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Classic Track: Elvis Presley, ‘Burning Love’

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.

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.

“A couple of times, on other sessions when he had to redo a vocal, I would set up an M 49 on a big stand, which he wasn’t thrilled about, but I asked him if he could try it to see what the difference would be in the quality of his voice. The interesting thing was, he could actually sing through almost anything and it wouldn’t make any difference. It sounds strange, I know, but using a cheap handheld mic wasn’t really a sacrifice. The quality of his voice worked with anything.”

The mic pre’s used on these sessions were the ones in the custom RCA console, which Ruggieri considered one of the studio’s shortcomings: “RCA had a laboratory in Princeton, N.J., where they built speakers and consoles,” Ruggieri says. “It was not the greatest thing in the world. Later, RCA bought two matching Neve consoles and put those in A and B, but they never replaced the one in C in my RCA ‘lifetime.’”

Three nights of sessions were captured to an Ampex 16-track machine, and the songs that were cut on night one were Red West and Richard Mainegra’s “Separate Ways,” Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” and Paul Williams’ “Where Do I Go From Here.”

Ernst Jorgensen, a Presley scholar and the producer of the King’s recent catalog releases on RCA/Legacy, wrote the book on Presley’s recording sessions: Elvis Presley: A Life in Music—The Complete Recording Sessions. In his section on these sessions, he writes that the dates were notable because it was the first time that this incarnation of Presley’s live band recorded together in the studio.

“Elvis always pushed himself to excel whenever he was recording with new players, and despite the fact that he’d played countless live shows with them, it was a whole different ball game working with his road band in the studio,” Jorgenson writes. “Here was an opportunity to create something more permanent together, and everyone was taking pride in the process.”

However, Jorgenson says that though day one had gone well, on day two, “It took almost everyone in the room to persuade Elvis to commit himself to ‘Burning Love.’” The artist didn’t have confidence in the quality of the song.

“Truthfully, he didn’t care for most of the things he sang,” Ruggieri observes. “One time, they flew me to Memphis to do some recording, and there were two or three songs that were so bad, the musicians refused to play them.”

But in this case, everyone else felt sure that “Burning Love” was worth the effort, and they were able to persuade Presley to put some muscle into it. Of the recordings they made during those few days, “Burning Love” was a standout, in part because it was a rocker during a phase when Presley focused mainly on ballads. The song seemed like a return to form, especially with the awesome “Hunk-a hunk-a burning love” parts added at the end—a departure from the Arthur Alexander arrangement, which fades out on the previous line.

Once basic tracking was done, a film crew moved in to tape Presley and band as they rehearsed for their next series of live dates. The “Burning Love” session tapes were transported to Studio B at RCA Nashville, where another of Presley’s longtime engineers, Al Pachucki, tracked overdubs, including songwriter/musician Dennis Linde’s guitar riffs and intro. Also added in Nashville were vocals by the gospel quartet J. D. Sumner & The Stamps, Presley’s then-favorite backing group.

Ruggieri says he doesn’t recall whether he or Pachucki ended up mixing “Burning Love.” Sometimes projects would stay in Nashville with Pachucki, while others returned to Hollywood to be mixed. If the tracks did come back, Ruggieri would have mixed on the RCA board in Studio C, and made use of the best of the facility’s 18 EMT 140 plate reverbs. “We had 18, but only four or five of them were very good,” he says. “I would have tried to use plate four on Elvis and six and eight on the instruments.”

“Burning Love” was released as a single in August of ’72 with the B-side “It’s a Matter of Time,” a song from day three of the session. “Burning Love” entered the Top 40 and rose steadily until it peaked at Number Two in the last two weeks of October. In November, RCA re-released the song as part of the misleading budget-priced album Elvis: Burning Love and Hits From His Movies, Volume 2. “Burning Love” was the only hit on this record, which otherwise comprised not very popular film tracks.

“Burning Love” also became a favorite in Presley’s live sets, including a killer performance in the groundbreaking satellite TV/radio concert Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii (1973), for which Ruggieri mixed the radio broadcast. The engineer continued working with Presley for a couple more years, through the Today album (1975). He left RCA and went independent that same year, going on to engineer albums for Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Al Jarreau, Kenny Rogers and many others. He remained an in-demand recording/mixing engineer through the 1990s, but these days he’s more focused on music for films, such as The Muppets (2011) and a sequel that’s expected later this year.

Presley, of course, died at home in Graceland, after suffering cruelly from a variety of physical ailments that had been aggravated—if not caused—by chronic drug abuse. But Ruggieri remembers Presley as he was in the early ’70s—not necessarily at the top of his game, but still a truly great artist with undeniable magnetism. “Let’s put it this way: When the man walked in the room, even if you weren’t looking, you knew he was there,” Ruggieri says. “He had that presence, something no one can describe.”

Online bonus: Engineer Rick Ruggieri tells more about what it was like working with the King, and what Presley wanted from his later recordings:

“It was pretty tough to get into the inner circle. I never actually did in all the years I worked with him. The band and his entourage, and even some of the engineers that worked with him in Nashville and Memphis did, but he was not an easy guy to get next to. That said, we’d sit and chat and he’d ask me questions about recording. Interestingly enough, given all the years he’d been in the business making all these great records, he knew very little about the recording process from a technical standpoint.

“One night, we sat down and chatted for an hour-and-a-half, and he says, “You know what? I come into the studios in Nashville, and we record my music and everything sounds great, but when I hear the records after their made, somebody’s jacked up my voice so loud and buried the band, and I hate that. How could somebody do that?” Those were the kinds of things he was asking. But the whole time I worked with him, he never came in the control room. If he wanted to listen to something, we’d play it for him out there in the studio. I found it very interesting, considering all the other artists I’d ever worked with were always interested in that end of it and made sure they heard [in the control room] what they’d been hearing [in the studio].

“The last record I did with him was the Today album, which I cut 99 percent of, and I took it to Doug Sax’s studio [Mastering Lab in Hollywood], and had him master it. After Elvis was complaining that the record sounded so different [on the master from what he heard in the studio], I promised him that what he heard in the studio was what he would get when he got the record. So, I convinced the powers that be to let me go outside of RCA to master it, which was unheard of at that time, and when the thing was all done, I set up a playback session in a studio behind the Mastering Lab called the Producer’s Workshop.

“I actually got Elvis to come over and listen to the final acetate over there, and I wanted to show him the studio because I wanted to cut the next record there. Producer’s Workshop was probably the best-sounding tracking studio in L.A., if not anywhere, at that time. He really liked it, and we sat there—we must have played that thing over and over again for four hours. He loved the sound of the room and the speakers, and we wanted to cut the next record there, but it just never happened.”