American Session Band
The famous American Sound Studio Session Band visited Denmark in April. Elvis Umlimited talked to the men who played on some of Elvis' best material ever made.
We're at Hotel Randers. It's a beautiful old hotel located in down town Randers in Denmark. It's a silent evening in. Nobody seems to recognise that five famous men are in the Danish Elvis Mecca in Jutland and the home of Elvis Unlimited and it's museum. Around a tiny table by a sofa sits five middle aged men. They are Bobby Wood (piano), Bobby Emmons (organ), Mike Leech (bass), Reggie Young (guitar) and Gene Chrisman (drums). For the first time ever, the men are in Denmark as a complete group of musicians. They were part of Elvis Unlimiteds travelling show, "From Memphis To Denmark". A show that was a very big success. And a show celebrating Elvis' famous and legendary 1969' Record, "From Elvis In Memphis", recorded in the famous American Sound Studio in Memphis. Here's is what they told us in this short interview...
A funky, funky studio!
Elvis Unlimited (EU): So, how was the first show (after playing in Randers last evening)?
Bobby Wood (BW): What a wild audience that was!
EU: So. Let's go back to 1969 then. Do you remember that?
Bobby Emmons (BE): We can't remember that long back!
EU: There was a studio in Memphis called American Sound Studio. Do you remember that? Elvis stepped in on January 13, 1969. Do you remember?
BE: Very well! We were speechless when he stepped in the door. It was very different to all the others who came by in the studio.
BW: We were very busy at the moment, when he came in. We were tired. It's wasn't just a new session. This was different. The man had a charisma around him when he stepped in.
EU: Can you be more precise?
BW: I don't know. It was Elvis. He had this way, you know. You recognised that you were surrounded by something big. It was like seeing a real king or something divine.
EU: Did it lift the music - his divine charisma?
Reggie Young (RY): It was different. It was different material. I think it was that.
Mike Leech (ML): Can I say something? There was a young guy in the studio. We never locked the door and people could just drop by if they wanted. But this guy told me: "Who's next?". We're going to play with Elvis, I told him. And he replied: "Yes, okay, sure, you're right." But at the same moment Elvis came in the door and the first thing he said was: What a funky, funky studio.This young guy almost dropped his pants when he saw Elvis come in!
BE: I also saw a technician who was there. When he saw Elvis he put his right hand across his stomach and placed it over his heart and walked after Elvis in the studio.
EU: But what comes into your minds when you saw Elvis for the first time in the studio?
RY: I was overwelmed by his entourage. There were around 12 persons around him.
Gene Chrisman (GC): The first time I saw him, the charisma was there in front of me. But that was actually 10 years before when Elvis rented one of the cinemas in Memphis. I happened to be there and I saw him stepping out of his Cadillac and you just knew that you were with something great.
EU: Do you remember when the singer Ray Hamilton stepped by the first day on January 13?
Them all: It was actually later that happened!
GC: Elvis and Roy had never met before. We recorded with Roy when Elvis called the studio. He asked us if it was okay to come by and visit Roy while he was recording with us. So Elvis came by and Roy and Elvis seemed to like each other. Elvis handed Roy a song called Angelica. We recorded that number with Roy.
EU: What did they talk about. Do you remember?
GC: They must have been talking about the song I guess.
EU: A rumour has it Elvis was in process recording Mac Davis' Vietnam protest song, Home, but he didn't. Do you remember that?
BE: No! But Mac played In The Ghetto live in the studio before the song was actually recorded
EU: But do you remember something about Home?
BW: Elvis went through a list of songs and then sang a line or something. I don't know.
EU: What made Elvis so special?
BW: It must be the background he had with him. That he was the King of Rock'n'Roll. A moviestar and all that. But our job and the reason he was in the studio was to make records. We did that with all the singers there. We always tried to make the best album ever made. A 100 percent!
BE: Yes, and he respected you.
EU: Was that because Elvis was from Memphis like you, that he respected you?
BW: He just was like that. An open and warm person.
EU: How was the relantionship between producers Chips Moman og Felton Jarvis in the studio?
RY: There wasn't any formal communication between them. They just tried to make the best record.
Funny story about The music gate at Graceland
EU: Mike, there is a story about the music gate at Graceland, isn't there?
ML: Oh, yes! My dad worked by the the railroad as a locksmith. When he stopped there he started his own little shop in the backyard of our home. He made everything. Winter gardens and all that. And he was also hired to make some music notes made of iron. And that is the music gate you see at Graceland.
Them all besides Mike: We didn't know that Mike! You should have told us!
ML: Yes, the story is true!
EU: You met Elvis in 1969 and then four years later in 1973, in the Stax Studios in Memphis. How was Elvis in 1973?
BE: It was totally different. There was around 40 people in the studio and we wasn't used to that. It was like there was to bands between 1969 and 1973. There were two or three guitar players in the studio.
EU: How did Elvis change?
BE: The material wasn't as good as it was on American.
RY: I think I Got A Thing About You Baby was a good one.
ML: Our sessions on American was more personal.
ML: There was only Elvis and us. When we recorded at Stax, we didn't even talk. It was very very different. He was different. He was with all these people. On American he new exactly wich way to go with his music. On Stax he could't differ the songs and didn't care. Felton told us, that he didn't want us to fool around with Elvis in the studio at Stax. He told us it was because Elvis was King and you doesn't fool around with a king.
BE: Who said that?
BW: They main thing on American was to record. On Stax it was like being at privat party with all these people in the studio. There was karate movements, a lot of people and a lot of things happened around us all the time. The main thing wasn't recording a record.
EU: A story has it on Stax that one of Elvis' microphones were stolen or taken away from him and he got very upset. Do you remember that. Is that true?
BE: I don't remember. But some will I guess?
Vernons favourite song
EU: Bobby Wood. You presented a song to Elvis, it was If I'm A Fool For Lovin' You?
BW: No, it wasn't me! His dad, Vernon, came in the studio while we recorded. My song was actually Vernons favourite song at the moment. When Elvis introduced me, he asked his dad did he know who I was. Vernon didn't know who I was. Then Elvis next asked Vernon which song was his favoirute song. Vernon told Elvis that it was If I'm A Fool For Lovin' You. Well, then Elvis told Vernon, "that the man who wrote that song stands just right next to you". Elvis recorded the song because Vernon loved it so much. To make Vernon a happy man.
EU: What about the other songs. Do you remember anything about them?
RY: I remember when we recorded In The Ghetto. I didn't like the way I played! So I went into another room and took with me a microphone and played my part all over again. And that is what you here in the beginning of the song.
EU: You had had many number one hits as a session band. How come?
BE: Who said that? I didn't know!
ML: It has something to do with attitude. We've got the ability to fit into all styles of music. We've been on the best selling jazz record ever.
EU: Where does the talent come from then?
BE: I must come from above. From God.
GC: I didn't know the music we made was that unique to start with. But now, later on, I can see that we made some unique songs. It wasn't the easiest songs to do. We took it for granted. It was and still is an unique group. BW: We were so busy at the time. I'm listening to songs today and I don't even know we were on that and that song! BE: We were in the studio all day long. We almost hadn't time to go home. BJ Thomas had a hit called Hooked On A Feelin'. I didn't even know that the actual number went number one on the charts and we played on it! We were so busy we couldn't even bother to look at the charts!
EU: Which song was the best?
GC: Suspicious Minds. It's fabulous. A good song.
EU: Do you remember something from that song when you recorded it?
BE: Actually no! But I also liked In The Ghetto and Kentucky Rain, but Suspicious Minds had a certain feeling.
EU: Did you know that this song would become a monster hit?
GC: You can always almost feel when a song has something. If you have a good song, a good feeling and a good artist, well then you are reaching a hit.
Scotty's old guitar
RY: I have a story about the guitar I played on in those years. Scotty Moore had a studio in Memphis. Scotty swapped some instruments with Chips Moman. Scotty got a keyboard and in return Scotty gave Chips his Gibson super 400 guitar. He used that guitar earlier on some of the recordings with Elvis. For ages the guitar hadn't been used and it was repaired and shined up, so it could be used again. And I thought: Why not use that guitar on our recordings on American in 1969? And I did! Scottys old guitar. Amazing. Chips later sold it on Christie's.
EU: The song material was a lot weaker in 1973 than in 1969. What was wrong with the songs on Raised On Rock compared to the songs in 1969?
BW: I Got A Thing About You Baby. It did reach the charts!
EU: But a lot of the Elvis fans around the Globe seems to like the recordings in 1969 better than 1973. Who picked the songs and introduced them?
RY: Chips Moman.
EU: All of them?
ML: Yes...and Chips had some songs with him, which he wanted us to listen too and play. We had already picked the songs when Elvis stepped in. Chips said we had a reputation to live up to. He wanted us to only record number one hits. And if we didn't like that reputation we could just walk out the door right away. It was the band, Elvis, Chips og Felton.
EU: Who did the arrangements?
ML: I did most of them..
Chips and the misunderstanding
EU: How come Elvis, while returning at Stax in 1973, never asked Chips Moman to produce another album?
BW: It must be a misunderstanding. A third part started a liar which Elvis believed.
EU: Was it the story about the recording of In The Ghetto?
BW: Yes. There was a political issue and discussion about that song. Was it the right song for Elvis to record and so on. In a conversation between Chips Moman and another producer in Memphis, a third part heard their conversation. Chips was asked by the producer if the thought In The Ghetto was going to be a hit. Chips answered yes and then said if the song wasn't released with Elvis, the producer could just take the song with him and try his luck. The third part went directly to Elvis and said: Chips will give the song to the singer Joe Simon. And then the conversation between Elvis and Chips was over for many years.
EU: There was something magic with Chips and the way he produced the songs? He could something?
RY: Yes and we knew and when Chips gave us a sign from the mixing desk to tell us that the song was going to be a hit. We repescted his talent as a producer.
BW: We didn't stop him, if we knew it was going to be a hit. Then we would just play on no matter what time it was.
EU: What about Elvis' talent. Many people criticised him for not writing his own songs. How do you guys see his talent as a singer and musician?
BW: Just have a listen to some of the outtakes that are floating around. They are actually better than the mastertapes! It seems that there are a lot more mistakes on the masters than on the outtakes.
BE: And he gave it a 100 percent..
BW: Elvis didn't listen to the songs longer than any other artist in the studio. He went right in a recorded them almost in one take.
BE: We had a good communication. It was almost as if we were home in some ones house. We went after the same gold. Our focus was on the artist, the song and the arrangement.
EU: Do you visit Graceland?
BE: If I have been in the studio all day, the only thing I want is to go home afterwards. So no.
BW: I tell you. Musicians like us deserve a better reputation for the records we made at American with Elvis. Elvis was fully dedicated in the studio. Fully focused. Chips could break in and ask Elvis to do it a little better. But just listen to those outtakes that's around. They are way better than the masters, because Elvis was so dedicated that Chips couldn't change that much in the end.
BE: It was business, but if it was a decent product, then our goal was reached in the end.
EU: You never got a gold record. Is that normal for the industry?
BE: It's normal. We were never credited on those songs!
BW: If the producer would mind to honour his musicians, he could have given them a gold record.
EU: Or RCA could have given you one?
ML: Everybody loves recognition.
ML: Isn't it strange that people in Memphis today doesn't know that much about you?
BW: They do not bother about us!
EU: Good music survives anything!
BE: We are happy you like us here in Denmark and Europe.
EU: But isn't it strange that Europeans and Asians seems to go up in details about your music more than Americans do?
EU: Reggie, you once played in Bill Blacks Combo as a warm up act for The Beatles in the US. Do you remember?
RY: Oh yeah. It was in 1964. There was a deafening noise when we came on stage. The crowd got totally mad. We couldn't hear anything. It was the first time I have seen all these security people around the stage. When we came on stage people almost yelled us off the stage again. They wanted The Beatles - not us!
But we still need The American Sound Studio Band. They are still magic. They are still great. And they will always be remembered for their fine work with Elvis back in 1969. Today The American Sound Studio doesn't excist anymore. Sadly enough it's a parking lot in Memphis! But the music lives on. Forever.