The latter part of Elvis Presley’s career is, in part, defined by the legendary singer’s fall from grace: the gaudy stage outfits, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, drug use, and paranoid nationalism. But a compromised king is still a king.
But it’s understandable that casual fans might approach Elvis at Stax, which documents Presley’s sessions at Stax Recording Studios in his hometown of Memphis in July and December of 1973, with some trepidation. But fear not: though he might have had a concealed a “Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs” badge under his giant collared jacket, these collected recordings are plenty vital. The set finds Presley augmenting his gold chains and sequins with raw sweat, singing mightily from a selection of songs by the likes of Tony Joe White, Chuck Berry, Larry Gatlin, Waylon Jennings, Billie Joe Shaver, and more.
As Memphis historian Robert Gordon writes in liner notes, the Stax sessions represent Presley’s desire to establish his independence from the labels and the music industry as a whole. The Stax studio was chosen mostly for its proximity to Graceland, where Presley desired to spend his time after a long stint on the road. Beyond the studio itself, there’s not much “Stax” to the proceedings. Stax bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson Jr., and guitarist Bobby Manuel contribute some, but Presley’s mostly backed by members of his live band, “familiar faces,” Gordon writes. But that isn’t to say there’s not a soulful groove to these recordings. Featuring multiple takes and studio banter, the discs find Presley digging into burners “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” and “Promised Land,” and tender selections like “Take Good Care of Her” and “For Ol’ Times Sake.”
Not all of the songs hit on the funky groove that makes the clear standout, “I’ve Got a Feeling in My Body,” work so hard, but they do present a different context in which to view the King’s later period, one that illuminates the way soul, country, R&B, pop and rockabilly were always synthesized in both his approach and his catalog. If anything, the sounds of Elvis at Stax demonstrate that his particular fusion couldn’t really have come from anywhere other than Memphis, a fact its most famous son certainly was aware of. words/ j woodbury