It was 1973, and Elvis Presley’s comeback was in fifth gear.
After years of making mediocre movies, he had returned to touring and performing in Las Vegas. In January of that year, he staged the “Aloha from Hawaii” concert live via satellite, viewed by a billion people worldwide.
But, due to a contractual obligation, he also needed to create new material. He and manager Col. Tom Parker decided that Presley’s beloved Memphis was the place to do it.
The result was two recording sessions at Stax Records, the influential studio where Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave and others created the “Memphis soul” sound in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Presley’s sessions in July and December 1973 produced country, R&B and pop songs that were released in three separate albums.
Forty years after Presley’s Stax sessions, RCA Legacy is releasing the three-CD box set “Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition” on Tuesday. It’s the first time Presley’s songs recorded at Stax are together in the same release, which also includes outtakes and rare photos.
“The dissipation of the Stax recordings across three albums over 18 months provided little or no creative kudos for such deserving artistic accomplishment,” wrote “Elvis at Stax” producer Roger Semon in notes accompanying the release. “The objective of ‘Elvis at Stax’ is to reflect the true spontaneity and musicianship of Elvis’ sessions.”
The release of the set comes days before the start of Elvis Week on Saturday. Thousands of the singer’s devotees flock to Memphis each year for a celebration of his life and career, with a candlelight vigil serving as a memorial for his death, on Aug. 16, 1977, in Memphis at age 42.
Presley recorded his first song, “That’s All Right,” at Sun Studio in 1954. Fifteen years later, after making movies and staying away from the performing stage, he cut a series of hit singles at Memphis’ American Studio, marking the start of his comeback. Those hits included “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.”
Presley returned to touring in 1972, a year that also saw the release of the Golden Globe Award-winning documentary “Elvis on Tour.”
According to author Robert Gordon, Presley and Parker wanted to build on the success in 1973 to try to re-establish Presley. Parker cut a deal with the record company RCA, selling Presley’s rights to his existing song catalog for $5.4 million. Part of the deal required that Presley deliver new material, according to Gordon’s notes in the box set.
With American Sound Studio closed, Presley turned to Stax.
The sessions, on July 20-23, produced “Raised on Rock,” ”I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” and “For Ol’ Time’s Sake.”
But on the last night, while recording “Girl of Mine,” Presley noticed a change in sound from the previous night.
He discovered that his personal microphone had been stolen, considered a virtual crime in the music business.
“The theft was a disappointing end to a good session,” writes Gordon, who also authored the books “It Came from Memphis” and “The Elvis Treasures.”
Presley came back to Stax on Dec. 10 for a weeklong session. By then, his divorce with Priscilla Presley had been finalized.
The session included the energetic “I Got a Feeling in My Body,” written by Dennis Linde, who also had penned “Suspicious Minds.”
Former Muscle Shoals keyboard player David Briggs and bassist Norbert Putnam, who recorded with Presley in Nashville, were among the session musicians.
Putnam recalls noticing that Presley had gained some weight and lost some of the infectious energy he displayed when Putnam worked with him in Nashville. But once the recordings started, Presley’s voice sounded strong as ever, Putnam said.
“We started an old Chuck Berry tune, and he came alive,” Putnam said. “He immersed himself in the music.”