In the studio with the King of Rock n Roll
Making records with Elvis was a performance, not just a recording session
firstname.lastname@example.org Elvis Presley may have been the only singer in the world who had a thirty foot long cable in the recording studio.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s when Elvis was in the studio making hit records, recording sessions were carefully choreographed events. Microphones were placed throughout the room to isolate the different sound. The drums, bass, and other instruments were positioned just so. The artist was in one spot. And the back up singers in another.
But not Elvis Presley.
Elvis live performed in the studio and moved around a lot. “Elvis in the studio was a performance. It was exactly like Elvis on stage,” said Ernst Jorgensen, author of “A Life in Music,” the definitive study of Elvis’s recording sessions. “He moved to the music. He danced to the music. He moved around in the room, much to the despair of the engineer.”
Jorgensen said studio technology may have changed over the course of Elvis’s career, but his recording style never really changed from the day he first stepped into the studio to record That’s Alright Mama in 1954 to his later studio recordings in Nashville and New York with RCA.
Elvis always knew what worked for him from the beginning.
Jorgensen said when Elvis first began recording at Sun, everything was recorded on a one track tape machine.
It wasn’t a well staged production. It was just the musicians standing around the microphone to get the right sound.
“When we get to 1954, Sam Phillips has his AMPEX (tape) machine and his microphones,” Jorgensen said. “It was a very simple set up. It wasn’t a question of wow! We’ve got to do all this production. It was a question of being good at putting up the mics. And of course, Sam was good at getting Elvis to perform.”
From the beginning Elvis exhibited that natural nervous energy in the studio. He moved his leg to the beat and thumped on his guitar.
“He was the most talented 19 year-old you ever saw,” said Donnie Sumner, a singer in the Stamps Quarter who recorded with Elvis. “I don’t know where it comes from. But when it comes out, it’s good.”
When Elvis moved on to RCA, the technology changed to allow for more than one recording track.
“By 1957 you could actually do two tracks,” Jorgensen said. “You could have Elvis on one channel and the backing vocals on another channel. It was just a question of putting those two channels together. You will find that on Jailhouse Rock and Loving You and the 1957 sessions.”
Elvis’s first recordings for RCA, where Heartbreak Hotel was produced, were actually done in Nashville in a studio run by Chet Atkins.
Then, when Elvis went to New York for his television appearances, he moved over to RCA’s New York studio.
“They all sound different both RCA Nashville and RCA New York,” Jorgensen said. “There is a sound on the Nashville Recordings that includes I Got a Woman. Then we go to New York where you get into more updated technology. And now you have DJ (Fontana on drums) that’s being added to it.”
Jorgensen believes the New York recordings are where the real rock n’ roll starts for Elvis. “The sound on those is fabulous,” Jorgensen says.
But that’s the end of a chapter, Jorgensen says, because Elvis then goes to Hollywood to do his first movie, Love Me Tender. RCA wanted an album so they booked the best studio in Los Angeles, Radio Recorders.
Radio Recorders was run by a master engineer, Thorme Nogar. It was at Radio Recorders that Elvis recorded hits like Jailhouse Rock, All Shook Up, King Creole, and Teddy Bear.
“This is where we get to the next step,” Jorgensen said. “Sam had a vision of what things should sound like. Thorme Nogar was a master. He could have 30 people in a room, mic them all, and mix it down to mono. So Elvis goes to do his second album out here. And from then on and for the next two years, Elvis refused to go back to Nashville and New York to record.”
Jorgensen said Elvis might not have known all of the technical things that were going into his recordings at that studio, but he had an ear for sound.
“He had a talent not only for music, but for sound,” Jorgensen said. “He just felt this was working. The other part was he felt comfortable in the recording studio. And Elvis loved Thorme.”
When Elvis was drafted into the Army in 1958, RCA panicked. They wanted to get as many albums out of Elvis as the could in order to be able to release two or three a year while he was gone.
Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had other ideas.
“Colonel Parker says ‘no you aint,’” Jorgensen said. “The compromise is a June session while Elvis is on furlough. The Colonel will only let them have a few tracks. That’s enough to get them through. It’s not an album, just a few singles.”
Elvis wasn’t really interested in going back to Nashville to record, but RCA’s Studio B was run by engineer Bill Porter who helped create the Nashville Sound and would eventually record 150 tracks for Elvis throughout the 1960s. “There was a new engineer who would become one of the most famous engineers of the 1960s,” Jorgensen said. “It’s a fabulous but different sound.”
When Elvis returns from the Army in 1960, he is back in the studio on March 22.
That one night session produces six tracks including “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
“He was dying to get back into the recording studio,” Jorgensen said.
The album, Elvis is Back, is a different, more polished sound.
“You go from recording in mono, to recording in three tracks,” Jorgensen said. “You could have Elvis on one channel and the band on another and back-up singers on a third. You could also mic the room so you have it spread across and get this wide stereo thing.” By the 1970s, bands were taking longer in the studio – sometimes years – to record an album.
Jorgensen said studio recording was now being done on many tracks and were lush productions to get the sound just right. Recording was becoming an art form.
Elvis however, preferred to stay with the original sound. What happened in the studio was what they put on tape.
He wanted to find the groove of the song at the session, Jorgensen said.
“He wouldn’t verbally talk to us about the music,” said bass player Norbert Putnam. “He would just say ‘follow me.’ He was like a football coach telling the team to muscle up. A lot of times Elvis would get it in the first take. If we asked him to he would do it three or four or five times until we were happy. But he was great every time.”
There were a few times, however, where Elvis’s vocals or the band or horns and strings were added later.
“At the Memphis sessions Elvis had a cold or something and he didn’t put down the vocals on “Mama Liked the Roses” or “Don’t Cry Daddy,” Jorgensen said. “ He came in afterwards. And on other albums in the 1970s – “I’ve Lost You,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and the country album, vocals, horns and strings were added later.”
“You could say it was old fashioned. But it was also true to what Elvis’s perception of music was – something that is played. Perfection is not the point. Feeling and emotion is.” Putnam, who worked with such artists as Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, George Harrison and Jimmy Buffett, said he gets asked all the time who the greatest artist he ever worked with is.
He always answers the same.
“Up here we have Elvis Presley,” Putnam said. “And down here we have everybody else.”
By Mark Randall