It was a night of memories and magic. Session greats David Briggs (piano), James Burton (guitar), Charlie McCoy (harmonica and more) and Norbert Putnam (bass) gathered at Historic RCA Studio B in Nashville to share stories about working with Country Music Hall of Fame member Elvis Presley. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Presley’s death and the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of RCA’s historic studio, where he made over two hundred recordings.
Museum staff member Michael Gray moderated the discussion. He asked each musician to describe his first session with Presley. Briggs recalled filling in for A-Team keyboardist (and Country Music Hall of Fame member) Floyd Cramer when Presley recorded "Love Letters" at Studio B in 1966. Cramer arrived later, but Presley had grown accustomed to Briggs’s piano touch on the song, so Cramer played organ instead. The older session musicians, Briggs said, played with much more "f-e-e-l" compared to Briggs’s younger generation of players, who played busier, with more "f-i-l-l."
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McCoy, also a Country Music Hall of Fame member, first encountered Presley when they worked together on the soundtrack for Harum Scarum. The movie company had rescheduled the sessions at the last minute, and Presley’s regular Nashville studio band members were committed to play other sessions. Presley "had an aura about him,” McCoy said, and “Johnny Cash had that same kind of charisma." Presley was gracious, easing nerves by telling the musicians "thank you for helping me."
Putnam began working with Presley in 1970. Before a recording session began, Putnam would go into the bathroom at Studio B, where he prayed, "Dear God, don't let me be the first bass player ever to ruin an Elvis session." Presley was a master raconteur and comic, and he used those skills to put those around him at ease. "In thirty minutes,” Putnam recalled, “you had forgotten that he was the King of Rock and Roll."
Burton lived in Burbank, California, when Presley invited him to be a part of his 1968 television special. Burton had other commitments, but Presley called him again in 1969, this time to ask Burton to put a band together for him. During that two-hour conversation, Elvis enthusiastically acknowledged that he had been watching Burton’s career closely since the mid-1950s. Burton recruited the members of what would become known as the TCB band, and they debuted in Las Vegas.
Briggs remembered that Presley didn't like to overdub tracks, and all the musicians recalled that Elvis preferred to sing with the band rather than overdub his vocals. “He would lead the band with his emotion," Putnam said, and Burton remembered Elvis's preference to sing in the center of the room to maintain eye contact with all the players. "You had to be careful with Elvis,” Burton said. “Whatever you were playing, he'd say 'turn the machine on, let's play it.'"
"I thought the Presley sessions were a lot like a jam,” Putnam observed, “because they would happen so fast. Even a new song, Elvis would sing it two or three times with a demo. We'd sketch it out in our shorthand numbers, and we could play it the first time through without mistakes. Well, he'd have them turn the red light on." Over time the musicians developed a system of asking Elvis for another take, to fix any mistakes they had made. Putnam said Presley would always do another take if one of the musicians asked—not necessarily if the producer asked the same.
Each player expressed admiration for Presley, the engineers, each other, and the session players in Nashville. Burton had the final word, encompassing his respect for both Elvis and Studio B. "This is still the place, and Elvis is still the King."
—Justin L. Croft