Two importlabels announced the release of the “How Great Thou Art” sessions. The 2001 label announced to do three volumes (in mono) and Lovely Music Productions announced four discs, the extra disc containing the masters (in stereo?). Finally out is the first volume from the 2001 label.
Very few import releases have a great design like this one. Only the Madison releases have the same class, and are equally informative. Eight pages filled with informative liner notes on the tracks (based on Ernst Jorgensen’s “A life in Music”), Elvis' inspiration, facts on the songs and original snapshots of our man. We could do a great review by just copying the booklet.
This release contains seven titles recorded during Elvis sessions for his award winning “How Great Thou Art” album in Studio B during the last week of May 1966 (May 25th – 27th). This was his first cooperation with Felton Jarvis, a cooperation that would last until Elvis’ death in 1977.
Still in the middle of his Hollywood contracts you could say this recording session is one of the first recording sessions Elvis really puts his heart in, going back to the music and musicians he loved so much. Back to the recordings he had heard as a kid by the Blackwood brother, Golden State Quartet and the Statesmen.
He is also joined by the musicians who were there when he first started out at Sam Philip’s SUN and later on RCA’s studio in New York as well as several musicians he admired and new session musicians, it is David Briggs first session with Elvis. This should be a guarantee for a great session.
During these sessions Elvis did not only record gospel songs, he also recorded "Love letters”, “Down in The Alley” and he gave “Tomorrow Is A long Time” from Bob Dylan a try, emerging in a five minute master, a long song for Elvis’ standard (accompanied by Charlie McCoy, who had played with Dylan nine months before).
The tracks on this release are presented in chronological order and so are the takes. But an “alternate takes” release like this is not the kind you put on to listen to Elvis performing gospel, we listen to it to enjoy “sitting in with Elvis” performing his favorite music and finally hearing what went on in the studio and how these songs emerged from that. There is enough studio chatter between the takes to create that feel.
The CD starts with six takes of the black jubilee song “Run On” and then three takes of the title song. Great to hear are the ten takes of “Stand By Me” on which Elvis has the lights turned down low (so low he can’t see his lyrics). “Father Along” and “In The Garden” are gospel standards on which Elvis needs only two takes. On “Somebody Bigger Than You And I” Elvis needs sixteen takes to get the song and the “work parts” right.
Unlike the alternate takes on the last “Close Up” box which sometimes have a – really - different arrangement these takes differ only in “getting” it right. Elvis tries to create the right atmosphere for all present to lay down the best version on tape. Asking for help on “Where No One Stands Alone” from his three backing groups, or changing the key (from the too low “A-key” up higher) to match his voice on “Somebody Bigger Than You And I”. You can hear Elvis’ voice has matured in comparison with his first recordings for RCA. It is now “low” enough to give these songs the “spiritual” sound they need.
The big minor of this release is an annoying distortion on the background on several tracks. So you don’t want to listen to this CD through a set of earphones (something a lot of fans like to do to “catch all” on the tape). Although in mono, and perhaps with a bit too much echo, these songs still sound great through your stereo set.
This is the kind of release we’d love to have from the “Follow That Dream” label, but the material is probably saved for major releases on the BMG Heritage label. Fortunately we have the 2001 release for now (and who knows, a stereo release in the near future?). Fortunately volume two in this series is already announced on the back; hopefully it will be released soon.