As early as May 2016, there were reports on a fascinating Elvis Presley event happening at the Phillips Recording Service. Even though details were not clear, officials from Sony/Legacy — the guardians of the Presley catalog — and longtime Elvis band members were there at Phillips to work on tracks for a project. Unofficially, the work has been revealed to be a 40th anniversary bundle celebrating the King’s 1976 home recording sessions at Graceland’s Jungle Room.
Over the past week, Sony/Legacy eventually confirmed that a two-disc collection known as “Way Down in the Jungle Room” will be released on Aug. 5, right in time for the yearly Elvis Week feasts. The double disc set brings together the results of sessions Presley did in the Jungle Room in the winter and fall of 1976, with a core of longtime TCB band members such as guitarist James Burton and drummer Ronnie Tutt.
Material from the recording will be spread out over a pair of LPs (1976’s “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee” and 1977’s “Moody Blue”). While the first disc will include all those tracks, it’s actually the previously unreleased outtakes and alternate versions that many people are particularly interested in. Those songs were mixed by Memphian and Grammy-winning engineer, Matt Ross-Spang, the longtime Sun Studio ace who is currently working out of Phillips Recording Service.
“I was recommended to (Sony’s) Rob Santos,” stated Ross-Spang of the project. “He comes to Memphis quite a bit and knows the Phillips family. I mentioned that my favorite place to work was Phillips, and he’s always wanted to do something there, so it came together pretty perfectly.”
“We mixed 18 tracks from the Jungle Room sessions, and the really cool thing is James Burton, Norbert Putnam, David Briggs, Ronnie Tutt — all those guys who played with Elvis came to town and hung out while I mixed,” Ross-Spang explained. “It’s pretty interesting mixing with James Burton standing over your shoulder.”
Ross-Spang’s work gives a sparer-sounding rendition of the Jungle Room material. “Those songs were originally done on 16-track at the house, but afterward, (Elvis producer) Felton Jarvis took the tracks back to Nashville and added strings and horns and overdubs. Which was cool, but it’s really great just to have the original kind of swamp-y tracks, real bare bones. I think that’s where some of the material really shines.”
During the sessions you could observe Presley in rare form, feeling cozy in his home environs and talking with his band. “It was neat to hear that side of him and to hear all those guys in a room together playing,” Ross-Spang said. “It was pretty wild to solo tracks and hear Elvis laugh and joke around with the boys. Or listening and getting chills hearing him do ‘Danny Boy’ or something. I’ve worked with a lot of people who thought they were Elvis, so it was really cool to work with the real thing.”
Ross-Spang stated that he has approached the project from a purely technical standpoint. “Obviously, with all my time at Sun, I’m a massive Elvis fan. I think oftentimes these (kinds of projects) go to people who maybe aren’t the biggest fans, and maybe they want to make it too modern. I’m such a fan of the old stuff that I wanted to keep it in that tradition. We mixed all analog; I used original tape slaps and the Phillips echo chambers and plate reverbs. We kept it mixed how it would’ve been done back then.”
The sessions were extraordinarily special for Knox and Halley, Jerry and Jud, and other members of the Phillips family, who have been working thoroughly over the past couple of years to renovate and relaunch the family studio. “There’s three echo chambers at Phillips, and two of them we just rewired right before the session,” Ross-Spang explained. “So the first thing to run through them was Elvis Presley. Elvis never recorded at Phillips, so it was a pretty magical thing to have him christening the chambers.”
“Way Down in the Jungle Room” is available for pre-order on CD, vinyl and digital now.
From a related story last week, Phillips and Sun Studio were the sites of sessions for a new tribute album for Sun Records.
The project was lead by the Americana Music Society of Memphis, which was started by a group of local Memphis businesses and helmed by Nashville-based producer Tamara Saviano, who has won numerous awards and been nominated for Grammys for her work on tributes to Stephen Foster and Guy Clark. Proceeds from the record will help St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and provide aid for the project that came from Visible Music College (many of the school’s students were present as runners while recording).
Engineered by the very same Matt Ross-Spang, the record’s house band was led by North Mississippi Allstars guitarist, Luther Dickinson. “I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I need Luther Dickinson to be my partner in crime,'” shared Saviano. “And to keep it authentic, it has to be all Memphis people, and not done in Nashville.”
The rest of the band are: Allstars drummer Cody Dickinson, Lucero’s Rick Steff on piano, guitarist John Paul Keith, and bassist Amy LaVere. Apart from Keith, Dickinson and LaVere, who recorded their very own versions of songs from the Sun catalog, a host of other note-worthy local and regional performers cut tracks, including Shawn Camp, Bobby Rush, Jimbo Mathus, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Valerie June. BR549’s Chuck Mead — the musical director for the CMT series “Million Dollar Quartet” currently recording in town — also appears, performing with cast members from the TV show.
Saviano states that the present plan is for the record to come out in early 2017 via a label arm of the Americana Music Society of Memphis. “Our goal is to have it out in February. It’s being mixed right now, and then we’ll go to mastering, and then we’ll start setting up for release,” states Saviano. “But we’re targeting a February release.”