Songwriter Layng Martine recalls writing 'Way Down', Elvis' last hit

By: Dave Paulson
Source: The Tennessean
August 7, 2022

'Way Down' song-writer, Layng Martine Jr. remembers being in seventh grade and hearing one of Elvis Presley's earliest singles on the radio. 'It changed my entire life', he says. Two decades later, the Nashville songwriter wrote a hit for Elvis - which ended up being the final single released before his death in 1977. He remembered writing the song, and learning of Elvis' death, in a conversation with Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.

Do you remember the day you wrote 'Way Down'? Did you think it was special?

I did. I thought lots of songs were special. But that particular day, I went in and played it for Ray Stevens, which I did with every new song. He said, 'Layng, I love that song! There's nothing going on right now, let's call the band and make a demo of that'. We went in and made a terrific demo of it, and the bass part that J.D. Sumner sang on the Elvis record was sung by Ray Stevens, who is a phenomenal bass singer. I played the darn thing for everybody I could think of. I couldn't believe that nobody even held it overnight. Then one day, I was sitting in an office waiting to play songs for some producer, and Bob Beckham, a very famous publisher, said, 'Layng, you work your a-- off ... do you have anything for Elvis?'

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Just the question, 'Do you have anything for Elvis?' Even if you didn't, I would have lied.

Well, everyone knew that Bob Beckham had a direct line to Elvis, because Felton Jarvis, the producer, came by every couple of days and picked up (songs). ... I brought 'Way Down' (to his office), and about a week later, Ray Stevens gets a call from Felton Jarvis. He says, 'Elvis is gonna go bonkers for this song'.

... So then, nothing happens for months. I don't hear anything at all. No phone calls, nothing. I hear he's recording there again, so I bring the song back. It's like four months later. Beckham's secretary calls me, and I was at Decca Records promoting a record called 'Wiggle Wiggle', calling stations like crazy. She says, 'Layng, I think Elvis has already recorded this song'. I said, 'That's impossible, I would know'. ... So she checks and calls me back and says, 'Yeah, on Oct. 30', - or whatever - 'in the Jungle Room at Graceland, he recorded 'Way Down'. I said, 'Oh, God, that's incredible'. In this fury, I go racing home in my tragic little Volkswagen. I told my wife, 'Elvis recorded my song!'

That summer, it comes out ... we go to Rhode Island, and I'm playing tennis, and I get this call from a promoter at the time named Frank Mull. He says, 'Layng, I just got the advance numbers from Billboard, and your song goes to No. 1 next week'. I said, 'God, that's unbelievable'.

Three days later, literally, I'm on the same tennis court, and this same woman comes out of this little shack and says 'Layng, I have a phone call'. I pick up the phone, and it's Rose Palermo, my attorney in Nashville. She says 'Layng, are you near a TV? Elvis just died'. All I could think of was my seventh-grade girlfriend and me in the back of the station wagon. My mom's driving, and the first Elvis record came on (the radio) and it changed my entire life.

Do you remember the first time you heard Elvis' version? You had to be freaking out.

The guy called me to come over while they were mixing it. And I walked in the door of Creative Workshop and I heard this pulsating, throbbing thing, and I thought, 'That's the beginning of my damn song'. All of a sudden, Elvis started singing, and I (thought), 'That's impossible!'

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