The place: American Studios. The address: 827 Thomas Street, Memphis. The dates: January and February 1969. The legacy: A pivotal turning point not just in Elvis history – but also in music history.
Yet amazingly, the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s American Studios sessions has essentially passed without so much as a whimper. There is no sign marking the site where these landmark sessions took place. There has been no media focus commemorating the string of hits generated from Elvis’ all too brief Memphis convergence with legendary producer Lincoln Wayne “Chips” Moman and the talented musicians assembled in his studio – musicians who much like Elvis himself seamlessly combined the sounds and influences of Country, Soul, Rock, Folk, gritty Funk and Gospel… all into a beautiful, uniquely Southern soufflé. Elvis Presley Enterprises, stewards of Elvis’ legacy, has oddly not acknowledged these historically significant sessions, which were unquestionably crucial to the growth and advancement of Elvis’ career.
While Elvis “tribute artists” are embraced – née, aggrandized – in a circus-esque milieu among shops stocked with various shapes, forms and applications of cheap plastic stamped with Elvis’ name and likeness, another critical milestone slips quietly by. Within this deafening silence, musical purists – those resistant to the hypnotic trance of the meaninglessness of the juggernauting marketing machine – hear a loud echo resonating. It is the sound of a slap… irreverently delivered with utter disrespect across the faces of the profusely talented people who poured their hearts and souls into what would become blockbuster albums and various single releases that thrust Elvis back on top of the heap, solidifying his status as a legend.
As 1968 drew to a close, Elvis found himself at a major crossroads in his life and career. His spirit may have been bruised from his personally disappointing detour into “kitschville,” but it was in no way broken. His futile fight for Hollywood credibility, respect and relevance led to an impasse and eventually, a sort of spiritual malaise. For so long, he’d simply been going through the motions uninspired – yet, he still possessed an inner spark that pushed him to seek something meaningful to fill the emptiness in his soul. It has been observed and opined by many that perhaps the impetus behind his heightened interest in all things spiritual was his lack of fulfillment in his career. Prohibited from making strides toward projects he yearned to tackle, he was tired – emotionally, mentally, spiritually and creatively. Not too dissimilar to a caged animal, he felt helpless to resist the forces controlling him. But the concessions for which he had lobbied with director Steve Binder from Colonel Parker during production of the wildly successful NBC television special just a few months earlier were a tremendous step. And considering Parker’s tight reign, it was quite an accomplishment. It felt really good… and it was a big step forward that would foreshadow events soon to follow.
But with the dramatic changes on the music scene that seemed to leave him behind while he was busy with his series of formulaic movies, did he still have anything to offer in the one area he knew was his true calling? Elvis quietly pondered that thought. But with the transition of a new year, a simple conversation served as the impetus for some major change. That inner spark would soon flare into a raging inferno as he bolted from the confines of both his internal restraint and from external forces to pursue what he wanted – instead of once again settling for what he didn’t.
A few days after his birthday on January 8, a gathering of compadres assembled in Graceland’s den while Elvis’ RCA producer Felton Jarvis discussed the Nashville recording session booked for the following week. Memphis Mafia foreman Marty Lacker recounts, “It would have been just another ordinary, boring and really unproductive, non-hit generating session in Nashville – again. He was basically recording to appease Parker and RCA, who were always nagging him for product.” Listening to the details of yet another status quo session being hashed out, Marty’s vexation and annoyance could no longer be contained. He shook his head subconsciously in frustration. Elvis looked over to ask, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” As he’d done repeatedly for months, Marty retorted, “I wish for once you would try working with Chips.”
About a year younger than Elvis, Chips had amassed quite an impressive music industry résumé, tackling various genres along the way. In many ways, his story paralleled Elvis’ ascent to fame. Praised by former Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler as “the best, most under-rated guitar player in the South,” Chips hitchhiked to Memphis from LaGrange, Georgia as a 14-year-old man-child with a guitar and a very bright future. With no inclinations towards a music career at that time, he planned to work as a house painter. Fate would intervene to have him instead coloring the world through his various roles in the music industry. He made his mark as a musician, composer, publisher, studio head, engineer and producer. Discovered by Sun artist Warren Smith while sitting in a drugstore romping on his guitar, he was recruited to serve among an army of Rockabilly cats. For a while, he played on the same bill as Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison and performed with brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette and Gene Vincent. A stint with Gold Star Recording Studios in California beckoned, where he attentively observed engineer Stan Ross’s work. Back in Memphis, he parlayed those skills with natural ability and his finely tuned ear into chart success with Brunswick-turned-Stax Studios in the late 1950’s. He produced Stax’s first big hits Gee Whiz by Carla Thomas, You’ll Never Miss Your Water by William Bell among several others. After a few years, he was deeply hurt by broken promises and unfair treatment at Stax. His exodus from McLemore Avenue and entrée to Thomas Street was only the beginning of another level and layer of success. Chips channeled his business acumen into creating American Studios, where he could freely practice creative control. Within a five year period, his group generated a still unrivaled 122 hit records. At one point, American Studios boasted of one-fourth of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100.
The creative kinship between Elvis and the plucky, straight-shooting Chips, who has been heralded as the “midwife of (Elvis’) creative rebirth,” was obvious. “As Elvis’ talents as a singer are great and come naturally without training, so are Chips’ talents as a guitar player and as a producer,” Marty says. It’s all in his ears – and in his feeling inside. He just has a natural instinct of what should be on each record while he’s producing it.” Two forces of nature. Strong personalities. Tremendous, organic talent. History was yet to be made – and Elvis’ finest work was yet to come.
“… you should try working with Chips.” With that assertion, the wheels were set in motion. It was to be an act of rebellion that launched Colonel Parker, his assistant Tom Diskin and Hill and Range song plugger Freddy Bienstock into orbit. The creative freedom Elvis had been yearning for was finally within his grasp. Was he doing the right thing? While the uncertainty nagged at him, he also contended with a nasty cold as the January 13 rendezvous with fate drew closer.
The day finally arrived. Elvis nervously walked into the st