How Great Thou Art Sessions Volume 2

Label 2001 (Released 2003)

01- So High ( take 1), 02 - So High ( takes 2, 3 ), 03 - By And By ( takes 1, 2 ), 04 - By And By (take 3). 05 - By And By ( take 4 ), 06 - By And By ( takes 5-8 ), 07 - By And By ( take 9 ), 08 - Without Him ( take 1 ), 09 - Without Him ( take 2-7 ), 10 - Without Him ( take 8 ), 11 - Without Him ( takes 9-11, 13 ), 12 - Without Him ( take 14 ), 13 - If The Lord Wasn't Walking By My Side ( take 1 ), 14 - If The Lord Wasn't Walking By My Side ( takes 2, 3 ), 15 - If The Lord Wasn't Walking By My Side ( take 4 ), 16 - If The Lord Wasn't Walking By My Side ( take 6 ), 17 - Where Could I Go But To The Lord ( take 1 ), 18 - Love Letters ( takes 1, 2 ), 19 - Love Letters ( takes 3-5 ), 20 - Love Letters ( take 7 ), 21 - Love Letters ( take 8 ), 22 - Down In The Alley ( take 1 ), 23 - Down In The Alley ( takes 2-4 ), 24 - Down In The Alley ( take 6 ), 25 - Down In The Alley ( takes 7, 8 )

This is the second in a series of discs revisiting one of Elvis Presley's finest achievements in a recording studio -- the Grammy Award-winning sessions for How Great Thou Art, Presley's second gospel LP. For the very first time, the 2001 label presents all available alternate interpretations of every track on the original 1967 record, and more. So sit back, listen and feel the spirit of total commitment by the greatest singer of the twentieth century.

In May 1966 Elvis hadn't yet moved away from the Hollywood movie machine, but these crucial recordings were a powerful first step.

It was no secret that Elvis had become disinterested in movie soundtrack work, but with this, his first pure studio effort in twenty-eight months, he had a mighty hand in what would be recorded. Seeking the best possible songs, he dug into his personal collection of gospel albums by artists like the Blackwood Brothers, Golden Gate Quartet and Statesmen and found a worthy repertoire. Additionally, Presley cohorts Red West and Charlie Hodge -- with whom he'd recently cut home demos of favorite folk, gospel, country and blues numbers -- helped Elvis pick the finest selections.

Elvis even hoped to bring in his favorite bass singer for the session, Jimmy Jones from the Harmonizing Four, although it sadly could not be arranged in time. As a small consolation, however, former Statesmen lead singer Jake Hess -- always a great influence on Elvis' singing style -- accepted an invitation to participate, along with his new group, the Imperials Quartet.

On the first evening, May 25, 1966, Nashville's famed "Studio B" is filled with all of Elvis' usual top notch players, from original bandmates Scotty Moore (guitar) and D.J. Fontana (drums) to studio pros Chip Young (guitar), "Buddy" Harman (drums & tympani), Bob Moore (bass) and Floyd Cramer (piano). Besides the Imperials Quartet, Presley's vocal backing includes the Jordanaires and three female vocalists for a total of eleven supporting singers. The unique number of those involved underscores the importance of this Presley visit.

"So High," the first non-secular number taped on the second evening, is based on a vigorous "jubilee" arrangement by Jimmy Jones' Harmonizing Four, perhaps Elvis' favorite black quartet. "OK ... this is 'So High,' take one, swingin'!" encourages Felton. Right from the start, Buddy Harman's frenetic, brush-driven drumming kicks things off just as Jarvis wants. While D.J. Fontana shakes that tambourine and Floyd Cramer supports the rhythm with his buoyant piano playing, Elvis uses his most "Jimmy Jones-like" bass tones to achieve a real vitality.

Raucous tambourine and drums are also prominent in "By And By," another "jubilee" workout. Searching for that "edge" Elvis found missing from his RCA releases prompts an interesting breakdown after a truncated second take. "What happened?" queries Elvis. "You can try that fuzz again, Pete," offers Felton to steel guitar player Pete Drake. "Fuzz?" questions the singer. "The fuzz tone he's got on that steel," explains Felton. "Oh, I thought it was something on Buddy," Presley jokes, cracking up the musicians.

May 27, the third day of sessions, becomes a free-for-all, with Elvis rejecting songs brought to him by music publisher Freddie Bienstock, as well as choices he'd originally shortlisted back at Graceland. One result of this is "Without Him," made at Elvis' insistence after Jake Hess retrieves the sheet music from his nearby office. After take four of this serene gospel ballad Presley detects an odd squeaking noise. "That's my shoe sole, isn't it?" he asks. "I don't know what it was," claims engineer Jim Malloy. Elvis dismisses the problem with a good-natured "That's the wrong soul, man." "Did you step on the rug?" backing vocalist Millie Kirkham asks, tongue firmly set in cheek. Take twelve goes without a hitch -- it would ultimately be selected for the album -- but on thirteen Elvis stops and admits "I popped it again, man. I'm sorry." The completed, delicately arranged master is a fine example of what Robert Matthew-Walker aptly calls a "burning sincerity."

The second day of the session is never-to-be-forgotten for novice piano player David Briggs, covering for Nashville veteran Floyd Cramer. Briggs does not expect to work at all, as Elvis seldom shows up at the scheduled starting time. This night, however, Presley does and is raring to start recording "Love Letters."

The pressure is on the young musician since the ballad, a pop hit twice in the previous ten years, is piano-based. Elvis moves the instrument -- and Briggs -- to the corner of the room, sets some lit candles on top of the piano and has Felton turn down the studio lights. This is hardly unusual, as "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was also recorded in a darkened studio at the singer's request. As Elvis, lyric sheet in hand, stands very near Briggs, it has become a trial by fire.

"I'd done a Beatles tour with Tommy Roe," recalls Briggs, "but Elvis was something else."

When the recording begins it's anything but smooth. Most of the initial takes break down in comparable fashion, with Elvis correctly assessing it each time as "too slow ... still too slow ... still too slow." "Pick it up!" commands Felton. "Let's play that demo once and get the tempo right," suggests Elvis. Floyd Cramer shows up while they're still working on "Love Letters" but Elvis prefers to stay with Briggs, as he likes David's style. The released performance is a magnificent blend of Elvis' delicate vocal and Brigg's sincere piano accompaniment.

There is no doubt what image Elvis has in mind while cutting "Down In The Alley." From the chapel to the brothel, nothing epitomizes Elvis' open-minded musical tastes more than his decision to record this 1954 Clovers R&B album track towards the end of the first night. It's all the more outrageous being taped in the middle of a gospel session.

They play it raunchy, with Elvis and veteran harmonica player Charlie McCoy fighting for space throughout. Its loose, wild sound must've reminded McCoy of the cacophony Bob Dylan invoked for the recording of "Rainy Day Woman 12x35," as McCoy had a role in those legendary March 1966 Nashville sessions as well. As for producer Felton Jarvis, the realization that he was getting his all-time favorite artist to cut tasteful, mature gospel and salacious R&B must have been overwhelmingly satisfying.
sound rate : *****