I’ve always liked Elvis’ last studio recordings – those 16 songs that he recorded in February and October 1976 in the Jungle Room of his beloved home Graceland. Most of these songs that were first released on the albums From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976) and Moody Blue (1977) are of a contemplative nature. They are highly emotional expressions of deep loss. In that sense quite a few of them belong to Elvis Presleys finest interpretations for me.
Knowing that the Jungle Room recordings are Elvis’ last studio recordings ever, many people are naturally drawn to listen to them simply as the final farewell of a sick and unhappy superstar who knows that his end is near. For a reason that I could never pinpoint myself I always found this retrospective viewpoint debatable, although it definitely reflects the mood of the songs. For me the Jungle Room recordings felt more like Elvis trying to refer to the beginnings of his career in the early 1950s at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis. But as I said, I could never really explain why.
When RCA/Sony announced earlier this year that a new set with 2 discs called Way Down In The Jungle Room (Legacy Edition) is in the making with the support of a very successful young engineer called Matt Ross-Spang, I became curious. I found out that Matt had worked for years at the still existing Sun Studio in Memphis, before he changed location to the Sam Phillips Recording Service operated by the Phillips family.
Matt Ross-Spang’s credits in the studio include names like Jerry Lee Lewis, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jakob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, JD McPherson, and Chris Isaak. Just to name a few. Earlier this year Matt won a well deserved Grammy for engineering and mixing Jason Isabell’s Something More Than Free. Besides, he was responsible for engineering, mixing, and co-producing Margo Price’s debut record Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter.
Legendary Elvis – Sam Phillips – Sun Studio – Matt Ross Spang – Jungle Room sessions 1976? Was I right after all with my feelings about Elvis’ last “studio” recordings at Graceland? I decided to find out more about the new mix on Way Down In The Jungle Room (2016) and the engineer behind it by asking the man himself what all of this is really about. Matt Ross-Spang turned out to be a very nice guy.
The Memphis Flash: Matt, you’re from Memphis where it all started for Elvis in 1954 in Sam Phillips’ now world-famous Sun Studio. The studio and the Phillips family play a major role in your successful career as well. How come?
Matt Ross-Spang: Sure! I was born and raised in Memphis! I played guitar in bands and I got 2 hours of studio time at Sun Studio for my 14th birthday from my wonderful parents. When I recorded there I was mesmerized by the studio and the process of recording and mixing. The engineer there James Lott was a great patient man who made the whole process fun and answered all of my annoying questions! My cousin John was the President at Sun and offered me a job when I was 16 and could drive, so I started working there then as a tour guide and an intern in the studio.
I soon worked my way up to Operations Manager and Chief Engineer. I spent 11 years at Sun and spent most of that time installing and using the same period equipment Sam Phillips used back in Sun’s heyday. While working at Sun I met and became friend with the Phillips’. Sam and his two sons Knox and Jerry I consider to be heroes of mine (and many others). Obviously being from Memphis you are born an Elvis fan! But especially for me the history and the music that was recorded in Memphis really consumed me. Elvis is a big part of that!
The Memphis Flash: How did you get the assignment for a new mix of the outtakes and alternate versions on the new release Way Down in the Jungle Room?
Matt Ross-Spang: A friend of mine Sharon Corbitt-House recommended me to Sony’s Rob Santos and Ernst Jorgensen who are the Producers of the Elvis record. After a few phone calls we worked out scheduling and we decided to do it at Phillips. I am a freelance engineer but Phillips is a magical studio and Rob always wanted to do a project there so it was a perfect fit.