault the folk-inspired material Elvis recorded in 1971 to fill out the record. The “Fool” and “Love the Life I Lead” recordings from 1972 remained, as did the live recording of “It’s Impossible” and the Aloha-inspired cover, but the rest of Deary’s contributions were jettisoned, as Felton made sure he remained the only point-man between the record company and Elvis himself.

The album was given a generic title of ELVIS, due to the “Fool” single flopping on the charts, and with its two-year old recordings and already-out of date style, the Jarvis-produced album flopped too. It peaked at #52, lower than the NOW album from 1972 (which reached #42), and obviously a far cry from the chart-topping Aloha soundtrack earlier in the year.

Looking just at the placement on the charts is an incomplete picture however. A lot of goodwill had been used up with recent album releases. The Madison Square Garden album reached #11 and was followed-up by yet another live album, and though it reached number-one it basically exhausted the amount of interest people had in hearing Elvis in front of a live audience. Record buyers wanted strongly-produced studio recordings, but even when Elvis had them to offer, RCA didn’t know how to package it. “Burning Love” and “Separate Ways” had been big successes as singles, and the rest of the 1972 studio recordings were strong, but instead of combining them all into one strong fall-1972 release, RCA released them on budget LP records. “Burning Love” became the record Elvis Sings Burning Love and Hits From His Movies, which slapped the hit single onto a record next to random movie songs from an era Elvis was desperate for people to forget. The same thing happened with the Separate Ways LP. Both albums charted well, but they did so on the strength of the singles they promoted; when listeners heard the other eight songs on the albums, and realized they paid LP-price for a glorified 45, they were turned off and refused to be swindled by RCA again. When the 1973 ELVIS album came out, it looked like another compilation, money-grabbing record, so even though it was mostly all-new material, it flopped. Elvis’ briefly reopened door to being a viable, practical, contemporary artist quickly closed.

Elvis’ first tour after the US broadcast of the Aloha special was the worst he had looked and sounded on stage to that point. All of the weight he’d lost for the live show had returned and then some. The entertainment magazine Variety blasted him as “thirty pounds overweight, pale, and vocally-weak.” He returned home in early July to find a letter sent to him by RCA’s Vice-President. The company was naturally concerned about their star attraction and the considerable financial investment they had in his success. The letter read like a parent who had given a rebellious child too much freedom and was now reasserting parental control. Elvis was booked to record at the end of July and though he could choose his own producer (Felton Jarvis of course) and the studio in which he recorded, he would be expected to abide by the terms of his recently-renegotiated contract. RCA executive Joan Deary (remember her?) ordered twenty-four masters to be produced (two albums of ten tracks each and two A/B-sided singles) and specified that they could not be live recordings or any material previous recorded by Elvis in any way. RCA demanded quality, not shortcuts. Considering Elvis had not released a traditional studio album not comprised of previously-recorded leftovers since the Elvis Country record in 1971, it wasn’t a tremendous request.

In the past, whenever the performer needed a musical spark to rekindle his cultural relevance, he found it by changing up his status-quo. It worked in 1966 with the How Great Thou Art session. It worked in 1969 with Chips Moman’s American Sound recordings. Elvis hoped it would work again by recording at the legendary Stax studio in Memphis, just five miles up Hwy 51 from his Graceland mansion.

Stax was founded in the mid-50’s and operated out of a converted movie theater. The studio retained the sloped floor from the cinema which made for some unique acoustics (trained musicians are even able to distinguish the distinct “Stax sound” as a result). It distinguished the studio from the very crisp sound produced by Motown in Detroit. Stax’s sound was raw and its singers always felt more distant than those found on Motown’s records, like they were singing from a mountain top. The instruments had a unique flavor on Stax records, particularly the brass section. In fact it’s arguable that the horn-section is what makes the Stax sound so unique (especially as opposed to Motown’s heavy-emphasis on back-up singers).

Naturally Felton Jarvis would do everything in his power to mitigate it and make the sound as much like everything Elvis had previously done as possible.

The so-called “Stax” sound was shaped, not only by its distinctive environment, but also by the house band that worked alongside the various artists. Booker T and the MG’s (rhythm section) and The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love) made Stax iconic. Chips Moman even recruited The Memphis Horns to play on Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” single. But Felton Jarvis simply brought in the band Elvis was comfortable with; the band he’d been playing with on the road for years to this point. They were a great band, to be sure: James Burton was one of the slickest electric guitar plays on the planet and Ronnie Tutt was one of the finest drummers around. But they were at Stax: They should have taken advantage of what the studio had been famous for. They didn’t.

Elvis was at Stax, but nothing more.

The session was supposed to begin at 8pm on Friday, July 20th, but Elvis never showed. He finally arrived at 11pm looking disinterested in doing any actual work. He spent equal amount of time goofing off with the Karate instructor he brought along with him, and complaining about how much extra work was needed to convert the Stax studio into something usable. Traditionally recordings at Stax featured all the various parts being recorded one layer at a time and then assembled together at the end. Elvis however favored a “live” recording with everyone together doing one combined recording over and over until it was right. Chips Moman had insisted on the Stax approach when he helped found American Sound and “1969 Elvis” was committed enough to go along with it. “1973 Elvis” wasn’t and Felton Jarvis didn’t even suggest it. After goofing off for a few hours, Elvis left without recording anything.

He showed up late again the next night, but at least recorded something.

“If you Don’t Come Back” demonstrates a singer sleepwalking through a song. He’s mumbling and slurring through the number, which has the makings of a very good record, but the central performance is too lifeless, the tempo too slow and the background singers too under-mixed (you can barely understand what they’re saying). It adds up to an inauspicious start.

“It’s Different Now” was tried but quickly rejected in favor of the worst song Lieber and Stoller ever wrote: “Three Corn Patches.” Even the name sounds embarrassing. The need for more up-tempo songs would be paramount in just two years, but here Elvis and company might have been better served making the “It’s Different Now” ballad work, because “Three Corn Patches” is horrendous, not only in lyric but in delivery too; Elvis sounds like it’s a strain just to sing mid-range notes and his slurring—especially on any word that ends with an “s”—is startling.

“Take Good Care of Her” may have been the kind of depression-fueled song that would consume his final years, but Elvis hadn’t reached peak-pathetic yet, so this was just another in a long line of ballads the singer knew how to develop and interpret. The song had been a top-10 hit a decade earlier by Adam Wade and the hope was that Elvis could get a radio-hit out of it. He felt strongly about his performance after the master was completed and selected it to be held from the album for single-release. The song ended up a B-side, however, and never charted. Salt on the wound was Johnny Mathis’ version that came out only months later and became a top-40 hit.

With just four songs attempted and only three masters finished, Elvis called it a day. His attention was simply not on recording. It wasn’t really on anything beyond the now-set date of his divorce finalization: October 9th. After his initial outrage, followed by avowed-contentment, Elvis had settled into a near-constant grumpy mood and, apart from a few brief moments of levity, spent most of the final four days at Stax with musicians walking on eggshells around him.

“Find Out What’s Happening” was recorded under a moment of levity. The horrid slurring of the previous night was not so present here, and though he tripped over the lyrics more than a few times, Elvis never lost his patience and instead urged additional takes to get it right. After nine, they had.

“I’ve Got a Thing About you Baby” was the second song of the session that Elvis decided was strong enough to be released as a single. It’s a love song that, for a change, actually talks about being in love instead of losing it. It’s hardly a rocker, but it has a safe pop-sound that Elvis was right to think would make a good single. It ended up a top-40 hit upon release in 1974.

The last song of the day was a song that might seem like nothing, judging by its uninspired lyrics, but “Just a Little Bit” is actually a R&B anthem. The song dates back to the 1950’s when Rosco Gordon toured with Jimmy McCracklin singing many songs that would define the rhythm and blues genre. The actual authorship of the song is disputed with Ralph Bass also claiming ownership, but likely it was Gordon (with some help from Jimmy McCracklin) who penned it. Ultimately the lyrics matter less than the groove around which those lyrics are sung. The up and down eight-note scaling hook is an R&B staple and influenced countless artists, including Paul McCartney on the White Album song “Birthday.” It’s likely that Elvis was inspired by the R&B history of Stax’ environment and wanted something befitting the legendary R&B studio (even though the song was recorded in Chicago). Unfortunately, Elvis’ version of the song does little to recreate the laid back groove of the original version, and instead opts for the big production sound Felton Jarvis favored. That’s sad because an arrangement as sparse as something Elvis did on “Baby What You Want Me To Do” in 1968 might have turned the song into a modest hit. Instead the laid back fun of the original is lost and the song just sounds like a cheesy number with silly lyrics.

Only two songs were attempted the next day, and they would be the dual-title songs of his next LP. “Raised on Rock” is a great title for a rock and roll song and for a rock and roll album, and it was written for Elvis by Mark James, who previously provided Elvis with “Suspicious Minds.” James was born in 1940, just five years after Elvis, but those five years were the difference between being in the era of those who shaped Rock music and in the era of those who first used it to rebel against their parents. James’ lyrics talk about being “raised” on Rock, and listening to songs like “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) and “Love is Strange” (1956) and Hound Dog that his “idols made.” Considering “Hound Dog” was originally a low-key blues song until Elvis turned it into a manic rock and roll number, it couldn’t be considered a “rock” record until Elvis recorded it. So you have a song where Elvis is singing about being a child influenced by the music he and his peers recorded as twenty-somethings. It’s…weird. The groove is great, the song is probably the best produced master of the whole July 1973 session, and Elvis sings it well, but the lyrics are too anachronistic to work.

“For Ol’ Times Sake” is easily one of the best ballads Elvis recorded after 1962. It has simple, beautiful lyrics, an effectively sparse rhythm arrangement and the best vocal performance Elvis gave at Stax. The song would release alongside Raised on Rock as a single soon after recording, but it failed to continue the momentum that the 1972 singles had. After “Burning Love” hit #2, “Separate Ways” reached #20, and “Steamroller Blues” from the Aloha concert surprised many with a #17 showing, “Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake” disappointingly failed even to reach the top-40.

Only one song each was recorded in the final two days and they featured an actual “Stax man” playing in the studio. Al Jackson (the great drummer of Booker T the MG’s) lent his considerable talents to two songs which absolutely wasted his ability. First was the country song “Girl Of Mine” and then was a ballad “Sweet Angeline.” Neither song required any more of the drummer than basic high-hat time keeping. In fact, Jackson wasn’t even invited because of his history with the studio; the regular drummer had to leave and a replacement was needed. Jackson was treated as little more than a substitute.

With ten songs recorded (including “Sweet Angeline” which needed more work), there was still more to be done. Three more songs were scheduled, including “The Wonders You Perform,” “Color My Rainbow” and “Good, Bad, But Beautiful” and the possibility of returning to “It’s Different Now” was always on the table. Ten songs would be enough for RCA to release as a full-album, but two of the songs had already been held back for single release. More was needed but Elvis wasn’t feeling it. The fact that he had a studio now, for the first time in a long time, closely concerned about the performer fulfilling his contracted obligations meant little to him. If he didn’t want to record, he simply didn’t record.

When Elvis entered the studio to record “O Girl of Mine” he was told that the handheld mic he’d been using all week had been either stolen or misplaced. A replacement was provided but sound engineer Al Pachuki complained that it was of inferior quality. While recording “Sweet Angeline” Elvis complained about the sound in his headphones, and Pachuki blurted out “it’s not just the headphones, it’s you that sounds weird.” He simply meant the microphone was not up to snuff, but Elvis took it as a personal shot and stormed out. Felton Jarvis oversaw the band completing the songs, in the hopes that Elvis would return and knock out the vocals.

He never returned, though.

Jarvis still needed more songs to finish the album, and he had already used up the entirety of Elvis’ back catalogue in his powerplay to push Joan Deary’s FOOL album aside. After almost two months of getting nothing accomplished, Jarvis finally arranged for RCA’s mobile recording truck to make the journey to Elvis’ Palm Springs house where he, along with a trio of backers (James Burton on guitar, Thomas Hensley on bass and long-time lackey Charlie Hodge on rhythm guitar) could record the final tracks for the record. Jarvis presented Elvis with the backing tracks he left the band to finish when he stormed out of Stax in July, but other than putting the final polish on Sweet Angeline, Elvis ignored the previous material. Instead he sat down at the piano and played “I Miss You” (written by Donnie Sumner of the Gospel group Voice) and “Are You Sincere” (an old Andy Williams song that reached #3 back in 1958). In truth they were songs Elvis would have messed around with on the piano regardless if he was at home or in the studio, and regardless of whether or not RCA was taping him. It just so happened that they were taping him, and that was good enough to finish the album.

A week after the songs were finished, RCA had the record on shelves. The album’s cover featured a picture of Elvis taken from a recent Las Vegas engagement. The suit appears to feature a red cape but actually it was orange; for some reason RCA tinted the picture so that the cape would appear red, which had the added consequence of making Elvis’ white jumpsuit look pink. Strangely, the same picture appears on both sides of the cover; the only difference is the title above Elvis’ head: on one side it says “Raised on Rock” and on the other “For Ol Time’s Sake.” The fact that it featured a generic Las Vegas picture, a sparse ten-tracks, and a recently released single for it’s title, many record-buyers assumed it was another “Burning Love” or “Separate Ways” throwaway album. As a result it only reached #50 on the album charts, just as the ELVIS (“Fool”) album had done earlier in the year.

After the failure of the past two albums, RCA asked for a meeting with Elvis to suggest he remove Felton Jarvis as the producer on his future records. Elvis flat out refused, partially because he had always gotten along with the laid back Jarvis, and partially because he didn’t like being told what to do.

Determined to take matters into their own hands and make money from Elvis someway, RCA put Joan Deary (remember her?) in charge of overseeing the studio’s releases of Elvis’ recently-acquired back catalogue. Joan’s first album would be Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Volume 1 and RCA wanted it out by Christmas. Considering Raised on Rock had only just released, the new Deary album would certainly eat into the sales of the singer’s album of new material. It was an ironic situation for Col. Parker, who worked furiously behind the scenes to convince RCA to push the release date, as it had been he who tried to play hardball with MGM back in 1972, when the Aloha concert was originally to coincide with the release of the Elvis on Tour film. Parker bumped the show to January of ’73, and now it was he having to convince RCA agreed to delay their release until January of ’74.

They did, but the album still went on to sell over 700,000 copies and reach at number-one on the charts. The success of the record delighted RCA as much as it frustrated Parker, who suddenly realized he had sold the proverbial birthright for a bowl of lentils. It also underscored just how the record-buying public viewed Elvis: as an oldies act, whose contemporary music was of little concern.

More music was needed, now that Jarvis had used up everything available and two more albums were expected in 1974. Another studio session had to take place and Elvis was not keen to return to Nashville. So, a second booking at Stax was arranged, this one for mid-December of 1973.  In the meantime, Elvis and Priscilla would finalize their divorce and officially go their separate ways.  They agreed on joint-custody of Lisa Marie but the issue of the financial settlement was stickier. Priscilla intended to accept a small payout of only $100,000, determined to fight against rumors that she was only married to Elvis for the money. She changed lawyers mid-way through 1973, however, and they convinced her to push for a bigger settlement, arguing that Elvis had more than enough money to go around. In the end, Elvis gave Priscilla everything she wanted, including an outright cash payment of $725,000, additional annual spousal support and child support as well has half the income from the sale of their Beverly Hills house. Despite all the drama the past few years had brought them, when the two walked out of the courthouse they did so hand-in-hand, and Elvis even winked at her as he climbed into his car and told her to call him sometime.

With that chapter of his life over, Elvis entered a second round of Stax recordings with brighter spirits. Unfortunately, the eighteen songs he had to work with did not rise to the occasion. The seven-day affair would yield enough material for two albums, as long as a few older singles were grafted-in to fill them out. As with most Elvis sessions, there’s no rhyme or theme here that unites the material (it’s an eclectic blend of gospel, country and pop), and as with the previous Stax recordings, there’s very little influence from the illustrious studio to give it a unique sound. Other than one exception, Felton bends over backwards to make the sound as much like “Elvis music” as he can.

“Burning Love”-scribe Dennis Linde contributed the first song to be recorded. “I Got a Feeling in My Body” is a proto-disco Gospel rock song. If that’s not a bizarre enough description I don’t know what to tell you. Elvis’ voice is much sharper and his energy is stronger too, and though the song had no commercial value, it was at least fun (which can’t be said about many of the songs he was about to record).

“It’s Midnight” was singer’s first crack of the session at returning to radio success. The big ballad challenged his vocal range and allowed for several opportunities to belt out at the top of his lungs. It was released as B-side and though it never charted on the Hot100, it managed to be a top-ten hit on the Country and Adult Contemporary charts.

Waylon Jennings’ “You Asked Me To” was currently in the top-ten of the country charts when Elvis recorded his version in December. Elvis didn’t even bother tweaking the basic country-and-western style; other than adding his customary backup singers, it was the same song. It was good, but not much more than that.

“If You Talk in Your Sleep” was another that Elvis hoped would be a radio hit. Just the horn accompaniment alone is enough to make it sound like a Stax record of old. It’s the only song Elvis recorded that really embraces the “Stax sound,” and it shows how wasted the whole session was for burying it on every other track. With its catchy melody and clearly-enthused singer, it’s hard not to like the song. Listeners responded too; the song reached #17 and became his most successful single since the one-two punch of “Burning Love” and “Separate Ways/Always on My Mind.”

“Help Me” was the flip-side to “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and offered much more of a traditional Gospel style than what was found on “I Got a Feeling in My Body.” It would go on to be a favorite of Elvis in live concerts, and even though it never received much radio play, its C&W-esque arrangement reached #6 on the Country charts (a place where Elvis was finding more and more success lately, as opposed to the R&B charts, where he hadn’t netted a top-ten hit since “Devil in Disguise” in 1963). Elvis was so in the zone he recorded the master copy on his first take.

“My Boy” was a song Elvis had played in a lot of his live sets in Las Vegas. He sang it almost every night he performed in August, when the divorce with Priscilla was still looming. The lyrics are of a parent trying to explain to a child why his mom and dad are divorcing. Naturally it was on his mind in the summer but by the time Felton brought it in to record in the studio, the last thing Elvis wanted was to be reminded of what he’d just gone through. He told Felton he would have two takes to work with and that was it. When the producer asked for a third take to tweak the ending, Elvis went ballistic and Felton made do with the two takes he had.

“Loving Arms” would go on to be one of the more covered country songs of the past forty years, but in 1973 Elvis was one of the first two artists to record it; Dobie Gray was the other, and his version is much more pop, whereas Elvis gave it the customary Felton Jarvis/Nashville-inspired country sound. It’s Elvis’ interpretation that endures. Elvis recorded a complete take and then immediately called for another. After that, Felton nervously repeated his “My Boy” request for a third, and was happy to find Elvis oblige. The third take is the master.

“Talk About the Good Times” gives a song about how the world has gone to pot and how “back in my day things were better” a pentecostal revival flair that makes it infectiously toe-tapping. It, along with a somber ballad with a convoluted title, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” somehow provided inspiration for the next album, to be entitled Good Times.

Recording “Your Love’s Been a Long Time Coming” was probably the most focused and energized Elvis was in any recording all year. Something about the lyrics grabbed him and refused to let go. Multiple takes were recorded and even after a master was finished, he continued playing it back over and over, as in a trance.

After he was done, though it was early in the morning he called the band back from the parking lot (where they’d been preparing to go home) to record again. He was inspired to try his hand at “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel.” Conway Twitty would make the song famous with his 1974 version but Elvis recorded it first, and though the lyrics are cheesy, he was obviously feeling it, and almost makes the song work.

“Promised Land” is clearly the show-stopper of the set, and is easily the most famous recording today of either Stax session. And yet, at the time, the song was a throw-away. It was something done in between more serious recordings that Felton had enough wherewithal to steer toward a proper master. The lyrics were tricky and Elvis needed early takes to be played much slower than normal, but once he got the hang of it, he delivered a solid master take. It was still a hair too slow (despite Elvis shouting at the beginning of the recording for the band to “get on it!” and pick up the pace), but it was the closest thing to “Burning Love” the man had recorded since “Burning Love.” Despite the energy in the recording, the record was put on the back-burner; it was not included on the next album, and was not released as a single for nearly a year. When it was it peaked at #14 (the best since “Burning Love”).

When the session was ended, Elvis returned to Graceland leaving Felton Jarvis with enough material to stretch into two complete albums, fulfilling his client’s contract obligations. Originally, both Good Times and its followup album were to be released in 1974, meaning Elvis would not have to return to the studio for another year, but Presley’s upcoming spring tour provided an opportunity for Felton to delay the inevitable.

Which is good, because Elvis had grown increasingly uncooperative about recording new music.

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