Monday, May 31, 2010

Elvis at STAX Recording Studio

True story. The year was 1973 and Elvis Presley along with the executive team at RCA Records came up with the innovative idea to produce an album recorded in the epicenter of soul music, STAX Records. Elvis had a deep appreciation for gospel and soul music dating back to his early days as a youth. Plus, his 1969 recordings at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio in Memphis was a huge success while producing several of his biggest chart busting singles. But now, recording still another album under similar circumstances would enable him to further tap into his roots. This presented an added opportunity to record an album at a studio known worldwide for the development of soul music. On paper this looked like an outstanding idea. Yet, as the story proceeds, you be the judge.

Just about everyone who has ever lived in Memphis during that time has their own individual stories of brief glimpses of The King. Either it be a sighting at a Cadillac dealer or Lansky Brothers Clothing store or maybe coming out of the Memphian Theater late at night after one of his private viewing parties. Occasionally he was seen while riding his Harley Davidson on North Parkway Blvd. Yet, while Elvis was considered the prodigal son of Memphis, most of his studio albums were recorded in Nashville. With that being established and make no mistake, getting him to commit to record an album at STAX was a very big deal. As the sessions preceded there were whispers around the studio about his arrival. Reason being, it was known factor that Elvis had the reputation for sometimes not showing up for work. Everyone locally was keeping their fingers crossed for him to keep his commitment. Significantly, STAX president Jim Stewart was gleaming with pride over the forthcoming sessions and helped organize the security clearance for all the people involved. At the time I worked for STAX and coordinated the Pop Music Development at the soul label. With rumors being circulated, I wanted to be engaged in company business and received numerous phone calls inquiring about his arrival. Although I had never been an avid Elvis fan, I had enormous respect for his accomplishments. Needless to say, Elvis brought lots to the table while I was curious as to the outcome. There had been suggestions that Duck Dunn, Al Jackson Jr, Bobby Manuel and the Memphis Horns were invited to participate. But as with many of Elvis' ongoing activities, there was a vow of secrecy around these recordings. Jim Stewart obviously had personal clearance to attend the sessions however he was not the type to interface with all the madness. It was a known among associates that Stewart preferred a controlled atmosphere and shied from activities outside his comfort zone. Barring any last minute changes, Stewart offered his VIP guest badges to his secretary-receptionist while giving his second clearance badge to me.

The recording sessions routinely began in the evenings being The King was a nocturnal creature and only came out after dark. Around 10 PM on a Monday night I arrived at the McLemore Ave studio and discovered the rear parking lot was completely full. With no space available I proceeded down College Street in search of a parking spot. But all the curb sites were also taken and I had to settle on parking on the next street over. This South Memphis neighborhood was known for high crime and definitely not the ideal location to leave your automobile unattended after dark. Plus, several years prior I had encountered a dangerous incident at the rear of the STAX building whereas I had been accosted by the notorious neighborhood thug known as ‘Football.’ This guy was a nuisance and known for jumping out at people and demanding money or their jewelry. Man, I was so scared of the unexpected that I ran down the sidewalk until I reached the gated area of STAX. Whew! Tough neighborhood.

To enter the gates I showed my employee I.D. badge while the STAX security guards allowed me to proceed inside the parking area. But wait a minute. Once inside, I could not believe what I was seeing. The parking lot was completely full of three huge 40 foot trailers parked next to the studio entrance. While stopping in my tracks I noticed that the trailers had RCA logo’s displayed across their rear doors. As I scanned the lot I noticed enormous cables and wires strung from the trailers and running into the rear entrance of the building and down the hall into the recording studio. I thought to myself, “What kind of deal is this?” My curiosity was high so I took a quick look inside the trailer and there sitting at a mixing board was an engineer who was apparently channeling the sound from inside the recording studio and directly back into the mobile recording unit. Okay, so now I get it. It’s was the RCA soundboard on wheels and it appears they’re not even using the STAX sound equipment from within the studio. It made me wonder if the RCA recording crew were even using the STAX studio microphones. In spite of the entire process of coming to Memphis to record an album at STAX, they were only using the ambiance of the studio to produce whatever results accomplished. Dang! How cheesy is that?

Once I'd recovered from that stunning revelation, I entered the building into Jim Stewart’s office located just inside the rear entrance. His secretary arrived several hours prior and had already encountered The King and his entourage. She was giddy from her experience and excited to share a nice little ditty about Elvis. She spoke of Elvis temporarily stopping the recording session earlier because he wanted to watch Monday Night Football on TV. Only problem was there wasn’t a television in the entire building. That's when a member of the road crew was sent out on a mission to purchase a TV large enough for all to view. Stewart’s office was conveniently selected for the football viewing party being there was a wet bar there and utilized for dispensing liquid refreshments. Stewart’s secretary went on to add to her story, “It was a good old boy party.” By the time I had arrived, the game was over but the room was still thick with smoke. Although Elvis was never publicly aligned with being a smoker, somehow there was a steady trail of Tiparillo butts left behind in his wake. So, after several hours delay to view the great American pastime, NFL Football, the recording sessions proceeded.

As the sessions clock ticked-on into the night, Elvis returned to the studio to TCB. As Elvis cleared his throat and approached the vocal mike, he paused for a moment and appeared confused. He looked around while deciding that the mood inside the room just wasn’t right. That’s when he suggested to pause the recording session while complaining of the bright lights overhead. He demanded that someone please remove the bright lights in the ceiling light fixtures. Elvis said the glare was annoying him and they needed to be replaced with colored light bulbs as to reflect a more creative mood. Groovy man. The King has spoken. So, the session was stopped again, this time a union custodian was brought in and consulted with the lighting options. That’s when a decision was reached by the brain trust of engineers, musicians and of course the lighting expert...the custodian. Considering the circumstances, the ceiling of the STAX Recording Studio was at least 25 + feet high as the building originally housed an old movie theatre. To remedy the situation, a long extension ladder was required to reach the ceiling and replace the bulbs, which, by the way, had to be sought out and purchased in the middle of the night. Not the easiest of task. Ever tried searching for 25 colored light bulbs in South Memphis under those circumstances?

It gets worse. After a long delay just to create an artistic vibe within the studio, the session resumed. Now inside the recording studio there were cool blue lights draping down the walls. The atmosphere was like being on stage at The Metropolitan Opera during a dramatic love scene. But wait, something was still wrong. As the musicians plugged-in their instruments and the back-up singers approached their microphones, suddenly there was a silence about the room. That’s when Elvis walked in the vocal booth and noticed the very same thing. It appeared the entire studio had become so dimly lit that no one could read the sheet music or printed lyrics. Heavens forbid. What now?

The session stopped once again while the custodian was called back and instructed to change the lights back to the original bulbs.

Imagine the site of dozens of musicians impatiently sitting around in their chairs while occasionally glancing at the watches. All while losing a good buzz.

Meanwhile, back in Jim Stewart’s office, I had become bored and very comfy while lying on the couch. I began to yawn and nod when all of a sudden...Elvis appeared in the doorway. I immediately leaped from the couch and startled him. Suddenly The King froze in his tracks as apparently not recognizing a familiar face within in the confines of his personal football lounge. That's when Elvis whisked his long black cape across his body and walked out the doorway. About that time, the sound of an army of footsteps came marching down the hallway as The King and his cronies were departing the building after deciding to call it a night.

EPILOGUE: As mentioned earlier, somehow everyone from Memphis seems to have their very own Elvis story. And now I have mine. My story might not be the most flattering of stories but as some would say...at least I have a story. Not much was said about those recordings after Elvis departed. I returned to Jim Stewart's studio office numerous times after that occasion. Believe it or not, the TV purchased for that single viewing event remained sitting there in his office for several years. No one ever came back and claimed the darn thing. After that recording, only once would Elvis venture back inside a recording studio to record an album. His final studio work was at Quadraphonic Sound Studio in Nashville in April of 1975. Oh yes, about the status of the STAX sessions, an album did come out years later but in the raw form and titled "Follow That Dream" and widely considered as an inferior recording. I often hear music fans complaining about records companies not releasing the material of an artist despite what an exuberant fan might view as a potential goldmine. To them I say, there is enormous volatility in the music business and sentimentality does not sell records. These STAX sessions are a perfect example of why record companies and recording artists are opposed to releasing "can" material that has been scrapped.


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McLemore-College street photo; (c) Scott Stegenga

Dinosaur image; (c) Gary Larson