Norbert Putnam remembers recording with Elvis at Stax

By: Elvis Australia
August 1, 2013

Elvis Presley & Norbert Putnam.
Elvis Presley & Norbert Putnam.
Norbert Putnam, a studio session [bass] player for Elvis on 122 songs, talks about the Elvis sessions at Stax, 40 years ago this year : '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 Felton 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. [No known tape exists.]

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.

Elvis chose Stax Studios, just a ten minute drive from Graceland, 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). The new compilation will, if anything, renew appreciation for the material original record buyers may have missed nearly four decades ago.

Elvis At Stax 3 CD Deluxe Edition

The last major studio sessions in the career of Elvis Presley have finally been gathered together for the first time in one comprehensive package as 'Elvis At Stax: Deluxe Edition'. The deluxe 3-CD box set, a 40th anniversary chronicle of a dozen nights that Presley spent at Stax Recording Studios in his hometown of Memphis in July and December 1973, will be available August 6, 2013 through RCA/Legacy, a division of 'Sony Music Entertainment'. Released simultaneously will be a single CD of highlights from the box set simply titled ELVIS AT STAX, and a 180-gram, double-vinyl LP.

'Elvis At Stax: Deluxe Edition' bristles with energy and dynamism. The proof is in the six consecutive singles that the Stax sessions produced, all of which skirted the Top 40 from 1973 to 1975. In effect, they rivaled some of the hottest streaks that Presley had charted a decade earlier.

Buy Elvis At Stax: Deluxe Edition 3-CD box
Buy Elvis At Stax Single CD
Buy Elvis At Stax 180-gram, double-vinyl LP

The Stax singles still resonate today:

  • 'Raised On Rock' b/w 'For Ol' Time Sake' (Hot 100 #41, country #42)
  • 'I've Got A Thing About You Baby' b/w 'Take Good Care Of Her' (Hot 100 #39, country #4)
  • 'Promised Land' b/w 'It's Midnight' (Hot 100 #14, country #9)
  • 'If You Talk In Your Sleep' b/w 'Help Me' (Hot 100 #17, country #6)
  • 'My Boy' b/w 'Thinking About You' (Hot 100 #20, country #14)
  • 'Mr. Songman' (B-side of 'T-R-O-U-B-L-E,' Hot 100 #35, country #11)
  • 'I Got A Feelin' In My Body' (recorded at Stax, catalog RCA PB-11679), was reissued as a posthumous single by RCA Records in 1979.

Elvis At Stax : Deluxe Edition 3-CD box set.

The historical significance of Presley's work at Stax is appreciated by such music scholars as Peter Guralnick, the award-winning author of Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999); and producer Ernst Mikael Jorgensen, respected director of RCA's Presley catalog for over two decades, and author of the critical research guide, Elvis Presley: A Life In Music.

Ernst Jorgensen has long been concerned with doing justice to the Stax sessions, which were never acknowledged by the artist's record label RCA as a unified whole. Instead, as with most of Presley's studio work in his second decade as a recording artist, the tracks were scattered onto LPs and intermingled with material recorded in Nashville and Hollywood. The bulk of the Stax cuts showed up on Raised On Rock/For Ol' Times Sake (1973), Good Times (1974), and Promised Land (1975). For ELVIS AT STAX, many of the outtakes originated on the CD-era reissues of those three albums on Jorgensen's and co-director Roger Semon's own label, Follow That Dream (FTD) Records. ELVIS AT STAX was produced by Jorgensen, Semon, and Rob Santos.

Taking up the cause for ELVIS AT STAX is another scholar and aficionado of the artist, award-winning resident Memphis journalist Robert Gordon, who has written an in-depth, day-by-day (i.e. night-by-night) liner notes essay for the box set. Previously, Gordon and his wife Tara McAdams (author of The Elvis Handbook, 2004) co-wrote the liner notes essay for RCA/Legacy's 'From Elvis In Memphis' : Legacy Edition (2009). In addition to major biographies of Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee Lewis, Gordon is the author of two important Elvis Presley studies, 'The King on the Road: Elvis Live on Tour 1954 to 1977' (St. Martin's, 1996) and 'The Elvis Treasures' (Random House, 2002). Gordon has also written two books on the Memphis music scene, the acclaimed It Came from Memphis (Faber & Faber, 1995, foreword penned by Peter Guralnick) and the upcoming Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (Bloomsbury USA, set for publication in November 2013).

Etched in music history, 1973 was a crucial watershed year for Presley, in the wake of his return to extended concert touring in 1972, after 12 years away from the stage and 31 movies in Hollywood. His New York City concert debut was emblematic of an exciting new chapter in his career. It was chronicled last year on the RCA/Legacy deluxe 2-CD+DVD box set, Prince From Another Planet: Elvis As Recorded Live At Madison Square Garden / 40th Anniversary Edition, which captured an afternoon and an evening concert staged on June 10, 1972. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, sought a world-class mega-event to underscore the touring, which led to the one-hour global satellite broadcast from the Honolulu International Center Arena on January 14, 1973, viewed by over one billion people around the world. That, too, was recently chronicled on the RCA/Legacy double-disc set issued this past March, Aloha From Hawaii : Legacy Edition.

The highs of 1972-'73 led Presley and Colonel Parker to accept RCA's $5.4 million offer for an outright transfer of Presley's complete back catalog. He wanted a new start, new control, and a new publishing company. But the RCA deal also called for his return to the studio and a promise for him to deliver 24 new masters, i.e. two new singles (four songs), a new pop LP (ten songs), and a new gospel LP (ten songs).

Four years earlier, in 1969, Presley had made his Memphis recording return (after a 13-year absence) at Chips Moman's American Studios. These triumphantly successful sessions had yielded a year-long string of ‘comeback' hit singles: 'In the Ghetto' (#3), 'Suspicious Minds' (#1), 'Don't Cry Daddy' (#6), and 'Kentucky Rain' (#16), the last such string of major consecutive hits in his life. But by 1973, American had closed up shop, and most of its musicians had relocated to Nashville. However, Stax Studios, the launching pad of such greats as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and The MGs, and Isaac Hayes was still thriving at its original 926 E. McLemore Avenue space. In fact, Isaac Hayes relinquished his studio time to accommodate Presley. Ironically, less than two years later in 1975, the Stax offices would also be closed.

Presley spent 12 days at Stax in 1973 (July 21-25 and December 10-16), and the roller coaster ride of those sessions is meticulously detailed in Gordon's liner notes. ELVIS AT STAX neatly compartmentalizes the results:

  • Disc 1: The R&B and Country Sessions : The Outtakes: 17 tracks
  • Disc 2: Part 1 : The Pop Sessions : The Outtakes: 10 tracks
  • Disc 2: Part 2 : The July 1973 Masters: four single sides and six album tracks, and
  • Disc 3: The December 1973 Masters: seven single sides and 11 album tracks.

Elvis At Stax: Deluxe Edition

(RCA/Legacy 88883 72418 2)

Disc 1: The R&B and Country Sessions : The Outtakes: Selections : 1. I Got A Feelin' In My Body - take 1 (I) • 2. Find Out What's Happening - takes 8-7 (B) • 3. Promised Land - take 4 (I) • 4. For Ol' Times Sake - take 4 (I) • 5. I've Got A Thing About You, Babe - take 14 (I) • 6. It's Midnight - take 7 (F) • 7. If You Talk In Your Sleep - take 5 (J) • 8. Loving Arms - take 2 (I) • 9. You Asked Me To - take 3A (F) • 10. Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues - take 8 (I) • 11. Talk About The Good Times - take 3 (I) • 12. There's A Honky Tonk Angel - take 1 (I) • 13. She Wears My Ring - take 8 (I) • 14. Three Corn Patches - take 14 (I) • 15. I Got A Feelin' In My Body - take 4 (J) • 16. If You Don't Come Back - take 3 (I) • 17. Promised Land - take 5 (H).

Disc 2: Part 1 : The Pop Sessions : The Outtakes: Selections : 1. Mr. Songman - take 2 (F) • 2. Your Love's Been A Long time Coming - take 4 (I) • 3. Spanish Eyes - take 2 (I) • 4. Take Good Care Of Her - takes 1,2,3 (D) • 5. It's Diff'rent Now (unfinished recording) (G) • 6. Thinking About You - take 4 (I) • 7. My Boy - take 1 (D) • 8. Girl Of Mine - take 9 (I) • 9. Love Song Of The Year - take 1 (F) • 10. If That Isn't Love - take 1 (I) • Part 2 : The July 1973 Masters: • 11. Raised On Rock (Hot 100 #41, country #42) (A) • 12. For Ol' Time Sake (charts same as track 11) (A) • 13. I've Got A Thing About You Baby (Hot 100 #39, country #4) (C) • 14. Take Good Care Of Her (charts same as track 13) (C) • 15. If You Don't Come Back (A) • 16. Three Corn Patches (A) • 17. Girl Of Mine (A) • 18. Just A Little Bit (A) • 19. Find Out What's Happening (A) • 20. Sweet Angeline (A) .

Disc 3: The December 1973 Masters: Selections : 1. Promised Land (Hot 100 #14, country #9) (E) • 2. It's Midnight (charts same as track 1) (E) • 3. If You Talk In Your Sleep (Hot 100 #17, country #6) (E) • 4. Help Me (charts same as track 3) (E) • 5. My Boy (Hot 100 #20, country #14) (C) • 6. Thinking About You (charts same as track 5) (E) • 7. Mr. Songman (Hot 100 #35, country #11) (E) • 8. I Got A Feelin' In My Body (C) • 9. Loving Arms (C) • 10. Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues (C) • 11. You Asked Me To (E) • 12. There's A Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me Back In) (E) • 13. Talk About The Good Times (C) • 14. She Wears My Ring (C) • 15. Your Love's Been A Long Time Coming (E) • 16. Love Song Of The Year (E) • 17. Spanish Eyes (C) • 18. If That Isn't Love (C).

Album source index:

A : from Raised On Rock/For Ol' Times Sake LP (RCA APL1-0388, released October 1973)
B : from Raised on Rock CD (FTD 86971 28432, released July 2007)
C : from Good Times LP (RCA CPL1-0475, released March 1974)
D : from Good Times CD (FTD 50602 09750 0 3, released December 2012)
E : from Promised Land LP (RCA APL1-0873, released January 1975)
F : from Promised Land CD (FTD 50602 09750 1 9, released December 2011)
G : from Walk a Mile in My Shoes : The Essential '70s Masters 5-CD box set (RCA 7863-66670-2, released October 1995)
H : from Platinum : A Life In Music 4-CD box set (RCA 67469, released July 1997)
I : from Rhythm and Country CD (RCA 07863-67672-2, released August 1998)
J : from Today, Tomorrow and Forever 4-CD box set (RCA 07863-65115-2, released June 2002)

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