Written by General Jabbo
The year 1973 was a good one for Elvis Presley. He was riding high from the success of the Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite TV broadcast and live album; he had signed a new record deal with his label, RCA; and he was the beneficiary of a $5 million buyout of his back catalog from the label. While that buyout ultimately may have been a bad deal for Presley, at the time it gave him the financial freedom to live the way he was accustomed to. In addition, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had formed a new publishing company, which freed Presley to choose what he felt was stronger material to record. In short, life was good. This being the world of Elvis Presley, it wasn’t without its complications, however.
Presley’s relentless touring schedule had left him exhausted. He was separated from Priscilla during this time, and his daughter was scheduled to visit him that July. The problem was, RCA decided they needed new material from Presley during that time and he was forced to accommodate him. American Studios, where Presley had so much success with songs such as “Suspicious Minds” just a few years earlier, had closed down, but another hometown label, Stax, was thriving during this period. Presley knew of Stax and its success, and its proximity to Graceland couldn’t be beat, so he scheduled sessions for July and December of that year. A plethora of material was recorded — enough for nearly three complete albums — and RCA, as they were apt to do, spread the material out over multiple releases. Elvis At Stax, a new 3-CD collection of Stax masters and alternate takes, attempts to rectify this, putting all the masters and many notable outtakes in one place and offering a fresh look at these sessions.
The sessions proved fruitful, providing material for three albums: Raised On Rock, Good Times, and Promised Land. While all the songs from the latter two releases are included here, “I Miss You” and “Are You Sincere” are missing from Raised On Rock, as those tracks were not recorded at Stax. Still, the collection presents two complete albums and nearly a third, plus a multitude of outtakes. While many of these outtakes have been previously released on various box sets or the acclaimed FTD series, Elvis At Stax cherry picks many of the best of these tracks and presents them in one place.
Rather than order the original albums as they were released, the songs are instead presented thematically. Disc one contains 17 R&B and country outtakes, while disc two features 10 pop outtakes. The remainder of disc two includes all of the July 1973 masters while disc three is comprised of the December 1973 masters. Ordering the tracks in this fashion allows the material to be viewed in a different light. While the December material is stronger, the July sessions are not without their highlights. “Raised On Rock” is a slice of driving R&B written by Mark James, who previously had contributed “Suspicious Minds” to the Presley oeuvre, while one can hear the pain in Presley’s voice on the touching “For ‘Ol Times Sake.” Presley had a hit on both the country and pop charts with “I’ve Got A Thing About You Baby,” a breezy country tune also included in outtake form on disc one. Completists will love pointing out the subtle differences between the two versions presented here. The December material is the most satisfying, however. From the longing of “It’s Midnight” to the throwback rock of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” to the funk of “If You Talk In Your Sleep” to the gospel-tinged “I Got A Feelin’ In My Body,” Presley reminds the listener just how easily he was able to switch between genres, sometimes combining them into his own, unmistakable sound.
While some of this material may not be as strong overall as earlier triumphs such as From Elvis In Memphis or Elvis Country, listeners who dismiss it outright are missing out on many fine performances. These sessions would prove to be Presley’s only visits to the famous Stax studios and would also be some of his last sessions in an outside recording studio period. Elvis At Stax does a good job of presenting Presley’s Stax sessions in a manner that makes sense — something Presley fans have wished for years — while offering a fresh view of this material.