On the edge of reality. . . .
The rest of the world is asleep, but Elvis Presley is on a mission. As he bursts through the door, his friends Red and Charlie are already in the studio, setting up microphones. The small facility is just big enough for a piano, a few stools, and two or three of his favorite guitars.
Ignoring the piano for now, he grabs his trusty Gibson J200 and begins picking out the song that would not leave his head. “We’re rolling,” says Red, his hands moving over the control board with ease. The year is 1964, and Elvis is about to make his third album at his Graceland studio.
* * *
At least, that’s how I like to imagine what might have been.
Little moments in time can change history. Leave a few seconds early and avoid a car crash, leave a few seconds later and never make it back home.
At least one such potential life-altering moment in Elvis’ life jumped out at me when I first read a couple of key books about him.
It took me awhile to find the passage just now in Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999), which covers Elvis’ life from 1958 to 1977. I thought it occurred closer to the late 1960s. Turns out, it is about 1960. Here’s the moment:
RCA [. . .] even offered to build Elvis a studio in his home so he could record whenever the inspiration took him – but the Colonel wisely urged him to turn the company down, seeing their generosity for what it was, a desperate attempt to generate more product and thereby undercut the Colonel’s unassailable bargaining position” (p. 84).
Could this have changed everything? Prior to Elvis’ June 1961 Nashville session, the home recording studio receives another mention:
The idea of a home studio had been broached again a number of months earlier; this time Elvis actually indicated his interest in building a recording facility at Graceland, and initial plans were drawn up […]” (p. 112).
Ernst Jorgensen also mentions the fate of the studio project in 1998’s Elvis Presley: A Life In Music:
After initially promoting the idea, the label realized it would be a mistake to single one of its artists out above all others; eventually, the Colonel worked out a compromise in which Elvis received, among other considerations, some up-to-date RCA stereo equipment – and RCA got to keep Nashville’s Studio B as Elvis’s recording home base” (p. 150).
Considering that Elvis Presley was RCA’s most successful recording artist, the company should have made an exception in this case and built Elvis his studio. If other artists complained, they should have just been told that they could have their own studios, too – as soon as they sold as many records as Elvis.
Another huge recording artist of the 1960s, Ray Charles, had his own studio. What if, like Charles, Elvis had been able to record whenever the mood struck him, rather than being forced to create on demand at pre-determined studio times?
What kinds of music would he have produced if left to his own devices at Graceland? Sure, we have scratchy, home recordings made by Elvis on tape recorders, but what if he had been able to professionally record in his home?
Of course, Elvis eventually did record at Graceland – in 1976 – but under markedly different circumstances. As Guralnick describes:
So desperate was RCA to lure Elvis back into the studio that they revived the old dream of recording him at home. This time, however, both the nature and the reason for the plan were a far cry from its original conception fifteen years before. […] And far from building him a new state-of-the-art plaything, they now proposed simply to install temporary equipment in the den behind the kitchen […]” (p. 593).
While the Graceland sessions that produced From Elvis Presley Boulevard and most of Moody Blue turned out to be special, I still can’t help but wonder what might have been if plans for building a true recording studio at Graceland had come to pass?
Would it have just been another intense but soon forgotten hobby – like slot cars or the Circle G?
Or would Elvis the artist have finally been able to fully realize his dreams?
* * *
After three takes, he puts down his guitar. He wants to focus only on the vocals. He nods to his friend, who kills the lights in the studio. The year is 2010. At home, Elvis begins to sing. . . .