Guitarist says King lives on
Ask James Burton about Elvis Presley, and the guitarist gets straight to the point.
"He was an incredible musician and singer," Burton said. "It was God's gift. Everything he did was so natural. He wasn't a great guitar player. But he was like the drummer in the band - he kept the rhythm. The guy, to me, had perfect pitch. He could start singing one of his songs out of the blue and it would be in the key he recorded it in. It was incredible."
Burton, one of the great guitarists in country and rock 'n' roll history, played with Elvis for the last nine years of Presley's life.
After working in recording sessions that started with "Viva Las Vegas" - "They said, ‘Watch Ann-Margret and when she gets real sexy, throw some hot licks in'" - Burton was asked to put together the band for Elvis' return to live performance at Las Vegas' International Hotel in 1969.
While seen by some as a low point in Elvis' career, the Las Vegas shows were far from that. The spirit, intensity and pure entertainment of those engagements can be heard on "Elvis Presley: On Stage," a just-released two-disc set that combines live recordings from shows in August 1969 and in February 1970.
The 1969 disc finds Elvis doing his '50s hits and then-current singles. On the other disc, he's expanded the repertoire to include the best songs of the day, such as The Beatles' "Yesterday," Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" and Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie."
"Elvis loved the Vegas shows," Burton said during a panel at the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. "He loved playing with the big orchestra. But his main love was the small rhythm section behind him. He was very close, he played very tight. He had a strong powerful voice, and we had a strong band behind him."
The Vegas orchestra and Presley's touring group, known as the TCB (Taking Care of Business) Band, were well rehearsed. But Burton said there was no way to fully prepare for an Elvis show.
"You had to pay attention to him," Burton said. "He was kind of like Jerry Lee Lewis. ... You just had to watch him on every song. Sometimes he'd stretch out a song. Sometimes he'd stop in the middle of a song. He might have a solo. He might not."
Surprisingly, Burton said, Elvis and his band rarely had monitors, making playing even more difficult.
"We played so many shows and I couldn't hear anything," Burton said. "All I could hear was screaming. I stood next to the drummer and sometimes couldn't hear the drums. I could hear my amp and that's it."
Presley generated even more of a frenzy in the 1950s, drawing hundreds of screaming teens to his shows and mobs when his entourage stopped anywhere.
"Whenever anybody saw a pink Cadillac with a big bass strapped on the top, they knew Elvis was in town," said Wanda Jackson, who toured with Elvis in the mid '50s and was "his girl" for a little more than a year.
Jackson was an aspiring country singer when she met Presley. He gave her advice that changed her life, making her the Queen of Rockabilly.
"He told me, ‘Look at the record sales; it's the kids buying the records. You need to record songs that appeal to them,'" Jackson said. "No one wrote rock 'n' roll songs for girls back then. There weren't any girls doing it besides me."
After seeing her versions of "Fujiyama Mama" and "Let's Have A Party" turn into hits, Jackson said, "I thought, ‘Wow, Elvis did know what he was talking about.'"
On Aug. 16, 1977, Burton and the TCB band were in a plane to Portland, Maine, when the pilot got a call telling him to return to Las Vegas.
"We couldn't figure out why Elvis would cancel the tour," he said. "We had to stop in Pueblo, Colo. That's where we were told that Elvis had passed. It was a very sad time. ... A lot of things went through my mind, losing such an incredible person."
But Burton emphasizes Elvis continues to live on through his music: in arena-filling performances that the TCB band continues to give, with Presley shown on a big screen. And in a new Cirque du Soleil troupe in, appropriately enough, Las Vegas.
Preserving legacy of Elvis
For two decades, Ernst Mikael Jorgensen has been working with an artist he never met: Elvis Aaron Presley.
The producer of remastered recordings, boxed sets and single-disc Presley packages, Jorgensen is an expert on all things Elvis and a man passionate about his work preserving the music and continuing the legacy of the King of Rock 'n' Roll.
"I'm really a man on a mission," Jorgensen said. "The challenge for me is to get people who have bought ‘30 No. 1 Hits' to dig deeper."
Jorgensen grew up an Elvis fan in Denmark in the 1960s, finding himself drawn more to Elvis than the English imitator who was just as popular in Europe at the time.
"I thought Elvis was much hipper than Cliff Richard, just like I thought the Stones were much tougher than The Beatles," he said. "In much of Europe, Elvis didn't catch on until the '60s. In my country, you couldn't buy Elvis records before the end of 1968."
In 1988, Jorgensen, by then a record producer, joined BMI, the company that at the time owned RCA Records and controlled Elvis' recordings. He was assigned to the Presley reissues: "I remember when I started out, thinking, ‘That will be fun for a year,'" he said.
Twenty-two years later, Jorgensen is still working with Elvis' music, intimately familiar with the 711 official masters in the RCA/Legacy vaults and the few additional recordings that don't belong to the company.
After scouring studios and storage rooms and following rumors of lost recordings, Jorgensen said it is unlikely that any "new" Presley recordings would ever be discovered.
"The hope of finding something we haven't heard is very slim by now," he said. "If we did find something, like a live recording of a '50s show, the condition of the recording itself would very likely be poor, the material having deteriorated. And it would only be of interest to 5,000 or 10,000 hard-core collectors."
Asked to choose his favorite Presley record, Jorgensen hesitated, then replied:
"My favorite to illustrate the point as to why Elvis, to me, was one of the greatest singers - it wasn't just that he was a great singer, it was his ability to take a song and make you believe it - is ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?,'" Jorgensen said. "If you read the lyrics, you're not going to believe it. But with Elvis, you believe it. He's telling you, from the heart."
In evaluating Presley, Jorgensen said, it's important to remember that he wasn't a songwriter. Nor was he simply stealing from the black blues and R&B singers he heard growing up in Memphis in the late '40s and early '50s.
"He didn't write ‘Norwegian Wood' or ‘Purple Rain,'" Jorgensen said. "He was a singer. What he was able to do was take songs and make them his own and make people stop and listen to the song again even if it had been around before. Elvis didn't rip off Arthur Crudup. He added some feel to the song you couldn't detect in the original. It wasn't like Pat Boone doing a ‘white' version of Little Richard."
During an hour-long phone conversation, Jorgensen talked about the ups and downs of Presley's career, acknowledging, for example, that his '60s movie soundtracks were often loaded with dreck, such as "No Room to Rhumba i