Elvis sings Guitar Man (FTD) – a review.
April 2011 marks the release of the latest Follow That Dream classic album, or more correctly “wannabe” classic album “Elvis sings Guitar Man” – containing secular masters cut in Nashville, Tennessee between May 1966 and September 1967. In order to proceed we must establish some background to the material included.
As noted in the detailed liner notes “Few will argue that the mid-sixties were the most troubled part of Elvis Presley’s recording career. The many movie soundtracks seemed to offer fewer and smaller hits, songs that made more sense in the movies than on records, and performances of little imagination by Elvis and his bands.” By May 1966 Elvis had not entered a studio to cut non-soundtrack material since January 1964, a session comprised of two remakes of songs attempted the previous year (“Memphis, Tennessee” and “Ask Me”) and the underrated ballad “It Hurts Me”. Elvis entered a void during this time comprised (musically) completely of movie soundtrack work of an increasingly uninspired nature. Once a leader in the modern music field he had seemingly been swallowed up by his own movie career, something he had so much hope for but instead became a money-making noose around his neck.
Come 1966 and bolstered by the surprise national and international success of “Crying in the Chapel”, a 1960 master left in the can and released the previous year as a holiday single Elvis went into the studio to attempt his most ambitious work since his return from the Army. The album “How Great Thou Art” was the result, his second full length Gospel LP and one that would go on to win a Grammy Award in 1968. Amongst the creativity of the gospel sessions marked an opportunity to cut some secular masters and as such we witness the early stages of a rebirth in Elvis’ recording career.
Scattered amongst the universally excellent gospel recordings we find R&B covers of songs like “Down in the Alley”, “Come What May”, and “Fools Fall in Love” – the first being the best, with a driving rhythm section and successful harmony play-off with Charlie Hodge. A delicate stab at “Love Letters” – a 1945 composition made popular by Ketty Lester in 1962, along with a unique ‘around the piano’ harmony work-out on a track called “Beyond the Reef”. Most remarkable though is a take on Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” – which features one of Elvis’ most haunting and immersing performances as he produces his longest commercial master to date. It is as remarkable as it is curious – a stab at a direction that could have seen Elvis dive into the mid-60s folk scene revealing itself around him. It is a missed opportunity to be relevant again.
None of these recordings though have any significant impact on the music world at the time. “Love Letters” – the only resultant A-side has a minor impact on the charts, with “Come What May” as it’s B-side but it quickly disappears. The other recordings are mainly used to bulk up soundtrack albums – the most criminal being “Tomorrow is a Long Time” on “Spinout”. “Beyond the Reef” would remain unissued until 1980. A short make-up session in mid-June 1966 would serve up two additional ballads (“Indescribably Blue”, and “I’ll Remember You”, along with a Christmas record “If Everyday Was Like Christmas” – available on FTD’s “How Great Thou Art”) – but Elvis is curiously absent, Red West stepping in to track guide vocals. Elvis would overdub his vocals a couple of days later.
Over a year would pass before any attempts were made to capture more non-soundtrack material. A session is planned for August of 1967 in Los Angeles but is ultimately cancelled for reasons unclear. Whatever the results of an extended session in LA would have provided one thing is clear – Elvis seemed to recognise the need to break the mould of the movie soundtrack cycle.
Back in Nashville in September 1967 the sessions offer more of the same as the previous stint (lots of potential but not enough quality material), but with a greater rigor and energy from Elvis, no doubt spurred on by the infectious character of one Jerry Reed – an artist who’s “Guitar Man” single Elvis loved and whom was brought in to offer his unique guitar sound to Elvis’ recording. This and “Big Boss Man” were a big step up from the inert waters he’d been swimming in the previous 15 months. Unfortunately business politics reared its ugly head and pressured into releasing publishing rights to “Guitar Man” further participation from Jerry was brought to a grinding halt. Jerry stood his ground and would ultimately return in January 1968 for further recordings but in the meantime the promise here headed downhill. Outside of a raunchy stab at the R&B classic “High Heel Sneakers” and a nice, if somewhat unremarkable remake of the country standard “You Don’t Know Me” (a song cut earlier in the year for the movie “Clambake”, but here treated to a more moving arrangement) the issue of lack of quality originals springs up again threatening to undo a Presley session. Tired ballads “Mine” and “Singing Tree” (featuring some of the most ridiculous lyrics ever on a Presley cut) would find homes (perhaps fittingly) as soundtrack bonus songs. “Just Call Me Lonesome” offers hope in the midst of the mundane but ultimately also results in a cut that would go largely unnoticed.
The strongest masters “Big Boss Man” and “Guitar Man” would both feature as single A-sides in late 1967 and early 1968 respectively. This was a promising move to anyone paying attention at the time but they too largely go unnoticed by the wider buying public, “Guitar Man” perhaps loosing much of its hit potential by being wasted as the album opener on the 1967 “Clambake” LP before hitting the shelves as a single backed with “High Heel Sneakers”. Nevertheless they represented a change in direction for Elvis and these recordings along with the others featured on this release are of historical note for being the early seeds of a career rebirth that would culminate over the next couple of years with the famous NBC-TV Special, the American Sound recordings, and his long overdue return to the concert stage.
No album would ever have resulted from the various masters featured on this new release. Curiously the producers have decided to limit the field of vision to the 1966 and 1967 recordings. Arguably some of the masters cut in January 1968 with Jerry Reed have a synergy with the 1967 recordings that would not have gone amiss here, songs like “U.S. Male” and “Too Much Monkey Business”. BMG’s earlier mainstream release “Tomorrow is a Long Time” served as the first “what-if” for these recordings and included these 1968 cuts. Certainly the limitations of the 2-CD concept arguably suggest a smaller window of scope and so here we can suspend belief and look on this album perhaps as a “what-if” late 1967 commercial LP. Certainly such an endeavour would have been no more than 12 tracks. Here we are treated to 14 masters plus as a bonus: “Beyond the Reef”.
Firstly let’s look at the masters. Sequentially they work fine but perhaps not as well as that created for “Elvis sings Memphis, Tennessee” (FTD’s earlier release covering the 1963 and 1964 Nashville recordings in a similar “what-if” fashion). It is interesting to note that the sequencing here is simply 1999’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” compilation sans the 1968 masters. In light of this it might perhaps have been an idea to start from scratch as the holes left by the missing tracks jar the experience somewhat, certainly if one is used to the earlier compilation. Still, for these “would-be” albums there is certainly a lot of subjectivity involved with their creation and it is doubtful many will be disappointed throwing on disc 1 and enjoying the masters as sequenced.
Following the masters we are treated to the “first takes” – a concept begun with 2005’s “Elvis is Back!” and one that continues to offer a great contrast with the final master cuts. Here, matching the sequence of the masters we get to hear the earliest complete takes of most of the songs featured. The early takes of “Guitar Man” are interesting. Jerry Reed and the band struggle to get in sync on the intro. Jerry figures out what he needs to do and directs the band how to follow. It’s a delight to here the interplay here. The first couple of false starts are followed by take 5, the first complete run through, which is quite loose. It is followed by take 1 of “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, which is a false start. A short re-grouping of the band before a couple of more false start lead into take 2. Elvis and team would nail it by take 3. Here the performance is not as tight.
Up next is take 2 of “Big Boss Man”, which was first released way back in 1993 and includes more of Jerry’s self deprecating humour. A couple of “woke up” jibes break up his intro attempts before the band crack into a hot little version of the track. It’s looser than the master but carries a jamming quality to it that is missing a little from the later rendition. It’s a cool take with some great harmonica work from Charlie McCoy. Next is “Love Letters” take 2 which differs little from the master. It’s actually the takes that would follow where the interesting stuff happens. Here Elvis’ vocal is a little restrained with some slightly different inflections. But he doesn’t quite nail it yet.
“Fools Fall in Love” would be done by take 5. The only other complete take appears to be take 4 which here is close to the master but not as tight in the vocal. It’s a fun little number but could have done with a bit of a harder edge to it. Fast forward a year and the edge can be found in take 5 of “High Heel Sneakers”. Its not far removed from the master take and features a couple of looser sections but Elvis and the band appear to be having a blast cutting it. Jump back a year we have “funksville take 1” with “Down in the Alley”. One of only three complete takes this first one off the bat is finding its feet but is not quite up to the master.
The last three numbers on disc one take us through the earliest complete takes of “Come What May” and “Singing Tree”, along with a second vocal overdub attempt at “I’ll Remember You”. There’s little remarkable here and it would have been great if Elvis and co. could have nailed (or avoided) “Singing Tree” first time out. It is slower than the eventual master though so does offer a differing contrast.
Disc 2 focuses in session order a large umbrella over the other outtakes for the various masters. Here, perhaps more fittingly we get to hear the songs develop in production order, the transition between sessions more aptly presented. It’s a gas to hear the early breakdowns of “Down in the Alley” with Elvis and crew breaking into fits of laughter. The tempo here on these early takes is a little faster than what would result in the final master recording. The playing is also little looser than the master and really has a cool jamming vibe.
Next up is “Love Letters” and is a prime example of why I love the fly-on-the-wall opportunity to hear Elvis and team at work. The band struggles to get the song going at a tempo acceptable for Elvis and after a couple of false starts Elvis calls out for the demo for review. A couple of later takes follow. Next a short diversion with “Beyond the Reef” gives us one of the few ‘Elvis at the piano’ experiences we have on professional tape. Take 1 breaks down in laughter before the master is tracked with take 2. Elvis, Charlie, and Red West sing beautifully together, harmonizing on this often underrated track. Elvis flubs a piano chord mid-way through the track but the feeling of the performance is not lost. Beautiful stuff and reminiscent of what the guys were doing at home at Graceland prior to these sessions - some of which can be heard on the worthy compilations by BMG (The Home Recordings, 1999) and FTD (In a Private Moment, 1999).
“Come What May” continues the upbeat mood but is of less overall interest. Perhaps the most interesting – and cool results – are the Beach Boys-esque backing vocals on the closing choruses, heard here more upfront in the mix. The takes differ little from each other and the master would be reached by take 8.
The June recordings are no more than vocal overdubs. “Indescribably Blue” offers Elvis’ first attempt at tracking his vocal and differs little to the master with a slightly more restrained and uncertain delivery. “I’ll Remember You” offers the full unedited master, clocking in at over 4 minutes. The original single would be edited down by over a minute.
The last 14 tracks of disc two cover the September 1967 sessions and offer up some of the best material on this release. Beginning with “Guitar Man” we jump forward to take 7 where Jerry and the band struggle to get the track going again. It’s interesting to hear Jerry leading the band and it was surely a breath of fresh air to have someone else present injecting a bit of life into the process. After a couple of false starts take 9 gets going. Felton Jarvis encourages Elvis: “sing the living stuffing out of it Elvis”. Elvis would eventually sing the living stuffing out of it – but not until the following year for the NBC-TV Special. Here the track progresses beautifully in its acoustically led vibe. As each take goes by Elvis gets more confident with the delivery and talking markers throughout the track (“play it”, “yay yay” etc). Come take 10 and Elvis begins jamming with a “What’d I Say” mash-up on the outro. Another false start occurs before the master is tracked with take 12. Here we have the complete performance as recorded in the studio. Again on the outro Elvis dives into a “What’d I Say” jam, this time more confidently and extended with Jerry grooving hard on his rhythm guitar. Finally Elvis calls “alright” and the track concludes with a raucous scream from Jerry. A point of interest is Elvis changing a lyric from “I slept in the hobo junction” to “I slept in the hobo jungles”. The lyric and inflection flows more naturally with the change. The full vocal from this take would first be released by RCA in 1981 in a version featuring a new band backing track lead again by Jerry Read, this time on electric guitar. The single in this incarnation would chart at #1 on the Billboard Country Charts.
“Big Boss Man” continues the disk and here we start with a long false start on take one before we jump to take 3 (since take 2, the first complete take features on disc 1). Jerry and the band figure out an arrangement part while Felton again guides Elvis saying “Elvis when you do that thing on the stop sound, sometimes you did it like you were mad, like you were mean and that’s a gas man”. Elvis complies and adds a roughness to his vocal after a number of false starts. Take 9 offers the only other complete take beside take 2 and the master. It’s looser and less refined but features an edginess to it that is infectious – it really has a jamming vibe to it and one can imagine the band nodding their heads back and forth playing this one.
Unfortunately the two great numbers here are following by a track that dives sharply in quality. No doubt the absence of Jerry from the process following his run in with management undid a lot of the great mood that had to this point been running through the sessions. “Singing Tree” would require a lot of time and energy spent on it to get anything resembling a satisfying master. It’s difficult to see what Elvis saw in the song but most likely the lack of quality options led to this (“Mine” came before it but we will come back to this later). Take after take doesn’t help the song along, with much of the work differing little from take to take. A master would be slated with take 13 but would ultimately be rejected in light of further work on the song the next day.
In the meantime the quality would point upwards again with work on a quaint if unremarkable country track called “Just Call Me Lonesome”. The pre-take dialogue to take 3 shows an Elvis with somewhat of an edge to his voice. Perhaps the disappointment and repetitiveness of the previous track has worn thin. He calls for some water before they continue through a couple of false starts into a complete take. The takes differ little from the master outside of the joyous steel guitar work throughout the track. The master of this track would in the end be the first take.
“High Heel Sneakers” continues the night and here we get a long false start with take 1. Elvis has roughened his voice again and the band is cooking. Felton and Elvis feel it’s dragging a little in the tempo. We then jump to take 6 (5 is on disc 1) and the tempo is up and Elvis seems to be experimenting with different accenting and inflections. The attempt breaks down with a vocal flub and here we have the wonderful “Ode to Billy Joe” aside before the full unedited take 7, which would become the master. Great stuff! A short diversion with “You Don’t Know Me” closes off the night’s work of secular material. The master would be achieved with take 1 and here we are treated to take 2. It’s nice but less polished than the earlier take. Elvis would go on to close the evening with two gospel flavoured numbers, “We Call on Him and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – both of which would make the Easter single in 1968. The outtakes for these can be found on FTD’s “How Great Thou Art” release.
Closing off disc 2 are the further attempts at “Singing Tree” the next day. A joke one liner of “Danny Boy” precedes the work which doesn’t really improve on that tracked earlier. A couple of false starts occur before a complete take is reached with take 3, which feels a little too fast in approach. The master would be take 5.
The sound quality is universally excellent throughout. Sebastian Jeansson – whom has done fantastic work with all the 60s Nashville releases to date – is the sole credited mastering engineer for this release. Curiously this implies the masters have been reworked again which seems strange in light of Vic Anesini’s great work on these tracks in recent years. One area of improvement is on the master of “You Don’t Know Me”, which is subject to an audible drop-out about 16 seconds in on the master on the “Complete Masters” set (and other associated releases) but here no drop out is present. Outside of this correction there is (to this listener) very little if any contrasting differences between the masters here and on the “Complete Masters” set. The outtakes all sound fantastic and are expertly presented. Great effort Sebastian!
Packaging and presentation
Coming in the deluxe 7” packaging we’ve become accustomed to with FTD this release is another stunner. The team have done well to create a retro looking cover with a cool, mean looking Elvis along with period looking graphics. The booklet is filled with detailed session information along with a “Behind the Scenes” essay detailing the history of the recordings. Memorabilia scans feature throughout with tape legends and memos mixed in with original single sleeves and photographs from the time period. Of interest is a second essay chronicling the ins and outs of the cancelled August, 1967 sessions including details of song submissions, song requests and the respective backgrounds of these tracks. It’s cool to see titles that Elvis would later capture in other settings – songs like “Inherit the Wind”, “After Loving You”, and “The Wonder of You” for example all seemingly on the cards for potential work here. Such a shame this session never came to fruition.
Overall this is a winner from FTD but one that comes with a few questions. Where for example are the outtakes for “Mine”, a track featured here with its master but no representation otherwise. Officially we have been privy to takes 4 (on FTD’s “So High”), 8 and 9 (on BMG’s “Close Up”). Upon reviewing the running times for both discs one thing is certain, including “Mine” outtakes would have been at the sacrifice of other material since both discs are full to the brim with music. I would have happily sacrificed some “Singing Tree” time personally. The issue of running time then applies to the question of “U.S. Male” and “Too Much Monkey Business” from January 1968 – there is simply no room for everything here. Currently it is unknown exactly how these recordings will be offered up. Some speculation is that future releases of “Speedway” and perhaps “Stay Away, Joe” will cover these songs, since “Mine” was first released on “Speedway” and the two other tracks were born out of the joint MGM/RCA sessions that covered mutual needs for “Stay Away, Joe” and regular singles. However these recordings eventually come out one thing is for sure, “Elvis sings Guitar Man” is a great overview of two seemingly forgotten years in Elvis’ career. While the connections between sessions are perhaps a little stretched here the magic is in hearing the songs develop from start to finish. Snap this one up, you won’t be disappointed!
Matt Worsley, May 2011.