1960 Popular Music: The Nashville Sound

1960 was a great year for popular music artists who recorded in Nashville. RCA’s studio B, where many country hits were cut in the late 1950s, witnessed a series of legendary sessions that year, yielding a number of country-rock classics. This is the story of three artists and the songs they recorded in that studio in 1960. And we start with at the top with The King.

1960 was the year Elvis Presley was back. Not a comeback, because he was never out of the public’s conscience during the six years since his meteoric rise to stardom. But after two years of service in the US Army, with virtually no new recordings or public appearances, he was indeed back. And what better way to restart his recording career than an album titled “Elvis is Back!”?

February 11, 1960 – Elvis receives his full sergeant’s stripes

After receiving his draft notice in December of 1957, Elvis was able to complete the recording of the soundtrack to the movie King Creole before joining the Army in March of 1958. Some of his fans were beside themselves, realizing that their idol is taking a hiatus of two years from public appearances. One fan called the recruit office in Memphis asking, “You didn’t put Beethoven in the Army, did you?” The officer on duty answered nonchalantly, “Well sir, considering that Beethoven wasn’t an American citizen, has been dead for some time and would have been 4-F with ear trouble anyway, I don’t suppose we could have done much with him.”

RCA Victor kept cashing in on its star performer by digging deep into tapes from sessions he recorded prior to his recruitment. During his military service Elvis released four LPs and ten singles, three of them topping the charts. However, spare one recording session in June 1958 while on leave, he did not enter a recording studio until after he was discharged.

Two weeks after his release from the Army, Elvis arrived in Nashville on March 20th 1960. The studio recently acquired a three-track recording equipment, giving more space to each player and a separate track for Elvis’ voice. In the studio he was reunited with some of his fantastic sidemen, including Scotty Moore on electric guitar and D. J. Fontana on drums. Before they recorded the first note RCA had already printed over a million sleeves for the upcoming single, spare the song titles. The label did not even know which songs he was planning to record. Talk about pressure. The session lasted all night and yielded six songs. One of them, Stuck On You, was selected as the A-side for a single. Notice the lack of song titles on the single sleeve.

Utilizing a stop-time cliché ala ‘All Shook Up’, it was a guaranteed hit. Within two days the single was released, entering the Billboard Top 100 chart and climbing to the top within a month. On March 26 Elvis performed the song on TV, his first appearance on that medium in three years. The occasion: a special episode of The Frank Sinatra Timex Show titled ‘Welcome Home Elvis’. The meeting between the two music giants was a highly anticipated event, given that in 1957 Sinatra wrote an article in the French magazine Western World in which he voiced his opinion about rock and roll as “sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact, dirty—lyrics, and it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth … this rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.” He did not mince his words. In the ensuing three years the Chairman of the Board had probably changed his opinion, for he was nothing but smiles performing a duet with Elvis.

Here is Stuck On You from that show:

Elvis returned to RCA’s studio B in Nashville two weeks after the first session to record sufficient material for the upcoming album. The second session proved even more successful, yielding not only more than enough songs for the album, but in addition two #1 hit singles. Elvis and company pulled another all-nighter that started with a cover of the Peggy Lee’s hit Fever. The third song became one of the best-selling physical singles of all time with 20 million copies sold.

While being stationed in West Germany, Elvis heard a song called ‘There’s No Tomorrow’, a 1949 hit by Tony Martin. The melody of that song was based on a standard Italian melody dating back to 1898, composed by Eduardo di Capua. The song has been performed by many artists over the years, its original Italian lyrics performed by opera singers including Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle and Mario Lanza. It first received English lyrics in 1915, but Tony Martin’s cover was the first successful performance of the song in that language. Elvis loved the song and mentioned it to his publisher Freddie Bienstock, who immediately smelled success and secured additional royalty revenue by asking to write yet another set of lyrics in English. Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder delivered the goods, naming the song ‘It’s Now or Never’.

Interestingly two years before Elvis recorded the song, Tony Martin attended a Friars Club of Beverly Hills roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Comedian Harry Einstein delivered a hilarious skit and moments later suddenly suffered a heart attack. Emcee Art Linkletter asked Martin hurriedly to sing a song to divert the crowd’s attention. What song did Martin pick? Of course – There’s No Tomorrow. The unfortunate choice proved to be an omen as two hours later Einstein died. But omens can also be portents of good, as was the case with Elvis’ version. The hit climbed quickly to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, where it remained for five weeks.

Billboard Hot 100 Chart, Sep 1960

The song demonstrates the new vocal range and technique that Elvis acquired during his army service. Fellow GI, musician and future Elvis entourage member Charlie Hodge spent many nights with Elvis talking about how to improve his range and how to sustain notes at the top of the register. Elvis’ voice became stronger as he learned to sing more from the diaphragm than the throat. He said, “It’s the same music, just with more balls.”

Legendary Nashville sound engineer Bill Porter, who worked with all the artists covered in this article, remembers the recording session: “Elvis was having trouble with ‘It’s Now or Never’ because he basically sang in the baritone range, and the end was in the tenor range. We recorded this song for at least seven or eight takes. At one point, I finally pushed the talkback button and said, ‘EP, we can just do the ending. I can splice it on without doing the song all the way through again’. He answered me with, ‘Bill, I’m gonna do it all the way through, or I’m not gonna do it at all!’ So, we did it again. And, of course, he got it the way he wanted it.” Indeed, the song ends it in a full voice cadence that shares very little with the vocal devices of R&B and Country.

Elvis Presley, April 1960

Drummer DJ Fontana, when asked about Elvis’ favorite songs, answered: “Elvis loved gospel songs. Some of his favorites were ‘Peace In The Valley’ and some others like that, but he loved ‘It’s Now Or Never’, because he admired good singers like Enrico Caruso – big voices – Mario Lanza was another. He really wanted to sing like those guys.”

Back in 1938 Elvis Presley’s notorious manager, colonel Tom Parker, started his career in the music industry as a music promoter. His first client was singer Gene Austin. One of the songs Austin used to perform on his shows was ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’, an oldie written in 1926. Parker’s wife, Marie Mott, loved that song and it became her favorite. Fast forward 22 years and the colonel, for the first and only time in his long relationship with Elvis, suggests a repertoire pick and asks the singer to record this song. The King abides, and squeezes it in towards the end of the second Nashville recording session in April 1960.

Looking for the right mood to sing the soulful ballad, Elvis asked session producer Chet Atkins to dim the lights in the studio. Bill Porter remembers: “He chased everybody out of the studio, all the guests and everything—you know, studios back then were like supermarkets with bright fluorescent lighting, but he was singing in the dark.” As the song started with the acoustic guitar, drums, and bass, the opening sounded somewhat similar to ‘My Happiness’, the first song Elivs ever recorded. But once he started singing you could hear how far his voice developed and matured since that early recording.

Porter: “I couldn’t see what the hell was going on, and then I hear the guitar and the bass and the Jordanaires humming a little bit, and Elvis started to sing. And then suddenly he starts talking right in the middle of it! If you listen closely, you’ll hear them bumping the microphone stands because there were no lights out there.” Bumping and all, nothing was in the way of this song as Elvis made it to the top of the charts for the third time in 1960.

The two Nashville sessions yielded not only three #1 singles, but also the album Elvis Is Back. Unlike the singles, the album sold less than expected and got mixed reviews by critics. Compared to his wilder rock n’ roll of pre-military service recordings, the more subdued and matured way he delivered the new songs generated a wide range of reviews: “Elvis is back and singing better than ever in the rock and roll style he made famous”, “drab and lackluster”, “Presley obviously finds it hard to record his old gusto. Perhaps the recordings are the first attempts to master new styles.” Future reviews have been more complimentary, realizing in retrospect Elvis’ ability to perform a wide range of music styles at a high level of quality. It is now considered one of his masterpieces.

Our next artist also made a stylistic change in 1960 from rock n’ roll to a mellower sound, but unlike Elvis he had much less to lose. By the middle of 1959 Roy Orbison did not have much to show for: Out of eight singles he released, only one entered the charts (Ooby Dooby in 1956) and climbed no farther then #59. The two labels who recorded him, Sun and RCA Victor, did not shed tears over him as they parted ways.

1959 was a year of positive change for Orbison for two main reasons. The first – he signed a new contract with Monument Records. The fledgling label had released less than ten singles by that time but was able to score a #4 hit on their first release with ‘Gotta Travel On’ by Billy Grammer. The second – he started a new songwriting partnership with his friend Joe Melson, a singer and songwriter whom he met in Texas. The two would make history with the songs they would write together over next few the years. Their first effort for Monument did not point to the greatness to follow, but it did produce a minor hit with ‘Uptown’ in late 1959. It managed to enter the top 100 chart and secured another recording session in March of 1960 at…you guessed it – RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville, Tennessee.

Roy Orbison before shades

Melson recognized the potential in Orbison’s voice, realizing the need to branch out of rock n’ roll and explore other music styles in which Orbison can expand the range and expression of that voice. The result was the first operatic rock ballad in the history of popular music: ‘Only The Lonely’. The inspiration for the lyrics came from Melson, left brokenhearted as a teenager by a girl he fell in love with. Orbison commented on the development of his voice during that period: “I liked the sound of my voice. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. I think that somewhere between the time of ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘Only the Lonely’, it kind of turned into a good voice.”

The story of what led to the recording of the song is too good to ignore, and it connects Roy Orbison with the next act discussed in this article. Orbison and Melson arrived in Memphis early in the morning of March 20, 1960 with the intent to pitch the song to Elvis Presley. They saw bigger potential in becoming songwriters behind an Elvis smash than attempting to perform the song. But that option evaporated at the feet of the Graceland gate guard, who informed them that everyone is asleep and they can meet Elvis in Nashville. As you remember perfectly from the beginning of this article, Elvis was on his way later that day to the Music City for his first recording session after his Army service.

The duo than headed to Nashville as advised, but decided to pitch the song to yet one more artist, this time to half of the Everly Brothers – Phil Everly. The brothers performed Roy Orbison’s song Claudette two years earlier, but this time they decided to pass. Rejected twice, Orbison’s next stop was producer and founder of Monument Records Fred Foster. He played a demo version of the song and Foster gave him the musical advice of a lifetime. Foster said, “I Like that song, but you were singing another song, ‘Come Back To Me’, with a vocal figure in it – Dum-dum-dum dummy-doo-wah. Put that in the song and you got a smash.” Realizing the commercial potential of the song in their hands, Orbison urged the producer to book a recording studio pronto only to realize that the studio is booked for three days solid by… Elvis Presley. In those days booking a major studio for that amount of time was unheard of, but this was Elvis. Roy Orbison waited to the 25th of March to record ‘Only The Lonely’ in the same RCA Studio B. What a week for that studio.

Roy Orbison with Joe Melson

The ‘dum dum’ opening was indeed the secret sauce in that song, but it proved a difficulty for sound engineer Bill Porter. He remembers the recording session: “Orbison strummed the guitar and sang, and there were two guys standing behind sort of like singing, but I thought they were just hangers on. And Roy looks at me and says ‘That’s the sound I want’. And Fred says ‘What sound?’ So I walked over there, and these guys are whispering the words and I thought, my God! I’ll never get that on the mix. I said, ‘Must they sing so softly?’ ‘Yeah’, Roy said. I said ‘Well, OK’. Meanwhile I’m thinking how am I going to do this in one take? If I opened the mike up that much, it would let everything else in. My normal mix is, I get a balance on the rhythm section, piano, bass, drums, guitar, whatever, then I add the sweetening – strings, voices – then I put the artist on top. It’s kind of like a pyramid. This time I knew if I did that, forget it! So what I did was take the ‘dum dum’ sound real soft and I mixed down from that instead of mixing up. And so I was able to get that on top of the mix fairly easy. That ‘dum dum’ sound became Orbison’s trademark. That’s what made that record. That soft, breathy vocal.” To farther isolate Roy Orbison’s vocals from the rest of the musicians, Porter placed a coat rack behind the singer.

Roy Orbison at RCA studio, Nashville, 1960

Before releasing the song, Foster told Orbison and Melson that they have to change its name. Another song with that name, written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, was performed by Frank Sinatra in 1958. The song title was too good to give up on, so they added the subtitle ‘Know The Way I Feel’. The single was released in the US in April 1960, climbing to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and later to #1 in the UK singles chart. It was Roy Orbison’s first bona fide hit.

Similar to the songs discussed so far, the two songs closing this article were also recorded at RCA’s studio B in Nashville. And similar to Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, the group who sang these songs went through a major career event in 1960. After releasing a string of hits with Cadence Records for three years, the Everly Brothers decided to move up and sign with one of the majors. The brothers were part of a well-oiled Nashville team with songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, producer Chet Atkins, engineer Bill Porter and musicians including Hank Garland on guitar, Floyd Cramer on piano and Buddy Harman on drums. Collectively that team was responsible for some of the late 1950s biggest hits: ‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ and ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’.

The Everly Brothers, London 1960

After a decades-long hiatus, Warner Bros. returned to the record business in 1958. The first two years were lukewarm with minor hits and financial loses, and the label was intent on entering the teenage music market. And who better to sign than the duo that gave voice to a youth culture that mixed anxiety and hope packaged in a country-pop-rockabilly fusion? Warner Bros. offered the young brothers an offer they could not refuse: a 10-year, 1 million dollar contract. This was the first ever seven-figure recording contract.

But before the brothers started recording for Warner Bros. they had to complete their contract with Cadence and deliver one more recording session. On 18 February 1960 they reconvened with the aforementioned A-team at RCA Victor’s Nashville studio to perform their last single for Cadence. Phil Everly penned a song in his car, parked outside an A&W root beer stand. His muse was Jackie Ertel-Bleyer, the stepdaughter of Cadence Records founder, Archie Bleyer. After an on-again, off-again romance, the two later married in 1963. The song was performed with the same rockabilly style as most of their hits on Cadence Records.

‘When Will I Be Loved’ reached no. 8 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart but got a second life fifteen years later when Linda Ronstadt gave it a terrific performance and climbed all the way to the top of the charts. She said this of the Everly Brothers: “They had that sibling sound. The information of your DNA is carried in your voice, and you can get a sound with family that you never get with someone who’s not blood-related to you and they were both such good singers – they were one of the foundations, one of the cornerstones of the new rock n’ roll sound.”

In April 1960 The Everly Brothers were back in the same studio to cut a single for their new record label. With the high price tag on that contract, the stakes were high. This time it was Don Everly who was enamored, or rather disillusioned by a girl and wrote a song called ‘Cathy’s Clown’. His musical inspiration was an unlikely source, composer Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, written in 1931. Part of the suite, titled ‘On The Trail’ was the theme music in commercials for Philip Morris cigarettes on US radio and television from 1934 until sometime in the 1960s. The song quickly climbed to the top of the charts, remained in that position for five weeks and became the duo’s biggest hit.

The song is memorable for its distinctive galloping rhythm with a march-like drum pattern. Engineer Bill Porter has an interesting story to tell: “If you listen closely, the drums sound like two drummers playing. I had gotten a tape loop from RCA New York. I heard this rhythm pattern and I thought, ‘God, this would be great for this song,’ so I asked producer Wesley Rose if I could use the tape loop on the drums. He said, ‘I don’t care.’ So I hooked it up, fed it back into the console and got the balance, and then I switched it off on the verse and on during the bridge. I just did it manually with a switch. It’s right in tempo and right in sync, so it gave the effect of two totally different drum sounds.”

Two years later the song inspired the Fab Four when they recorded one of their first singles. After they demoed ‘Please Please Me’ to George Martin, he suggested that they speed the tempo up and add harmonies. Who do you turn to for inspiration when you are in need of harmonies? Lennon and McCartney were known to borrow from the best, and the harmonies on ‘Please Please Me’ can be traced directly back to those in ‘Cathy’s Clown.’

Categories: A Year in Music

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5 replies »

  1. Enjoyed the article very much, thanks for the research. Where’d you find that photo of Orbison recording??
    Seems to me the RCA studio hosted these memorable recordings rather than making a stylistic imprint on them, such as at Muscle Shoals.

  2. Nice post, many thanks. Where could I find more info about the Nashville session musos of the 50s and 60s who backed Elvis, Roy, Don Gibson and more? Thinking of Grady Martin, Fred Carter, Anita Kerr singers.

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