Elvis at Stax: A new shine on a tarnished crown

The King finds his soul in Memphis

The early 1970s were not a good time for Elvis Presley. Even with his career (previously stifled by bad movies and throwaway soundtracks) finding new momentum from the stellar “‘68 Comeback Special,” sold-out concerts, and a surprising slew of hits recorded at Memphis’ American Studios in 1969 (“Kentucky Rain,” “Suspicious Minds,” and “In the Ghetto”), something was wrong. By 1973, his marriage to Priscilla had fallen apart, his relationship with manager Col. Tom Parker was strained due to Parker’s resistance to change, and his alleged prescription drug use was reportedly making his behavior eccentric.

Rock music was evolving, getting heavier, and pop was saccharine and superficial — Presley was often seen as a relic from a bygone era. He needed to find a new direction, so he turned to the renowned Stax Studios in July and December of 1973. Finally, after these legendary tracks were haphazardly scattered across poorly rendered albums in the mid-to-late ’70s, RCA and Sony Legacy have compiled the definitive collection of outtakes and masters from these sessions into a deluxe three-disc set, titled Elvis at Stax.

Former Presley bassist Norbert Putnam worked both the American Studio and the Stax sessions, and recalls the transformation in his boss’s demeanor. “He would come to the studio and clown around, tell stories, and eventually get to work,” Putnam says. “By 1973 there was a change in Elvis: He didn’t look the same, had gained some weight. I think it was the divorce because I believe he sincerely loved Priscilla.”

Putnam and Presley played together for about seven years, recording more than 100 tracks. Since then he’s become a legend in his own right, producing artists such as Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

At the time, Presley’s live recordings were popular, but RCA wanted studio recordings. However, critical issues plagued the July Stax sessions: The studio was outdated, Presley wasn’t pleased with the quality of some of the material, and a contractual obligation resulted in a mediocre product that simply didn’t sell. These outtakes are re-evaluated and dubbed “The R&B and Country Sessions,” and in spite of the challenges, prove to be a gold mine of Elvis magic for their spontaneity, energy, and diversity.

Presley returned to Stax in December, this time with the fully equipped and modern RCA remote recording truck parked outside. He also brought some of his preferred musicians, including Putnam, who recalls the King’s odd work habits. “Elvis would get up around 6 p.m., have breakfast, get to the studio around 8, break for lunch at midnight,” Putnam says. “At first he was a little sluggish, but would come alive when he did a cover song like ‘Promised Land.’ He was totally into it by the time we finished the song.”

These sessions were more productive, yielding future hits like “I Got a Feeling in My Body,” “You Asked Me To,” and other contemporary songs that Presley was drawn to for their lyrical introspection and personal relevance. He was taking control, picking his own material, and for one of the first times in his career, standing up to Parker.

Putnam recalls one instance when Presley opened up to him: “He sat with me during lunch, and in a quiet voice said that he wanted my opinion,” Putnam says. “He said, ‘I want to play in Europe, but the Colonel doesn’t want me to. I’ve got an offer to play in a stadium for $1 million a night. Colonel says I’m not popular over there. What do you think?’ I said, ‘I saw your albums in the stores over there, and heard your songs on the BBC. Europe has your biggest fans.’”

Elvis replied with a laugh. “I may fire that SOB,” he said. “It’s time to work, I gotta go back to being Elvis.”

Putnam adds, “His voice changed, and he went right back into his routine.”

Presley’s music tells a more complicated story than what appears on the surface. Reconstructed works such as Elvis at Stax, complete with detailed liner notes and a historical overview, put the King’s legacy in context and redefine his early ’70s image. It’s a bit refined, but his impact and talent need no further validation. Presley knew that he had to change with the times, but sadly he didn’t have the wherewithal to break the chains that Parker had clamped onto his career.