Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Closest I Got to Singing with Elvis...

When we lived in Nashville, we would often brush shoulders with extraordinary people. My boss, Ben Speer, was one of them. As a member of The Speer Family, Ben played and sang for decades, shaping the face of Gospel music. One day over lunch, he revealed the most amazing story. I wrote it into an article. I recently received a request for a copy, and I loved re-reading the story so much that I wanted to share it with you.

You know the game "Six Degrees of Separation"? 
Well, this is the closest I ever got to singing with Elvis Presley...


  One of the perks of working for Ben Speer Music is the occasional chance to have lunch with Ben Speer. As we sat in the red vinyl booth of the Elliston Soda Shop, a classic Elvis song came through the juke box - “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”. Ben pointed a finger in the air, as if pointing to the notes themselves. “Brock and I sang on this.” My jaw dropped and my eyes popped open. I was having lunch with a man who sang with Elvis Presley!

  “How did that happen?”, I asked.

  The year was 1956. Rock and roll was just starting to make its way onto mainstream radio, and Nashville had just earned the name “Music City”. The Speer Family had recently signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, allowing them to work with the great Chet Atkins. Although best known today for his revolutionary guitar work, at that time, Chet worked in the A&R Department (Artist and Repertoire) of RCA, producing records and pulling together musicians and background vocalists for many of RCA’s recordings.

  That January, Chet was asked to choose musicians to record a song for a young up and coming singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley. At that time, Elvis was hardly a household name. In fact, he was more known for his pink Cadillac than his music. Elvis was a huge fan of gospel music, and he specifically asked for gospel singers to sing his BGVs (background vocals). Chet made a phone call to Ben, Brock, and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires and booked them for the session.

  In 1956, New York was still the hub for recording. When a session was booked for Nashville, the producer had to rent an empty building, transport the equipment from New York, and pray the session finished before the rental contracts were up. Chet rented the old Methodist Building downtown, and assembled the band for the session.

  Ben and Brock were seasoned harmony singers. Besides their work with the Speers, they sang BGVs for Jim Reeves, Eddy Hill, and Ruby Wells (Kitty Wells' daughter). Gordon was an old friend from the Vaughan School of Music, so the three were very comfortable making music together. They were hired to sing as a group for this session and received the union rate of $41.25 - each!

  As is often the case with BGV singers today, none of the men would have heard the song prior to the session. Instead, they would listen to it played through a few times, and pick out the parts by ear. Called “head charts”, these improvised parts were rehearsed until perfect, and then recorded along with the band. Remember, this is back in the days of one take recording! No digital, no edits, no auto-tune. What you sang was what you recorded.

  Elvis Presley walked into the room with a song in his head and a guitar in his hand. The song for that first session was “I Was the One”. If this title doesn’t ring a bell, don’t be embarrassed. It was a B-side. The A-side was “Heartbreak Hotel.” Not many people flipped that record over.

  Elvis was kind and polite. He addressed the other players with, “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir”. But mostly, Elvis was in charge. He refused to sing until he was ready. He loved a good gospel sing-along, so before “I Was the One” was even introduced to the band, Elvis led the entire group in a rendition of Mosie Lister’s “I’m Bound for the Kingdom”. He encouraged everyone to sing in four-part harmony and, of course, Elvis took the lead.

  Now, let’s remember that this session was taking place in a rented building with rented equipment. The music union stated that one session was three hours. Most producers would try to record three to four songs in that time... but not Elvis. He traditionally did one song per session, if that. The studio heads paid more than one visit to the studio to try to speed things up, but Elvis would have none of it. He had a very clear musical vision. Each song was planned and prepared. He would do it his way and in his time.

  On the “I Was the One” session, Ben and Brock got a sense of that Elvis magic. Imagine standing in a studio, watching a star being born. Elvis was clearly happy with Ben, Brock, and Gordon, as he hired them again for “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” At that session, Elvis was awarded a gold record for "Heartbreak Hotel". Clearly, his star was on the rise.

  After that, Ben and Brock returned to singing full-time with the Speers. Elvis wanted an established male quartet as his background singers, and Gordon and the Jordanaires got the job. In later years, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet joined the tour. In doing so, they had to learn the BGVs recorded in those earlier sessions. On one occasion, J.D. was singing Brock’s bass part. Elvis turned to him and exclaimed, “Who do you think you are - Brock Speer?”

  As I sat in the Elliston Soda Shop with Ben, his story attracted the ears of the waitress and the man at the next table. For many of us, it’s hard to imagine being back in 1956, in a world that didn’t yet know Elvis. My own memories are wrapped around Elvis moments - ice skating with choir friends to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love”, hearing my husband sing “Suspicious Minds” at our engagement party, and the Elvis-themed birthday dinner we held for my Mom a few years ago.

  But my new favorite memory is the day I discovered my boss sang with Elvis.

Originally published March 2008. (c) Allison Lynn


Anonymous said...

You know I love that story!

Allison Lynn said...

I know :)