Classic Track: Elvis Presley, 'Burning Love'

Apr 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Barbara Schultz


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By the 1970s, the deal had been sealed on many aspects of Elvis Presley’s brilliant career. His formative Sun years were behind him, as were his days as a teen idol. Though he was still revered by legions of fans and fellow musicians, one had a sense that the King was considered past his prime. Case in point: NARAS presented him with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1971, when Presley was only 36 years old.

However, Presley was far from done in 1971. He continued to perform for adoring fans and scored pop, country and gospel hits almost right up until his light went out in ’77. Those hits came in spite of the fact that the people who traded on Presley’s talent—his label and management—limited the artist’s access to quality material. At the height of Presley’s popularity, they’d instituted a policy that the artist would not record new songs that didn’t come complete with most, if not all, publishing rights. Not many successful composers would agree to what some referred to as the “Elvis Tax.”

What helped Presley keep making popular records was to sing lots of covers, as the reins were apparently looser on songs that had already been cut. Dennis Linde’s rocker “Burning Love” was such a song; it had been released early in 1972—the same year Presley recorded it—by the great country-soul singer Arthur Alexander with a somewhat retro Stax-style arrangement. Alexander had little success with “Burning Love,” but Presley’s handlers saw that it could be a fit for the King.

In late March of ’72, producer Felton Jarvis brought the song, and several others, to recording sessions in RCA’s Hollywood Studios, where Presley often rehearsed or tracked with engineer Rick Ruggieri, an RCA staffer who had come up through the ranks at the facility.

“I started with Elvis in ’69 when he was getting ready to do his first Vegas shows,” Ruggieri says. “The first thing he needed to do was to find a band, so they called RCA and said they needed to rent a studio to try out musicians. At the time, RCA was leasing a studio from ABC-TV on Vine Street, a few blocks away from the RCA building on Sunset. I ran a vocal mic—no recording whatsoever, but he would sing and musicians would come in and he would try them all out.”

Some of those same musicians were still touring with Presley and played on the “Burning Love” sessions: guitarists James Burton, John Wilkinson and Charlie Hodge, and drummer Ronnie Tutt. Pianist Glen D. Hardin had joined the group six months after those original auditions, and bassist Emory Gordy was new to the band when tracking started in RCA Studio C on March 27, 1972.

“Every year after ’69, Elvis would come into Studio C with those same musicians and rehearse for their next run of Vegas shows, and that’s how Elvis got comfortable with that room,” Ruggieri says. “During those rehearsals, I was privileged to see some of the best concerts you could ever hope to see. Once they had the material down, they’d run through the entire concert front to back two times a night. It was like being an audience of one for the Vegas show.”

The C room was the smallest of the label’s three Hollywood studios, but Ruggieri says, “Elvis liked a smaller, more intimate room, and most of the time we were just cutting the rhythm section and him: Drums, bass, guitars and a piano.”

Ruggieri says Presley always preferred to sing live in the studio with the musicians, whether he was rehearsing or recording. “Most every vocal you ever hear, he actually sang live,” he says. “Some things were added later, but Elvis always sang with the band. There was not a whole lot of isolation possible because it was a small room. You would just put a couple of baffles around a guitar amp, and a blanket over the piano. Elvis always stood in front of the drums.”

Having made dozens of albums in RCA Studio C, Ruggieri knew the studio’s assets and shortcomings. The former included a fantastic collection of Neumann tube microphones—models that were already “vintage” in ’72 but weren’t necessarily favored back then.

“They were probably all bought in the ’60s,” Ruggieri says. “Not a lot of the guys there used them because they were a pain in the neck. You had to hook up the power supply, and one day it would work and the next day it would hum, but I loved them and I used tube mics on everything I did: KM 56s and KM 54s, 49s, 47s, that kind of thing.”

Ruggieri used tube mics on drums and other acoustic instruments, and KM 84s on guitar amps. He might have liked using a Neumann on vocals, but Presley had little interest in standing still. “He would only use a handheld mic,” Ruggieri says. “For a while we were using an [Electro-Voice] RE16, and I might have used a little LA-2A on him, but that’s about it.

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