Elvis's Bassist Recalls Stax Sessions, One Song The King Couldn't Finish
Elvis in 1972: Just before the Stax sessions and things started to go downhill
Courtesy Steve Barile for RCA/Legacy
The year 1973 was a pivotal one for the King. Elvis Presley was at a definite crossroads, both personally and professionally.
On one hand, he had returned to consistent live shows in 1969 after a lot of years making mostly insipid movies in Hollywood, to rapturous audiences. And the live record from his then-groundbreaking television event, Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, was selling well.
On the other hand, he was in the throes of marital separation and divorce from wife Priscilla, heartbroken over time he'd lose with daughter Lisa Marie, and starting to pack on weight. And what was with all those little brown bottles?
Partly to fulfill a contract obligation to RCA, and partly because the studio was just a ten minute drive from Graceland, Elvis chose Stax Studios - where Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and a galaxy of soul stars laid down their biggest tracks - to record some new material.
In two separate week-long sessions in July and December, Elvis, producer Felton Jarvis, and a crack band finished 28 master recordings. They came out over several records, but did not meet with the commercial success Elvis or manager Colonel Tom Parker was hoping for.
Now, all of those masters, along with a treasure trove of outtakes and alternate versions, come together on the 3-CD compilation Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition (RCA/Legacy).
Muscle Shoals-born Norbert Putnam was the bassist for the December sessions, and spoke with Rocks Off about both the performer and private man.
"Fans really want to hear everything that was recorded -- and I mean everything from Elvis, even if it was just him joking with the band," Putnam recalls. "But he had a great sense of humor. He would entertain us for hours with stories and the karate demonstrations. It was like the last thing he wanted to do was make a record! And even when he was chastising you, there was a smile on his face. He never thought he was superior."
Among the tracks on the CD which Putnam counts as his favorites are the hard-chugging Chuck Berry cover "Promised Land," a perfectly weary take on "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," and the sentimental "My Boy."
The last song -- about a father's fear for what marital separation would do to his child -- obviously hit home for Elvis. But Putnam says they tried another, even more painful number, that they never finished.
It was a song called "We Had it All" that Dobie Gray had previously done, about a chance, sad meeting between a divorced husband and wife, or at least ex-lovers. Presley decided on the spot he wanted to do it.
"Now Elvis was a very quick study, he could hear vocals and arrangements once or twice, grab the lyric sheet, and just kill it," Putnam says. "But on this particular night, we four, five six takes, and he wasn't getting it. I'd never seen him have problems like that before."
He says they ended up with two or three incomplete takes before a frustrated Elvis just threw the microphone on the ground and loudly proclaimed the stunned assembled "You can put that one out after I've been dead 20 years!"
"We thought at first it was a joke," affirms Putnam. "Then Jarvis said he just couldn't get through the words because he was thinking about himself."
Another futile stab at the song the next day yielded nothing usable.
It wasn't all doom and gloom, of course, as the finished tracks show. Wildly varying in genre, the songs recorded at Stax ran the gamut from rock, pop and country to ballads, gospel, R&B, and even Spanish-influenced numbers.
And Elvis performed them with a flair and passion usually missing from the movie soundtrack recordings. The new compilation will, if anything, renew appreciation for the material original record buyers may have missed nearly four decades ago.
Still, Putnam couldn't help but see a "troubled man" in front of the mike, on a variety of levels. That trouble would, unfortunately, not get better in the coming years.
Coming up tomorrow: Norbert Putnam and what might have saved Elvis and who he holds accountable, more from the Stax sessions, how he fell into record producing by accident, and which song he's been involved with that is heads-and-parrot-supporting shoulders above all others in terms of influence and affluence.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.