Dub Steps: How Elvis Recorded “It’s Now Or Never”

Aug 16, 2016

When Elvis Presley first recorded at the RCA studio in Nashville that would later be known as RCA Studio B, in June 1958, he was already in the army. In October he would leave for Germany and he would not return until his discharge in March of 1960. The goal of the June ’58 session was to stockpile recordings that could be released while Presley was in the army and  unable to record.

In the late 1950s, vocalists and musicians recorded live, in the same room, and at the same time. Getting a perfect take often required multiple attempts. Songs were mixed live and sent to a mono tape machine. This Recording session began at 7 p.m. and ended at 5 a.m. the following day. Presley knocked out five songs that would become chart hits, including the #1 single “A Big Hunk O’ Love.”

When Presley returned from the army, in 1960, much had changed at the RCA studio. It had been upgraded with Ampex mono tape machines, stereo tape machines, and an Ampex three-track tape machine that allowed for stereo recording and simple overdubs (the addition of extra vocals or instruments to a finished master). Newly hired engineer Bill Porter saw to it that studio sessions ran like a well-oiled machine under his watch. Vocalists and musicians were still recording live in the same room, but Porter had, by then, figured out instrument and microphone placement and other techniques that allowed recordings to have a large, warm sound.

Presley’s second post-army recording session took place at Nashville’s RCA studio April 3, 1960. He was joined by a roomful of Nashville’s A-team musicians including Scotty Moore and Hank Garland on guitars, Bob Moore on bass, D.J. Fontana and Buddy Harman on drums, Floyd Cramer on piano, Boots Randolph on saxophone, and the Jordanaires and Charlie Hodge on background vocals. Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins were producers with Bill Porter as the engineer for the session.

During this session Elvis recorded “It’s Now or Never, a newly written song that borrowed the melody from the opera aria “O Sole Mio.” Vocally, the song was a lofty departure from the pop and blues material he had been recording. According to Bill Porter, Presley was having trouble with the song’s ending high note, and after a few takes he told Elvis, “We could splice the ending. Why don’t you do that? We don’t need to do the song all the way through.” Elvis told Porter, “Bill, I’m going to do it all the way through, or I’m not going to do it,” and with the fourth take he accomplished his mission. The group moved on to the next song, but there was still a little work to be done on “It’s Now or Never.” Two days later, using multiple tape machines, claves and an extra piano part were added to the recoding. The new piano part can be easily heard answering each line of the verses that Elvis sings.

Listen to "It’s Now Or Never" before piano and claves were added.

It’s Now or Never (Take 4)

Listen to the finished version of "It’s Now Or Never."

It’s Now or Never (Final)

“It’s Now or Never” was a vocal tour-de-force for Elvis and became a #1 hit and his second-best-selling single, while spotlighting engineer Bill Porter and the early advances in recording at RCA Studio B.

—Michael Manning

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