Elvis at Stax
If you’re the kind of person who used to care about Elvis, if during the nostalgia boom of the ’80s and ’90s you sought out storefront churches and funky Elvis-themed downtown art shows, if you collected vintage “Love Me Tender” shampoo bottles and thrift-store busts with painted sideburns and homemade buttons with faux samples of hair and toenails, and if your trip to Graceland is something you now bond over with long-lost friends on Facebook, there is something you need to hear. It comes midway through “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body (Take 1),” the opening track on Elvis at Stax, a new three-disc collection of recordings made at the famed Memphis studio in 1973. From the moment the tape rolls, the nervous excitement in the room is palpable. Organ keys bobble as the band warms up, chick background singers test gospel harmonies, the bass players drops a chucka-chucka rhythm, a hi-hat shimmers; it’s as if an otherworldly groove is rising from the floorboards. Then, the song begins in earnest, a muscled, sweaty jive number written by Dennis Linde, who’d cooked up Elvis’s hit “Burnin’ Love” in 1972. Elvis’s voice sounds tentative at first: There’s a burr on the high notes, he rushes the beat in the second verse and misses a couple of lines in the bridge. But a keyboard solo revs him up, and by the time he heads into the third chorus, he’s stuttering. “I got a — I got a —” he sings, and then the frenzied mood of the song takes over. “Hot damn,” he spits, as if some devil from the southern soil is reaching up from down below.
Elvis at Stax is the box set for people who thought they didn’t need box sets anymore, a return to the sensibility that music doesn’t just float around the internet any old way it pleases — that there’s inherent value in having it organized and annotated by industry wonks and historians who know their subject inside and out. Leading off with a disc-and-a-half of outtakes then laying out every track from sessions recorded in July and December of ’73, the collection brings together material that was initially spread over multiple releases during Elvis’s lifetime, allowing nerds to newbies alike to ponder the emotional and vocal state of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest singer just four years before his death in 1977.
Not that there isn’t a little Colonel Parker-style hype involved. Those who are hoping for a meeting between Memphis’s original groovy white boy and the studio and label responsible for civil-rights-era hits by Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MG’s and Isaac Hayes should cool their jets; with the exception of a couple of throwaway tracks featuring members of Stax’s house band, Elvis employed his regular musicians and producer. He got so fed up with Stax’s outdated console that he brought in RCA’s mobile recording unit for the December sessions; all he used were the walls. The collection bills itself as Elvis’s last major studio work, but that’s misleading. Though his output was clearly sputtering, he continued to record, albeit in ever-shorter bursts, through 1977. [For a quick guide to the set's highlights, check out this list — Ed.]
Still, Elvis at Stax is wildly special. From the front-loading of souped-up funk tracks on disc one, through the sequestering of outtakes into “R&B and Country Sessions” and “Pop Sessions,” this collection is the opposite of a slapped-together cash-in; it’s thoughtful, provocative and steeped in love and lore, asking listeners to do no less than stitch together the monumental variety of Elvis’s influences, from choir rafter-raisers to good-time road songs to honky-tonk teardrop shedders. By 1973, his drug problem was already out of hand — he was hospitalized for two weeks between the July and December sessions, covered with bruises from shots of Demerol — but the guy still sang with a beauty and devotion that could boggle the coldest skeptic. Besides “I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body,” my favorite moment comes in disc two with “Take Good Care of Her (Takes 1, 2, 3).” The song itself is a middle-of-the-road weeper, with the singer ruefully acknowledging that he blew it with a gal who really mattered. Elvis had finalized his divorce with Priscilla Presley just two months before, and he gets this one by the throat. In this outtake, as the band tinkers around with the beat and a pedal steel guitarist drapes a few notes, Elvis sings the opening lines quietly to himself: “I suppose I ought to say congratulations/ For you’ve won the only girl I ever loved.” For all the grotesquerie of Vegas showmanship that defines his ’70s period, here’s a moment of introspection where the only audience is himself. Regret and transcendence mingle in a masterful, complimentary balance.
Elvis at Stax awakened something in me I hadn’t felt in a long time: a feeling of music as event, as something mind-opening and cherishable. I’ve always been a late-Elvis gal: Back in ’92, when the post office staged a contest over competing stamp designs, youthful rocker versus jumpsuited Las Vegan, I was among the 25 percent minority who voted for the latter. The music here, from the mellow singer-songwriter lament “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” to a vaguely kitschy reboot of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” retains that weirdly overdone gloss of ’70s Elvis; some tracks feature no fewer than 11 backup singers. You can hear him aping something that used to come naturally, practically boxing his own shadow. I’ve always believed these complexities make his late work more mesmerizing than the uncomplicated innovations of the ’50s. Elvis at Stax brings out the superfan in me, pouring over liner notes, gazing at photos, winding and rewinding illuminating moments.
Still, I think the potential audience goes beyond diehards. As an experiment, I tried it out on my 13-year-old, Tumblr-obsessed, Fall Out Boy-adoring daughter and her best friend. I flashed the cover image at them, a sienna-tinted photo of Elvis in 1970, tie loosened, eyes droopy behind aviator shades, mutton chops disappearing into his tall white collar. At first, the two of them squealed in horror.
Then my daughter’s friend quieted down and studied the late King for a few discriminating moments. “That,” she concluded, “is the coolest thing ever.”