Elvis Presley – Elvis at Stax (box set review)

Elvis Presley – Elvis at Stax – Deluxe Edition (Legacy Recordings) review

Three-disc box set captures the King at the legendary Memphis studio

The Elvis albums of the 1970‘s were definitely hit or miss.  But, that wasn’t really his fault. He had recently stopped making movies, so his record label and manager were set on cobbling anything they could get there hands on, especially capitalizing on his recent success of Aloha From Hawaii: Live Via Satellite (read our review). But, Elvis was still making great music, as a new, three-disc box set, Elvis at Stax, aims to prove.

The title of this collection may come as a surprise to you.  But Elvis did, in fact, record at the famed studio, once the home to such legendary artists as Otis Redding, Booker T & the MG’s, and Sam & Dave.  But instead of embracing these tracks, his record company coupled them with home recordings and outtakes, and spread them out over several LPs.  Finally, his entire output from Stax is compiled in one collection.

Even though Elvis recorded at the studio, virtually no Stax musicians or engineers are present on these tracks – it’s all people that Elvis had worked with before.  In fact, after a few largely unsuccessful sessions, Presley brought in the RCA Mobile Studio and ran microphones to a truck parked behind the building.  As noted in the extensive liner notes that accompany the set, Presley chose Stax, not for its great sound, but for its close proximity to his home at Graceland.  Recently divorced, he wanted to spend more time with daughter Lisa Marie, yet he owed RCA a new album – recording at Stax allowed him to do both.

Despite using outside musicians and recording gear, there is still something in these hallowed walls that permeates these recordings, giving them a warm, lived-in feel.  The set is divided into several groups by style – R&B, Country, and Pop.  Disc one opens with the R&B and Country outtakes.  It’s amazing how effortlessly Presley moves from one genre to another.  The opening track, “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” starts with pure chaos – all the musicians are just warming up.  Yet, it’s amazing how quickly everything falls into place, with Elvis giving a rousing performance that shows he was still very much in control.

One of the real highlights of this set is the in-between song banter, which really shows off more of Presley’s personality.  Before the outtake of “Promised Land,” Presley is singing something else, and quips: “Damn, that song is old, I did that song when I was three years old.”  The take has a rougher edge than the released version, which unfortunately fades too early.  Equally impressive is the outtake of “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” which has less polish and a more spirited vocal from Elvis.  “It’s Midnight” sounds like it came straight from his personal marriage woes, even though he didn’t write the song.

Disc two opens with the Pop session outtakes and is highlighted by an excellent version of “Spanish Eyes,” featuring impressive Latin-flavored guitar from James Burton.  The outtake of “Take Good Care of Her” has a lot more potency, with a crying guitar and sparse production, while the outtake of “Thinking About You” has a gentle funkiness that’s missing in the released version.

The middle of disc two switches to the master takes from his first Stax session in July.  “Raised on Rock” is a decent uptempo number, but the lyrics are a little dubious – he wasn’t raised on rock, he INVENTED it!  Presley digs back to the same songwriting team that gave him many of his early hits – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – for “Three Corn Patches,” and it’s one of the standouts of this session.

Disc three covers the released tracks from his final Stax sessions in December.  The Chuck Berry cover, “Promised Land,” put Presley back on the charts, and is a kick ass rocker.  You really appreciate his genius here, since the tracks are not grouped by genre. Presley flawlessly slips from the groovin’ “Talk About the Good Times” to the tear jerker “She Wears My Ring.”  It’s fun to compare these released versions with the outtakes – the outtakes usually win out, featuring more energy and grit.

The set comes in a clever slipcase that resembles a reel to reel tape box and features extensive notes behind these under-appreciated sessions.  If you want proof that Elvis was still at the top of his game in the early Seventies – look no further than Elvis at Stax.  –Tony Peters