Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Elvis Presley must have been elated on the evening February 19th, 1969. After all, a marathon all night session just two nights earlier had proven that his initial run at Memphis' American Sound Studios the month before hadn’t been a fluke. He would have had no way of knowing that he was in the midst of a period that would one day be considered one of the most important in rock history, now would he have realized how many artists would build an entire career off the resurgent energy those sessions produced. He wouldn’t have been thinking along those lines. Instead it is easy to imagine that Elvis Presley probably felt more grateful than anything else, as he had to know that he hadn’t delivered music this raw and powerful for vinyl since that session in 67 that produced his take on Jerry Reed’s "Guitar Man".
That February evening would turn out to be one of the less productive song wise of Elvis’ entire run with producer Chips Moman at American Sound. While most of the sessions produced at least three master’s per evening, this one only managed two, but they were both stunners. In the late part of the evening into the early morning hours, Presley would deliver a devastating version of Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive”, a song that seemed to sum up his entire heroic stand at American Sound in 69. Elvis seemed even more passionate though about the song he spent hours on in the earlier part of the evening, a haunting and eerie tale about a wanderer looking for a long lost love on a rainy Kentucky day.
Eddie Rabbitt was nearing thirty years old in 1969 and he must have been wondering when his big break was coming. The Brooklyn born artist had been building a solid reputation as one of Nashville’s top songwriters throughout the mid to late sixties, but he had yet to deliver a song that he could really build a career on.
Northern Irish boy Rabbitt might have seemed an odd candidate for the Tennessee music scene, but since he was a young man he had seen a connection between America’s country music and the Irish music his father had played him as a youth. Rabbitt recalled in an interview that music and writing had always been a passion of his and that he “was 12 years old” when he penned his first song, a ballad entitled “Susie”.
Rabbitt must have felt a long way from home in the mid-sixties as he struggled to get his words and music to quality artists. There was something special about the young and exceptionally good looking young writer though, and Chips Moman realized it and continually asked Rabbitt for material.
Rabbitt’s big break came courtesy of controversial Presley co-conspirator Lamar Fike who heard a demo of Rabbit’s “Kentucky Rain” in the late part of 68. Rabbitt recalled after months of waiting the day that Fike called him up with the news that not only did Elvis want to record the track but that he wanted to, “put it out as his next A-Side single.” Rabbitt was stunned and said that it felt like, “even more than a dream” and that it made him finally feel like he, “was a songwriter after all.”
In hindsight, had Eddie Rabbitt recorded “Kentucky Rain” himself it could have easily broken him as a solo recording star, but that was to come later and even Rabbitt knew that nothing he could have done could have matched the majesty of Presley’s impassioned take.
Elvis, Chips and the legendary American Sound band began working on "Kentucky Rain" diligently just past 7:30 on that fateful February evening. Presley historian Ernst Jorgensen wrote in the book on Elvis’ sessions that "Kentucky Rain", “wasn’t an easy song for the musicians to grasp” and the recording ended up taking hours, “to arrive at a truly accomplished rendition-but that it was worth it.”
While the American Sound band and Moman might have found Rabbitt’s song tricky, Elvis fell right into its groove and all of his vocal takes that night were mesmerizing. Moman reportedly got so excited listening to Elvis’ vocals during each take that he got co-producer Felton Jarvis to act, “as a cheerleader” in efforts to, “spur (Presley) onward” throughout the night. Just over a year before, Presley had been stuck in Hollywood recording a song about a bull, so standing in American Studios that night singing such an adult and complex song as “Kentucky Rain” must have been a truly emotional experience for him.
Of course, the story of “Kentucky Rain” doesn’t begin and end with Elvis Presley’s magical vocal take. The American Studio band was arguably the best in the world in 1969, and everything from Bobbie Wood’s piano work to the incomparable guitar playing of Reggie Young clicks dramatically in “Kentucky Rain”. It is one of the great American Studio recordings…a bruised, powerhouse and incredibly cinematic work that has lost none of its edge in the forty years since its release.
The song was held back for single release and was not included on either of the masterful American Sound Studio albums. It would hit stores in January, 1970 with the infectious “My Little Friend” as it B-Side. Like the greatest of Elvis Presley’s recordings, “Kentucky Rain” blurred the lines between rock, pop and country and it made a significant dent on each chart. It landed squarely in Billboard’s top twenty soon after its release and it became one of the most played songs of the year, although in hindsight it should have placed higher.
Elvis Presley loved “Kentucky Rain” and in 1970 he brought it to Vegas for some of his legendary stands at The International and The Hilton. Live recordings of the song show what it would have sounded like had Elvis produced the cut instead of Moman. The tempo is a bit faster and more space is left for Elvis’ unmatched TCB band to play with. The live versions of "Kentucky Rain" are perhaps even more powerful than the studio take, although they lose some of the ethereal quality of the original.
Elvis liked Eddie Rabbitt a lot and he recorded two more of the songwriter’s passionate and expert songs, the epic sounding "Inherit the Wind" and the rocking "Patch it Up". Both songs are masterworks in their own right, but neither matches the splendor of "Kentucky Rain".
The song not only sealed Eddie Rabbitt’s name as a top songwriter, but it also helped springboard his own solo career. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Rabbitt proved to be one of the great cross-over artists and the albums he recorded in the period were remarkably well-crafted and well-performed works. Eddie would hit pay-dirt ten years after Elvis first recorded one of his songs with another tune about the rain, and the chart-topping “I Love a Rainy Night” remains one of the coolest sounding and most resonate cross-over country songs ever recorded.
“Kentucky Rain” has been covered numerous times since Elvis’ version. Eddie Rabbitt himself would tackle the song a year after Elvis passed away on his terrific 1978 album Variations. His version is heartfelt, gripping and compelling. It is a splendid tribute to both Rabbitt’s ability as a singer in his own right, and Presley himself.
In the years since Elvis’ death, “Kentucky Rain” has appeared on dozen’s of best-of collections and box-sets. It became one of the most thrilling cuts on the near chart topping 2nd to None in the early part of the decade, and remains a favorite to many fans all over the world.
One of those fans is peerless Paul Westerberg, who began performing “Kentucky Rain” live around the time of 2nd to None’s release. Westerberg’s love for Elvis has been apparent since The Replacements paid tribute to the cover of G.I. Blues with their legendary Pleased to Meet Me LP twenty years ago, and his version of “Kentucky Rain” is a ragged triumph…sloppy, genuine, and fitting as Paul Westerberg stands along with Elvis as one of Rock’s great individuals.
Eddie Rabbitt and Elvis Presley would meet just once; backstage after a particularly frenzied Vegas stand in the early seventies. Rabbitt recalled that meeting an exhausted Elvis Presley was, “short and sweet but a pleasure nonetheless.” Eddie Rabbitt sadly followed Elvis Presley into the great unknown in the early summer of 1998. His legacy of great songwriting lives on though, with “Kentucky Rain” remaining one of his most devastating and powerful tunes…
***Quotes come from Writing for the King and A Life in Music.***