Bill Porter, Elvis' sound engineer died

July 9, 2010

Bill Porter, sound engineer on many Elvis Presley recordings died on July 7, 2010. He was 79. Bill Porter recorded nearly all of Elvis' number one hits upon his return from Army duty in 1960 and mixed the sound for Elvis' concerts from 1970 until 1977. Porter recorded nearly all of Elvis' number one hits upon his return from Army duty in 1960. Instead of the usual microphones used by RCA, Porter chose to use a Telefunken U-47 on Elvis' voice, recording several songs through the night of March 20 - 21, 1960, including 'Stuck On You' which was released three days later and immediately returned Presley to the number one chart position. Porter engineered 'Are You Lonesome Tonight', 'It's Now or Never', and other early 1960s Elvis hits.

March 20, 1960 - At noon Elvis, his entourage, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana (But not Bill Black, who never plays with Elvis again) take a charted bus to Nashville for a session at RCA's Studio B, whose recoding facilities have been upgraded with a three track machine. The are joined by all the musicians from the June 1958 session, the Jordanaires, Colonel Parker and RCA's new chief studio engineer, Bill Porter.

In October 1966, Porter moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, to manage United Recording of Nevada for Bill Putnam of United Western Recorders in Los Angeles. Elvis was one of his recording clients, working on 'Suspicious Minds' in August 1969. Presley's producer Felton Jarvis brought the master tape into United Recording so that Porter could help him with the song's unusual fade out and back in three-quarters of the way through. Also in 1969, Porter founded Porter Industries, as a basis for his freelance engineering assignments.

In January 1970, Elvis was performing in Las Vegas, and his live sound engineer was unable to appear at one of his shows. Jarvis called Porter as a replacement, and the resulting show was better than usual - the mix sounded 'just like the album'. Porter ended up mixing Presley's live concerts from then on, leaving United Recording in 1972. Presley paid Porter well for a touring sound engineer; a 1974 contract for nearly two weeks of touring netted Porter $2,600. Porter recorded several of these shows in the mid-1970s, released as albums.

In August 1977, Porter was changing planes in Boston to fly to Portland, Maine to mix a Presley concert when he heard that the singer had died. He attended Elvis' heavily guarded funeral ceremony at Graceland.

Between Presley appearances, Porter had also been handling sound duties for Ann-Margret in Las Vegas and on the road. He consulted on television specials for Ann-Margret and for Bob Hope in 1972-1973. Bill Porter was born Billy Rhodes Porter in St. Louis, Missouri on June 15, 1931.

Bill Porter was a perfectionist who shared his wisdom and talent with new generations of audio production students', said Debra Carpenter, dean, Webster University School of Communications. 'He was a true Southern gentleman and my friend.  His passing is a great loss to those of us who knew and loved him'.

Bill Porter is widely regarded as the creator of the 'Nashville Sound', was sound engineer on 15 of Billboard's Top 100 Songs of All Time and was the first recording engineer inducted into the Audio Hall of Fame. During his time at RCA Studios, Porter recorded most of Elvis' No. 1 hits in Studio B in Nashville, and, in the 70s recorded several of Elvis' concerts.

Although Porter himself never graduated from college, he created and co-authored the first college level curriculum in audio engineering. Many of his methodology and curriculum are still being taught today.

'Recording Elvis' by Bill Porter

To Mr. Steve Hoffman DCC Compact Classics 9301 Jordan Avenue, Suite 105 Chatsworth, CA 91311 [This is a letter from Bill Porter to Steve Hoffman.]

Dear Steve:

Thanks for your call requesting my input on the recording sessions I did with Elvis. It brought back many memories! Following is some information on these sessions, to the best of my recollection.

In March of 1960, Chet Atkins mentioned an upcoming evening session booked on a Sunday at 7 pm, and stressed that I not mention it to anyone because the client was Elvis Presley. Since Elvis was only recently discharged from the Army, it had been more than two years since he'd recorded anything. Colonel Parker, Steve Sholes and the other RCA brass wanted 'everything going for him', so they were bringing him to the Nashville studio for me to do the engineering. I later learned from the Presley bodyguards that it was because of the sixteen 'chart' records I'd engineered during my first year with RCA, with three of them in the Top 5, one hitting No. 1, and one over a million copies, that I'd been chosen.

Since the session was booked for 7 pm, I arrived about 5 pm to check out the equipment, set up the microphones, and correct any last-minute problems. The musicians began arriving by 6:30, and Elvis came in about 8:40 surrounded by bodyguard, Army buddies and old pals. Anyone watching them clown around, practicing karate moves and talking about mock tank battles, would have found it hard to believe that there was the slightest pressure surrounding the session.

About 9:30, we got down to the business of recording. Everything started smoothly enough, but as I was getting the balance on the first song, I became aware of an air of anticipation behind me. Turning around, I saw that executives had sprung up in that control booth faster than mushrooms in a cellar. No one said a word, but what they didn't say spoke volumes. Everyone knew how much was on the line, and they were holding their collective breath to see if Elvis still had the magic after that two-year hiatus. The first 45 RPM release, 'Stuck On You'/bw 'Fame and Fortune' wasn't the first pair recorded at this session. They were actually song Nos. 3 and 4. Song No. 1 was 'Make Me Know It'. Song No. 2 was 'Soldier Boy'. This session ran all night long, and wrapped up about 7 am on March 21, 1960. These songs appeared on the 'Elvis Is Back!' LP.

I recorded Elvis' 'It's Now Or Never' and 'Are You Lonesome Tonight' on April 3 and 4, 1960.

In those two days, we recorded twelve songs, two of which went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. On the 'It's Now Or Never' recording, Elvis was having some trouble singing the ending notes, because he basically sang his songs in the baritone range, and the ending note on this song was in the tenor range. We recorded this song for at least seven or eight takes, and Elvis just couldn't get the ending note correct! At one point, I finally pushed the talkback microphone button and said, 'EP, we can ~ just do the ending.

I can splice it on without doing the song all the way through again'.

He answered me with, 'Bill, I'm gonna do it all the way through, or I'm not gonna do it at all!' So, we did it again; and, of course, he got it the way he wanted it. Floyd Cramer played the castanets on this song, and if you'll listen closely, you'll notice there's a little more up-front sound there than on other parts of the song. I did this overdub (second-generation master) by taking the tape off, putting it on another machine, and running it back through the console. Once I got a level on Cramer's castanets with the microphone, we did it in about fifteen minutes. I used the 2-track master tape, not the 3-track tape, as the source.

'Are You Lonesome Tonight' was recorded in only one take ... and, with all the lights off in the studio. When I was told to 'roll the tape' on this song, I hadn't heard the rehearsal and was totally unaware of what instruments would be played or how the song was structured. We'd just finished recording the up-tempo 'Such A Night', and I had a lot of echo set up on the console. Afer a few bars, I realized we didn't have a lot of people playing. There was no piano or electric guitar ... just an acoustic guitar, bass and the Jordanaires. I started turning a few mikes off to isolate things as much as possible, and all of a sudden Elvis started talking. I thought to myself, 'Uh-oh, all this echo ... he sounds as though he's in the back of a cavern somewhere. 'l knew, though, that I'd remember where the talking came in, and could turn down the echo on the next take. There was no 'next' take. We did the take all the way though, and the Jordanaires made an error on the ending of Take 1. I started the second take, and was perhaps one or two lines into it, when Elvis said 'Hold it! Stop the tape.'Of course, everyone stopped playing. Elvis said to the producer, 'Mr. Sholes, I can't do this song justice. Throw it out'. Steve looked over at me and said, 'Bill, don't you dare. That's a hit and I know it'. He reached over, pushed the talkback button and said, 'EP, I'd like to get one good cut all the way through if you don't mind, so we'll have it. Let's do just the ending, 'cause the Jordanaires made a mistake'. Elvis agreed, so they did just the ending, a couple of chords back. Steve leaned over to me and said, 'Now, Bill, you splice that after I'm gone and send it to me tomorrow. I want you to use the original as far as you possibly can, and just put the ending on it'. Well, I ran it right to that last chord, and that's where I spliced it. And, listen to the recording on a high-quality playback system, and you'll hear Elvis bumping into a microphone stand, because he couldn't see where he was going in the dark! Since 'It's Now or Never' had turned out to be Elvis' biggest-selling single, it was decided that Elvis should try to repeat the success with another beginning-of-thecentury Italian song.

Consequently, 'Surrender' was the only secular song recorded during the sessions for the gospel album, 'His Hand In Mine' (October 30-31, 1960). The rest of those two days were spent cutting the thirteen gospel songs on the album. This is a session that's particularly vivid in my memory, as I was sick with food poisoning that night. There was nobody to take my place at the console, though, so I thought, 'Well, I can get through this okay ... I have to start feeling better soon'. Wrong! We'd manage to get 15-20 minutes on tape, and my stomach would start playing drums. About 2 am, I told Steve (Sholes), 'Man, I gotta go home. I'm about to die!' And, as usual, he'd say, 'Just one more song, Bill. Only one more song'. With one ear I'd hear Steve saying, 'One more song, Bill', and with the other I'd hear Elvis saying, 'Is he gone again?'

'Crying in the Chapel' was recorded during the gospel sessions of October 30-31, 1960, and was the next-to-the-last song, done about 5:00 am. It was held back until 1965, when it was released as a single, went to No. 3, and was the first Top 5 chart for Elvis in two years! 'Little Sister' was recorded during the June 25-26, 1961 sessions. Hank Garland, an incredibly diverse and talented musician, was the lead guitar player on this song using his new Fender Jazzmaster. Hank's career was derailed a few months later, though, when he sustained serious injuries in a car accident, and was no longer able to play on sessions. Such a loss.

In August of 1963, I left RCA and began doing sessions at Columbia Studios, before signing on to manage the Monument Studio, where I continued to do sessions. I left Nashville in 1966, and purchased United Recording Studio in Las Vegas. In August, 1969 Elvis came to Las Vegas, where he was to appear at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton). Elvis' producer, Felton Jarvis, booked time at my studio on August 7, 1969, and brought in an 8-track tape (all 8 tracks full) and asked me to overdub the horns, after which he would take the 'new tape' to another studio in Nashville or Memphis, and do the finished mix. I convinced Felton to let me mix the 8-track tape and overdub the horns at the same time for a finished master. This isn't a normal process, since the producers want to experiment with different mixes, and the overdub/mix I created would not allow this flexibility. I did two overdubs: one for the stereo master and one for the monaural master. The horns played their parts twice: once for the stereo version, and once for the monaural version. 'Suspicious Minds' was the last No. 1 record I recorded for Elvis, and the first I'd done for him since recording 'Good Luck Charm'.

As a result of my Las Vegas involvement with Elvis, and his request for me to redesign the sound system at the International Hotel, l became Elvis' Sound Engineer on his live performances from the beginning of 1970 until his death in 1977. The last 'performance' l recorded for Elvis was his funeral service in Memphis in 1977.

All of my Elvis RCA-Victor Nashville studio recordings were original 2-track stereo mixes, which I did 'live' to '/~' tape, 15 IP's masters. In the mastering process, the 2track stereo recordings were electronically 'combined' for the mono releases; nothing was remixed. The 3-track tapes were never used, but were stored as safety backups. These sessions were performed with everyone present in the studio at the same time, without headphones and monitor speakers. I did have trouble with the double drums of D.J. Fontana and Buddy Harman, because the console had a very limited number of microphone inputs. l was only able to use a total of nine microphones on the band and background vocalists. I used two microphones on Buddy, and one on D. J., who was the drummer on the right side in the stereo mix. The console had 12 inputs and 3 outputs. Three microphone inputs were hard-wired directly into buss 1, and three microphone inputs were hard-wired directly into buss 3; three microphone inputs were switchable to buss 1 or 2 (all 3 inputs must be switched as a group these are not able to be switched individually); three microphone inputs were switchable to buss 1,2, 3 or split between buss 1 and 3 - these must also be switched as a group. These last switchable microphone inputs allowed me to create the stereo image of the rhythm section on the '/~' 2track stereo master tape. There was no such thing as a pan-pot. There was some EQ on this console; the high frequency was 12 kHz, with 8 dB of boost and cut, while the low frequency was 50 Hz, with 8 dB of boost and cut (each was shelving only).

Three echo units were used on these sessions: 2 EMT's and 1 'live' room chamber. The EMT (German echo unit) consisted of a box about 5' x 6' with two plates, one with an electric pickup. One plate vibrated, while the other picked up the sound. The EMT was spring-mounted. A plate had spring contacts all over it, and you could enhance the overall sound by adjusting the springs to make the plate tight. The real secret to this is in chilling the plate. And, of course, the tighter the plate, the brighter the sound. Elvis and the Jordanaires were on the EMT's and the live room was mostly guitars and piano. The limiters we used were RCA singleended output stage types with one 6V6 tube set at a simple 2:1 ratio. The studio monitors were made by Altec. The tape machines were all Ampex. The 2-tracks were Model 350-2 and 351-2, and the 3track was Model 300-3. The 3-track machine had a choice of equalization curves, either NAB or the Ampex curve, AME. The AME equalization was designed to boost a major portion of the frequency spectrum to reduce tape hiss: similar to dbx noise reduction. The recording processes at that time didn't have the ability to record higher levels on the tape, as can be done today. l never used the AME equalization curve, because it would 'overload' quite easily.

Arrangers were never used on any of the Elvis sessions I recorded. Instead, the musicians would create the arrangements after listening to demo recordings of the songs. For many, Elvis' songs were a celebration of the music. They were the epitome of rock 'n' roll ... when there was a vibrancy and vitality to the music that made even the bad times seem good, the days worth living, and the memories worth keeping.


Bill R. Porter

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