An Elvis for Everyone
Exploring Elvis' early-sixties recordings in Nashville
Reporter: Now, to get down the serious side of it, Elvis. Now that the Army is part of the past, can you give us any details of some of your future plans.
Elvis Presley: Well, the first thing I have to do is to cut some records.
March 7, 1960
Post-army press conference at Graceland
Thirteen days later, Elvis Presley entered RCA’s Studio B in Nashville for his first recording session in just over 21 months. After he was inducted into the U.S. Army, there was a concerted effort to limit the amount of fresh product that would be released while Elvis was in Uncle Sam’s employ. He recorded a mere five sides in Nashville on June 10, 1958 and of those, only four had been released (the fifth, ‘Ain’t That Loving You Baby,’ wouldn’t see the light of day until 1964). Needless to say, on March 20, 1960, the anticipation for new music was through the roof.
By March 23, a new single, with sleeve already pre-printed, was out the door. After a follow-up session on April 3, a new album, titled Elvis is Back! with sleeve also pre-printed and song list subsequently slapped onto the front cover, was in fans’ hands five days later. In the LP’s gatefold, an announcement was included for his next motion picture, G.I. Blues, the ultimate reality tie-in.
And thus began the 1960s for Elvis with a dual focus on making music as well as shooting movies. As the sixties progressed however, the business of cutting records stalled under that increasingly dispiriting industry called the “Elvis movie” leaving him culturally and musically adrift by the middle of the decade.
As a lifelong listener and appreciator of Elvis’ music, the recordings he made in the early-1960s, particularly the ones made for non-movie albums and singles, represent one of his most significant and important bodies of work. As a whole, they document Elvis’ desire to be a consummate and wide-ranging singer. In essence, an Elvis for everyone.
“I Will Be Home Again”
When Elvis got down to business on March 20, he was joined by the cream of the crop in Music City. Players conversant in country, pop, rock, jazz, you name it. The A Team: guitarist Hank Garland, pianist Floyd Cramer, bassist Bob Moore, drummer Buddy Harman and the quartet harmonies of the Jordanaires, plus longtime collaborators Scotty Moore on guitar and D.J. Fontana on drums.
The Jordanaires were no stranger to recording with Elvis and had appeared on virtually every session with him since the landmark July 2, 1956 date in New York that waxed ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ They soon became an instantly identifiable part of his sound. Floyd Cramer was in the piano chair on his first RCA session in January of that year.
Bob Moore and Buddy Harman first recorded with Elvis at his only session while he was in the Army as did Hank Garland, almost universally acknowledged as the finest picker in Nashville at the time.
The first song they tackled, Otis Blackwell and Winfield Scott’s ‘Make Me Know It,’ took 20-plus takes to perfect. Kicking the tune off with a quick piano run is Cramer. The rest of the band locks into a groove joined by vigorous doo-woping by the Jordanaires with bass singer Ray Walker adding extra oomph. Elvis falls right in with a driving, playful vocal making absolute mince meat of the stops-and-starts that characterize the number and shaking off any rust accumulated from 21-plus months of being away from the studio.
‘Make Me Know It,’ which kicks off Elvis is Back!, immediately signifies that Elvis in the sixties will sound different and that his artistry was in the process of evolving. There’s the added depth and weight to his vocal. A feeling of maturity in his sound. RCA’s recording technology also played a role with a series of firsts for an Elvis session, including the use of three-track tape, stereophonic sound and the extraordinary Bill Porter manning the controls. Taken as a whole, it’s the sonic equivalent of shifting from black-and-white to technicolour.
The main aim on March 20 was to get a single recorded. ‘Stuck on You’ was the A-side, ‘Fame and Fortune’ the B-side and by the end of April, it topped the charts. Three other tracks were recorded that day, two more slated for Elvis is Back! (‘Soldier Boy’ and ‘It Feels So Right’) and the other, ‘A Mess of Blues,’ was the first of many songs Elvis would record by Brill Building hitmakers Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and that would wind up as the B-side to ‘It’s Now or Never,’ recorded two weeks later on April 3.
The same group of musicians from the March session with one key addition, tenor saxophonist Boots Randolph, convened again in Studio B that day for an all-night session. Twelve tracks were put on tape in just over twelve hours, enough to complete Elvis is Back! as well as supply Elvis’ next two A-sides, the aforementioned ‘It’s Now or Never,’ and ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?,’ plus its’ B-side ‘I Gotta Know.’ Like ‘Stuck on You,’ both were massive hits and explicit examples of Elvis’ desire to branch out.
That vision is also what defines Elvis is Back! Through its twelve songs, he ping-pongs from one style to another, providing a survey of the music that interested him and at which he was at home. After the up-tempo ‘Make Me Know It,’ there’s the slow-and-sultry ‘Fever,’ originally recorded by Little Willie John and then covered famously by Peggy Lee. Joined by only Bob Moore’s bass, Buddy Harman’s drums and finger-snaps (perhaps done by Elvis or a member of the Jordanaires), Elvis’ vocal recalls the deep intimacy of his recording of ‘Blue Moon’ for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Whereas on ‘Blue Moon’ he sings like the callow youth he was, ‘Fever’ is Elvis in the spring of his manhood, teasing out a falsetto one moment and then letting out a Dean Martin-like baritone note slur the next.
Following ‘Fever’ comes the pure pop of ‘The Girl of My Best Friend’—hear how Hank Garland’s accompaniment foreshadows the music of the British Invasion. ‘I Will Be Home Again,’ in which Charlie Hodge, an aspiring musician that Elvis befriended in the army who became a member of the Memphis Mafia, harmonizes with him, provides a snapshot of the music that Elvis made and taped himself during the almost-eighteen months he was stationed in Germany. ‘Dirty, Dirty Feeling’ provides the sole opportunity for Garland to let loose on Elvis is Back! and takes us to the side one closer, the deeply gospel-tinged ‘Thrill of Your Love.’
Floyd Cramer begins by taking things directly to church, the feeling heightened by the almost shuffle groove of Buddy Harman and D.J. Fontana. The song, written by Stan Kesler, is a showcase for the special interplay that Elvis generated with the Jordanaires, among the top vocal quartets specializing in the southern gospel tradition, four singers harmonically layering their voices to sing the hymns and spirituals that are a vital part of the church-going experience. Of the countless artists that the Jordanaires recorded with—and to list them all would take up the rest of this essay and then some—they never gelled with anyone as they gelled with Elvis.
On the chorus of ‘Thrill of Your Love,’ Elvis and the Jordanaires begin with a gospel call and response that resolves into the quartet wordlessly cushioning Elvis’ stretching out of “than to be all alone and unloved.” At the end of second chorus, as the Jordanaires sing a pattern to transition back into the verse, you can hear Elvis echo Ray Walker’s bass, a pure expression of his appreciation and engagement with the song. If circumstances had taken Elvis on a different path, he may very well have wound up a bass singer in a gospel quartet.
The deep synergy between Elvis and the Jordanaires remains front and centre throughout most of Elvis is Back!’s second side which journeys from the new, stylistically broader Elvis to, by the end of the side, the basics of the blues, another music foundational to Elvis’ art.
‘Soldier Boy’ is pure pop balladry—listen to Elvis effortlessly shift into a falsetto during the bridge and as it ends, go right back into a more traditional register. He delights in showcasing the full range of his vocal chops.
‘Such a Night’ builds and builds an atmosphere of ever increasing intensity, a boil that is so potent that it is only resolved with a long drum fill by Buddy Harman and D.J. Fontana—whoever lets out “woooooooo!” at the end surely speaks for us all. The borderline libidinous ‘It Feels So Right’ contrasts nicely with the in-the-pocket groove of ‘The Girl Next Door Went A’Walking’ where Elvis and the Jordanaires feed off one another, giving-and-taking throughout the song to create a sum greater than its individual parts.
A low-down guitar lick kicks off the gritty ‘Like a Baby.’ It’s the first of several recordings Elvis made in the early sixties that fuse the raw power of his fifties recordings with his new, sweeter sound—hear how he uses the same vibrato he employs in ‘It’s Now or Never’ to make the lyric “one thing I know” sound bluesy and poppy at the same time as well as how he and the Jordanaires wail away during the song’s bridge. Boots Randolph’s tenor moans at end of each line to add to the almost raw feel of the song. It’s a perfect table setter for the album closer, ‘Reconsider Baby.’
By the time Elvis and the A Team got to it, April 3 had long turned into April 4. Way past night and into early morning—7:00 a.m. to be about exact. It’s Elvis himself on lead guitar leading the band. After two blues choruses, he says, “Play the blues boys, play the blues,” a cue for Boots Randolph to take a solo. After the first four bars, Elvis can be heard with an affirming “yeah!” Once Randolph finishes up his solo chorus, Elvis says, “yeah, one more time" and with a thunderous fill from Buddy Harman and D.J. Fontana, Randolph launches into the tenor’s higher register, Elvis egging him on audibly throughout. Then, in a fit of absolute daring, Elvis returns to sing the final blues chorus in his purest pop voice, facing head-on the tension created between the blues and pop music, and then, in another shift, almost growling the last line, “give yourself just a little more time.” And with a final, “oh yeah,” we are done.
Celebrated as one of Elvis’ best and most important deep cuts, ‘Reconsider Baby’ demonstrates that Elvis hadn’t forgotten where he came from even as he was moving ahead, growing and evolving as all artists do. He was indeed back.
Next up on Elvis’ to-do list was G.I. Blues, the first movie that utilized what was soon to become a suffocating formula: Elvis playing a singing (add occupation here), a love interest or two, an interesting or exotic locale, a fist fight and a batch of songs to slap together a soundtrack album. While Elvis is Back! was a commercial success, reaching #2 on the Billboard album charts, the G.I. Blues soundtrack was a certified smash—topping the charts for 11 weeks, a development not at all lost on Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker.
“I’m Working on the Building”
Elvis’ knowledge of spirituals and hymns was said to be encyclopedic. Record sessions often would not begin until Elvis and the Jordanaires had gathered around the piano and harmonized for a gospel sing. It’s this tradition that is stitched into each note of His Hand in Mine, Elvis’ next album recorded in Nashville’s Studio B.
Taped over the course of one night—October 30, 1960—in addition to ‘Surrender,’ Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s recasting of ‘Come Back to Sorrento’ and featuring a bravura vocal by Elvis, as well as ‘Crying in the Chapel,’ which only came out as a single in the spring of 1965, His Hand in Mine is perhaps Elvis’ most intimate album and a love letter to the southern and Black gospel quartet traditions that lie at the heart and soul of his music.
While the A Team get a few opportunities to display their chops, they are mostly in the background here. The spotlight is firmly on Elvis and the Jordanaires plus Millie Kirkham, a soprano singer who first recorded with Elvis in September 1957, as well as Charlie Hodge, who provides a harmony vocal on the title track as well as ‘He Knows Just What I Need.’
The album neatly divides between stately, reverent hymns and toe-tapping jubilees. Songs where Elvis is in the lead and those where he is virtually another member of the Jordanaires, such as ‘Swing Down Sweet Chariot.’ It features an intricate vocal arrangement with Elvis and the Jordanaires trading off in the chorus, and in the verses, Elvis is the preacher to the Jordanaires’ choir. By the end, vocalist and gospel quartet have joined together to form a quintet bolstered by the A Team’s swinging beat. To call this joyous music is insufficient. It is the every wellspring of life.
As is ‘Milky White Way.’ Taken at an almost-bluesy tempo and based on the recording by the Trumpeteers, Elvis’ vocal is masterful. By the third verse, featuring a call and response with the Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham, he is bending and stretching notes with the ease and timing of a jazz singer.
His sense of dynamic control comes to the fore on ‘I Believe in the Man in the Sky,’ one of the songs on His Hand in Mine where Elvis takes explicit measure of one of his heroes: Jake Hess—a revered southern gospel singer that was one of the genre’s most dynamic, exciting and powerful stylists. Listen to how Elvis phrases such words as “Gibraltar,” “sparrow” and “praise” or how he draws out “sky” before the Jordanaires sing “though a sparrow” or how he colours and stretches “keep an eye”—that’s all Jake Hess. Hear as well, at the end, how he belts out “yes, I’m singing His praise ’till the end of my days” and then switches, almost on a dime, to tenderly sing the song title—that’s all Elvis. Few vocals that Elvis laid down on record compare to the tour-de-force that is ‘I Believe in the Man in the Sky.’
Jake Hess is also the inspiration behind the inclusion of ‘Known Only to Him.’ Elvis’ version has a hushed, divine quality that as the Jordanaires’ Gordon Stoker later remarked, seemed to transform the recording studio into a country church. It is perhaps the most deeply affecting recording on the album.
Like Elvis is Back!, the closing number of His Hand in Mine was recorded as night had long given way to morning. It sends us out on the highest of high notes. ‘Working on the Building’ begins with irresistible rhythm guitar by Hank Garland before Elvis and the Jordanaires engage in a call and response for the first two choruses of the song. Garland then adds a short fill to launch the third chorus where Elvis and Gordon Stoker share the lead. By the fourth, handclaps add to the happy feeling with the Jordanaires now taking over the lead and Elvis chiming in seemingly at random, almost unsure what it is he should be doing. At the end of a fifth and final chorus, everything comes to a dramatic stop after the Jordanaires sing “well, I never get tired,” bass singer Ray Walker sings “I never get tired,” the rest of the Jordanaires and Elvis respond with “from working on the building,” Walker replies with “for my Lord,” and egged on by Garland’s guitar and the best of the band, everyone sings “I’m going up to heaven…” and on a sustained singing of “reward,” the A Team plays a satisfying, closing flourish.
His Hand in Mine is pure passion project where commercial considerations were secondary to making an artistic statement, though and rather importantly, it proved to be a durable, reliable seller many years after its release.
Elvis’ balancing act in 1960, juggling his movie commitments—both in front of the camera and in the recording studio—while growing as a musician and an artist, provided a template for the following two years even as it became increasingly clear that the real money lied in churning out motion pictures.
“Reaching for the moon and wishing on a star”
About a month before Elvis completed his military service, one of the biggest crossover country hits of the early sixties was released. ‘Please Help Me, I’m Falling’ by Hank Locklin, a nasally singer with an Irish lilt in his voice, provided a template for how much of country music would sound over the next few years, principally through Floyd Cramer’s piano accompaniment which employed what became known as “slip notes”—gliding from one note to another in a sort of slur. Slip notes were not Cramer’s invention, they were the brainchild of the co-composer of Locklin’s smash: Don Robertson.
Best known prior to ‘Please Help Me, I’m Falling’ for co-writing ‘I Really Don’t Want to Know,’ made famous by Eddy Arnold, Robertson’s influence is unmistakable when listening to Something for Everybody, Elvis’ follow-up to His Hand in Mine. As had become custom, it was mostly recorded in one night—March 12, 1961—in Nashville.
Nominally a concept album—side one is designated “The Ballad Side” and side two christened “The Rhythm Side”—the main sound here is crossover country, pure Nashville Sound with the usual cadre of A Team musicians backing Elvis.
The album begins with a stately introduction by Cramer before Elvis launches into the first words of ‘There’s Always Me,’ the first of two songs on the LP written by Robertson and his writing partner at the time, Hal Blair. A vehicle for Elvis to demonstrate his growing vocal range culminating in a near-operatic finale, one can hear how Cramer’s piano accompaniment is fair different than the support he offers on Elvis is Back! The motifs he employs here—primarily influenced by Robertson—are returned to again and again throughout Something for Everybody, leaving Hank Garland often as second banana to Cramer.
An interesting sidebar to ‘There’s Always Me’: a week and a half later after the main Something for Everybody session, Elvis was in Hollywood recording the soundtrack for Blue Hawaii, which included one song written by Robertson, ‘No More,’ using the melody of ‘La Paloma.’ Elvis, struck by the quality of the material Robertson was providing, wanted to meet him and members of his publishing team arranged for the songwriter to pop by during the soundtrack sessions. Elvis and Robertson hit it off and the singer invited him to drop by the house he was renting that night. The entire experience was a rare occurrence of Elvis meeting one of the composers who wrote his songs.For the most part by 1961, an iron curtain had been drawn between him and those who were supplying his material, especially after Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller began to opine on potential future projects for Elvis. In contrast to Robertson, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, who wrote more than a dozen songs for Elvis, never even remotely had a chance to meet him.
In addition to Robertson’s slip-note piano, another new sonic fad was overtaking Nashville: fuzz guitar. Discovered by accident by ace guitarist Grady Martin while recording ‘Don’t Worry’ with frequent collaborator Marty Robbins, it became the defining feature of the song and assured that once it was released as a single in February 1961, it would crossover to the pop charts. Martin’s fuzz sound, mimicked by Garland, figures prominently on ‘Give Me the Right’ as does Millie Kirkham’s soaring soprano. Together, they provide a gritty blues feeling to the number.
’It’s a Sin’ and ‘Starting Today,’ the second Robertson and Blair number recorded for the album, further the strong country feel of Something for Everybody. Sandwiched in between is the old Ames Brothers number ‘Sentimental Me’ which provides a showcase for the Jordanaires, especially Ray Walker who booms away memorably on the bridge.
The side one closer, ‘Gently,’ is a sparse, intimate showcase similar to Marty Robbins’ homages to cowboy music. Anchored by the acoustic guitars of Garland and Scotty Moore, Elvis and the Jordanaires harmonize beautifully throughout making ‘Gently’ a standout on the album.
Side two’s emphasis on rhythm is immediately apparent within the first few seconds of Charlie Rich’s ‘I’m Comin’ Home.’ Garland’s opening guitar riff sets the table for Buddy Harman and D.J. Fontana to lay down a heavy backbeat. The guitarist’s crystal clear chords answer each of Elvis’ vocal lines in other example of how they fed off each other. Short solos by Cramer and Garland also hint at the proclivity both had for jazz. This is music that makes it all look easy but only results when you gather players of the highest calibre in the same room.
‘In Your Arms’ comes and goes in less than two minutes and is notable mostly for Elvis’ very loose phrasing—speaking again of making it all look easy—and a short solo spot for Boots Randolph. The spotlight shines again on Cramer for ‘Put the Blame on Me,’ which features some fairly nasty clavinet playing by him and an intricate rhythmic arrangement. ‘Judy’ again sees Cramer in Don Robertson-mode on a performance that is pure Nashville Sound.
Elvis’ early-sixties recordings are distinguished by just how good they sound among other factors. The engineering, the musicianship, the vocals and the execution of the arrangements all attest to a deep attention of craft. While there is a definite calculation to everything that can bring a bit of sterility to the proceedings, a byproduct of this approach is the often-exhilarating and exciting collision between the glossy sheen of the sound and the grittiness of the material. ‘I Want You With Me’ is a prime example.
The most bluesy and rock-oriented song on Something for Everybody, the arrangement has Elvis dramatically deliver the song’s verses accompanied by Garland’s biting rhythm guitar, Scotty Moore doubling Bob Moore’s bass line and the hit-hat of Buddy Harman. He then moves to the snare to usher in each chorus with the full band as well as the Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham backing Elvis. Harman, likely with D.J. Fontana doubling, then concludes with a thunderous drum roll to set up the next verse. An instrumental break starts with soulful, suspended chording by Cramer before another drum fill signals the rest of the band to join in. The sound here is often heavy—the drums of Harman and Fontana create an incredibly deep bottom—that contrasts with the smoothness of Elvis’ vocal and the vocal accompaniment. By the final out-chorus, egged on by Ray Walker’s bass, there is a whole wall of sound that never verges into bombast. It’s contained, but only barely.
More than most artists, Elvis’ career is marked by decisions that were either puzzling or just outright baffling. How else to explain the decision to have ‘I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell’ from Wild in the Country follow ‘I Want You With Me’ to end Something for Everybody, like a shot out of nowhere? A far better choice would have been ‘I Feel So Bad,’ a blues number that tries to recapture the spirit of ‘Reconsider Baby’ but doesn’t quite get there that was also recorded during the main album session and released as Elvis’ next single. One of the countless what-ifs that arise when thinking about the choices Elvis made or had dictated to.
Another surrounds live performances. Up until his first residency in Las Vegas in the summer of 1969, Elvis only took to the stage twice during the sixties. On February 25, 1961, he performed two charity shows in Memphis and exactly a month later, did another charity show in Honolulu. While no tapes exist of the shows in Memphis, an audience recording from the Honolulu concert was released in 1980 as part of the Elvis Aaron Presley box set.
While the quality of the recording varies widely, its historical significance outweighs any concerns regarding sound quality. On stage with Elvis are the A Team (only Buddy Harman and Millie Kirkham did not make the gig) as well as Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. The program is a mix of fifties favourites stretching all the way back to ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ plus a few recent numbers, including ‘Such a Night’ and ‘Reconsider Baby’ from Elvis is Back!, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ from His Hand in Mine plus ‘It’s Now or Never’ and ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ The likely setlists for the two Memphis shows are similar to the Honolulu show—in terms of Elvis’ sixties repertoire, there are a few tantalizing extras however. He likely performed ‘Surrender’ as well as ‘Doin’ the Best I Can’ from G.I. Blues at the afternoon show (neither song was ever performed live again) and ‘Fever’ from Elvis is Back! at the evening show (the number was a recurring part of Elvis’ live repertoire in 1973 and 1974).
The energy level at the Honolulu show is high. There are none of the signs of boredom or going-through-the-motions that mark much of his later concert recordings. At best, the tempos are a hair faster than their recorded cousins and none of the songs are in truncated form—by 1972, Elvis would burn through songs like ‘All Shook Up,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Hound Dog’ in as little as 60 seconds.
While the sound favours the core band: Hank Garland, Scotty Moore, Bob Moore and D.J. Fontana with the Jordanaires often muffled in the background and Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph almost entirely inaudible (thankfully, Randolph’s solo on ‘Reconsider Baby’ comes through loud and clear), a few moments of clearer audio seem to indicate that Elvis and his musicians had created full arrangements that used all six musicians in the band. For example, during ‘That’s All Right (Mama),’ there’s a brief moment where Randolph can be heard bopping along to accent the beat.
But what punches through most during the Honolulu show is Elvis’ naturalness as a performer, his ease, his absolute control of his instrument (his voice), his ability to tease and draw in the audience, his unflappability even as he forgets or messes up the lyrics, his sense of enjoyment, and overall, that the concert stage is Elvis’ natural environment, the pulpit where destiny anointed him as a deliverer of the message of rock-and-roll. And if Elvis had used this performance as a springboard to continue on performing live throughout the sixties, his career arc would likely have been far different. But, then he wasn’t really in Hawaii just to put on a show.
If the financial success of G.I. Blues began to tilt Elvis towards movies and away from music, the die was cast with Blue Hawaii.
While Something for Everybody managed to top the album charts for three weeks, the soundtrack for Blue Hawaii stayed at the top spot for almost five months. The movie also did significant business at the box office. And the dollar signs began dancing around Col. Tom Parker’s head.
“Can it be that you’re too shy to give yourself a little old push.”
Elvis’ next Nashville session on June 25 yielded one of his finest singles, the double A-side smash ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’ and ‘Little Sister,’ both written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. ‘(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame’ employs a smoothed-out Bo Diddley beat while ‘Little Sister’ is a powerhouse feature for Hank Garland, who absolutely tears it up and then some. The remaining three songs recorded (‘Kiss Me Quick,’ ‘That’s Someone You Never Forget’ and ‘I’m Yours’) were destined for Elvis’ next studio album, Pot Luck with Elvis.
A week later, Elvis returned to Nashville to record the soundtrack to his upcoming feature, Follow That Dream. It proved to be Garland’s last record date with Elvis. Two months later, in one of music’s truly cruel tragedies, Garland was involved in a devastating car crash that landed him in a prolonged coma. While he eventually regained consciousness as well as the ability to play guitar, his days as Nashville’s premier session guitarist were sadly over.
At Elvis’ next session on October 15, Garland’s chair was taken over by Jerry Kennedy, an up-and-coming Nashville picker destined to become a major record producer in Music City for the likes of Roger Miller and Jerry Lee Lewis. Five tunes were laid down, including ‘Good Luck Charm,’ Elvis’ 17th and penultimate chart-topping single and its B-side, ‘Anything That’s Part of You,’ a Don Robertson and Hal Blair composition that yields one of the Elvis’ most beautiful ballad performances. Recorded as well were ‘Night Rider,’ which wound up on Pot Luck with Elvis and two that remained in the vault until 1965: ‘I Met Her Today,’ another supreme Robertson & Blair number and the almost Viennese ‘For the Millionth and the Last Time.’
A two-day session on March 18 and 19, 1962 completed the Pot Luck with Elvis album, with Grady Martin and Harold Bradley, another fine axemen in Nashville and brother of Owen Bradley, often cited as the true architect of the Nashville Sound, joining Scotty Moore on guitar.
Whereas there are definite stylistic directions for Elvis’ three previous sixties studio albums, Pot Luck with Elvis is a portrait of Elvis the pop singer. Perhaps most notable about the album is that Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman have a hand in five of the album’s 12 songs.
Their ‘Kiss Me Quick’ offers an opportunity for Elvis to demonstrate his sophisticated sense of timing through the song’s three distinct rhythmic sections. The follow-up ‘Just for Old Time’s Sake’ is a return to the pure Nashville Sound of Something for Everybody.
‘Gonna Get Back Home Somehow,’ the second Pomus and Shuman number on the album, dials things up considerably. The song weaves an intense tapestry of sound anchored by furious drumming by Harman and Fontana echoing the train that figures prominently in the song’s lyrics as well as a tripled bass line by Bob Moore, Boots Randolph’s tenor and one of the guitarists on the session. Four crescendos keep the temperature level high. Each features Elvis singing “I’m leaving now” three times—the third recitation has him stretch out “now” with the Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham’s soprano joining him and the rest of the band building in intensity. Each crescendo is harder and louder than the previous one.
Otis Blackwell and Winfield Scott contribute ‘(Such An) Easy Question,’ a sly tease of a song. Elvis’ ability to elevate material far beyond what others would have done is in full evidence here. He gets behind the beat and then in front of it, skips around from bass to falsetto and every register in between, blending in with the Jordanaires and Kirkham whenever he feels like it.
‘Steppin’ Out of Line,’ an outtake from the Blue Hawaii sessions, features one of the great off-mic eruptions as Elvis launches Boots Randolph off on a short solo, and ‘I’m Yours’ has the novelty of Elvis harmonizing with himself as well as a short spoken-word monologue echoing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’
‘Something Blue’ is the kind of adult material that, despite the gimmick of using the “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue” trope, embodies the aspirational nature of Elvis in the early sixties—an approach he had largely perfected by this point. ‘I Feel That I’ve Known You Forever’ also displays a sentimentality that few Elvis recordings equal, especially during the bridge.
Yet, room was still made to take chances. The knotty, intricate ‘Suspicion’ by Pomus and Shuman presents a singer’s challenge, with its stops-and-starts and almost rhumba-like rhythm. For Elvis though, mere child’s play. It’s worth nothing that Terry Stafford’s hit version from 1964 does away with the stylistic tricks and uses a far simpler arrangement. ‘Night Rider,’ the final Pomus and Shuman song on Pot Luck with Elvis, is back-to-basics rock. Grady Martin demonstrates his rare touch with the acoustic guitar on ‘Fountain of Love’—another touch of sentimentality.
One of the most frequent knocks against Elvis is that unlike most artists, he didn’t write his own material. It’s true. Of his songwriting credits, only a small handful were because he actually had a hand in writing the song. The closer on Pot Luck with Elvis, ‘That’s Someone You Never Forget,’ is the first of these songs.
Co-written with Red West, Memphis Mafia pal as well as an actor and songwriter, it is a stunner. A melancholic meditation on loss, perhaps written with his late mother, Gladys, in mind, it opens with Elvis and the Jordanaires with Millie Kirkham harmonizing in an almost ghostly fashion before he starts to sing, stretching select words along the way to deepen the resonance of the lyrics. The bridge has the Jordanaires and Kirkham powerfully opening up their voices as Elvis sings the line, “but you know that they’ll never replace that one that waits for you” and then shift to a far softer backing once he gets to “you.” At the end, Elvis has a rare cadenza which resolves by him echoing the ghostly feel of the song’s opening. ‘That’s Someone You Never Forget’ is a triumph on all levels and a profoundly moving performance to end the album.
By the time Pot Luck with Elvis was released, the “Elvis movie” formula has been firmly established. Any desire to advance his career as a serious actor had been deferred by the wish to turn a quick-and-dirty profit by the Colonel. Elvis, ever strangely timid about asserting himself with Col. Parker, went along even after it long became clear that churning out movie after movie was making him feel emptier and emptier. While his movie music was often redeemed by his innate ability to rise above the material he had to record and the top-rate musicians with whom he continued to be surrounded, it still felt secondary to the other music he was recording which better expressed where he wanted to go as an artist.
“What Now, What Next, Where To”
It was a little over 14 months after the final Pot Luck with Elvis session before he returned to Nashville. On the surface, the business at hand was the same as the previous three years: wax an album plus a new hit single. The single, ‘(You’re the) Devil in Disguise’ with ‘Please Don’t Drag That String Around’ on the flip side was another top-five smash. There was enough material left over for an album, but none was forthcoming.
By the fall of 1963, individual tracks began to trickle out. ‘Witchcraft,’ a volcanic rocker, was included as the B-side to ‘Bossa Nova Baby,’ from Elvis’ next feature, Fun in Acapulco. The soundtrack album included ‘Love Me Tonight,’ an exquisite Don Robertson and Hal Blair ballad, and the fun ‘Slowly But Surely.’ The soundtrack for his following movie, Kissin’ Cousins, added ‘Echoes of Love’—a top-notch feature for the Jordanaries—and ‘(It’s a) Long Lonely Highway,’ a supreme Pomus and Shuman rave-up. Bits and pieces from the May 1963 sessions continued to be released up until the soundtrack for 1968’s Speedway.
A short session in Nashville was called for January 12, 1964. The goal was to re-record his cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’ as well as the pretty ballad, ‘Ask Me.’ Once masters for both were in the bag, Elvis turned his attention to ‘It Hurts Me,’ pure country-soul written by Joy Byers, then-wife of record producer Bob Johnston (soon to helm landmark records by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash) and Charlie Daniels, long before he made his name as a fiddler.
It is, in my humble opinion, his finest recording of the sixties. On ‘It Hurts Me,’ Elvis favours the upper part of his register—he goes into a smooth falsetto for the line, “he’s just that kind of guy,” and then slips to a muscular tone as the song goes into its powerful climax, roughening up his voice in a foreshadowing of the style he favoured for the all-important ’68 Comeback Special. Supported, as always, by the A Team as well as the Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham, Elvis sounds as if he’s ready to continue to evolve and to keep moving forward. But instead, ‘It Hurts Me’ proved to be the end of the line as Elvis embarked on a 28-month pause on recording any music that was not for the movies, a disastrous move that almost relegated him to permanent irrelevancy.
Released as the B-side to ‘Kissin’ Cousins,’ ‘It Hurts Me’ still retains the feel of a hidden treasure as do most of his early-sixties records. In 1964 and 1965, some of them were released as singles, including ‘Kiss Me Quick,’ ‘Such a Night’ and ‘Suspicion,’ others were co-opted to create the soundtrack for the movie Tickle Me—cruel fates to consign this music.
Happily, the reputation of these recordings has grown over the years. In 1993, RCA released a five-CD box set, From Nashville to Memphis, cataloging all of Elvis’ non-soundtrack sixties sessions in chronological order. It provided an opportunity for Elvis fans to be reacquaint themselves with them and for others to be properly introduced to them. In subsequent years, the four studio albums from that time period have been reissued multiple times on CD as have virtually all the outtakes from the sessions.
Taken together, Elvis’ early-sixties non-movie recordings tell a story. They recount a singer returning from the army endeavouring to broaden his artistry, to became an entertainer, to use his instrument to create pop music of the highest order. They highlight a group of musicians who could play just about everything and often did. They spotlight a group of background singers supporting a singer captivated by quartet singing and quartet harmony. They reveal the calculation, cunning and short-sightedness that often marred Elvis’ career. They force us to reconcile and accept the passivity that Elvis often exhibited with regard to his career: his reluctance to take risks and his acceptance of the compromises that ran counter to the goals he wished to reach as an artist.
But at their core, they tell us why Elvis continues to matter. He could do it all and did so often enough to reward our faith in him.
Companion Playlist: To complement my essay, I have put together a Spotify playlist highlighting what I think are the top tracks of Elvis’ early-sixties recordings that I hope you will enjoy, especially if this is the first time you have encountered this music.