At the dawn of the "New Frontier," Elvis' peerless voice, superb house band and famous Studio B in Nashville were operating at an extremely high, almost flawless, level. The only drawback was the occasionally substandard songs recorded, a problem that would plague the rest of Elvis' career.
Happily, there's a lot of quality Elvis Is Back material here, with eleven unissued tracks. Tape searches by series producers Ernst Jorgensen and Roger Semon have brought home many "lost" three track stereo reels, with items not heard anywhere prior to this CD! Although some might complain the entire disc should've covered Presley's first post-army LP, Ernst and Roger quite rightly refrain. They have to think of future releases, too.
Take 11 of "Make Me Know It" kicks things off with a bang, just like the master version did on the original LP forty years ago. We've never had any outtakes of this simple, three chord Otis Blackwell rocker, save take 3 on 2000's Essential Elvis Vol. 6, and this alternate sounds fabulous indeed.
"Make Me Know It" was the first number Elvis cut in his first evening back in the studio. The pressure must've been enormous, but Presley is in complete command. Once this got waxed, all the gathered "bigwigs" (Parker, RCA brass) evidently breathed a sigh of relief and turned their attention elsewhere.
All of the ensuing cuts are very close to their master counterparts, with the exceptions of the achingly sweet "Soldier Boy" (take 7, with a couple of false starts), the great ballad "Fame And Fortune" (take 5) and the third try at "The Girl Of My Best Friend," which are approached at slower tempos. "The Girl Of My Best Friend" finds Elvis and the "A Team" carefully feeling their way through this romantic pop effort. They'll nail it by take 10.
As with other recent BMG session outtake discs, insightful between-song dialogue is included as well. Nominal Presley producer Chet Atkins critiques Floyd Cramer's piano introduction on the gospel-influenced "The Thrill Of Your Love" with "Floyd, your left hand's a little rough there" and the group's take 4 intro of "Like A Baby" as "pretty rough" as well!
As they seek to capture "The Girl Next Door," which Scotty Moore brought to the session from Memphis protege Thomas Wayne, Elvis notes the rhythm difficulties, cutting the first take short with "Hold it, I think you guys are jumping Scotty a little bit." The feeling is good, and another too-fast take has Elvis ad-libbing "the girl next door went and rushed me" and follows with laughter. The master was caged by take 4, to Scotty's evident pleasure.
"Such A Night" may not be master take 5, and all the parts aren't perfectly in place, but it's still a gem. Behold, a sexy romp done nearly to perfection on the first try! Wow. From sexy to dirty, the Leiber/Stoller penned "Dirty, Dirty Feeling" comes with a neat snatch of rehearsal caught on tape before the group raves through their first attempt. It's a match for the final version, lacking only Hank Garland's uninhibited guitar solo.
The gospel material taped for His Hand In Mine provides a perfect flipside to Elvis Is Back. While all the elements for this late October, 1960 meeting are the same, right down to the awesome commitment of everyone involved, the carnal is now replaced by the spiritual. Typically, Elvis falls as deeply into this music as anything he's ever recorded, and the results glow.
"Milky White Way," one of Elvis' most appealing gospel recordings, is just a few takes shy of master status but gorgeous still. "Joshua Fit The Battle," a "Jubilee" style selection, is only take 2, and there's a tape "wrinkle" around 2:17, but Elvis' vocal is out of this world! Holy Moses! "I'm Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs," sports an exuberant performance from all. Interestingly, this lovely take 5 was passed over in favor of take 1 when assembling Presley's His Hand In Mine LP.
For whatever reason, Elvis took a "God break" and cut "Surrender" at the gospel session. Alternates have landed on the Platinum and 60s Box collections, and on this disc is another, take 2. Elvis has yet to attempt the song's high note, Mario Lanza-like conclusion. He would find the task daunting enough that it had to be handled separately from an otherwise perfect master take 4. It took Jordanaire Ray Walker's "breathing technique" advice during a bathroom break before Elvis finally nabbed the sound he heard in his head.
Eight examples from March, 1961's Something For Everybody album sessions finish the disc. As before, every performance is of near master quality, although the lack of gutsy material for Elvis to sink his teeth into is quite a contrast to twelve months earlier.
However, when Elvis approaches the songs of Don Robertson, something intense does occur. "Starting Today" is typical, reflective Robertson balladry, and Presley's sincerity is powerful. Elvis respects the artistry inherent in these songs, and this will reach a creative peak later in 1961 with Robertson's "Anything That's Part Of You."
The spritely "I'm Coming Home" was a recent Carl Mann Sun single Elvis actually played in the studio for the band to learn! The drumming is too loud in the mix of take 4, and Hank Garland's guitar solo is a little wild. Alternates of "Judy" were issued twenty years ago (!) on the RCA UK's EP Collection, Volume 2. Most revealing is how take 1 includes Elvis' own guitar as he instructs the band, emphasizing the intro is "twice in D." Sadly, the Presley acoustic is ditched, along with Elvis' engagement in covering the Teddy Redell single, by the time they complete master take 8.
"Put The Blame On Me" sounds like it was written for Ann-Margret or Peggy Lee. This sexy blues tease, later inserted into 1965's "Tickle Me" film, began life in a higher key (E). Elvis runs through a few takes sounding rowdy and dangerous, but it's the final song of the night and his voice keeps cracking. The master is later redone in a more manageable, lower key of D, but in so doing it makes Presley sound tame. "Elvis lite" may've suited the Something For Everybody LP, but certainly not any of Elvis' rock and roll fans!
It's striking to consider how Presley's commitment was at such a high level that these 1960-61 outtakes are only a hair worse than what originally got pressed on record forty years ago. After 1970, producer Felton Jarvis would be lucky to get master performances from Elvis as good as these alternates.
If interested in observing Elvis Presley, a unique, exciting and fully engaged artist at work, look no further.