The Importance of the Guitar Man Sessions
Long have we lauded the ’68 Comeback Special and deservedly so, but every triumph has its genesis and it is reasonable to say Elvis artistic comeback was with his eager involvement in the May 1966 How Great Thou Art sessions and resulting album. And the lead up home recordings likely from February of that year. Elvis involved himself in the making of ‘How Great Thou Art’ like he did no other album, it was a concept he put everything into to create an ‘album’. But it is Guitar Man, Big Boss Man and Hi-Heel Sneakers that have all was stood out on their own as unique. The Guitar Man sessions followed just over a year later and should have produced Elvis’ ‘comeback album’ of non-secular material. It is also probably no coincidence the date in between, May 1, 1967, the day Elvis and Priscilla were married. Originally scheduled for August 22 and 23, 1967 in Hollywood California, the session was canceled as Colonel Parker was concerned of the ramifications of the unfortunate incident of Richard Davis accidentally killing a japanese gardener in L.A. while driving one of Elvis’ cars. Fearing a legal suite the Colonel ordered everyone out of town putting Elvis on a plane to Las Vegas immediately.
This original session was to involve Billy Strange and Elvis had requested a host of songs to be prepared for potential recording, including, We Call On Him, He Comes Tomorrow, Ramblin’ Rose, From A Jack To A king, After Loving You, Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Baby What You Want Me To Do, The Wonder Of You, Pledging My Love, The Fool, After Loving You and Guitar Man, the song Elvis had heard on L.A. radio and was determined to record.
From Las Vegas Elvis continued home to Memphis, making it logical to reschedule the recording session to Nashville which was eventually set for September 10 and 11. This time Felton Jarvis was fully in control and all thoughts of Billy Strange forgotten. For Felton, now though a stroke of fate he had escaped having his position challenged by Bill Strange and intended to make the most of it. After the success of the ‘How Great Thou Art’ album all he needed was ‘the real big hit single’ that had escaped him with Love Letters (No. 19).
The Guitar Man Sessions : September 10-11, 1967
The sessions kicked off with a rundown of Guitar Man – but it soon became apparent that there was no way they were going to get the Jerry Reed sound without Jerry Reed himself. Someone said they thought Reed had gone fishing, but nobody was sure how to get hold of him until Chet’s assistant, Mary Lynch, was finally able to locate him on the phone, and he agreed to come in. When he arrived, he looked, said Felton, ‘like a sure-enough Alabama wild man. You know, he hadn’t shaved in about a week, and he had them old clogs on – that was just the way he dressed. He come in and Elvis looked at him and said, ‘Lord, have mercy, what is that!’ There were no dress codes at Elvis’ sessions, though; Reed just had to take a little kidding from a T-shirted Felton and a trim-looking Elvis, who was wearing a casual black suit and a bright shirt with the top buttons opened. [Funny when you think how people reacted to Elvis’ dress code in the 50s’ !!!!]
Jerry Reed was a genuine individualist, even in Nashville terms. Thirty years old, like Felton a native of Atlanta and a graduate of the Bill Lowery School of Music, he had been writing songs and making records off and on for over ten years. He got session work through an admiring Chet Atkins after moving to Nashville in 1962, but he had not really enjoyed any recording success until signing with RCA in 1965. Guitar Man, which had reached number fifty-three in the country field just a few months earlier, was his first record even to chart.
Guitar Man was followed by Tupelo Mississippi Flash, which became Reed’s first Top 20 hit, in 1967.
Nonetheless, Reed, a whirlwind of energy with a ready supply of infectious charm and irrepressible enthusiasm, was never bashful about his talent. He had strong opinions of his own from the start and never wavered in his belief that if he was going to make it, he was going to make it his way. ‘I never thought of myself as a Nashville recording musician. ‘Cause I was a stylist. I [could] only play my stuff. And I wasn’t worth a damn playing all that other stuff. ‘See, I had my own tuning, and they were trying to record Guitar Man, and they couldn’t make it feel like my record. And I forget if it was Pete Drake or Charlie McCoy or Chip Young – one of those musicians said, ‘Well, these guitar players in here are playing with straight picks, and, you know, Reed plays with his fingers’. So they called me, and I went down, and I hooked up that electric gut string, tuned the B-string up a whole tone, and I toned the low E-string down a whole tone, so I could bar straight across, and as soon as we hit the intro, you could see Elvis’ eyes light up he knew we had it’.
Reed immediately took over the session. You can hear it from the first notes of the first take – Reed is coaching the musicians, encouraging them, egging them on, with Felton happy just to be presiding over some thing that is actually happening. There is a bright, shimmering surface to the music different in many respects from anything Elvis has ever recorded before but providing, at the same time, the kind of churning, driving rhythm that has characterized Elvis’ music from the first. There is not the slightest question of Elvis’ engagement. There is no self-deprecation, there is no wisecracking; all of the singer’s attention is focused on the music.
‘We’re rolling. ‘Guitar Man, take one’, Felton called out as an obviously flustered Jerry Reed ran through guitar licks trying to get his fingers up to speed. ‘Phew, I haven’t played all weekend’, he excused himself, talking to everybody and nobody in particular. ‘Your house is a mess’, Felton joked, and Elvis laughed along. Elvis seemed as fascinated by the man as by the music, yielding center stage as Jerry explained that there was no way to do all the guitar parts from his own original record at one time. ‘It’s going to sound like a room full of spastics – or something’. They adjusted the tempo and length of the intro; Jerry asked Bob Moore to count it off, then did it himself, made a number of mistakes, and concluded: ‘I may wander off into the parking lot. Stay with me, or I’ll get with you – sometime tonight’. By take five, though, the song began to come together. Directing along with Felton, Jerry suggested they end the record with a fade, and Felton prodded his singer on: ‘Sing the living stuff out of it, El’. Elvis started to fool around with the song, introducing a hint of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say on the outro, which by the tenth take has evolved into a full-blown quote so infectious that everyone just bursts out laughing. Reed himself felt nothing but pure delight. ‘It was just a jamming session. I thought I was going to be so damn nervous I couldn’t play, but it was right the opposite. I got pumped, and then Elvis got pumped, and the more he got pumped up, the more I did – it was like a snowball effect. To tell you the truth, I was on cloud nine. And once Elvis got the spirit, things really began to happen. When the guitars and the rhythm sounded right, I guess the guitar lick kind of reminded him of What’d I Say, and he just sort of started testifying at the end. That was how it happened – one of those rare moments in your life you never forget’. By take twelve they had an energetic, gutsy country record; Jerry added his second guitar part, and Felton pushed on.
Big Boss Man
They jumped, almost without pausing for breath, into the Jimmy Reed blues standard Big Boss Man, and once again you can hear the ‘Alabama wild man’ pushing, prodding, encouraging, contributing his exuberant personality and musicianship to every note. Jerry Reed remained on guitar, Charlie’s harp and Boots’s sax added a bluesy flavor to the proceedings, and right away they hit a groove. The whole room is reverberating by now, and Elvis is obviously totally at ease. Elvis has roughened his voice for the blues, a tactic of which Felton obviously approves. He adjures Elvis to sound ‘like you’re mad, like you’re mean’. Felton’s enthusiasm was infectious. ‘Starting to feel real good. Let it all hang out’. On the seventh take he yells out, ‘That’s a gas, man. Go apeshit!’ and it is clear that everyone is relaxed and having fun. By the time that they nail the song in eleven carefree takes, it feels like everyone is ready to go on all night long.
Between takes the room buzzed with energy, and by midnight they had a second song in the can. The sound was different from anything Elvis had ever done before, so, worlds away from most anything coming out of Nashville at the time. The recordings had an acoustic, guitar-driven sound that was crisp and vibrant, but also an R&B funkiness unknown to country. The engineering was immaculate; what could have sounded like a cacophonic blast of jamming came off instead with an intricate precision.
Jerry Reed had stayed on for Big Boss Man, but with a change in the material he got ready to leave.
At music publisher, Freddie Bienstock’s request, Lamar Fike approached Jerry to make the usual publishing arrangements – but this time, he found, they’d put the cart before the horse. Reed just wouldn’t give up any of his writer’s share, and with such a terrific take already in the can, he had little incentive to give in. With Elvis himself unwilling to intervene Freddy was stuck, his oversight painfully apparent to Tom Diskin, Colonel Parkers representative in the control room. Bienstock was supposed to have cleared the publishing on Guitar Man for the Billy Strange session, but he had somehow neglected to approach Jerry Reed about it, a situation of which he now became embarrassingly aware. He got Lamar Fike to try to deal with the songwriter (who held his own publishing), but Reed was in no mood to be bullied or sold out. ‘I remember saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this before I come here? I could have saved you all a lot of effort’. I started to get emotional now. I said, ‘You done wasted Elvis’ time. You done wasted all these musicians’ time, and RCAs time: I’m not going to give you my soul’. I can remember him saying, ‘You know the record is not going to come out if we can’t work out some kind of an arrangement here’. And I said, ‘Mr. Bienstock, I’ll put it to you this way. You don’t need the money, and Elvis don’t need the money, and I’m making more money than I can spend right now – so why don’t we just forget we ever recorded this damn song?’ Session leader Scotty Moore, who had witnessed his share of confrontations over the years, and even been involved in one or two, observed the scene admiringly. ‘They got Jerry off in a corner, but he wouldn’t sell’. Of course, it helped his position to know the song had already been cut and that Elvis loved it. [It is amazing a lesson was not learnt here and this situation was repeated at Amercian Sound Studios over Suspicious Minds in Memphis in January 1969.]
The musicians watched practically open-mouthed. Nobody could recall a time when business had intruded so nakedly into an Elvis Presley session; everyone was aware of the arbitrariness of the rules, but no one had ever seen them challenged so boldly before. The upshot was that Reed left in high dudgeon and the session stumbled on, but the heart had long since gone out of it when they finally gave up at 5:30 in the morning.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
The next night they were back to the same old grind, fumbling around for songs, settling for the best of a mediocre lot, trying somehow just to get Elvis through. Elvis himself remained thoroughly professional, he didn’t complain and did all that he could to work up some kind of enthusiasm, even on the most stubbornly recalcitrant material. It wasn’t a bad session, and Elvis took over the piano bench for You’ll Never Walk Alone, the Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad which had been one of his favorites ever since Roy Hamilton’s inspirational r&b version in 1954. He sang with all the full-throated fervor of Hamilton or Jake Hess, and although his playing remained necessarily limited, both rhythmically and melodically, it was always a measure of his engagement when he sat down at the keyboard to play.
There was a moment when session guitarists Chip Young and Harold Bradley tried to get things going by playing a few bars from Hi-Heel Sneakers, a 1964 Tommy Tucker hit with much the same bluest’ appeal as Big Boss Man. Elvis leapt to the bait, and they did a fine version of the song, but afterward Harold was told by Felton never to do that again. ‘I said, ‘Do what?’ He said, ‘Pitch any songs’. He said Freddy Bienstock went bananas. I said, ‘Okay, I didn’t know, I thought we were making records.
Jerry also played guitar at Elvis’ recording session January 15-16, 1968. According to Jerry Schilling, one of Elvis’ friends who was there that evening, Elvis started getting frustrated and angry when he couldn’t find anything suitable to record, (After recording three songs; Too Much Monkey Business, Goin’ Home’ and Stay Away) and it wasn’t until Chip Young asked Jerry Reed to play Elvis his talking blues, U.S. Male, that they were able to get back to work. In an interview in 2005 Gerry Reed stated that it was steel guitarist Pete Drake who urged him to pitch another song to Elvis. ‘Pete and I knew each other in Atlanta, when I was working at a cotton mill and he was driving a Merita bread truck’, Reed noted. ‘He said, ‘Have you got anything else?’ I said, ‘No, man. Listen, this is enough for me, believe me’. Then Elvis said, ‘Yeah, have you got any other songs?’ I said, ‘Well … uh … yeah’. When Reed mentioned the title, U.S. Male, Presley said, ‘Let me hear it’. ‘So I cut down on U.S. Male, and he said, ‘Let’s cut that thing’, Reed recalls. ‘It was that easy. Absolutely that easy’.
Freddy was never happy about song pitching in the hallways, but they needed a new single desperately; there was nothing he could do. For whatever reason – too many words to learn, too much guitar picking to get right – the song fell apart after the first take. Instead, they went right into The Prisoner’s Song, an old country weeper, but Elvis was in no mood for serious work and substituted lyrics that guaranteed the record could never see the light of day. ‘If you do two more’, Felton broke in from the control room, ‘we’ll have a whole party album’. Somehow they were able to get back on track – giving U.S. Male a country feel with an upfront bass and some hot licks from Jerry The two nights of work had produced only four songs, and certainly no decision was made then, but as it turned out this would be the last session with this particular band – and the last time Elvis would record in Nashville for at least thirty months. Now in 2011 we finally have that ‘classic’ album that should have been released in 1967, Buy Elvis Sings Guitar Man FTD 2 CD Classic Album.
By David Troedson | Source: Elvis Australia