Music Review: Elvis Presley - Elvis at Stax (Deluxe Edition)

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What better way to commemorate the 36th anniversary of the King of Rock and Roll’s passing (August 16, 1977) than losing oneself in RCA/Legacy’s new Elvis at Stax deluxe box set? This remarkable release chronicles the dozen recording sessions Presley undertook at the legendary Memphis recording studio Stax, in 1973. While the material has all been released before (sprawled over an unwieldy number of albums and anthologies), this marks the first time it has been intelligently compiled in one place. We’re talking 28 master takes and 27 outtakes. That’s a lot of material, divided between pop, R&B, and country sessions, and it all adds up to a fan’s dream.

Legacy Recordings has been doing Elvis’ legacy proud over the years, reissuing remastered packages that smartly organize the King’s work. The most recent of these have been historically-valuable live releases, Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite and Prince from Another Planet (Presley’s 1972 Madison Square Garden concerts). But much of the stuff on <>Elvis at Stax, including outtakes bookended with warm-ups and chatter, might be unfamiliar to all but the most serious collectors and completists. The first disc in the well-organized collection is “The R&B and Country Sessions - The Outtakes.” The second disc is split evenly between “The Pop Sessions - The Outtakes” and “The July 1973 Masters.” The more productive December, ’73 sessions yielded the “Masters” that comprise the third disc.

As good as the polished master takes are, it’s the alternate takes that help achieve the stated goal of showcasing the spontaneity of the Presley’s Stax sessions. The R&B stuff really cooks, with the band laying into chugging, funky grooves and Presley cutting loose with some of his most inspired and energetic vocals of the era. There are two smokin’ alternates each of “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” and Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.” The top 20 hit “If You Talk in Your Sleep” is, in its alternate take, even more authoritative than the master. Jerry Reed’s somber country ballad “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” turns up as well, with Norbert Putnam’s simple yet effective bass line doing the steering (as it does on the official take). Though most of the outtakes are superficially quite similar to their corresponding master, they are generally rawer. Their “live in the studio” immediacy suits the material well.

The mainstream pop tunes are arguably the least-interesting selections here, but again the alternate takes provide stripped-down evidence of how they sounded prior to that final shellacking the master takes received. Hits from the pop material include “My Boy” and “Mr. Songman,” both served up in alternate form. Clive Westlake’s “It’s Diff’rent Now” was interestingly never completed, though the unfinished take is included. It first turned up on the Walk a Mile in My Shoes ‘70s box set rom 1995. Again, nothing here is previously unreleased. Conveniently, the liner notes let us know exactly where each take first appeared.

Extensive, newly-written liner notes by Robert Gordon, author of It Came from Memphis and The Elvis Treasures, tell the story of the July and December 1973 visits Presley made to the revered Stax studios. Isaac Hayes forfeited studio time to clear the slate for Presley. Being only a few minutes away from Graceland, Presley was able to record and Stax and still go home in between sessions. Though Presley’s entourage included his own musicians, legendary Stax house band members Al Jackson Jr. (drums) and Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) sat in (along with Steve Cropper’s sub, and future “Disco Duck” producer, Bobby Manuel on guitar) for a pair of songs. As Gordon explains, despite the MG’s members enthusiasm to work with Presley, the session was cut short when it was discovered the King’s personal microphone had been swiped earlier that day. Fascinating material, these notes (accompanied by loads of photos) are a real value-booster for an essential set.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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