Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Review: 'Elvis at Stax'

Presley's Stax sessions, gathered together for the first time, 40 years after the fact

Review: 'Elvis at Stax'

It's Elvis Presley's death day.

The King expired in his Graceland bathroom on August 16, 1977. (Not to be a name dropper, but Willie Nelson once told me a joke. "What were Elvis' last words?" I don't know, Willie, what were they? "Corn? I don't remember corn?!")

In any case, it's to the anniversary of Elvis' death, combined with the 40 years that have passed since the native Memphian decided that the best way to meet a pressing recording obligation was to record a couple of dozen songs at a studio just down the road from Graceland, that we owe this month's release of Elvis at Stax (Legacy ***), a 3 CD box that gathers the King's last productive burst of studio recordings into one release.

The title is accurate in that these tunes - the biggest hit of which was a cover of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" - were recorded at Stax studios, where so much great soul music was cut by the likes of Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Sam & Dave and Isaac Hayes (who postponed one of his own sessions to make way for the King).

Presley used his own band, though, and much of the time, brought in his own equipment, so it's not exactly a case of Memphis' favorite son getting acquainted with horn powered Memphis soul. It is, however, a case of a singer still at the height of his vocal powers, and not yet fully into his bloated, fat Elvis stage, working with a new degree of creative control,thanks to a split with his longtime publishing company, Hill & Range, and recording in a country, R & B, rock and gospel vein that largely plays to his strength, and only occasionally indulges in overblown kitsch.

As pointed out by liner note writer Robert Gordon - who has a history of Stax called Respect Yourself: Stax Records & the Soul Explosion coming out in November - Elvis was riding high in 1973, selling out arenas and still moving forward on the career momentum that began with the 1968 Comeback Special. 

The 1973 Stax sessions are undervalued in part because they were never properly presented in their own time. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis' manager, out did himself in cahoots with RCA records by spreading the material over three albums and several singles, and presenting each release to look like a live album. (Throughout the 1970s, according to Roger Semon, Elvis never had a single off stage photo session for RCA, so almost all of his albums were packaged with a picture of him wearing a white jump suit on stage, whether it was a live album or not.)

Elvis at Stax is structured rather oddly, with 27 outtakes preceding 28 finished masters. There are some redundancies - Dennis Linde's "I Got A Feelin' In My Body," for instance, shows up in three versions. But the effect is to show Elvis as a somewhat of a regular Joe in the studio, palling around with musicians like guitarist James Burton on the unfinished recordings, and then hearing them come together as  polished products on discs two and three.

The Stax period is short on late Elvis bench mark hits - there's nothing on the level of "Burning Love" or "Suspicious Minds." But its loaded with small pleasures, many suffused with sadness in the aftermath of his divorce from his wife Priscilla, such as Tim Baty's "Thinking About You" and Danny O'Keefe's "Goodtime Charlie's Got The Blues." And mostly, it counters the prevailing conventional wisdom that Elvis' final decade was a vast artistic wasteland ruined by the Jungle Room excess and lack of discipline that would shortly do him in. On the contrary, Elvis at Stax argues that only a few short years before his death, Elvis was still holding it together. 

"Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues" is below.

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Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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