We need a red light or something, you know, so these guys'll think they're in a whorehouse and play better', Elvis Presley jokes before a stunning take of 'It's Easy For You' on the new release Way Down in the Jungle Room, released on Friday. He needn't have worried.
Long considered a fallow period in Elvis' career, the 1976 sessions on 'Way Down in the Jungle Room' - recorded when Elvis was overweight, out of shape, and overmedicated - are stunning. Cut after cut shows Elvis in powerful voice, with his peerless gift for interpreting a song undiminished.
'It was a great atmosphere', James Burton, whose legendary guitar licks can be heard on many of Elvis' seminal latter day tracks including 'Suspicious Minds' and 'Burning Love' (and to whom you can hear Elvis call out, 'Play it James!' on live recordings from the period) told me in a 2013 interview. 'There was no pressure, everybody was feeling good and nothing was tense'.
The camaraderie that the band had built up with Elvis, who died 39 years ago this month, since he tapped them for his live comeback shows and recording sessions in 1969, is evident. But it was still a case of Elvis recording on his own terms.
'The only way to get Elvis back into the studio, it seemed, was to bring the studio to him', Jerry Scheff, along with Burton a member of Elvis Presley's TCB band, writes in his book 'Way Down: Playing Bass with Elvis, Dylan, the Doors and More'.
The Jungle Room + She Thinks I Still Care' (Take 2)
With unlimited resources at his disposal, and long before it was commonplace, Elvis installed a state-of-the-art recording studio in the den of his infamous Memphis home, Graceland. Decorated with animal prints and with a waterfall at one end, it was dubbed 'the Jungle Room' and afforded Elvis the luxury of recording whenever the mood struck him.
'Those sessions were great, really loose', Burton recalls. 'Elvis was a night owl. When he was ready to work, he wanted everybody else ready to work. So we were always on call. Sometimes Elvis wouldn't come down till midnight or whatever, but we'd normally have a starting time around 6, 6:30, or 7 at night. So we'd just play and have a great time. Then he'd come down at midnight, or sometimes he'd come down even later. But I'd always remind everybody, 'When Elvis comes down, no yawning. Everybody be ready to roll'. But when you worked with Elvis, you became family. That made the hours and demands feel like nothing at all'.
The setting was also intimate. 'We were in the same room with him', Burton remembers of the sessions. 'We were pretty close. He liked to have the singers close by, and the band, because he liked to have eye contact with everybody. So it was really a performance in the truest sense, and he was acting as both performer and producer. We had a producer, but the bottom line was that Elvis had the final say if it was something he liked or disliked'.
Still, even while recording on his own terms, Elvis was impatient.
'Elvis would only do maybe three or four takes at the most', Burton recalls. 'His feeling was that if it didn't happen, if it didn't come together within three or four takes, it was time to go on to something else. So he'd flip through the songs, and we'd take a crack at it, and if the song was there - if the feeling and everything was right - then that would be the song he would go for'.
The Elvis Presley Estate has long been loath to highlight the King's latter period, frequently ordering takedown notices of tour videos from his final years. It's a shame because, even though he looks unlike the leonine Elvis even a casual fan can instantly conjure in their mind, his voice is undiminished, as it is here on Way Down in the Jungle Room.
As Burton and Scheff both tell it, the sessions were fun and full of Elvis' trademark mischief. He'd dress in karate outfits or, more often, a full police uniform. And, according to a passage in Scheff's book, the drugs flowed freely.
After a series of sessions in Los Angeles, and a quick flight to Memphis to make it to one recording session at Graceland, Scheff writes that he remembers asking keyboardist David Briggs for an amphetamine pick-me-up. Instead, Briggs gave him a Quaalude and, when Scheff's fingers started playing whatever they felt like during a take of the song 'Way Down', the King and his courtiers fell about in fits of laughter. Order was soon restored when the requisite uppers were produced, and Scheff recut his part.
Practical jokes aside, the proof of Elvis' gifts are abundant on Way Down in the Jungle Room. Like other recent reissues in Elvis' formerly spotty posthumous catalog, it's a worthy addition and packs a wallop. 'Elvis was a really hard worker in the studio', Burton says, firmly. 'He really got down to business. It was amazing. When the red light came on, he would just go for it'.
Elvis was also great at getting the best from the musicians he chose to work with.
'When I'd play a hot lick or something, Elvis would turn around and say, 'Yeah baby, yeah! That's it!' Burton recalls of his former boss. 'You can hear it on the records. That feedback was indescribable. He wanted you to feel good and be happy. He wanted everything to be just right'.
Burton also insists that, contrary to popular belief, Elvis didn't surround himself with 'yes men' - at least not in the studio.
'Most of all, he wanted to hear the truth', Burton says, insisting it's his abiding memory of Elvis. 'He would always ask if I thought we could improve on something. He'd ask the band, too. He was always concerned about finding out how we felt about it. He just wanted to make sure that everything was right. And if something wasn't right, he would make it right. That's how I remember him, and it's a great memory, I think'.
Review : 'Elvis : Way Down In The Jungle Room' Sony Legacy 2 CD
Elvis Presley : 'Way Down In The Jungle Room' 2 CD
Disc 1 - The Masters
1. Way Down (2:38)
2. She Thinks I Still Care (3:51)
3. Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall (3:17)
4. Pledging My Love (2:51)
5. For The Heart (3:22)
6. Love Coming Down (3:07)
7. He'll Have To Go (4:32)
8. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (3:41)
9. Hurt (2:07)
10. Never Again (2:51)
11. Danny Boy (3:56)
12. Solitaire (4:40)
13. Moody Blue (2:49)
14. It's Easy For You (3:27)
15. I'll Never Fall In Love Again (3:44)
16. The Last Farewell (4:02)
Disc 2 - The Outtakes
1. Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall - take 1 (5:15)
2. She Thinks I Still Care - take 10 (6:30)
3. The Last Farewell - take 2 (4:15)
4. Solitaire - take 7 (5:37)
5. I'll Never Fall In Love Again - take 5 (4:04)
6. Moody Blue - take1 (3:53)
7. For The Heart - take 1 (3:55)
8. Hurt - take 3 (2:30)
9. Danny Boy - take 9 (4:02)
10. Never Again - take 9 - 3:56
11. Love Coming Down - take 3 (3:17)
12. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain - take 4 (4:59)
13. She Thinks I Still Care - (alternate version) take 2 (4:26)
14. It's Easy For You - take 1 - (5:24)
15. Way Down - take 2 - 3:50
16. Pledging My Love - take 3 (5:34)
17. For The Heart - take 4 (4:13)