From Bill Porter, RCA, & DCC
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 Peggy Lee.
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 and performances.
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.
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