Release Date: Aug 6, 2013
Record label: RCA
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Rock & Roll, AM Pop
Ridiculously, some have complained that this comp milks the catalogue too far. Nonsense. Elvis at the landmark studio of the 60s and 70s in the pivotal city of his life? How could it not be vital? The three CDs divide into 27 tracks in which you find the relaxed Elvis trying tunes in the company of some of America’s greatest musicians and singers, and 28 masters dating from July and December ’73.
Elvis' 1973 sessions at Stax Studio, the Southern-soul crucible in his Memphis hometown, freed him a bit from the biz-y group-think that cheesed-out his later work. The remarkable results, originally scattered across middling LPs, get bundled with illuminating outtakes on this three-CD set. Amid country gems and corn are swaggering gospel funk ("I Got a Feelin' in My Body") and meaty rock & roll (a hit version of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" that echoes the Grateful Dead's).
The title "Elvis at Stax" is slightly misleading, suggesting Elvis Presley decided to set up shop at the famed Memphis recording studio so he could use their house band, or perhaps co-opt some of the Southern soul groove. That wasn't the case. Elvis chose the Stax studios to conduct several recording sessions in 1973 for a simple reason: it was close to his Memphis home.
The title of this newest attempt to organize Elvis’ recordings, although technically accurate, perhaps promises more than it delivers. You might assume that Presley wanted to get some of the greasy Stax studio R&B mojo into his increasingly slick music by booking time in his hometown studio and laying down tough, funky tracks with the studio’s legendary house band of Booker T. and the MGs, or its then current superstar, Isaac Hayes.
My God, how do you begin to talk about Elvis? He’s as familiar to us as Washington or Lincoln, perhaps more so in some circles. And still he remains impenetrable, no matter how much ink has been spilled over him. The more we talk about him, the more we seem to talk around him, ever broadening the distance that separates us from him, further obscuring him with the shroud of legend and history.
"Damn, these takes are going by fast," Elvis tells the studio engineer at the beginning of one song on this 3CD set, which has been pulled together for the 36th anniversary of his death this month. And he would know: while recording at Memphis's Stax studios in 1973, he did up to 14 takes per song. So many of these unused versions survive, with jivey studio banter intact, that they make up half of the 55 tracks.
“If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Thus spoke the man behind the revolution that was Sun Records, Sam Phillips. He found a few guys who sort of fit that bill (Jerry Lee Lewis, for one), but none as charismatic as a kid from Mississippi named Elvis Presley. As John Lennon observed, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” Of course that’s coming from a dreamy, hyperbolic English teenager.