The new Elvis at Stax presents a fascinating chapter in the musical life of The King. In July and December of 1973, Elvis Presley recorded at the famous Stax studios in Memphis. Although most of the songs have been previously released, they were parceled out bit by bit among five different albums between 1974-2002. Before Elvis at Stax, fan would have had to create their own mixtapes out of all of that to hear it all. Maybe some superfans did do that, but I think most of us were completely in the dark about the whole thing. What we were missing out on was a very significant episode in Presley’s career, not to mention some great music.
The set contains 27 outtakes and 28 masters for a total 55 songs, spread over three CDs. I really like the way these are presented. Disc one contains 17 outtakes; disc two has ten outtakes, followed by 10 masters; and disc three has 18 masters. Listening to Elvis at Stax in order is a wonderful journey. The outtakes contain all sorts of in-studio banter, goofing around, and plenty of good music. The 10 masters on the “half and half” second CD are all from July 1973. The 18 masters on the third disc are all from the December sessions.
The songs are from the three genres he was best known for: pop, country, and R&B. There is a nice, large-format booklet included in the set, in which Robert Gordon explains what was going on with Presley’s career in 1973. There is a reproduction of a letter from RCA outlining what his outstanding obligations were. It lists an album (10 songs), two singles (four songs), plus a religious album (10 songs). Two 10-song pop albums were culled from these sessions, Good Times (1974), and Promised Land (1975). The remaining eight masters were posthumously issued on Platinum – A Life in Music (1997), Rhythm and Country (1998), and Today, Tomorrow, and Forever (2002).
In his essay, Gordon laments the use of the standard image of Presley onstage for the album covers of Good Times and Promised Land, and I agree. They look cheap, and when they showed up in cut-out bins later on, they looked like they deserved to be there. I had never heard most of this material before, and was really surprised at just how good it is. Hindsight may be 20/20, but the marketing of Presley at the time was just terrible. If the albums had been promoted properly, I believe they really could have had an impact.
In 1973, Stax was one of the hippest studios in the country, and Presley made some great music there. Had anyone thought to trumpet the fact that he was recording at “Soulsville USA,” which was right down the road from Graceland in Memphis, it could have been a big deal. A spread in Rolling Stone, coupled with maybe a shot of Elvis in front of the studio for the album cover, might have worked wonders. But it took 40 years for anyone to figure this out, as RCA Legacy have done here.
It is sad when you listen to funky tracks like “If You Talk in Your Sleep” or “Mr. Songman” and realize that the audience who would have most appreciated them had no idea they even existed. On top of that, those two songs were actually considered inferior, and landed on the “leftover“ Promised Land. The powers that be selected the 10 “best” Stax sessions for Good Times, and the next 10 became Promised Land. As noted earlier, the remaining eight were divvied up posthumously.
So why not just buy Good Times and Promised Land then? You would be getting the “best” of the sessions that way, and it would be a bit easier on the pocketbook. Well, for one thing, you would not be saving much, as RCA Legacy have priced Elvis at Stax very reasonably. And if you wanted all 28 cuts, buying the three additional collections would be considerably more expensive. But it is really the extras that make this set so cool. The outtakes present a side of The King that we have never really known before. He is just a guy in the studio, doing his thing. By the early ‘70s, Presley’s image was everything, and it is highly refreshing to hear him just being himself.
I was also impressed with the book. Besides some nifty memorabilia, the story behind the music is very interesting. The July and December sessions are broken down as to who was playing on each song, along with other relevant data. Mr. Gordon also makes a point that I had never considered before. Graceland was just down the road from McLemore Avenue, the home of Stax. Yet Elvis almost always recorded either in Hollywood or in Nashville. Had he recorded more at Stax, he could have slept in his own bed at night. Again, it is hindsight, yet based on the quality of music in this collection, working at Stax was clearly a good thing for him.
Presley’s groundbreaking years were well before my time, and while I always respected him, I thought that his ‘70s music was kind of past its sell date. Elvis at Stax has completely changed that perception. The music is extraordinary, and the outtakes provide us with a sense of being right there with him. RCA Legacy did a nice job with this one.