When friends visit Nashville, ,they always ask about must-sees. They know about the recreation of the Parthenon, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, the Ryman and the Country Music Hall of Fame, but I always urge them to see RCA Studio B, an essential site in the history of pop and country music preserved and maintained by the hall.
It’s where many of the biggest hits by the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison were recorded. And it’s where Elvis Presley recorded more than 200 songs.
It’s the latter distinction that brought four stellar musicians back to Studio B last night to recall their work with Elvis. Keyboard player David Briggs first teamed with Presley in 1966 on “Love Letters.” Guitarist James Burton led Presley’s TCB Band from 1969 after a legendary stint with Rick Nelson. Charlie McCoy played harmonica and several other instruments on Presley records stretching back to 1965. And Norbert Putnam was the bass player on more than 100 Elvis songs, beginning in 1970.
That’s a lot of firepower and they came armed with great stories. What was most striking, though, was the consensus. To a man, they agreed that:]
Elvis had extraordinary charisma and personal charm.
He was always respectful of studio musicians and never tried to tell them how or what to play.
He continued to have a passion for his music right up until his death. Some of those later recordings don’t suggest that, but they were adamant that he didn’t mail it in.
Putnam told of an incident in Studio B that captured the dynamics of working with Elvis. Presley was there for a recording session, but first decided he wanted to demonstrate his karate skills. He had one of his “Memphis Mafia” buddies pretend to attack him with a gun. Presley chopped at it, driving it more than 30 feet into the body of musician Chip Young’s cherished handmade Spanish classical guitar. That guitar- with a hold in it – is now housed at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The music they recorded with Presley clearly meant a great deal to them and they recalled it in great detail. Briggs remembered unexpectedly sitting in for the great Floyd Cramer on his first session with Elvis and was critical of his own performance decades ago. But he also said he regretted asking Elvis to re-record
the song a few years later, saying it didn’t have the magic of the original.
Two of the musicians have recently written memoirs revisiting their careers. Norbert Putnam’s memoir is called “Music Lessons Vol. 1” and Charlie McCoy has written “Fifty Cents and a Box Top: The Creative Life of Nashville Session Musician Charlie McCoy.”