Roger Semon of Sony Music Entertainment knows the music business and Elvis Presley’s sound like few others do.
Elvis Presley’s two recording sessions at Stax Records in 1973 are the focus of this year’s Elvis Week festivities, with a new box set from Sony Music Group that compiles the songs released over three albums in the mid-1970s along with outtakes and alternate versions of the songs.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
And he knows where RCA, Presley’s record label, went wrong in marketing what should have been a historic intersection of Presley with Stax Records.
The problem, Semon told a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, wasn’t the music. It was in the images that were wrapped around the albums and singles over the course of three albums that mixed in the tunes recorded at Stax by Presley in July and December of 1973.
“All of Elvis’ records from 1970 to around ’73 – every single album – came with Elvis wearing a wonderful white jump suit,” Semon said at the panel discussion sponsored by RCA/Legacy Recording, part of Sony. “I think in a way as great as he was, it actually confused Elvis’ output. Whether it was a live recording or whether it was Elvis’ phenomenal Stax sessions, there was no discrimination with regard to the packaging. There was always Elvis in the white jump suit.”
It didn’t help that the music charts based on radio airplay and album sales were also in a different place in terms of what was popular.
“‘Raised on Rock’ came out in an environment of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, David Bowie,” said Semon, who went to work for RCA in 1973. “Contemporary music had really taken over in a massive way.”
Semon and Sony Music archivist Ernst Jorgenson tried to rectify that with the new box set that puts together the Stax sessions including outtakes and alternate versions that were played during the gathering in the replica of the old Studio A at Stax. The box set is out on the 40th anniversary of the sessions, which are an emphasis of this year’s Elvis Week activities in Memphis.
“It didn’t look this good when you played here,” Muscle Shoals bass player Norbert Putnam said before the panel discussion to Memphis Horns player Wayne Jackson.
Putnam remembered getting to the Stax sessions early before anyone else except an engineer.
“I tried to imagine the scene that was Otis Redding and the Memphis Horns,” Putnam told the audience. “I thought, ‘I bet the king of rock ‘n’ roll can light this place up.’”
By his judgment and that of Jorgensen, he did but the session wasn’t the moment where Elvis met Stax. The sound was influenced by Stax but the band and its sound had more in common with the sound Presley got a few years earlier at American Sound Studios recording in North Memphis under the direction of Chips Moman.
Jorgensen said the music Presley selected was a high point because a publishing deal that had dictated in large part the material he normally recorded before had lapsed.
“By 1973, he gets more courageous because his publishing deal had fallen apart,” Jorgensen said, referring to the hold that Hill & Range music publishing of Nashville had on his material before then.
But he agreed with Semon, “In some ways he was let down. I think he had been very much let down by radio in ’73 and ’74.”
Presley was also going through a divorce that Jorgensen and Putnam believe was a factor in what is considered a lost song. It was the Troy Seals-Donnie Fritts ballad “We Had It All” that Presley tried to sing numerous times at the Stax sessions. He didn’t complete it because producer Felton Jarvis told Putnam its topic was too close to the divorce, according to Putnam.
Jorgensen tried to find any trace of the song as he went through all of the Stax tapes from three sources – one in the studio and the other two from tapes made in the RCA mobile recording unit brought to Stax for the sessions. The closest he got was finding obscure production notes that indicated there were recordings.
Jorgensen thinks the tape might not have been rolling.
“No, I think we did several tapes,” Putnam replied. “David (Briggs – another Muscle Shoals player in the sessions) said he saw the tapes. It’s probably in his basement.”
Putnam and Jorgensen resolved to call Briggs in a continuing search for a recording of the ballad.
By the December sessions at Stax, Putnam remembered Presley as “pretty comfortable” but marks the sessions as a last high point before a decline that he believes led to his death four years later.
“We watched him slowly come to his demise,” Putnam said before noting of the 1973 sessions, “Once the music started, he came out of his shell. He was a lion.”