Interview: Elvis Express Radio
Studio Nights With Elvis & Jerry Reed
I’ve been lucky enough to meet many of those who knew Elvis but few are as wonderful than Ray Walker, or “Uncle Ray” as Lana and I crowned him after we met him for a private chat in Nashville, Tennessee back in 2001. Here in an interview with George Klein, Ray talks about his times with Elvis and Jerry Reed.
Bass Singer Ray Walker has had a fifty-year career in show business, adding his unique bass vocals to thousands of hit singles over the years. As a member of the renowned Jordanaires, Mr. Walker is best known for his association with Elvis Presley and Rick Nelson.
By 1969, the quartet was singing on 80% of the songs recorded in Nashville, performing on over 30,000 total studio recordings with hundreds of artists. Mr. Walker has prominent vocal parts on many well-known Presley standards, including (Now & Then There’s A) “Fool Such As I,” “Fame and Fortune,” and “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.” You can also hear him on “Poor Little Fool” and “Travelin’ Man,” career-defining hits for Nelson.
Mr. Walker regularly appears on George Klein’s Sirius/XM Elvis radio show, which is broadcast every Friday afternoon from 2:00 to 6:00 PM Central Time.
Affectionately known as GK, Mr. Klein met Elvis in the eighth grade at Humes High School in Memphis, and the legendary disc jockey often informally interviews Elvis’ friends and musicians.
During a recent phone-in session to The GK Show, Mr. Walker talked at length about his years with Elvis, including one amazing session with the “Alabama Wild Man” himself, guitarist Jerry Reed. GK opened the conversation, as evidenced below, and yours truly then sent in several questions, which Mr. Walker graciously answered. Here are the highlights from that interview.
A Chat With Ray Walker
George Klein: The Jordanaires sang with many artists. What was unique about Elvis?
The Jordanaires have sung with around 3,000 artists. There were two or three that had the same temperament or ability in the studio. Of course, everyone’s personality is to each their own, but Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, and Connie Francis…they knew exactly what their limits were.
They wouldn’t let anybody push ‘em past those limits. They knew the tempos, how to feel about it, and Elvis was the same way.
I think the most revealing thing about Elvis Presley was that he didn’t feel that special. He didn’t act special. As far as thinking he was somebody hot, he never thought that. Never did.
I mean, he dressed up for his fans and enjoyed doing that; I think he was a clown. He enjoyed looking the way the fans expected to see him and wanted to see him. Elvis realized that was part of his life. But when he was on his own, he had on jeans, a cowboy hat, just regular clothes. When he went out, he made sure that if anybody saw him, they saw him at his best. That was part of his life, and a tribute to his honesty and love for his fans.
Did Elvis ever criticize a musician if he made a mistake?
Now, Elvis would criticize somebody if they criticized the musicians. If somebody had no more sense than to put somebody down, Elvis didn’t like that at all. Elvis didn’t put anybody down, and he would normally laugh if somebody made a mistake. Elvis said one time that his whole career was mistakes.
How did Elvis warm up for a session?
Later on, he did gospel songs. Basically, Elvis would just sing, but he mainly just stood there and studied the song. Then, he would do his warm-up during the tracking process.
Did you prefer recording in Nashville or Hollywood with Elvis?
We liked recording in Nashville, and Elvis liked Nashville. It was certainly special to go to Hollywood and work at Radio Recorders; nevertheless, it was homey when we were here in Nashville.
How did you become a member of The Jordanaires?
Well, original bass singer Hugh Jarrett decided to devote more time to his burgeoning radio career, so he gave notice of his resignation in late spring 1958. The Jordanaires’ first session with Rick Nelson was on April 28, 1958, at Master Recorders in Los Angeles. I took a break from teaching school (I was also an assistant principal and a coach) and went to Hollywood as The Jordanaires’ choice, at this point, to be introduced to Capitol Records.
We also worked with Tommy Sands and did four Jordanaires’ singles during the day, and the 10:00 PM session with Rick later that night. Ozzie, Harriet, and David were also there. “Poor Little Fool” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” were on this session. We went back to Nashville, and I resumed teaching until May 31st. I joined the group, officially, on June 1st, 1958. Gordon had called me the first week of May and asked if I could go with them to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand television series that week.
I told him no. He said, “What if I told you, if you can’t come on this trip, we’ll have to take our next choice?” I said, “If I broke this contract to go with you, I would break another contract with you to go with someone else, and I don’t break contracts.” Gordon thought about it for a second and replied, “O.K., so when can you come down and start observing the Grand Ole Opry?” I quickly responded, “When is it?” He said, “Saturday nights.” I said, “I’ll be there this Saturday night.”
I then went to the Opry to watch for about three weeks and joined them on June 1st, 1958. On June 10st, 1958, I did my first Elvis session at RCA’s Studio B in Nashville. [Author’s Note: This proved to be Elvis’ final session of the 1950’s. Shortly before Elvis’ army departure to Germany, the session proved especially fruitful and memorable, yielding the huge hits “I Need Your Love Tonight,” “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” “A Fool Such As I” and “I Got Stung”].
Were you guys aware that Elvis had met Priscilla in Germany in September 1959?
When we did the G.I. Blues soundtrack in late April 1960, Elvis had said to us, “You know, I’ve just seen the prettiest girl in the world, and I’m gonna marry her.” That was really special, and he was obviously referring to Priscilla. Shortly thereafter, in March 1961 we did Blue Hawaii, and Elvis dedicated “Can’t Help Falling In Love” to her (Mr. Walker softly sings the opening bar, “Wise Men Say”). [Author’s Note: Blue Hawaii ultimately spent 20 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Pop charts, becoming the highest-selling album during Elvis’ lifetime].
What do you remember about the time Jerry Reed played guitar with Elvis?
Jerry Reed was really something. Elvis got ready to do “Guitar Man” in September 1967. He said, “Do you think Jerry Reed would play on this?” And they said, “Yeah, we’re sure he would.” Elvis swiftly replied, “Could you find him for me?” So, they started looking for Jerry. Turns out he was out fishing on the Cumberland River.
Jerry came in, and he looked so flustered, just like a little boy. Of course, he looked like a little boy anyway. Jerry met Elvis, and Elvis was in awe of him and shook his hand and told him how much he appreciated his playing and talent. Jerry was kind of a funny guy; he had a real sense of humor. But he was extremely nervous, and we’d never seen him that nervous. Jerry sat down, and Elvis said, “Just do those licks for me like you did on your original version.” Jerry sat close to the door that went into the control room, and he started the intro. Well, he flubbed it. So,he looked up at Elvis, then he started playing again, and he made a mistake. Then he looked up at Elvis one more time, and he started playing again and made another mistake.
Jerry finally looked up at Elvis and said, “God, you’re handsome!” Jerry was so flustered that he couldn’t play his own song, and it tickled Elvis to death that he was that nervous, because Elvis was nervous that he was there, too. [Author’s Note: When the “Guitar Man” single debuted in February 1968, it barely entered the Billboard Pop charts at #43. While Elvis was returning to his rock and rool roots on this and subsequent singles (namely, “Big Boss Man” and “U.S. Male,” both featuring Reed), it would take his triumphant ’68 Comeback Special before he became a dominant chart presence again.Reed’s original single version of “Guitar Man” didn’t do well either, only registering a paltry #53 on the Billboard Country charts in July 1967. However, his next single, “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” an acoustic talking blues tribute to Elvis, jumpstarted Reed’s path to stardom, peaking at #15 on the country charts.
Felton Jarvis, Elvis’ record producer from 1966 until his death, eventually decided to craft the first Elvis remix album in 1980. Elvis’ vocal was left intact, but “Guitar Man” was re-recorded with Nashville session musicians who actually played with Elvis, including Reed, who created a new, electrifying solo.
This new version of “Guitar Man” jumped all the way to #1 on the Billboard Country charts in March 1981, deservedly becoming Elvis’ final #1 on the pop or country charts. Unfortunately, Jarvis never lived to see his amazing accomplishment, as he passed away that January due to complications from a massive stroke. He was only 46].