Bass maestro Ray Walker evokes sizzling Nashville nights with Elvis and Jerry Reed
The only original Jordanaire still standing, genial bass extraordinaire Ray Walker has experienced an astronomical 60-year career in show business, adding a nuanced low backing vocal to definitive hit singles by Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson — e.g. “Poor Little Fool” and “Travelin’ Man” — and Patsy Cline.
In fact, Walker’s debut recording session with the King of Rock ’n’ Roll in June 1958 yielded a million selling record — “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I.” By 1969 the renowned country-gospel quartet was singing harmonies on roughly 80 percent of the songs recorded in Nashville, performing on over 30,000 total studio recordings.
Walker regularly appeared on George Klein’s SiriusXM weekly Elvis radio show until precarious health precipitated Klein to step down in January 2018. Affectionately known as G.K., the legendary disc jockey met Elvis in the eighth grade at the rough and tumble Humes High School in Memphis and later served as Klein’s best man.
During an extended February 4, 2011, call-in session to “The GK Show”, Walker talked at length about his 12 years in the recording studio with Elvis, including a rambunctious front row center session at RCA Studio B in Nashville when the “Alabama Wild Man” himself, singer-songwriter-guitarist Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar licks to “Guitar Man” and “Big Boss Man,” both rockin’, country blues numbers that planted the seeds for Elvis’ artistic comeback the following year.
Klein initiated the proceedings and demonstrated his genuine knack for conducting informal interviews with Elvis’ close confidants and musicians. Yours truly decided to email four questions in to segment producer Jim Sykes which Walker graciously answered. Collected below in slightly edited form are the highlights from that interview.
George Klein: What was unique about singing with Elvis?
Ray Walker: The Jordanaires have sung with around 3,000 artists. There were two or three that had the same temperament or ability in the studio. Of course, everyone’s personality is to each their own, but Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, and Connie Francis knew exactly what their limits were. They wouldn’t let anybody push ’em past those limits. They knew the tempos, how to feel about it, and Elvis was the same way.
I think the most revealing thing about Elvis Presley was that he didn’t feel that special. He didn’t act special. As far as thinking he was somebody hot, he never thought that. Never did. I mean, he dressed up for his fans and enjoyed doing that — I think he was a clown. He enjoyed looking the way the fans expected to see him and wanted to see him. Elvis realized that was part of his life.
But when he was on his own, he had on jeans, a cowboy hat — just regular clothes. When he went out, he made sure that if anybody saw him, they saw him at his best. That was part of his life, and a tribute to his honesty and love for his fans.
Klein: Did Elvis criticize a musician if he made a mistake?
Walker: Now, Elvis would criticize somebody if they criticized the musicians. If somebody had no more sense than to put somebody down, Elvis didn’t like that at all. Elvis didn’t put anybody down, and he would normally laugh if somebody made a mistake. Elvis said one time that his whole career was mistakes [laughs].
Klein: How did Elvis warm up for a session?
Walker: Later on he did gospel songs. Basically Elvis would just sing, but he mainly stood there and studied the song. Then he would do his warm-up during the tracking process.
Jeremy Roberts: Did you prefer recording in Nashville or Hollywood with Elvis?
Walker: We liked recording in Nashville, and Elvis liked Nashville. It was certainly special to go to Hollywood and work at Radio Recorders. Nevertheless, it was homey when we were here in Nashville.
Roberts: How did you become a member of the Jordanaires?
Walker: Well, original bass singer Hugh Jarrett decided to devote more time to his burgeoning radio career, so he gave notice of his resignation in late spring 1958. The Jordanaires’ first session with Rick Nelson was on April 28, 1958, at Master Recorders in Los Angeles.
I took a break from teaching school — I was also an assistant principal and a coach — and went to Hollywood as the Jordanaires’ choice to be introduced to Capitol Records.
We also worked with Tommy Sands and did four Jordanaires’ singles during the day plus a 10 p.m. session with Rick later that night. Ozzie, Harriet, and David were also there. “Poor Little Fool” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way” were on this session.
We went back to Nashville, and I resumed teaching until May 31. I joined the group officially on June 1, 1958. Gordon had called me the first week of May and asked if I could go with them to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand television series that week.
I told him no. He replied, “What if I told you that if you can’t come on this trip we’ll have to take our next choice?” I said, “If I broke this contract to go with you, I would break another contract with you to go with someone else, and I don’t break contracts.”
Gordon thought about it for a second and asked me, “Okay, so when can you come down and start observing the Grand Ole Opry?” “When is it?” “Saturday nights.” “I’ll be there this Saturday night” [laughs].
I then went to the Opry to watch for about three weeks and joined them on June 1. On June 10, I did my first Elvis session at RCA’s Studio B in Nashville [Author’s Note: This proved to be Elvis’ final session of the 1950’s, scheduled shortly before his departure to Germany to serve in the military. The session proved especially fruitful, yielding the huge hits “I Need Your Love Tonight,” “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” “A Fool Such As I” and “I Got Stung”].
Roberts: Were you guys aware that Elvis had met Priscilla in Germany in September 1959?
Walker: When we did the G.I. Blues soundtrack [April 1960], Elvis had said to us, “You know, I’ve just seen the prettiest girl in the world, and I’m gonna marry her.” That was really special, and he was obviously referring to Priscilla.
A year later we did Blue Hawaii and Elvis dedicated “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to her (Walker softly sings the opening bar, “Wise Men Say”) [Author’s Note: The soundtrack LP ultimately spent 20 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, becoming Elvis’ best-selling album during his lifetime].
Roberts: What do you remember about the first time Jerry Reed played lead guitar with Elvis on September 10, 1967 at RCA Studio B in Nashville?
Walker: Jerry Reed was really something. Elvis got ready to do “Guitar Man” and asked, “Do you think Jerry Reed would play on this?” And they said, “Yeah, we’re sure he would” [Author’s Note: Elvis stumbled upon Reed’s original single version of “Guitar Man” two months earlier on Top 40 AM radio while driving around L.A. and apparently dug what he heard. The songwriter’s composition registered at a paltry No. 53 C&W. However, Reed’s next 45, the lighthearted acoustic talking blues tribute to Elvis entitled “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” ignited his path to stardom, peaking at No. 15 C&W]. Elvis swiftly replied, “Could you find him for me?” So they started looking for Jerry. Turns out he was out fishing on the Cumberland River.
[Author’s Note: The Guitar Man’s eldest daughter, Seidina Reed, was seven years old when the memorable incident occurred. Exactly 10 years later, she would sing a duet with her father on the rollicking Top 20 Country hit “You Know What” and in 2015 unveiled her magnificent Today Is Mine: A Tribute to My Father, Jerry Reed album. After reading this story, Seidina reached out on Facebook with her memories of that fateful September afternoon, published here for the first time: “I remember when they came to get Daddy for the Elvis session. I had just caught the biggest carp Daddy had ever seen on the tiniest green pole you’ve ever seen. I was so young it looked like some huge creature from the deep to me. We were freaking out over the fish when somebody came running down the dock hollerin’ for Dad. I’ll never forget that.”]
Jerry came in and looked so flustered — just like a little boy. Of course, he looked like a little boy anyway [laughs]. Jerry met Elvis, and Elvis was in awe of him and shook his hand and told him how much he appreciated his playing and talent.
Jerry was kind of a funny guy — he had a real sense of humor. But he was extremely nervous, and we’d never seen him that nervous. Jerry sat down, and Elvis said, “Just do those licks for me like you did on your original version.”
Jerry sat close to the door that went into the control room, and he started the intro. Well, he flubbed it. So, he looked up at Elvis, then he started playing again, and he made a mistake. Then he looked up at Elvis one more time, and he started playing again and made another mistake [laughs].
Jerry finally looked up at Elvis and said, “God, you’re handsome!” Jerry was so flustered that he couldn’t play his own song, and it tickled Elvis to death that he was that nervous, because Elvis was nervous that he was there, too.
[Author’s Note: When “Guitar Man” debuted on the Hot 100 in Feb. 1968, the RCA Victor single barely created a ripple, stalling at No. 43. While Elvis was returning to his rock and roll roots on this and subsequent singles like “Big Boss Man” and “U.S. Male” — both featuring Reed — it would take his triumphant ’68 Comeback Special later that year before he became a dominant chart presence again. Felton Jarvis, Elvis’ record producer beginning with the Grammy-winning May 1966 How Great Thou Art album sessions and continuing until his death, eventually decided to reimagine the first Elvis remix album in 1980. The consummate singer’s vocals were left intact, but new backing tracks were re-recorded with Nashville session musicians who actually played with Elvis, including Reed, who created a new, electrifying solo on “Guitar Man.” This contemporary, decidedly electric version jumped all the way to No. 1 in March 1981, deservedly becoming Elvis’ final No. 1 country single. Unfortunately, Jarvis never lived to see his significant accomplishment, as he succumbed to complications from a massive stroke the previous January. He was only 46 years old].
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Further Reading: Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other’s work immensely. However, Presley swore off watching The Tonight Show on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a “fat and forty” joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words 40 years ago? A viewing of the original televised clip and accompanying Tonight Show transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate “What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis…” for the complete lowdown.
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