Christmas Today (Venus, 2010)
After an extended period of nothing "new" from the Presley underground, direct from the North Pole comes a fresh 2 CD set of 1970s studio recordings that includes over a dozen unheard takes or studio bits for the hardcore Elvis fan: Christmas Today.
Issued by the Venus label, the discs are split between 1971 Nashville sessions for a holiday-themed album and a 1975 visit to RCA Hollywood to wax new single and LP material. The audio quality is remarkably good, which begs the question how it was discovered. Oh well, ours is not to question why!
Generally speaking, Elvis' May 1971 sessions are seen as haphazard and unfocused, with pop, gospel and seasonal material all on the schedule. Because of the productivity of the June 1970 Nashville visit, RCA and management conclude Presley works best with a packed recording plan. History does not repeat itself. Elvis' disenchantment towards, and boredom with, much of the submitted music filters down to the assembled musicians at Studio B, some of whom allegedly spend time getting loaded in the parking lot when not required to cut tracks.
However, very little sluggishness is evident on CD 1. On a dozen songs across 22 tracks, Presley negotiates the tinsel with professionalism and grace, even on insipid selections like Bing Crosby's 1956 single "Silver Bells." Perhaps the energy level is higher because most of what we hear comes from the first day (May 15).
All the seemingly undubbed 1971 masters are derived from acetates, yet it's nearly impossible to tell the difference as the restoration is that good. The outtakes are mostly undubbed as well, and what immediately comes across is the warmth of Elvis' assured baritone. The general mood is intimate, as if you're next to him as he does his job.
As Elvis carves a path through the holiday fare, the greatest revelation of these austere recordings is Red West and Glen Spreen's "Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees." Always one of the highlights of the original 1971 LP, these additional studio alternates make a strong case for this lament as a major recording in Elvis' 1970s canon. Red West, bodyguard, stuntman, actor, songwriter and friend since the 1950s, nails the downside of the Christmas season felt by so many, and Elvis recognizes himself in the melancholy lyric.
Every take mirrors the type of empathy Elvis gave his sublime 1969 single, "In The Ghetto," a Mac Davis number he invested with compassion. The sound of a celeste adorns the start of these undubbed takes, and it's lovely to take notice of. Presley's artistry is evident as he varies the phrasing from take to take, each time bringing the song closer to perfection. A key lyric change at the close seals the deal, altering the final couplet from "Where holly leaves and Christmas trees, meant so much, so much to me" to "Where holly leaves and Christmas trees, used to mean so much to me." Elvis, the master he is, has once again found the soul of a song. The perfect finale is enjoying the undubbed master take. On only a handful of intense Presley recordings may one presume Elvis is thinking of his beloved mother Gladys, who died at the young age of 46. "Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees" is one of those very special songs.
Michael Jarrett's "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day," a somewhat lugubrious ballad, is heard from early takes to the completed undubbed master. Chip Young's acoustic intro is upfront and very nice indeed -- it's a shame it gets lost in post-production. The song offers verses on a Dylan-like scale and prior to take four Elvis makes an editing decision. "Uh, before we were doing, uh, eight verses, let's cut it down to three, uh, to six," he notifies producer Felton Jarvis. Another major hurtle is choosing an appropriate tempo. Evidently no one is satisfied, because a remake is tried a month later. In the end, they settle for the May interpretation.
For better or worse, Elvis' balladeering in May 1971 sometimes employs an over-the-top baritone, a la Tom Jones. "The Wonderful World of Christmas" is a prime example of this affectation. Given that Presley had attended Tom's hugely successful engagement at Caesar's Palace on the Las Vegas strip mere days before the Nashville visit, his influence is as unmistakable as it is understandable.
Other undubbed highlights include James Burton's massive tremolo guitar effect on the master take of "If I Get Home On Christmas Day," which not only boasts a fantastic vocal, but a sinuous bass line from Norbert Putnam. Elvis injects some humour before take 7 of "Winter Wonderland," calling assistant Joe Esposito to the floor. "The Reverend Joe Esposito will now speak a few words of inspiration," he jokes. Unsurprisingly, during the take he breaks up.
Another moment of pure joy on CD 1 is Elvis "tomcatting" his way through almost eight glorious minutes of Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby." It's beyond cool to note the singer's edict before they commence. "Yeah, just run it a couple of times and I'll come in there, you know, somewhere. Let's, uh, let's set the rhythm first, you know," instructs the star. Borrowing a phrase from music critic Charles Perry, placing this amazing blues on the Christmas album is like "finding a hamburger in a medicine cabinet." "Merry Christmas Baby" is a fine piece of work, one of his top 1970s recordings, and every fan should own a copy of this particular edition. It should be emphasized that the track is not totally unedited or undubbed, as some of Eddie Hinton's July 1971 guitar overdubs are in the mix. No matter, this is a solid chunk of nasty blues, with Elvis driving the band from start to finish. It's a shame Presley didn’t make more of this type of music, he was so good at it.
The taping of "Silver Bells" is also revealing, as Elvis' short remarks speak volumes about the feeble material. After requesting the engineers set up a duet mic for pal Charlie Hodge, he makes his intentions clear. "Uh, I don't want him to be on the record, Al," he instructs engineer Al Pachucki. Ouch. Despite the awkward moment, Felton wants more from Elvis on the Jay Livingston and Ray Evans composition after a second take. "Let's do one more, real quick," he asks. "Ah, fuck," says Elvis. "It's gonna be real nice," assures Jarvis. "Regroup," someone quips. But the take 3 announcement is met with silence. Finally, Elvis admits "I can't get into it, I'm sorry. We better go back to what we had." It would be a long week ahead.
Fast-forward four years and we have Elvis inside a professional studio for the last time, laying down tracks for what would become the Today album. Although only ten songs make it to tape in two days of effort, the spirit is generally upbeat. The bulk of the 1975 material is sourced from undubbed album masters, but the quality is quite good, and the additional bits worthwhile for the deep fan.
"T-R-O-U-B-L-E" is a superb barroom rocker, and the only track that survived the purge of bass player Duke Bardwell's parts a month later, at Elvis' request. Unlike other versions, the backup vocals by Voice are too high in the mix, but do not detract from the recording. Anti-Bardwell tensions surface during the warm up before the first take of "Green, Green Grass of Home." He flubs a note during the intro and Presley immediately calls him out. "Duke!" he exclaims, and Felton Jarvis adds "Play it. Right." No pressure there.
Whether Duke's bass-playing chops were off because of nerves, not enough advance notice to study the material, or just a bad day at the office, the worst example of his less-than stellar labor is on take 1 of "And I Love You So." Bardwell repeatedly misses the changes, and sounds completely lost. Given that Elvis was singing the Don McLean ballad for girlfriend Shelia Ryan sitting in the studio, this could have been the moment when Presley made a mental note to eliminate Duke's contributions.
The "Tiger Man" jam, which first roared on RCA's 70s box, is served up without fades on CD 2 of Christmas Today, and it's a nice example of how "spur-of-the moment creative" the TCB Band could be, given the opportunity. It's amusing to notice Felton Jarvis' gusto as Elvis nails a beautiful master take of Faye Adams' "Shake A Hand," exclaiming "Yeah, that's it!" before the song is complete.
One of the session's true gems is the Statler Brothers late 1974 top twenty hit, "Susan When She Tried." Elvis had dug the group as far back as their first hit, 1965's "Flowers On The Wall" -- Presley is heard singing it between takes at his early 1966 sessions for MGM's "Spinout." Elvis' sense of fun, his sheer mastery of this up-tempo country number, is a pleasure. Critic David Spiller, in his 2008 book "Great Singers of the Twentieth Century," refers to it as "outstanding." Towards the close Elvis gets silly on one of the choruses, and begins to giggle. Despite this, Jarvis makes it a keeper, employing some clever editing before release.
"Pieces of My Life," a dramatic confessional, sports a mix with Elvis' voice well back in the sound image, although it returns to normal midway through. Could it have been actually derived from RCA Quadradisc APD1-1039, the 1975 quadraphonic version of the Today LP? Only the Shadow knows! In any case, the Troy Seals ballad is far more palatable without overdubbed strings.
Perhaps the single most delightful moment of all is Elvis' tongue-in-cheek condemnation of Billy Swan's #1 hit, "I Can Help." "I'm tired of it," he says before take 1. "Billy Swan, my ass," he grumbles. Swan's fantastic Monument single, a chart-topper the previous November and coproduced with Elvis session vet Chip Young, had been all over country and pop radio for several months, a big reason it landed at the Elvis session -- all kidding aside. After a few more false starts, Elvis makes it his own with a splendid rendition. "Have a laugh on me, I can help," he wails, with less of a wink than some might suspect.
Christmas Today includes a beautiful, 16-page, full color booklet, with relevant photos and notes. It is cleverly designed so that half is dedicated to CD 1's Christmas songs, and the other half to the Today material on CD 2. A fan may position their preferred cover in the CD case!
This Venus release is an essential purchase, most especially for the unreleased moments and fantastic fidelity. Elvis Presley could still thrill a listener in the 1970s, and proof of how hard he worked to do it is found on this compilation.
[Johnny Savage, USA]