We Had It All
"It was the second week of December 1973, and I had been summoned to come and play bass on a new Elvis album. This was not the first time I had received a summons from the King, and I knew not to take it lightly. So I dropped everything and flew down to Memphis, the large bustling river town where my parents used to take me on shopping trips—a thrill for a small-town Alabama kid. I felt the same excitement when I came back to see the King of Rock & Roll.
Although I had recorded with the King for a number of years, I was looking forward to this particular visit because the recording was to take place at the world-famous Stax studio, in the legendary room that spawned hits by Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes. It was every musician’s dream to play at Stax, and now I would realize that dream.
When I arrived in downtown Memphis, tinsel and garland with blinking colored lights were strung from every available window and door. As I searched for Lamar Avenue, I encountered a series of wrong turns and one-way streets until I stumbled onto the busy thoroughfare, where I began my search in earnest for the old converted movie theater with the Stax marquee. McLemore Avenue came into view, just as my crumpled Avis map indicated it would, and a minute later I turned into a rather desolate-looking parking lot. Once a creative hive of r&b energy, Stax was rumored to be in trouble; in the coming years this great brand would lose everything through a series of bad business decisions. Sure enough, as I stepped out of the car and looked around, I saw overgrown shrubbery and peeling paint. It was hard to believe that at one time this place was considered the equal of Detroit’s legendary Motown.
I entered through a back door and discovered that the big dark studio was virtually empty except for a scratched-up grand piano and a few drum risers pushed into the far left corner. Feeling my way across the floor and up the squeaky steps to the mildew-scented control room, I waited patiently for my eyes to adjust to the low light. Still, I couldn’t help but smile and imagine that scene from many years before: Otis Redding, standing behind the piano and shouting “I can’t turn you loose” as the Memphis Horns blasted into a chorus. Back then they did completely live recordings, everyone in the studio at the same time—the rhythm section, the horn players, and the backing vocals. In three minutes flat, the music was committed to tape, ready to be pressed onto vinyl. For a long while I tried to feel the magic of that hallowed room, but alas it was not to be. I guess I knew all along that the magic emanated from Otis Redding and his cast of brilliant musicians, not some dilapidated movie theatre.
I unloaded my bass and amp and drove quickly to my hotel. In the last twelve years, I had played bass on hundreds of albums, though recently I had entered a second phase of my career—record production. That work required a different kind of skill set: putting up with hypersensitive, egotistical artists. It was beginning to take a toll on the kid from Muscle Shoals, and it felt good to pick up that old Fender bass. The thought of playing bass for Elvis Presley, the most exciting recording artist I had ever known, never failed to produce a feeling of intense joy. I had been playing the simple but pulsating rockabilly music of Elvis Presley since I was fifteen years old. I became a musician because of Elvis.
When I returned to the hotel, a feeling of quiet serenity overtook me. There was something in the air in Memphis, something about hanging out in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and watching all the beautiful people smiling, drinking, laughing, and getting ready for an evening on the town. As dusk began to settle in, I liked to slip up to the roof in the hot, musky air and savor a gin and tonic while the sun slowly sank into the mighty Mississippi River. There was no other place like Memphis in the world; it was a soul man’s utopia. So many of the greats had made their music there—from W. C. Handy to Rufus Thomas and B. B. King, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Charlie Rich. And of course, the greatest record producer of them all, Sam Phillips, from my birthplace of Florence, Alabama. He did it right here. He pulled it out of the air and invented it all right here in Memphis. Maybe I’m crazy, but I always thought the music we created in Memphis sounded totally different from the RCA sessions in Nashville, even though they used basically the same players, the same engineer, and the same producer. Everything from Memphis just had more soul and more feeling. And of course, the King called Memphis home.
The summer of ’56 belonged to Elvis Presley; the young man from Tupelo had taken over the airwaves. Some kids from my Muscle Shoals neighborhood had even decided to start an Elvis-inspired band. When they asked me to play the bass, I didn’t know what to think. I wasn’t a musician, but my father had once played bass in a bluegrass band, and he had an old bull fiddle stored in the back room of our house. I was recruited simply because my father could provide the instrument.
I was a bit apprehensive. I’d had no previous musical training except for two unsuccessful piano lessons at the age of twelve. Fortunately, this new rockabilly stuff only employed three chords, and I thought, surely to God I can find three notes. So, I joined up with Glen Pettus and the Rhythm Rockers and began my pursuit of the three elusive chords of rock. In the beginning, I would slide my fingers up and down the strings until something sounded sort of right, and, to my amazement, it wasn’t long before I began to pick out some of Bill Black’s more accessible bass parts. The great Bill Black slapped bass for Elvis, and he was my first bass hero. He was a god to me.
My father, however, was very much opposed to this musician idea, and it wasn’t long before he invited me to walk behind the garage for a private man-to-man conference—my least favorite kind of invitation. He began by explaining the origin of that old bass fiddle, going into detail about a never-before-mentioned part of his life, even getting a little agitated. As a young man he had played “that damn thing” in the Beale Street bars in Memphis. Pretty soon he was ranting about “the shootings,” “the gambling,” “the wild crazy women,” and “the drinking and the reefer heads.”
“Son, that way of living is just not conducive to a normal, happy life,” he said. “That damn bass—and the bars of Memphis—was the main reason for my first divorce.”
I stood there frozen and afraid to move as my father slowly wiped the sweat from his brow. Quietly, almost absentmindedly, he said, “I should have burned that damn bull fiddle a long time ago.” And then, in a louder and more demanding tone: “Son, I want you to go to college and make something of yourself.”
We stared at each other in dead silence, and I tried to maintain a blank look on my face—but all I could think of was wine, women, and song. I had never imagined that I could be a part of anything like that. I had trouble containing my newfound eagerness to get out and play. From that moment on I knew that I would devote my life to the pursuit of music.
The first time I met the King, in the summer of 1970, he appeared to be even more handsome—no, more beautiful—than I remembered from photographs and television. He had a pretty face, almost feminine, with pouting lips, that famous wry grin, glorious eyes, and his trademark jet black hair with long shiny sideburns. When he paraded into RCA’s famous Studio B, he was shrouded in a long black cape and carried a silver-crested walking cane. He smiled and said, “I was wondering if any of you fellows would like to help me make a few phonograph records.”
Mr. Presley recorded in Nashville two or three times a year, and this time he’d have a new bass player—a nervous kid from Muscle Shoals. This would be my first time to face rock & roll royalty up close, and a few minutes earlier I had nearly thrown up. God, I was nervous. I remember closing my eyes and mumbling a very short prayer: Dear God, please guide my fingers through this session; don’t let me be the first bass player to screw up a Presley session. You see, I feared that a wrong note on a Presley session could be the end of my short but promising career. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried; my prayer was granted. My lucky streak continued as the King smiled and slapped me on the back after one of the first playbacks. “Great going, Putt!” he said. I had a new friend.
In the years to come, I would play many Presley sessions, and I have fond memories of them all. One of my favorites involves my good friend Chip Young. Ole Chip was one of Nashville’s most successful musicians—and it was easy to see why. Just having him in the room brought energy, fun, and mischief. In addition to all that, he could play the proper part, a great commodity in guitar-laden Nashville. Chip was also a collector of fine guitars, and over the years he had amassed a valuable collection of vintage and priceless instruments.
The Elvis sessions in Nashville were always booked according to the union custom: first session from six to nine p.m., a one-hour break, then a second session from ten p.m. to one a.m., even though it was understood that Elvis would arrive promptly at eight. Playing for the King was profitable: usually by the time we struck the first chord, the first session was over with and we’d made one full hour of overtime. One evening, Chip brought along his latest acquisition—a handmade Spanish classical guitar. As Chip opened the case and started playing this work of art, we drew near and marveled at the purity of tone, the flawless intonation, and the beautifully carved wood with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. It was truly a fine guitar, perhaps the finest I had ever seen. Chip said it took many months to craft each instrument by hand, and only a handful were produced each year. That night, he hoped its grand, sonorous tones would appear on a classic Elvis Presley record. I remember Chip carefully placed the guitar, backside out, against one of the big room dividers used to isolate various sounds in the studio.
It’s a little difficult now to remember all the details of that night—though I do remember the Memphis Mafia, the King’s entourage of bodyguards and personal assistants, hustling into the room with silver Halliburton camera cases filled with all sorts of paraphernalia: handguns, knives, revolvers, semiautomatics, brass knuckles, handcuffs, first aid kits. They were followed into the room by the King and his court: Joe Esposito, who took care of the business; Charlie Hodge, who could play guitar and sing the second-part harmony whenever the King felt a song coming on; and funny man Lamar Fike, three hundred pounds of wisdom and good timing, a man willing to pull whatever stunt was necessary to give the King a good laugh. And then there was Red. Red West had known the King since the beginning, first as his friend and then as his bodyguard. Now he was the one most likely to speak the truth to his longtime buddy, though the King was prone to disregard it.
Among the last to enter were the publishing company guys, the men who administered the copyrights owned by Elvis. They brought the latest compositions written especially for the King by a staff of writers in various parts of the world. Later in the evening they would play recorded demos of singers who could imitate the King’s voice, accompanied by musicians who played in the style of Elvis’s rhythm section. The demo recordings of the latest mediocre batch were even in the King’s key; to the novice ear, they could perhaps pass as a record by the man himself. On some nights, trailing in last would be the guy with the five-gallon jug of Mountain Valley water—the only water Colonel Tom Parker would imbibe. That was just in case the good Colonel dropped by, though he usually didn’t.
On this particular evening, the King was talking about a new karate move that he and Red had been working on. He seemed very anxious to show it to us, and I watched cautiously as the scene began to play out. First, Red marched briskly up to the King from stage right and pointed an unloaded pistol in the vicinity of the King’s chest. In a quick flash of the hands, the King karate-chopped Red’s outstretched arm—sending the revolver spinning across Studio B some thirty-two feet where it was embedded, barrel first, in Chip’s new handmade beauty. All eyes quickly drew back to the King as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
The King’s men jumped about the room, shouting, “Great move, Elvis, gas Elvis, you’re the King, Elvis!” The King instructed Red to stand very still so he could demonstrate his amazing ability to pirouette, thrust, and fire an arching karate punch with two firmly outstretched fingers, stopping just short of Red’s unflinching but slightly bloodshot eyes.
Chip stood transfixed, his gaze on the beloved instrument now sadly adorned with one of Mr. Colt’s finest. Then, suddenly, the exhibition came to an end, and the cheering and shouting ceased. Out of my periphery, I spied one of the King’s men whispering something in Chip’s ear. That something, I later learned, had to do with where to send the check. And the obligatory condolences.
It certainly was a very fine guitar.
Chip’s guitar is now on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the hole from the Presley revolver prominently featured. Chip never repaired it.
In the winter of 1970, I gave up my career as a studio musician because I’d had the good fortune to produce a hit album, Blessed Are. . . , with the great Joan Baez. This was my first attempt at record production and I got lucky when the ensuing single, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” was a smash. The record shot up the charts into the Top 5 and soon sold more than a million copies. So I hung up my bass player mitts and went for the job with the royalties. When Felton Jarvis informed the King of my retirement, his reply was something like this: “Felton, tell Putt he has to come play my sessions. I love the way he plays and I don’t want to have to break in a new guy!” Well, we certainly didn’t want to put the King to any trouble, so whenever Felton called I would move around my productions of the lesser gods of music, change my schedule, and fly down to play.
Felton’s secretary Mary Lynch usually booked players for a Presley record about four weeks in advance. And as the time drew near, you’d bump into other players who’d say, “Hey, ya got the King next week?” Soon, you’d pretty much know who else was booked for the session.
But this time something was different. As I asked around, I found that only my pal David Briggs had been booked. Since you don’t normally make a record with just piano and bass, we decided to call Felton’s office to see what was up—maybe Mary had forgotten to book some of the other guys. I made the call and Mary replied, “No, everything is in order, Elvis just wants to do a few overdubs with you and David.” But the booking was for a whole week, and when I later spoke to David, we couldn’t recall any problems with the bass and piano parts on the last record. As a matter of fact, the finished product was scheduled to be released in the next week or so.
A few days later, I received an unusual phone call from Felton. He was wondering if I could drop by his house and assist him as he brushed the teeth of his pet boa constrictor. This was a job that very few of his friends accepted, but I was appreciative of all the work he sent my way, so I agreed to go over.
The snake was about ten feet long, and like a child, he hated to have his teeth cleaned; it was quite an effort just to get him uncoiled and straightened out. I sat on his tail while Felton squatted over the snake’s middle, brushing away with a tube of Crest and a gnarly old toothbrush. While I held down my end—hoping to conceal my nervousness and push away any thoughts I might have of that giant snake getting a grip on me—Felton nonchalantly said, “Putt, don’t worry about the Presley sessions; we won’t really record anything. It’s just that Priscilla’s been wanting to come see a session and this way it will be a lot more manageable.”
Elvis had obviously decided that having Priscilla at a real session would be much too inhibiting. And it was clear that the King, being a controlling kind of guy, wanted the woman he loved to see only what he wanted her to see. So he had concocted a little charade.
On the first night of our five-night booking, Felton met David and me in the corridor outside RCA’s Studio A. This was the large orchestral studio we used with Henry Mancini and Al Hirt, but never with Presley. The King had always used the smaller, more intimate Studio B.
But Studio B wasn’t impressive enough for Elvis’s big charade—he wanted Priscilla to see something grandiose. So there we stood, just outside the control room door, listening in disbelief as Felton explained that “Priscilla’s been buggin’ him to come see a session, so Elvis decided he’d stage one.” Even though the last album was already pressed and about to be shipped, we would pretend to do a few final touch-ups. Elvis would have a few ideas about the bass parts, even though he never had before. And yes, David would be changing a few piano parts. More than anything else, Elvis had a bunch of new stories he couldn’t wait to share with us.
When we entered the control room right on time at six o’clock, there sat the King, the man who in the past had never arrived before eight. He jumped to his feet and pulled his beautiful Queen across the room to meet us. We were introduced as “Putt and David, the greatest bass player, the greatest piano player in the world!” He went on to say, “Putt was the one who played that great bass part on ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,’ and you remember the great piano intro on ‘Love Letters’?”
We were both slightly embarrassed, if pleased, by this outpouring of praise and affection. As for Priscilla, she smiled sweetly and appeared to be genuinely impressed after meeting these two so-called giants of the Nashville music scene. We were starting to believe it ourselves until the engineer Al Pachucki, who had just walked in, was introduced in the same manner. Elvis could really lay it on, and of course we all loved it. If the King said something, it must be true.
In the next minute or two, Pachucki led Priscilla out of the control room and into the large cavernous studio, explaining how he would arrange the room for this important Presley overdub session. With Priscilla gone, Elvis seized the opportunity to apologize for the charade, but begged us to please play along. “You know I love this woman dearly, but I wouldn’t ever want her to witness all the silly shenanigans that occur on a real live session,” he said. We smiled and nodded our heads in quiet understanding.
The Memphis Mafia was strangely absent; for the first time ever, it was just Felton, David, Al, Elvis, and me—and the beautiful Priscilla. It was as though the King and Queen were out on a date, just like two high school kids, only he wanted to bring her over and show her off to some of the guys he hung out with.
Before we could get to work, the King had a bunch of wild stories to tell about Lamar Fike, who continued to be his favorite foil. Elvis recalled ordering a new Ferrari from a dealer in Beverly Hills. He had waited many months for delivery—and the car was a special edition, completely handmade, all aluminum body, only one like it in the world.
“After waiting a year and a half, at last the car comes in, and who should I send down the hill to pick it up?” The King slapped his forehead in mock stupidity. “Lamar! Bumbling, stumbling Lamar. I guess I should have known better after all the stunts he’s pulled in the past, but I just wasn’t thinkin’. A handmade Ferrari, V12 engine, aluminum body, one of a kind.”
Elvis continued, “Putt, David, you know the street that winds up the hill to my house?” We’d never been up there before. “It goes right past Bing Crosby’s house and that damn Lamar—you know he had to wind it out, you know he was jerkin’ it around.”
“Well, Crosby’s gardeners had been sprinkling the lawn all mornin’ and some of the water had seeped out under that giant, wrought iron gate—you know the one, ten feet tall with gold leaf trim, looks like somethin’ you’d see at Buckingham Palace. Wouldn’t you know, Lamar comes tearin’ up the hill, heads into that hairpin curve by Crosby’s gate and WHAM! You guessed it—as soon as he went into the curve, the car went into a slide, a freakin’ screechin’ slide.”
Elvis’s voice changed from sadness to ecstatic exaltation. “Crashed right through Bing Crosby’s gorgeous gate. My handmade, one-of-a-kind, beautiful Ferrari, totally destroyed! And I never even set foot in it. Crosby’s gate cost me ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand!” The King burst into uncontrolled laughter.
I don’t believe I’d ever seen anyone get so much enjoyment out of what would have been for most of us a tragedy. The quintessential court jester, Lamar Fike had provided the King with another great story. Viva Lamar!
Amidst the commotion, I spied Pachucki loading the giant Ampex 24-track recorder with what had to be the King’s already completed album. Now the farce would begin.
“Hey Putt, I’ve got an idea for a new bass part,” the King said. “Let’s go out in the studio so I can show it to you.” Pachucki started to make a rough mix—minus, of course, the original bass part. As we made our exit, I noticed Felton, David, and Priscilla peering out through the giant control room with varying degrees of expectation.
Out in the studio, the King strolled over and picked up my Fender P-bass and started playing a part reminiscent of something I thought I had heard Bill Black play on a Presley record many years before, or could it have been the King?
“What do you think, Putt, can you do it?” he asked as he handed over the bass. Truth was, it would be a lot easier than the original part on the tape, but I tried to make it look at least somewhat challenging. I began to play boom doja, ja, ja, boom doja, ja, ja as the King raised his arms, assumed a symphonic conductor’s stance, and tried to conduct me—as if I needed a conductor with Jerry Carrigan’s drums blasting in my headphones. After about two minutes of this madness, Felton ordered Pachucki to roll back to the top and begin to record in earnest. Out in the studio, I was pretending to be Bill Black and the King was pretending to be Leonard Bernstein, and in the control room everyone was pretending this “new” part was really, really extraordinary. Everyone, of course, but Priscilla, who had no reason to pretend; she just seemed to be genuinely enjoying the whole thing. I immediately liked her.
Tuesday was pretty much a repeat of Monday: the Presleys on time, lots of funny stories, a new bass part here, a new piano part there, more funny stories, lots of laughs. The King was really starting to relax and Priscilla seemed to appreciate our little song and dance. As for David and me, we had settled into our new roles, and we were starting to enjoy the acting routine. I could not ever remember having so many bass parts accepted on the first take, and we were getting paid handsomely for our time. The angels of fate were smiling.
The next day, Elvis told us about a farm he had bought in Mississippi. He said he was worried that some of the neighbors might not welcome a wild bunch of music people, intent upon playing rock & roll at all hours of the night. So the King asked his daddy Vernon to find out who owned all the property bordering his land. After determining the answer, he sent each neighbor a brand new pickup truck. Not one farmer complained. The King was a benevolent King.
Like most sons, ol’ Elvis still seemed to enjoy shocking his father. When they were tearing down old tenant houses on the farm, he had learned to operate one of the giant Caterpillar bulldozers. He raved about how much fun it was to uproot small trees, level hillsides, push things around. He said he had never driven anything so powerful. He loved the feeling of power.
Unfortunately, poor Vernon had taken a liking to one of the tenant shacks. He pointed out to Elvis that the porch there provided a good vantage point to keep an eye on things. He needed to keep an eye on his son.
“Putt, Daddy’s sittin’ up there on his front porch, rockin’ away, rockin’ away, half asleep and he didn’t even notice that I’d swung that big old bulldozer around, changed course, and am headed straight for his front porch,” Elvis said. “I shouted, Daddy, you’d better get down off that damn porch ’cause I’m coming through!” Vernon jumped up, rudely awakened from his daydream, and tried to plead with his son over the horrific roar of the big Caterpillar engine, but it was to no avail.
By then, Elvis was shouting and jumping around the control room. “At the last possible second, Daddy jumped clear and that old crate just EXPLODED as the big Cat tore through. It was incredible, simply incredible—debris everywhere. The whole place in splinters.”
The fake overdubs became fewer and farther between throughout the rest of the week, but our great raconteur never ran out of stories, and we never grew tired of listening. Even his beautiful Queen, who must have heard these tales countless times before, smiled proudly as her famous husband went on and on.
I felt a certain sadness as I drove home that Friday evening. Usually, I was relieved after a week of grueling Presley dates, but this time had been different. I felt I had been an honored guest at the King’s court, one of only four supporting actors playing along in his simple charade, all for the express joy of his Queen. It was an honor I would never forget. That night I took a silent vow to never tell this story, but many years have passed, and of course, the King has left us. I don’t believe Priscilla ever knew of the deception, and I pray the King will forgive this breach of confidence—for it was a deception for love, and as such, a fitting complement to their reign.
I awoke on the morning of December 10, 1973, to the sound of Christmas music blasting from my hotel room’s clock radio. I thought I had set it for eight a.m., but I could see now that we were approaching ten o’clock. Anxious to organize my day, I picked up the phone and called Felton to inquire about the starting time for the Presley sessions.
“Come on over to Stax around 7:30 p.m., Putt,” Felton said with great enthusiasm. “Since the King is just down the road, he might actually show up early.”
Later that evening, as always, the King and his court came through the door at precisely eight p.m. Felton had mentioned that Elvis was becoming more nocturnal in his old age, said he had been getting up around five p.m. and never went to bed before the crack of dawn. He said the King liked to have his breakfast about six o’clock at night, and what a breakfast it was—a generous helping of ham and eggs, homemade biscuits, jam and jelly. After that, he was ready to go to work.
We noticed that Elvis was wearing a loose-fitting jogging outfit and running shoes. In the past, he usually wore tight pants and a high collar shirt, a belt with a big turquoise buckle, and black square-toed Italian boots. It looked like he’d put on some weight.
A crew of engineers from RCA’s New York studios had positioned a big, red remote truck full of recording equipment in the back parking lot and they were now ready to record. All-new microphone cable had been strung into the building and a remote monitoring system had been installed for Felton in the old Stax control room.
That night there was no horsing around, no karate. The King didn’t seem to have as much energy as in the past. Could it be the extra weight, or maybe his recent breakup with Priscilla? There was no time to think about that, and by the stroke of midnight, after many takes, we had recorded only one new song. Compared to the pace of previous Presley sessions, things were moving rather slowly. Felton, sensing something was out of kilter, welcomed a break for lunch.
The King liked his lunch, just like everyone else, in the middle of his day—except his “day” was the middle of our night. The local catering company delivered whatever cuisine we wanted—one night it would be that famous Memphis barbecue, the next night Chinese, Italian, or deli offerings. But every night the King had the same thing: an order of fries, a cheeseburger, and a Coke.
As everyone was scuffling around, looking for a place to spread a napkin, I noticed the King had already climbed up onto one of the old drum risers. He motioned me over, and I jumped at the opportunity to join him. It was a rare thing to be totally alone with the King. Lucky for me, the Memphis Mafia was busy over at the other end of the studio, laughing at one of Felton’s silly stories.
Over the years, I had often hoped for a chance to speak to the King alone, but that moment had never arrived. This was going to be special.
He asked, “What’s been happening, Putt?”
There were many things that I wanted to say, but I blurted out, “Elvis, I just have to tell you, if you hadn’t come along, if you hadn’t reinvented pop music, I would probably be back in Alabama selling insurance, just like my father.”
The King chomped down on a big cheeseburger, and I explained how, quite by accident, I had become a musician. I told him about the kids who put together a band to play that rockabilly stuff by some guy named Elvis, and how I was picked to play the bass simply because my father owned one. As I paused without taking a bite of my food, I watched Elvis eye me suspiciously as he munched.
“Elvis, thank God those tunes of yours only had three or four chords,” I rambled, saying that in a rather short time I found myself slapping right along with his man Bill Black on tunes like “My Baby Left Me,” “Milk Cow Blues Boogie,” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Elvis suddenly stopped eating, looked over at me with a big grin, and said, “Putt, you owe your entire career to me because if those kids had been playing Sinatra, you’d never have found the chord changes!”
We both broke up laughing, and the King asked, “How do your parents feel about you being a rock & roll musician?”
With a mouth full of food, I mumbled that my mother could never figure out exactly what I did. I would describe working in the studio for all those famous names, but she always looked at me as though I was making way too much money to be involved in anything proper and legal.
“Elvis, a few years ago, I don’t know if you remember, but Felton was having trouble finding enough available arrangers to complete the string and horn parts for your June 1970 sessions. Even though Felton had three great arrangers working away, he asked me and David Briggs to write a few charts to help meet the deadline. When the record came out, there was a credit for the first time on the album sleeve—arranged by Norbert Putnam.
“So, the next time I visited my mother in Alabama, I took that album and handed it to her. She quietly looked at it, and after a few moments of silence said, ‘My, my, so you really do know Elvis. Well, come on in the kitchen, I’ve made you some lunch.’
“Elvis, I couldn’t believe she was so unimpressed. But the following week, when I returned to Nashville, one of her neighbors called and said Mother had taken that album all over the neighborhood, going door to door, bragging about how her son arranged for Elvis—whatever that meant.”
Elvis smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “Always stay close to your mother, Putt, she won’t be here forever.” The King had a faraway, mournful look in his eyes, and I realized that he was thinking about his own mom. Elvis quietly finished his food in true Southern boy fashion: he inhaled it. I had hardly taken a bite.
Meanwhile, over in the far corner, huge shouts of laughter were erupting as Lamar and Felton took turns playing standup comedy. Elvis looked over and smiled. Then he said, “Putt, did I ever tell you about the time Jerry Lee knocked down the gate at Graceland with his Rolls Royce?
“About two months ago, my cousin Billy, who mans the gate, calls up to the house and says Jerry Lee’s down there and he wants to come up and talk. Well, I know what that means—that means he’s coming up to lecture me on how to handle my career. So I tell Billy: Don’t let him in. Tell him I’m asleep.
“Well, Jerry Lee informs my cousin he’d better wake me because he’s coming through. My cousin pleads with him, says that he will get in big trouble if he has to wake me. Suddenly, Jerry Lee gives him a ten-second ultimatum to either open the gate or else. Billy didn’t believe he’d really do anything because Jerry Lee was already backin’ that big Rolls away from the gate—then, WHAM! The car hurls forward, crashin’ through the gate, and here comes Jerry Lee, gravel and dirt flyin’, sliding up the driveway, around to the back of the house.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Putt, the son of a bitch jumped out of that big Rolls while it was still shaking. I didn’t want to have to take him on up in the bedroom, so I headed downstairs. And here he comes huffing and puffing, running into the jungle room.” Elvis was cracking up. “Putt, he tackles me! The son of a bitch tackles me, and shoves me on to the floor, pins my shoulders, and Putt, he’s slappin’ me around and shoutin’ Elvis, Elvis, come to your senses, what the hell are you thinkin’ man, you’re suppose’ to be the King of Rock & Roll and you’re making Dean Martin records. Can’t you see it, you have a responsibility, you’re supposed to be the King of Rock & Roll. Elvis wake up, wake up before it’s too late!”
The King continued, “Putt, some of the bodyguards finally showed up, and they pulled the crazy son of a bitch off me. I don’t know what he’d been taking, but he sure was talkin’ crazy.”
He drew a deep breath and looked at me slyly. “Now when he pulls up to the gate, my cousin just waves him on in, and he comes up and gives me his two cents worth. I just listen and nod. Hell, that’s better than having to fix the damn gate every time!” In a softer, more loving tone, the King said under his breath, “The crazy son of a bitch.”
We both had a good laugh, then I sat there in silence as the King cleaned up the scraps of his picnic. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jerry Lee had been correct in his assessment of Presley’s career. Elvis had changed. The records now featured a big orchestral Las Vegas sound, and the vocal did showcase a more Dean Martin style of crooning. As I sat there finishing my midnight snack, I began to wonder if Jerry Lee wasn’t the only true and honest friend the King had. The only one willing to shout out the truth, no matter the risk.
I looked over as Elvis got up and began to carefully climb down from the drum riser. He looked a little sad as he shook himself off. Rather dejectedly, he said, “C’mon, Putt, it’s time for me to go be Elvis.”
What had his vision of himself become? Was he still the King of Rock & Roll in his heart of hearts, or just its grand old man?
Later that week, my partner David Briggs mentioned that Elvis was a fan of the classic Dobie Gray album Drift Away. That album contained a song that David and I had published, a tune called “We Had It All.” David said the King was thinking about taking a shot at our song.
This was exciting news. The only time the King did a song published by someone other than himself was when he’d absolutely fallen in love with some particular record. He loved Dobie Gray’s performance on that great song written by Troy Seals and Donnie Fritts.
Sure enough, during a lull in the sessions one night, Elvis looked up toward the booth and said, “Hey, Fel-tone, play that Dobie Gray song, I think I’ll try that next.”
I looked at David and he grinned back at me with dollar signs floating in his eyes. If Elvis did our song, it could bring in megabucks and help assure the future of our tiny company. So, we started to rally the troops. Our song would need a spectacular backing track.
Felton began playing Dobie’s sad, sensitive vocal over the big studio monitors. And the band, with much prodding from David and me, was taking notes and discussing the arrangement. I looked over to see ol’ El’ reading a lyric sheet and quietly singing along. Felton continued to repeat the track again and again, and the King sang along, over and over—this was most unusual. I noticed the King was singing with a slight look of concern. He must have realized that Dobie Gray had given an amazing performance. Would the King sing it as well?
Then I remembered something: Elvis made it a point to never cover a Roy Orbison song. He said he couldn’t top Roy, and somehow I knew he would not do a Dobie Gray song unless he thought he could put his stamp on it. I closed my eyes and silently prayed.
At last, after more run-throughs, Presley looked up at the big glass window and said, “Okay, Felton, let’s give it a try.”
The red light came on and the tape rolled. I don’t believe David and I had ever played with such gusto on a Presley track. As I listened to the headphone mix, I thought Elvis was singing the lyric rather softly, but with great feeling. The lyric about a man looking back on a relationship had all the right ingredients; the soliloquy about the one he loved but lost was brilliant. We did several takes, back-to-back without a playback. The King seemed to be struggling.
After the fifth or sixth take, as the last note died out, I could see he was visibly upset. There might have even been a trace of a tear in his eye. Then without warning, the King looked up and shouted, “Felton, don’t you dare release that one . . . until I’ve been dead at least twenty years.” He turned away, tossed down the microphone, and bolted out.
My face fell. Could this be one of the King’s famous practical jokes? He knew we owned the publishing. It was a great song, and at this point in his career he desperately needed to record great songs.
Felton came out of the control room and walked toward me as the King’s men silently packed up. It was obvious that we were finished for the night.
“Putt, Putt, couldn’t you hear it coming?” Felton asked. He softly whispered his theory that as Elvis got further and further into the story, he began to believe the song was really about him. The lyric referred to all the things he had never had the courage to admit. “I could hear it coming in the control room, I knew he’d never finish the take,” Felton said. He drew a deep breath, then added, “He was breaking into tears.”
I went back to my hotel room, opened a pint of vodka that I carried for such occasions, poured it over some ice, and proceeded to take a long, slow drink.
The King’s voice was still ringing in my head as I tried to clear my mind of the evening’s events. You were the best thing in my life I can recall / Oh, you and me, we had it all.
Did Elvis really believe that he and Priscilla had it all?
I certainly thought so.
Later that night, insomnia plagued me, and I flashed back to my early days in Muscle Shoals, to the long days and late nights that delivered me to this moment. My future was cast at the age of fifteen, when I first heard a young Elvis Presley shouting, “That’s all right, mama!”
Norbert Putnam has played bass in the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and as a session musician on countless recordings in Nashville. "We Had it All" is excerpted from his memoir Music Lessons.
- Oxford American Magazine - Issue 83, 2013