As a longtime Elvis fan (and I can
now admit to being as a teenager one of the earliest imitators, or
"tribute artists", as they now say in Memphis), I've always been glad
to see good sounding re-releases of his best work. A set of German-produced
RCA CDs from 1984 was the first set of reissues that did the original
recordings justice. Titled Elvis - The Collection, the first of these
3 CDs contained many of the early hits, while the second and third
chronicled the string of hits into the 60s. For some reason I seem
to have lost Volume 3 (PD 89248, 89249, 89250).
I thought these sounded pretty good
until I heard these DCC LPs. But before getting to them, a little
background. RCA in the U.S. has always excelled at quantity rather
than quality in Elvis re-releases, and some of the reissues were really
bad sounding. Even the originals from the mid and late 50s were often
much better. It was only on the German CDs that one could actually
hear the engineering excellence of many of the Bill Porter Nashville
recordings from 1960-62. Porter left RCA in 1963 to manage the Monument
studio where he then recorded much of the great Roy Orbison legacy.
The 2 LP set, Elvis 24 Karat Hits
(DCC DRL 2-18132, Limited Edition set #5275), contains the biggest
hits from 1956 (Heartbreak Hotel) through 1969 (Suspicious Minds),
and great pains were taken by producer Steve Hoffman, working in collaboration
with Porter, to find and use the original masters, including stereo
ones, if they existed, for songs previously issued in mono, such as
Love Me Tender, Stuck On You, and It's Now Or Never.
Extensive performer listings are provided,
as well as jazz-like documentation of dates and recording locales.
The majority were done at RCA's Studio B in Nashville, produced by
RCA A&R honcho Steve Sholes (Elvis was then by far RCA's hottest property),
and engineered by Porter. Album notes are in the form of a letter
full of reminiscences and background information from Porter to Hoffman.
It deals with the technical aspects of the Studio B recordings in
detail. I was also fortunate enough to visit that studio a few years
back and see how and with what Porter made these great recordings.
I also recently visited the Sun Studio in Memphis where Elvis was
first discovered and recorded, but more on that presently.
That the console in Nashville Studio
B was an RCA-built mixer is such a given that Porter doesn't even
mention it. Before the days of Neve, Studer, and SSI, the larger recording
companies routinely built their own equipment. And though RCA also
made many of their own microphones, including the famous 77 ribbon
series that we see Elvis in front of in many pictures, Porter chose
to use a Telefunken U-47 on the voice, the RCA 77D relegated to D.J.
Fontana's kick drum. The rest of the drum kit got a Neumann KM-54,
while a KM-56 was used on the guitar amplifier. The Jordanaires sang
into a Neumann U-48. One key to the sound quality of these recordings
is the extensive use of condenser mikes, with their better transient
response and sweeter high frequencies. With no pan pots, Porter created
the stereo image completely by acoustic placement and balance of levels,
much the way Steve Lee and I did with The Bellingham Sessions (AI-CD-011).
Hence the natural and wholly credible soundstage.
That soundstage was enhanced by the
use of EMT acoustic delay units, which, like many of the mikes, came
from Germany, these actually echo chambers with a vibrating plate
at one end and an acoustic pickup at the other. The EMTs were so good
acoustically, they were even used to augment hall sound in classical
recording. When I worked at CBC they had one that was used to give
some life to recordings made in very dry halls.
Recorders were the great studio workhorse
Ampex 300 series, 2 and 3 channel machines operating at 15 IPS. The
3-track tapes were never used, but stored as "safeties", a common
practice still. I would never go into a recording session with only
one recorder, generally backing up our 96 kHz DAT tapes with a 48
kHz safety. It's a recording engineer's maxim that the worst things
happen at the most inopportune moments, so redundancy is the rule.
With all this background, it shouldn't
surprise you that the results sounded so good. But what RCA put out
on 33 1/3 and, in particular, on 45 rpm, records didn't at all reflect
how the masters really sounded. The DCC LP brings us greater dynamics,
much clearer ambience, and some pretty serious subsonics: Hound Dog,
which was recorded in New York along with Don't Be Cruel, has some
energy way down there that sounds like Elvis was jostling or foot-tapping
a mike stand. Similarly, Porter notes that when he recorded Are You
Lonesome Tonight, Elvis insisted before the first (and only) take
that the lights be turned off for atmosphere: "And, listen to the
recording on a high-quality playback system, and you'll hear Elvis
bumping into a microphone stand, because he couldn't see where he
was going in the dark!"
If Are You Lonesome Tonight showed
not only that Elvis had a great voice, but could sing a lyric superbly:
It's Now Or Never is possibly Elvis' finest vocal performance, achieved
in the days when the voice was at its best. Both were recorded by
Porter in 1960, and the latter song went on to eclipse Hound Dog/Don't
Be Cruel as the biggest-selling Presley single. It's wonderful to
hear it again with the beautifully pizzicato-picked mandolin at left,
and Floyd Cramer's overdubbed castanets in the background, both clearly
and crisply delineated on the DCC LP. Another song that benefits greatly
from stereo is Stuck On You, a song that was stuck in my head through
the spring and summer of 1960.
Another Presley LP that DCC has released
is Elvis Is Back (DR L-1551, serial #4585), the first album released
after his stint in the U.S. Army. All of it was recorded in Nashville
in March and April of 1960, and it's notable for its revelation of
a new bluesy Elvis in songs like Such A Night, Like A Baby, and Reconsider
Baby, which ends the album. As well, there's another classic pop vocal
performance in Fever, which was also a hit for Little Willy John and
Peter Guralnick writes about the 1960
recording session that yielded Are You Lonesome Tonight, Fever and
It's Now Or Never in his book, Careless Love:1 By the time they got
to It's Now Or Never, it was obvious that Elvis was reaching for something
more than he had ever attempted before, and he delivered several performances
that were impressive right up till the moment that he had to achieve
the full-voiced operatic cadence with which the aria concludes. Trying
to be helpful, Bill Porter suggested that they could always splice
the ending on."I said, `We don't need to do the song all the way through'
He said, `Bill, I'm going to do it all the way through, or I'm not
going to do it' And he finally did."
All engineered by Porter, Elvis Is
Back has the same great sound and atmosphere as his other Studio B
recordings. It seems Porter just played the microphones and machinery
like a virtuoso on his own well understood instrument. And it's all
captured on this superb LP. Another song also recorded in this session
that stretched over April 3d and 4th of 1960 was Such A Night, a title
that nicely describes this historic outpouring of great Elvis songs
Three years later his life had turned
into a string of B movies with bad tunes, and by the late 60s his
recording career was barely rescued by such songs as Suspicious Minds
and In The Ghetto. An era had passed: Elvis and the white jumpsuit
were out, the Beatles and The White Album were in.
DCC has recently announced the end
of their LP production, following other audiophile labels like Sheffield
and Mo-Fi in this respect, which is a shame. Here are a few additional
reasons why this is so, though one LP definitely misses the mark.
Bonnie, Joni, & Grace
That exception is Court And Spark,
which just comes up flat, sonically speaking. I have a 1/2-speed mastered
audiophile pressing from Nautilus that sounds much better defined
and alive, but like many improperly equalized 1/2-speeds, it has no
deep bass at all. The best sound from this classic LP comes from an
original Canadian WEA pressing, which, though noisier than the audiophile
reissues, has a wonderful clarity and presence, along with beefier
bass. This is also true of For The Roses and Blue in their Canadian
editions: I don't think either will ever be bettered by an audiophile
pressing except in terms of surface noise. In fact, I bought a later
WEA pressing of Blue because of scratches on my original, and ended
up giving it away because of its poor sound quality. I don't know
what went wrong for DCC with Court And Spark, but it could be any
one of a number of things, starting, perhaps, with a poor submaster
to cut from.
But when DCC wins, it wins big, as
with Bonnie Raitt's Luck Of The Draw (LPZ-2031, Limited Edition #1006)
in which Don Was's pristine production is fully revealed. Not having
an LP to compare it with, I pulled out the regular CD version of this
release, and it didn't even come close. There are instrumental subtleties
and vocal nuances on the LP that aren't even hinted at on the CD.
And, in passing, I have to express
my disappointment at the grunge, garage-band sound on Ms. Raitt's
most recent recording, Fundamental (Capitol 24385 63972), engineered
by Tchad Blake at Sunset Sound Factory in LA. It doesn't have to sound
bad to be basic blues. Even Sam Phillips at Sun Studio knew that.
Grace Slick always knew what her sound
was, and that edge was most epitimized by Surrealistic Pillow, which
DCC has also re-released (LPZ-2033 Limited Edition #0481). White Rabbit
brought Alice In Wonderland and psychedelic drugs together in a strangely
logical way, and made the Jefferson Airplane a huge pop success.
But the sound of this LP shows us
all that was wrong with 70s recordings, that harsh, metallic, synthetic
acoustic, overlaid with buckets of reverb. Exceptions can be found
in Jorma Kaukonen's haunting Today, and the 12-string guitar romp,
Embryonic Journey. But if anything sums up the sonic signature of
this recording, it's Somebody To Love. This band had a lot of attitude
for its time, and time has not necessarily been kind to its sound.