Elvis at Stax: The King’s Last Great Crusade

For Elvis Aaron Presley, 1973 was a crossroads. He was in the midst of a career resurgence kick-started by the television special Singer Presents Elvis (aka, the ’68 Comeback Special), fortified by a string of hits recorded at Memphis studio American Sound (“In The Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain”) and kicked into the stratosphere by a return to live performance after a decade mired in formulaic, unsatisfying films.

Indeed, 1973 was the year of Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite, a live concert television special broadcast in over 40 countries which later  became a best-selling double LP. In the show, Elvis offered undeniable proof of his performing prowess, backed by a crack band including Telecaster master James Burton, heavenly vocalists The Sweet Inspirations, and driven by indomitable drummer Ronnie Tutt. He was also basking in the glow of two hit documentaries, Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972), which offered indisputable proof that The King was in command.

However, despite outward appearances, all was not well for Presley in 1973. He was deeply depressed over his divorce to Priscilla Ann Presley, which was in its final stages. Friends and colleagues commented on his weight gain, which would ebb and flow until his death four years later. Also, it was alleged that his prescription drug dependency, which began during his Army tour of duty in Germany, had become increasingly problematic. Finally, he was at odds with his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who seemed to care more about his prodigious gambling debts than he did about developing his client’s career.

Parker, who in reality was an illegal alien born in The Netherlands as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, repeatedly prevented Presley from appearing overseas despite offers of $1,000,000 per show. Presumably, the reason for this blockade was Parker’s lack of a valid passport due to his status and thus, his inability to accompany Presley on foreign tours and keep him under his control. Consequently, Presley was never able to perform for his legions of fans around the globe. Presley mused, “I may fire that S.O.B.,” but he died without carrying out that intention.

The one thing Presley could control, though, was his music. Though American Sound had recently closed, there was another Memphis studio, Stax, which was an R&B hit factory and in July ’73, Elvis began recording at the label’s converted movie theater on McLemore Avenue.

The material he chose mixed older songs with contemporary hits and the recordings were spread over several albums. An audibly revitalized Elvis can be heard tearing into Chuck Berry’s triptik “Promised Land” (Hot 100 #14, country #9), with a fervor reminiscent of his early RCA recordings. On “Loving Arms,” originally a hit for Dobie Gray, Presley plumbs the song’s emotional depths as only a man who has experienced deep emotional turmoil can.

These sessions produced other charting hits, including “Raised on Rock” (Hot 100 #41, country #42), “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” (Hot 100 #39, country #4) and “If You Talk In Your Sleep” (Hot 100 #17, country #6). Beyond the chart positions, it was a last, poignant glimpse of Presley’s immense talent before his death in 1977.

The recently-issued double LP release Elvis At Stax (RCA/Sony Legacy 88883742241) contains the songs mentioned above and more, some in alternate takes. The alternate takes are especially intriguing as they allow a glimpse of how Elvis built the songs in the studio, trying various arrangements and tempos until he was satisfied with the results (and make no mistake, no matter who was producing the session, Elvis was always King in the studio.) The 180-gram pressings are flawless and sound magnificent flowing from the speakers. For even the most casual fan, it is a moving sonic experience.

That’s where the superlatives end for this vinyl edition, however. The two LPs come in a non-gatefold sleeve in which ABSOLUTELY NO LINER NOTES are included! There is NO information on the sessions, NO information on the musicians involved, NO nothin’, save for an ad insert trumpeting Legacy’s DOUBLE CD deluxe Elvis releases, all of which come with copious booklets, by the way.

Wondering if this omission was just a mistake limited to my copy, I contacted Tom Cording, VP of Media Relations for Sony Legacy, and he confirmed that, yes, the LP issue of this release has no liner notes. Per his content people, recreating the CD booklet for LP would have increased the price point considerably. He did add that they are creating a site for LP buyers to be able to access the liner notes in full (the web address was not available at press time.)

I thank Tom for his efforts and candor, and while I don’t want to shoot the messenger, this plan comes too late for the customers who have already purchased the LP. How will they know how to find the site or even that such a site exists? How will any future purchaser know without an insert or cover sticker alerting them to the site?

I can understand how producing a full-length booklet in a 12” x 12” format could be problematic. However, at the very least, could they have not inserted an abbreviated single sheet of notes along with a web link for the full notes? Barring that, couldn’t they have just inserted the info-rich CD booklet? It is hard to conclude that the company truly cares about the LP buyers’ needs when so little thought seems to have gone into its packaging vs. its CD counterpart.

To be fair, this is not the first time I have encountered a dearth of liner notes or session information in new LPs. Even though vinyl sales have steadily increased over the last decade, too often the format is treated as an afterthought, particularly by the major labels. So, to paraphrase NYC’s post-9/11 slogan, when you don’t see something, say something. If enough vinyl purchasers speak up, perhaps the majors will take more care with their vinyl packaging.

Barring that, I would advise you to vote with your dollars and support independent labels like Sundazed, A Light In the Attic, Numero, and Omnivore who take great care in issuing vinyl releases with a wealth of notes and supporting information on their websites.

Let’s work together to make analog a badge of honor and not another scarlet “A.”

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