Nashville 1971 - Revisiting The Secular Masters

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Nashville 1971 - Revisiting The Secular Masters

Post by Matthew »

These 1971 Nashville sessions generally hold passive appreciation from the Elvis world. Elvis’ requirements were for a Gospel album, a Christmas album, a secular album and some singles. Quite a feat considering you’re looking at around 30-40 numbers, which Elvis managed to do with around 40 songs committed to tape that year.

Two of the requirements he hit the bull’s-eye with some to spare – an award winning gospel album and Christmas recordings that are re-leased almost annually. Where things were not so focused lay with the secular targets. Indeed, Elvis put down 16 secular recordings including 1 jam session, 3 after hours piano recordings and an unfinished “My Way” master (unfinished as such that it was designed for overdubbing but left aside for whatever reason).

On these recordings we find Elvis in a more sombre mood – one that would carry over to the March 1972 recordings. Gone is the energetic flare of the 1970 Nashville recordings and in its place there is a more laid back vibe. Recent listening to these recordings led to a greater appreciation and enjoyment when listened together and this led me to construct my own secular album – a what could have been so to speak, or more so in my eyes what “Elvis Now” should have been:

Side A:

01 - Help Me Make It Through The Night
02 - The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
03 - It’s Only Love
04 - I’m Leavin’
05 - (That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me

Side B:

01 - Early Morning Rain
02 - Until It’s Time For You To Go
03 - We Can Make The Morning
04 - Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread
05 - I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen

Here we have an album of the time, a touch over 30 minutes, 10 tracks. It could be argued about other numbers such as the two counterpart piano pieces but my intention with this was never to be a simple 1971 retrospective but an attempt at designing an album that fits together as a whole.

“Help Me Make It Through The Night” works very well as an opener – with this they got it right on “Elvis Now”. No musical intro, just Elvis’ voice brings us in. The performance is held back, Elvis’ voice appears to (perhaps unintentionally) convey the despair held by the character in the song. Indeed, the listener discerns little joy from the singer by taking in the phrasing, laid back almost to the point of giving up. Interestingly the master is a splice, noticeable by the increased tempo on the final verse. An alternate take released on “Great Country Songs” reveals a piano intro and a slightly more “interested” Elvis.

Next we have “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Here we find Elvis more committed to the task at hand. Perhaps this is due in part to being from the opening sessions for 1971 from March of that year - sessions that were only brought to a halt by his eye condition forcing him to abandon them at this point. Indeed, judging by the 4 songs put down on this evening one can only wonder what the alternative outcome would have been had the sessions run their course here. Faster and more dramatic than the original Elvis doesn’t necessarily improve on the song but nonetheless turns in a rousing performance that ended up as the B-side to “An American Trilogy” in 1972.

“It’s Only Love” and “I’m Leavin’” were both single only releases in 1971 and represent probably the most artistically complete performances from the secular recordings as a whole. “It’s Only Love” brings some pace to the playlist in the form of a rock ballad. James Burton’s stinging guitar works in an almost call and response format with Elvis’ vocal. An earlier take reveals Elvis has yet to hit on the high note climax found in the master – I’m glad he continued as it completes the song. Not a hit on original release it sets the UK charts alight in a re-issue in the early 80s – bolstered by an unreleased B-side at the time.

“I’m Leavin’” is a very unique song in the Elvis cannon, probably his most haunting performance from the later period. Indeed it slots in next to such recordings as “Blue Moon” from the 50s and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” from the 60s. There is a dedication to this song – its hard coming but it works and it probably the one true masterpiece of the lot. Unfortunately it was not to set the charts on fire.

Following these two session highlights we are treated to two accomplished Gordon Lightfoot covers. “(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me” is a tongue in cheek play with words. Elvis singing the part of a love rogue, not worried about the emotional impact he has on his women reasoning “that’s what you get for lovin’ me… you should have seen how things would end”. Fun and upbeat.

“Early Morning Rain” brings the pace down a little and the mood to a more serious tone and represents probably one of the most underrated (and underused) recordings in the Elvis catalogue. A recording that could easily have sat alongside a number of the country songs from the various genre style releases over the years its almost criminal in its current neglected state.

Recorded in a similar format to the previous number we find a wholly acoustic getup with an upright bass and harmonica completing the mix. The brush strokes on the drums drive the song along with Elvis’ vocal fitting perfectly the solemn mood of the lyrics. This song obviously struck a chord with Elvis as he would revisited it after hours when filming drop in songs for “Aloha From Hawaii” and eventually it becomes a regular staple of his live show.

Next we have both sides of Elvis’ third single from the session, and the only one to cull material from the same set of sessions – “Until It’s Time For You To Go” b/w “We Can Make The Morning”. The A-side obviously challenged Elvis since he would approach it at two separate occasions, once in May and again in June. Ultimately the original master was chosen for release. Again it’s a laid back affair, a violin adding to the melancholy. This song would become a semi-regular staple of his live act in 1972 but in an arrangement that never matched the delicacy of this studio master and not always taken so seriously.

“We Can Make The Morning” is an underdog from the session. Not the greatest achievement in song writing but Elvis goes for it. Its like he’s flared up and suddenly his voice is unleashed on the listener. We’re back to the bombastic territory often touched upon from the year before. Indeed there are hints of that vocal sound in the climatic notes: “it’s a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNGGGG, LOOONNNG Lonely night baby….” Polished off in the first take Elvis makes quick business of this number.

The final two numbers bring this fictitious album to a close. “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread)” is one I had not paid too much attention to until recently. It’s one song that deserves closer inspection as it can get lost and forgotten if listened to as only background music. Indeed, I have been guilty of hitting the skip button in the past (“Elvis Now” rarely garners a full play through on my stereo). The writing style and song structure would not have been out of place from any of Elvis’ early to mid 60s sessions. James Burton was instantly familiar with the number since he played guitar on the Ricky Nelson version from a few years prior. His stamp is all over this recording. Elvis’ performance is understated and unremarkable yet it works. It’s a pleasant number, nothing more, nothing less yet exudes a charm I can’t quite put my finger on.

“I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” in my personal opinion is the best performance out of the three numbers Elvis inadvertently put to tape after the main sessions of May 19th had ended - the other two being “I Will Be True”, and “It’s Still Here”. All three have a unique charm to them. All are conclusive evidence of Elvis’ mood during these sessions. Elvis is left alone, naked in structure seemingly loosing himself in the music. The listener is transported to any number of private settings with Elvis. The beauty with these is the quality of sound supersedes all of the private home recordings we have. Ultimately I went for the undubbed master however I find delight in both versions. I could easily have included all three songs but I believe this would derail the overall flow of the album. We begin the album with Elvis’ lone voice and we end with Elvis alone at the piano.

As a snapshot of the time this 1971 album would probably be held in fairly high regards amongst the fans if it had materialised at the time. This material has never really been given room to breath and stand on its own two feet which is a shame since these are the conclusive recordings from a 15 year relationship with Nashville.

Of the remaining numbers some find favour with dedicated Elvis fans and that is fine. The beauty of Elvis’ voice is that a listener can find even the slightest merit in many if not all of the lesser quality recordings. “Love Me, Love The Life I Lead” and “My Way” were never completed. The former was released nonetheless and the latter I wonder if it would have been if Elvis had not performed the number during “Aloha From Hawaii”.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” could have been a contender but since so many of the lyrics are missed out and with no true intro I choose to leave this one off.

“Padre” is more unique. It doesn’t really fit in with anything else recorded here. Certainly Elvis appears committed to the task indeed obviously enjoys the song. This has “Elvis time” stamped all over it in that he probably brought it to the session himself. However, to this listeners ears it is one that falls by the wayside.

These days we can easily construct our own listening experiences – this is mine for Nashville ’71 – I hope you enjoyed reading!

Last edited by Matthew on Mon Aug 27, 2007 4:11 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Mike Eder
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Post by Mike Eder »

I like the 71 sessions a lot myself bar some of the Xmas recordings. Elvis Now is a particularly fine release. and Fool is nice too. . Now I know them not all coming from one group of sessions sours some people on them, but so many albums really aren't. After all Elvis' first album certainly doesn't posses a signular sound as the Sun stuff is in contrast to the RCA material. Since Lady Madonna and I Shall aren't really finished enough to consider that leaves us with 15 tracks. Honestly though I'm Leavin' and It's Only Love, or The First Time would have certainly made Elvis Now and or Fool more definitive, thefact remains that both have some great material. I know people will laugh but I even like Hey Jude.

Mike Eder