The Jungle room sessions

RCA 74321 74931 2

By 1976 it was impossible for RCA to get Elvis Presley back into the studio. It had only been 11 months since he had been in a studio to record the incredible Today-album and according to bass singer Larry Strickland studio work wasn't among his favourite things anymore. "He had already recorded so many things", says Strickland. So in order to get yet another album, Felton Jarvis arranged to get RCA's mobile recording unit and had it installed in Presley's basement the "Jungle Room", hence the title of this album. Even though the acoustics of the room were limited, the sound quality of the recordings is equal or even better than what had been recorded at the Stax studio's 2˝ years earlier.

The Jungle Room Sessions-album follows the sequence in which the songs were recorded. I'm going to compare the selections from the album with the master takes & released outtakes and will be giving some background info along the way. So here we go:

1. BITTER THEY ARE, HARDER THEY FALL;
Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall is the first song that was recorded during these sessions. We get to hear takes 3, 4 and 5. The album starts with Elvis saying to his musicians not to desert him on the very first part. Take 3 is cut by Elvis after just 37 seconds, because of a ringing telephone. It sounded very promising though. The 4th take is just some laughter from the backing vocalists because of a barking dog. We can hear Elvis joking, "Shoot the dogs and the phone. Hold it! Shoot the yellow dog!" Take 5 is a complete one and Elvis' vocal performance is just as strong as on master take 7. The band is more together on the master take though.

2. SHE THINKS I STILL CARE
Next up is She Thinks I Still Care. On the cover only take 2A is listed, but take one is also included. The 1st take is actually just the backing vocalists singing the title of the song a little off key. Elvis stops the attempt immediately. Take 2A is the first time Elvis and the musicians run through the entire song, so a lot of uncertainty can be heard, especially with the vocalists (Elvis himself included). The arrangement of the song is a little different on this take when compared to master take 17. First of all, there's the a cappella intro (the master has a guitar intro), second is the ending: take 2A ends the same as it starts, with the backing vocalists; the master just fades repeating "she thinks I still care". And finally on take 2A both the bridge and the 3rd verse are repeated, which doesn't happen on the master. Obviously the take released on this album was not an attempt to create a master, but just to run trough the song. Elvis hadn't decided yet what was supposed to happen with it. After this take an attempt was made to add more rhythm to it, which resulted in the alternate take as released on the "Essential 70's masters" box set, but Elvis returned to the slow country feel. Good choice.

3. THE LAST FAREWELL
The final song that was cut on the first day of recording at Graceland was The Last Farewell. It is always a pleasure to hear this song without the overpowering overdubs. On take 2 however, Elvis doesn't sound really committed in his vocal delivery, nor does he sound very confident during the choruses. Master take 5 (spliced with the ending of take 3) is a much better performance by all musicians.

4. SOLITAIRE
On the second night of recording Elvis and his musicians spent all night trying to capture the right mood for Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire". Take 3 of this song, presented here, is just wonderful and sung very intimately by Elvis. He's almost whispering the verses. He seems to be having some trouble with the rhythm of the lyrics in the choruses however. Another striking difference between this take and master take 11 are the piano parts. Here they sound a little stiff, while on the master they are almost majestic. Overall the band sounds a lot more confident on the master take.

5. I'LL NEVER FALL IN LOVE AGAIN
It is suggested by Ernst Jorgensen (author of the book "Recording Sessions" and producer of every new RCA/BMG Elvis Presley album since the late 1980's) that on the next night Elvis turned to Tom Jones' hit I'll Never Fall In Love Again because he needed a challenge. Indeed it was: Elvis had to give it all to deliver a decent performance. The selection on this album actually begins with a false start (take 4?; not listed on the cover), which lasts for only 6 seconds, because James Burton forgot to play along on the intro. The 5th take is complete and comes close to the master take (take number 9), but somehow there's something missing. Maybe Elvis himself knew it too, which the long pause before the first "again" might indicate (but this is only speculation on my behalf). Both high notes are splendid none the less.

6. MOODY BLUE
Moody Blue has kind of YMCA-disco groove to it and has actually little in common with anything else in Elvis' body of work. But it's a good commercial song and Elvis must have heard that too. This selection begins with a false start (take 2?; not listed on the cover) and lasts for about 1 minute and 15 seconds before Elvis screws up the words and says something like "fuck, cock, you ga goddamn motherfucker, son of a goddamn bitch, I lost the words, some o' my words again" and then comments "Italian, it's the Italian version". Well, the attempt wasn't very good anyway. Before the beginning of take 3 we can hear him say "I hate to read", which indicates he doesn't know all the words to the song yet, which also explains his lack of commitment on this take. This can clearly be heard after the first chorus. Elvis needed 7 more attempts to create the master take (take 10).

7. FOR THE HEART
For The Heart is the first song that was tackled on the fourth night of recording. It's an up-beat song written by Dennis Linde (who also wrote Burning Love). The 1st take of this song was released on the Platinum box set and wasn't even half bad for a first attempt. Take 2 released here is actually just 2 seconds of the intro. Take three is pretty similar to the first one, this time with less screw-ups from Elvis. His vocal sounds just a little more strained than on take 1 though. On the master take (take number unknown) the intro is no longer played by acoustic guitars, which were substituted for electric guitars, which makes the sound a little more full. Also Elvis' vocal has much more power than on takes 1 and 3.

8. HURT
The next song they tried on the fifth of February was a song called Hurt. Elvis' version was rightfully dubbed by critic Greil Marcus as "apocalyptic". It took some time to get there though, as take 2 (released on the Platinum box set) and take three (released here) show. The selection on this album begins with a false start that lasts only 7 seconds. Elvis doesn't get any further than "IIIIIIIII'm"; he needs to clear his throat, which sounds kind of soar. On both take 2 and 3 Elvis still doesn't realize that the high note he has to hit on "I'm hurt" right before the spoken part, is the same as the one he has to hit during the grand ending. Here he sings the note falsetto, which somehow doesn't sound right on both takes. But he only needed four more attempts (the master = take 7) to reach splendour.

9. DANNY BOY
Hurt was followed by yet another vocal challenge, as Elvis and the musicians ended that night's work with another old favourite: Danny Boy. It was perhaps because of his triumph with the previous track that he asked David Briggs to raise the key to D. According to Ernst Jorgensen this proved to be a mistake: Elvis was unable to reach the high note on the word "here" properly. After several unsuccessful attempts he says "I can't make it, I've got too much shit in me, man. I'd like to do it in C, that's where I would like to do it better". At this point the selection on this album begins. So actually we get the first attempt of this song in a lower key and it's pretty good. Elvis still sounds a little unsure and hoarse on the word "here", but he is however able to deliver a heart felt performance. You can hear his confidence growing with every new take. On take 9 (released on the Platinum box-set) "here" sounds better, but he screws up the lyrics. A distinctive difference between this take and takes 8 and 10, is that all backing vocals have been dropped. The 10th take proved to be the one. Especially on "and then my grave…" he sounds very powerful. The fact that Elvis was able to deliver a master take within three attempts (in C) makes me wonder how "bad" the attempts in D actually were. I'd like to hear them!

10. NEVER AGAIN
The two songs that were recorded on the night of February the sixth, were both written by Jerry Chesnut (who also wrote the rocker T-R-O-U-B-L-E). The outtake (take 11) of Never Again presented on this album begins with an irritated Elvis stating: "Lamar walked in and just disrupted the whole room". Elvis' performance of the song is decent enough, but on the master take (= take 14) he shows much more confidence in the higher register. Too bad the song itself - as Ernst Jorgensen eloquently put it - was "destined to be an album cut", meaning: it doesn't really leave a lasting impression.

11. LOVE COMING DOWN
Aside from some mistakes from some band members, take 2 of Love Coming Down presented here is vocally almost as good as master take 5. Both takes have a relaxed feel to it that is very pleasant.

12. BLUE EYES CRYING IN THE RAIN
When three of the key musicians (James Burton, Glen D. Hardin and Jerry Scheff) left on the final day of recording of the February sessions, due to the fact that they were hopelessly behind schedule, Felton Jarvis shifted David Briggs from electric keyboard to piano, called Norbert Putnum (who worked with Elvis in the studio in 1970 and 1971) to play the bass and for guitar he got Billy Sanford, a Nashville session veteran (never worked with Elvis before). The only track that was recorded successfully on that day was Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. On this album take 2 begins with Elvis saying that he "jumped on 'rain'", whatever that might mean. The intro is screwed up by Billy Sanford, but probably to go easy on him Elvis continues the attempt. Like on the master take (take 5) Elvis' voice sounds unsteady, especially on "someday we will meet up yonder". It is just too high for him that night. Further more there are mistakes by David Briggs and J.D. Sumner, which makes this take a total loss.

13. IT'S EASY FOR YOU
The second Jungle Room session started on October 29. Elvis was in much better voice this time around, as take 1 of It's Easy For You proves. The selection begins with Elvis saying: "I get carried away very easily. Emotional son of a bitch." The first attempt is actually very similar to master take 2; there are only subtle differences. Very impressive for a first take!!!

14. WAY DOWN Way
Down is vintage Presley rock 'n roll. Take 2 presented here is the same as the one used on the Platinum box set. The song even starts with James' fiddling around at the ending of Pledging My Love, which means that they mastered this track from Platinum and not from the original tapes. Probably released here again, because the producers wanted an alternate take of every song from the Jungle Room sessions. Understandable, but a false start or an incomplete take would have been a better idea. Anyway, a it's good performance and a little different from the master take, which doesn't have an "empty" part where probably a solo should have been. Also the ending is slightly different: J.D. Sumner only sing "way on down" once here in stead of twice.

15. PLEDGING MY LOVE
Here we have the unedited master take (take 6) of Pledging My Love and lasts for more than 5 minutes! A true gem; Elvis and the musicians are obviously enjoying themselves with this song. Take 3 released on Platinum also proves that.

16. HE'LL HAVE TO GO
On the first day Elvis called it quits after producing three masters, because he wasn't feeling very well. He asked the band to lay down the musical parts for He'll Have To Go and There's A Fire Down Below. He would overdub his vocal the next day. According to Felton Jarvis Elvis did sing There's A Fire Down Below, but for some reason his vocal was erased or not recorded, which makes He'll Have To Go the last song he ever finished in the "studio". Here we have the "rough mix-master". The only differences I hear is that there is less hiss on this version than on the one released on the Moody Blue-album, and of course that the mix is a little different. Hmmmmm.

17. THERE'S A FIRE DOWN BELOW
When Elvis gave a press conference prior to his first concert at Madison Square Garden in '72 a member of the press asked him why he wasn't recording any hard rock songs anymore. He answered that it was very hard to find any good hard rock songs. So when Jerry Scheff asked Elvis a similar question back in '76 Elvis gave a similar answer. Because of this Jerry was determined to write a good hard rock song for Elvis to record. It's very difficult to hear what the song was supposed to be like by just listening to the backing track, but one thing is certain: it IS a hard rocking song. And if Elvis had released it, it would have been different and heavier than anything he'd ever done before. I guess we'll just have to wait for Jerry's (upcoming?) solo-album to get a full rendition of this song.

As a secret bonus we get - after 20 seconds of silence - the final 17 seconds of America The Beautiful, recorded on the same day as Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. According to Ernst Jorgensen, Elvis' mind and speech were too blurry at the time for him to explain to the musicians what he wanted with the song. After a while, he gave up. Felton recorded over the performance with Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, so this is all there is left of it. Nothing special, but nice to have just the same.

In conclusion: Elvis' wasn't in top form vocally during these sessions, even though the album contains several true gems. There are however a couple of things we need to keep in mind when listening to Elvis' vocal performances: First of all, Elvis wasn't as prepared at these sessions as he was at other studio sessions, which had some advantages and some disadvantages. An advantage was that he and the musicians could fool around more with arrangements of the songs, phrasing and melody (like on She Thinks I Still Care) since nothing was "set" yet. A disadvantage is that on early takes, because of this, a lot of uncertainty can be heard with all musicians, including Elvis. Most of the outtakes released here are in fact early takes. Second, the Jungle Room wasn't really suited for recording, which made it much harder to produce proper master takes. And third, the weaker vocal performances by Elvis could have easily been covered up by better mixing. In some tracks Elvis' vocal lies almost "naked" in the mix. It's not uncommon on this album that the backing vocals are too much "in the back". A narrower stereo mix would have also helped. Just listen to the mixing of Way Down or For The Heart on the Platinum box-set: even though Elvis' vocal delivery isn't always top notch, a narrower stereo mix, some echo and reverb and Presley's vocal not as prominent in the mix, make up for the shortcomings. This album lacks this kind of thoughtful mixing.

The way the album is presented here, I agree with Ernst Jorgensen that the album as a whole isn't suited for release in the Essential Elvis series. What can and should be done is present an Essential Elvis volume as "The Final Years Of Recording", which should contain: · outtakes from march '75; · some good outtakes from the Jungle Room sessions '76, for instance "Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall", "Solitaire", "Hurt", "Danny Boy", "Love Coming Down", "It's Easy For You" and "Pledging My Love"; · plus some good live recordings from '77, for instance "Unchained Melody" from Ann Arbor without the overdubs, "Help Me" from Ann Arbor or the one from Saginaw, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" & "Big Boss Man" from Duluth, "Hurt" from Omaha, etc. Hopefully this will happen in the future, because a broader audience, other than just the hard core fans deserve to hear these recordings…..

Reviewed by Mark Schraven
Any questions or comments about this review? Feel free to email me at m.schraven@kub.nl