CD Reissue Review: Elvis Presley – At Stax (RCA/Legacy, 2013)
Starting with his ’68 Comeback Special, a reawakened Elvis conjured a remarkable late-career hot-streak that included 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis, the revitalized Vegas stage shows documented on That’s the Way It Is and On Stage, and a return to his country, blues, gospel and rockabilly roots on 1971’s Elvis Country. In January of 1973, Elvis stormed the airwaves with Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, and soon after signed a new seven-year contract with RCA. In July and December of that year he booked himself into the legendary Stax studio on McLemore Avenue, adding to a string of Memphis studios that had been good luck charms: Elvis had launched his career at Sun, and revived his sense of self at Chip Moman’s American Sound in 1969.
The July sessions produced ten masters, eight of which were released on 1973’s Raised on Rock, and two held back for 1974’s Good Times. Four were also issued as singles, with “Raised on Rock” climbing to #41 on the Hot 100, Tony Joe White’s “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” peaking at #4 country, and “Take Good Care of Her” making the Top 40 AC. All ten of the masters were solid, though by no means extraordinary. Elvis was in good voice, but neither the material nor the band assembled from road regulars and Memphis guests sparked anything really deep. Elvis connected well with bluesier material like “Just a Little Bit” and Leiber & Stoller’s “If You Don’t Come Back,” and gospel-tinged backing vocals add weight to a few ballads, but the sessions never lift off in the way of his earlier work at American Sound. Two tracks – “Girl of Mine” and “Sweet Angeline” – swapped in players from the Stax house band, including the MG’s rhythm section of Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, but you’d barely know it from the final outcome.
The December sessions were a great deal more productive, both in final output – 18 finished masters – and in musical vitality. The results were split across 1974’s Good Times and 1975’s Promised Land, further dissipating the sessions’ unity and squandering the marketing value of “Elvis at Stax.” But even with the inept marketing, the sessions turned out three Top 20 hits on each of the pop and country charts, and a country chart topping album in Promised Land. Elvis sounds much more deeply engaged than he had in July, and the material and arrangements are a great deal stronger. Highlights include a fiery take on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” the strings, horns and deep bass of “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” the gospel-funk “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body,” Jerry Reed’s revival-charged “Talk About the Good Times,” and feeling covers of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” and “You Asked Me To.” Two ballads, “It’s Midnight” and “Loving Arms,” feature deeply touching, standout vocal performances.
Beyond the twenty eight masters, this 3-CD set includes a generous helping of alternate takes and one unfinished track. All of this material has been released before, but scattered across a number of posthumous collections and expanded reissues. Augmented with bits of studio chatter, the outtakes give a more organic view of Elvis’ presence at Stax than did the dispersed master takes. What you’ll hear is an artist who’s really committed to most of the material, and though the master takes were chosen for their commercial viability, the alternates are filled with vitality. Unlike the many soundtrack sessions through which Elvis often sleepwalked, and despite the Stax sessions being the product of a contractual obligation, Elvis was ready to make great music of his own volition. Freed from the confines of Hill & Range’s catalog, Elvis drew from both longtime suppliers and contemporary songwriters, recording songs with which he felt a personal resonance.
That personal resonance also applied to the assembled players, who were drawn from Elvis’ road band and key Memphis and Muscle Shoals players such as guitarist Reggie Young and bassist Norman Putnam. But the results weren’t as deeply impacted by Southern soul as were the earlier sessions at American Sound; Stax, it turned out, was more of a conveniently located venue than a sound with which Elvis wanted to engage. The label’s legendary musicians were barely involved in the July sessions, and not at all in December. By the time the later dates came around, even the Stax recording equipment had been swapped out in favor of RCA’s mobile unit, leaving the converted movie theater studio as Stax’s only real participation. Still, Elvis was home in Memphis, riding the crest of a remarkable career resurgence, and mostly (modulo the Colonel’s lingering machinations) in control.
The 3-CD set is delivered in an 8×8 box that includes a deluxe 42-page booklet stuffed with photos, ephemera and notes by Roger Semon and Robert Gordon. The discs are screened with images of tape reels, and slid into the pockets of a tri-fold cardboard insert, from which fans will likely want to relocate them to jewel cases or other appropriate storage. Collectors who already own Rhythm and Country and the FTD reissue of Raised on Rock, Good Times and Promised Land will have most of the tracks in this set, though having them all together in one (affordable!) place produces a uniquely coherent view of the sessions. One thing that becomes clear is that Elvis had a great album in him, but a contract that demanded two albums and multiple singles per year dug deeper than the sessions could support. What’s great here is really great, and what’s good is still passable. Though he’d record more in 1975-76, these Stax sessions are the last major sessions in his remarkable comeback.