Too much monkey business

RCA 74321 76749-2

As 1981 began, things were pretty bleak for the faithful Elvis fan. Except for the eight LP box set 'Elvis Aron Presley' released the previous winter, virtually nothing of real value had been issued by RCA in the three years since Presley's death. At least nothing in the "official" category.

Little did anyone suspect that Felton Jarvis, Elvis' studio cheerleader (aka associate producer) from 1966 to 1977, had devised a new project: overdubbing new rhythm tracks on top of Elvis' vocals. A dubious idea at best, Jarvis pressed on through sessions in the spring and fall of 1980.

Using some of the same great studio musicians that accompanied Presley in his later sessions, including Chip Young, Jerry Carrigan and Mike Leech, Felton re-worked about thirty performances. The clever decision to utilize a few alternate vocal tracks ("Just Call Me Lonesome," "She Thinks I Still Care," "After Loving You" and a line of "I'm Movin On") guaranteed a bit of freshness to the project; strangely, it wasn't publicized.

Following the spring sessions, Felton abandoned an additional idea to create "duets" with artists like Carl Perkins, the Gatlin Brothers and Tony Joe White and compiled the best overdubs for the album 'Guitar Man.' The title track was its first single, sporting more contemporary guitar runs from Jerry Reed, who played the same role on the original 1967 Elvis single. The 45 hit #1 on the country charts in February, 1981, while barely scraping the pop top 30. Sadly, Felton's small triumph would also be received posthumously, as he died from a stroke on January 3, 1981.

Did Felton succeed in creating something new and exciting?

'Too Much Monkey Business,' the latest Follow That Dream/BMG album, offers twenty possible answers, housed in a beautiful digipak sleeve. Cuts three through twelve comprise the original album sequence, along with nine previously unissued songs and "Kentucky Rain," which "escaped" on a promo CD a few years ago. Sadly, the results were average at best, embarrassing at worst. Felton's skill as an arranger had not improved over the years. More than enough Presley scribes complained about his heavy-handedness on session overdubs for material taped in 1970/71, and his 1980 efforts were no better. None of these remakes equaled what was created in the original session it was plucked from.

Most of the collection is infuriating, especially the bonus selections. "Hey Jude," the Beatles hit slotted by Jarvis onto 1972's patchwork 'Elvis Now' collection despite the fact that both he and Presley considered it unusable, is revived with a touch more percussion. It doesn't help. The unissued version of "I'll Be There" includes an alto sax solo by Billy Puett that panders to MOR radio. "Blue Suede Shoes" wastes an overdubbed Carl Perkins guitar solo by using the August 1969 live master, a horrific decision both sonically and otherwise. I suppose we can all be grateful that this material was left in the can a generation ago.

That being said, there remain worthy items like the rollicking "Guitar Man," "Faded Love," with beautiful pedal steel played by Sonny Garish, and the slightly more countrified "After Loving You." George Jones' classic "She Thinks I Still Care" finds an up-tempo alternate vocal successfully coupled with Dale Sellars playing 1950s-style lead guitar a la Scotty Moore! And "Kentucky Rain" manages to recapture the desperate loneliness at the heart of the tune.

This set of "Young'un Masters" fits the idea behind FTD perfectly. This material is now available in very nice quality for the hard-core Elvis scholar, while the rest of the world can simply enjoy the Presley catalog available at their local CD store.

As Peter Guralnick implied in "Careless Love," it usually took a motivating figure like Sun Records' Sam Phillips, a strong personality like Chips Moman (American Studios in 1969) or a visionary like Steve Binder (producer of the '68 TV special), to unlock the best in Elvis; for all his admiration and support, Felton Jarvis never found that key.

Reviewed by Johnny Savage, USA