Jungle Boogie

The continuing mystique of Elvis Presley keeps his diehard fans and even his record label, RCA, in denial. While it may be impossible to openly admit the truth about Elvis’ state of mind and lifestyle while simultaneously trying to sell his records, Way Down In The Jungle Room, the latest attempt to repackage and resell to the mainstream previously released material from the catalog has a pitch that’s bordering on insulting. A 17-track double LP set, it presents a selection of the final “studio” recordings of Elvis Presley, done in February and October 1976, in the den, aka The Jungle Room, at Graceland in Memphis. A completely different selection of alternate takes from these sessions is available on Follow That Dream, the Presley estate-owned “collectors label” as Jungle Room Sessions.

John Jackson of the band, The Jayhawks, described in an author’s note as possessing the “world’s first Bachelor of Arts degree in Rock and Roll History,” is tasked with selling these sessions as being loose, fun and the result of Elvis just hangin’ with his pals. Jackson starts with a blatant error when he references Elvis’ “breakout on RCA Records twenty years earlier,” (his Sun recordings is where it all began) before moving directly into fantasyland, describing the Jungle Room’s rudimentary recording setup as Elvis having “converted his relaxation den into a world class recording studio to freely work with his closest musicians friends.” Wow! The band is Elvis’ road band—James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Ronnie Tutt—all of whom were being paid to be there. As for the recording, this is a room with an artificial waterfall. `Nuff said.

About those same two sessions, Peter Guralnick, whose two volume biography of Elvis is universally acclaimed as the most balanced account of his tumultuous life says in the second book, Careless Love, The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, that to counter Elvis’ “almost pathological aversion to the recording studio,” Col. Tom Parker and RCA agreed to record at Graceland and “far from building him a state of the art plaything, they now proposed to simply to install temporary equipment in the den behind the kitchen, run lines out to the RCA mobile recording truck that would be parked behind the house, and make the best of whatever sound deficiencies arose.”

According to Guralnick, and again his account is the least gossipy of all the Elvis books, the February session was difficult but semi-productive. In the beginning Elvis’ “lack of focus and energy was evident to all.” But over several days he did manage to dig in and struggling to muster enthusiasm, record a number of takes, several of which are a success. The October sessions, in Guralnick’s narrative, were a waste of time.

“Finally, any pretense that the session might continue was abandoned when Elvis once again retreated to his room, this time emerging with a Thompson submachine gun with which he good-naturedly threatened to blow up the speakers.”

These sessions have always been fascinating as Elvis’ final turn in the studio (such as it was). The recording quality, while far from being state of the art, is good if a bit flat and one dimensional. The mix tilting towards Elvis voice can become overbearing. Even when half-interested in recording, Elvis would do a number of vocal takes live with the band, so there was often a lot of unreleased material. These recordings were tweaked and sweetened with overdubs and then singles and album tracks were assembled. The illusory pitch here that all was well, he was on top of the world and was just leisurely cuttin’ tracks with friends get even more delusional. Jackson, who starts his liner note essay by wondering in bizarre fashion why, “people end up feeling bad for Elvis in his final eighteen months?” closes his tall tale marketing blather with these doozies:

“At the turn of 1977, nothing seemed inherently wrong or out of place for Elvis and his career…”

“But what nobody knew was the toll that had been extracted from the 42-year-old legend. His health was failing him as were the doctors assigned to protect it. His confidants failed him and broke his heart when some of them published a tell-all gossip book on August 1st. It became too much for Elvis to handle and on August 16th, he was gone.”

The obvious question here is why not sell this as the last cries of a flawed but still potent star in the throes of drug addiction and no small amount of insecurity and self-loathing? The fact is that Elvis was one of the most powerful cultural and musical forces in world history. And as the Beatles later mused, he’d done it alone. Capable of previously unseen heights as a live performer, he also made great records (Sun Records, Memphis American Recordings 1969)—just not enough of them. Where he could have been a relevant musical force with creativity and integrity intact, or perhaps even a serious film actor by the mid-'70s, he’d clearly chosen money and the escape afforded by drugs.

And yet—and this is the story of this record and what makes it so compelling and important in the Elvis canon—despite all his problems, there are moments here, the howl that opens “Hurt” or his indelibly sad rendering of “Danny Boy,” where the talent wills out and you can hear and feel his pain. And the sense that he knew his time was growing short. Overall, this is Elvis near the end. In the uneven pitch in his voice and overwrought delivery in “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” he’s trying too hard, reaching for vocal attributes that are no longer there. The thin, keening tone to his voice in “For The Heart” is squint-inducing.

And yet there are flashes. “Never Again,” Take 9, that opens the C side of the LPs, which opens with Elvis foolin’, telling his band to get loose like they used to onstage. When they respond that they were drunk then, Elvis the non-drinker comes back with “Break out the booze…grandma.” Cue obligatory musician laughter. His last line before the generally successful track starts speaks the truth, “Bullshit! You cain’t get too loose for me son.” In “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain,” he struggles and slips in and out of pitch, stops, then restarts and with his band of old pros, falls into a groove he sustains for a number of verses. The album’s second take of “She Thinks I Still Care (alternate version) Take 2,” the same tune that was a big hit for George Jones, and one that opens with a great James Burton guitar lick, also chugs along reliably and inspires Elvis best vocal performance on the album. Even “Way Down,” from the October sessions, manages to get up a head of steam.

The 180 gram LPs are a quality pressing and the single sheet that contains Jackson’s liner notes on one side has two great photos on the flip side. One is a recent shot of Burton, Tutt, Norbert Putnam and David Briggs and the other is the RCA truck pulled up behind Graceland.

It’s understandable that RCA feels a need to respect Elvis’ legacy, but at this late date why not sell these recordings for being what they are? That despite all his issues, the man still had this much left in the tank.

georgehifi's picture

I love Elvis when it comes on in the car, or listening through portable devices. But put it on my hi-end system at home at it's not what you hoped for.

I have used this site for the best versions/labels of the music I like and always try to get 3 greens if I can, and it's been very truthful for me to get the versions with the best dynamic range using the spine/cat no. of that version.

But it seems Elvis even in the early days is too compressed to sound anything but average at best on my system, and it shows with not much green to choose from.


Cheers George

Jackblues's picture

I appreciate Mr. Baird's take on this time and recordings from Elvis' life. I just don't exactly agree with it. But even more so don't agree with the record companies take or their hired hands.

Before we had the outtakes of these sessions all we had were the words of so-called friends and tabloid journalist to go on. And it was all negative according to them concerning these sessions. Both concerning Elvis' mood and performance. Hearing the masters and then the outtakes gives one a much clearer understanding of what went on.

Mr. Baird if you think RCA/BMG/SONY paint all of Elvis' albums as master works you haven't read all the liner notes. Some are brutally honest, or try to be. But like most of the biographies about him, most fail.

Elvis has been judged more harshly than any other artist I've ever read about it. Maybe it was because he was the most famous and talented star we had ever known? That, and his fall. Or is it just human nature to tear people apart?

For instance those "Memphis Sessions", take a look at that studio. Does it look high tech? Just a simple little building in a bad part of town. Yet the results were magic. And if it's a bad thing to have a recording truck parked behind the house, don't tell Robert Plant and Jimmy Page about that. I guess it's a matter of perspective. Though it's not hard to imagine why they couldn't get him to Nashville or another studio at the point where these last recording sessions were made at Graceland.

No one could have released the number of albums he did and they all be considered classics. I guess it was a different time, interesting management to say the least. And an artist that didn't realize the talent and power he had.

Marc210's picture

Hey, it's the KING after all ! They even sold a record with the jokes he tells between songs at concerts.
And I would love they issue studio/live takes of other legends like J. Cash/jerry Lee/the V.U./13th Floor Elevators/Seeds...