It’s ELVIS Week: The Jungle Room

Today at Graceland:

10:00 pm. Graceland Mansion.
Tickets: $750  – SOLD OUT
Extremely limited availability; only 14 tours available; Limited to two tours per purchaser.

In 1976, the Jungle Room at Graceland became a make-shift studio – and Elvis recorded there in February and October of that year. During this exclusive tour experience, step back 45 years to 1976 with some of the guys who were part of the Jungle Room sessions to hear their stories of what it was like to record with Elvis. Hosted by Tom Brown, special guests include guitarist James Burton and piano player David Briggs. In addition, as part of the experience, guests will enjoy a rare photo opportunity inside the Jungle Room with our special guests. This experience is also offered on August 17.

Elvis never called it the Jungle Room. It was always The Den. From Rolling Stone Magazine:

The den, a place that promised emotional refuge for Presley, was littered with bittersweet reminders of happier times. On the coffee table lay a cigarette case with a built-in music box that played his hit “Surrender” – a gift from Priscilla on their first Christmas together at Graceland in 1962. On the bar was a metal tray, etched with a photo of their wedding day. When Presley’s new girlfriend Linda Thompson moved into the mansion later that year, the couple marked this fresh start with a frenzy of redecorating. 

Antebellum pillars, balustrades and doorways were shrouded in heavy red velvet fabric, lassoed with gold tassels like a Las Vegas Versailles. Enormous overstuffed Louis XV chairs were reupholstered in candy-apple satin studded with rhinestones. Walls dripped with mirrors and black velvet paintings. Floors were cluttered with white fur rugs, robust caryatids and gaudy lamps bejeweled with fake rubies and sequins. Even Liberace would have blushed.

Presley’s friend Alan Fortas described the appointments as “all the furniture you wouldn’t buy – not in a million years.” Fellow Memphis Mafioso Lamar Fike was more blunt: “Let’s face it – Elvis’s taste sucked … if something wasn’t overdone it was abnormal to Elvis.”

In a story supported by several of Presley’s friends, Vernon returned home one day in 1974 exclaiming, “I just went by Donald’s Furniture Store and they’ve got the ugliest furniture I’ve ever seen in my life.” After describing it, Presley replied, “Good, sounds like me.” By afternoon Vernon found the same furniture sitting in the den, along with his laughing son.

Presley grew to love the dark pine couches, stools, lamps, credenza, wet bar and end tables adorned with chainsaw-carved sea serpents and gargoyles. They reminded him of Hawaii, a frequent vacation destination and scene of some of his greatest triumphs. There he had filmed three of his most beloved movies – Blue HawaiiGirls Girls Girls and Paradise, Hawaiian Style – and made television history with 1973’s Aloha From Hawaii satellite broadcast. In his den, holding court from his ornate wooden throne, cooled by a trio of air conditioning units and surrounded by friends, family and ceramic animal figurines, Presley was still king of the jungle.

But outside the walls of Graceland this was less often the case. As he approached the age of 40, it seemed that his career had plateaued.

The year of 1974 came and went without a single studio visit, forcing the label (RCA)  to make do issuing live tracks, outtakes and repackaged hits. The following March he spent only three days in Hollywood’s RCA Studio C, recording songs that would yield that spring’s Today album. It would be his last time working in a professional studio setting.

RCA did what it could to make the recording process more enticing. They offered to hold sessions in Memphis, but top-of-the-line local facilities like American Sound Studios and Stax had recently shuttered. Facing limited options, producer Felton Jarvis had a novel idea: Why not bring the studio to Presley? The concept was not entirely without precedent. Presley liked the idea, and it was agreed that they would record in Graceland.

The den’s expansive floor plan provided the ideal space for a live room, and rolls of thick green shag carpeting – which, in the high Seventies fashion, covered parts of the ceiling as well as the floor – acted as natural sound absorbers. An RCA mobile studio truck was dispatched from Nashville, but it broke down just outside of Memphis and had to be towed through the gates of Graceland. Not the most auspicious start to the project.

The furniture was cleared, the burbling waterfall switched off, and blankets hung as sound baffles. On February 2nd, 1976, Elvis and his team were ready to roll. The makeshift studio lacked the isolation rooms or vocal booths found in more formal set-ups, and more than a dozen band members and their instruments all squeezed in, elbow to elbow. “[Presley] always wanted the musicians and the singers right with him,” says James Burton, a fixture on guitar since 1969. “That’s because Elvis fed off of the emotion and the dynamics that you can get when communicating as musicians and artists,” continued drummer Ronnie Tutt, “And that is the best way that music is made.”

A dozen songs were completed over the course of six nights. Sessions usually began at 9 p.m., with Presley seldom making his entrance before midnight. Once everyone warmed up with a few gospel standards, work would continue until the early hours of the morning. Felton and engineer Brian Christian monitored the proceedings via closed circuit camera from their command center in the studio truck parked outside the windows. Presley would deliver his vocal parts on the landing adjacent to the kitchen, bathed in the glow of an ever-changing colored light bulb – swapped out as the mood of the song dictated. “We need a red light in here like a whorehouse, so these guys will be playing better,” he quipped.

Work sputtered to a stop on February 8th when Presley failed to appear for recording. After several hours of waiting, the band was sent home. But RCA got their album, releasing the 10-track From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee that May. It shot to number one on the Billboard Country charts.

From those recordings a country classic from Roy Acuff in 1947 and Willie Nelson and Mickey Gilley in the 1970’s. It is truly one of the greatest country music songs ever.

One thought on “It’s ELVIS Week: The Jungle Room

  1. Pingback: It’s ELVIS Week: He Touched Me | This Just In… From Franklin, WI

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