The Intimate Beauty of 'For Ol' Times Sake'

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
March 6, 2021

In the early hours of 24 July 1973, singer/songwriter Tony Joe White was woken by a phone call in his Memphis home. A German voice on the other end of the line said: 'Mr White, we are down at Stax Records do you have any more songs? We need to do some more songs'.

The voice belonged to Freddy Bienstock, principal finder of songs at the King's court. When White realised who the tunes were for - and that his friend Felton Jarvis was producing the session - he ran off a copy of three songs (most notably I've Got A Thing About You Baby and For Ol' Times Sake) and drove to the studio where Bienstock listened to the tapes and said he liked the first two. As Bienstock was trying to usher White out of the studio, Jarvis walked by, and made sure that the man who had invented the microgenre known as 'Swamp Rock', met Elvis, who had been one of the young White's great inspirations. As he left the studio, White was enthralled to have met one of his heroes but puzzled that Elvis let these 'old men be picking his tunes'.

If Bienstock had picked out a few more tunes of the quality of For Ol' Times Sake and I've Got A Thing About You Baby, Elvis' Stax sessions in 1973 might have been more creatively satisfying. As Ernst Jorgensen makes clear in Elvis Presley A Life In Music, the King was not in great shape when the sessions started in July. He seemed, to many in the studio, to be overweight, slurred and miserable, more interested in karate than music.

The first Stax sessions would fizzle out after five days and nine songs as Elvis walked out after a row over sound quality and the theft of his lightweight hand-held microphone. Out of the turmoil, emerged a swinging, infectious version of I've Got A Thing About You Baby, a swaggering cover of Rosco Gordon's Just A Little Bit and, best of all, an achingly beautiful rendition of the ballad For Ol' Times Sake.

Asked to define 'Swamp Rock', White said once: 'Swamp music is down to earth, a sort of earthy music. They are truthful songs sung by people who believe in them, people who've been there and know where it's at'.

Raised On Rock Single Cover.
Raised On Rock Single Cover.

That perfectly describes Elvis' cover of For Ol' Times Sake. He and Priscilla had officially separated almost exactly a year before he recorded White's song (the divorce would be legally confirmed on 9 October 1973). Elvis had already met girlfriend Linda Thompson but, on the evidence of this soulful 'love gone wrong' ballad, may have harbored dreams of reconciliation even if, deep down, he knew how unlikely this was. Even if Elvis is not singing as directly to Priscilla as in Always On My Mind, White's ballad can be interpreted as the King's rueful reflection on their romance, marriage and parting. In White's original, released on his acclaimed 1973 album, 'Homemade Ice Cream', the ballad starts with the singer/narrator almost challenging his estranged lover. There is an undercurrent of anger. In contrast, Elvis imbues the words with a beautiful sadness, a loneliness mysteriously amplified by his decision to change the opening words from 'Before you go' to 'Afore you go'.

Even as Elvis asks 'Is there something here you might have overlooked?', the resignation in his voice acknowledges the appeal is hopeless. He is heartbroken, nostalgic, pleading but even at his fiercest, he is merely sardonic, wondering if the girl's freedom will be all she expects it to be. Even as he invites her finally to lay her head on his chest, suggesting they can forget the bad and take the best, the sadness in his voice makes it clear that this embrace is the last act of their doomed love.

White's lyrics are so direct, simple and conversational you feel as if you are eavesdropping on this breakup. Elvis' back story imbues the lyric with some intriguing complexities. In real life, Presley was anything but an open book, as his friend Lamar Fike said: 'I promise you, Elvis was a true chameleon. They couldn't put up a maze in a castle-like what was in his mind'. So it is impossible be too certain about who he had in mind when he was cutting this. Musically, Elvis' version doesn't differ radically from White's. This partly reflects his - and Jarvis' - respect for the quality of the song. White's original sounds like a rawer, pared-down version of the kind of ballad Elvis was cutting in the 1970s - possibly because it was recorded with a few veterans of Elvis' sessions in the studio. Reggie Young played guitar on White's original - and Elvis' cover. Presley's longstanding pianist David Briggs was on keyboards. And Norbert 'Wake up Put!' Putnam was on bass.

Raised On Rock Album Cover.
Raised On Rock Album Cover.

Elvis' interpretation is slightly lusher, the variation in tempo - as he sings about how the girl can't stand for chains to bind her - a bit wider - and there's some lovely melancholy guitar picking (courtesy, presumably, of Young and James Burton, which can be heard even more effectively on the Follow That Dream release of Raised On Rock) but this classic performance is most definitely, as White put it, a truthful song sung by someone who believes in it, has been there and knows what it's it. Elvis' version, he said once 'kills me'. It's easy to hear why.

It might be instructive to compare Elvis' interpretation of this ballad to his most famous White cover, Polk Salad Annie. Determined to make this the centerpiece of his concerts in 1970, Elvis hypes Polk Salad Annie up in a way that left White (when he saw it performed) speechless with admiration. The mesmeric power of Elvis' rendition is heightened by the way he goes from drawling Dean Martinesque self-parody ('Some of y'all never been down South too much…') to Vegas showmanship and demonic throbbing intensity often within a single syllable or one whip of his hip. Three years later in a more anguished mood at Stax, Elvis gets inside For Ol' Times Sake, making it arguably the most hauntingly intimate ballad he ever recorded.

For Ol' Times Sake can be found on the Follow That Dream release of Raised On Rock.

Elvis' On Stage album had a very unique sound and style, it was 'swamp rock'.

Buy Raised On Rock (FTD 2 CD Special Edition)
Buy On Stage (FTD 2 CD Special Edition)

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