In the annals of world history, January 8th represents the day numerous significant events took place, including the start of Andrew Jackson’s decisive victory over the British in 1815’s Battle of New Orleans – later the title of a chart-topping song by Johnny Horton – and the 1935 birth of Elvis Aron Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Just two decades later, Presley was a global phenomenon, adored by teenage girls, feared by parents and marveled at by a generation of future musicians including a young Liverpool lad named John Lennon, who would later say, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
On June 26, 1977, Presley made his 146th appearance on the pop charts with a rockin’, bass-driven tune called “Way Down.” The track was penned by Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Layng Martine Jr., who three years earlier had written the Number One country (and Top Twenty pop) smash “Rub It In” for Billy “Crash” Craddock and would co-write Reba McEntire’s tender 1992 hit “The Greatest Man I Never Knew.”
But “Way Down” would enter the record books for a couple of other reasons, one being the rumbling low note sung by one of Presley’s backup singers, gospel great J.D. Sumner. His “Way on down” refrain, which hits low C on the scale throughout the tune, drops to the almost unimaginable double low C, three octaves below middle C on the musical scale, and set a record at the time for the lowest note ever achieved on a Top Forty single.
Sadly, the other footnote to “Way Down” is that it was Presley’s last hit to chart during his lifetime. Dead at age 42 on August 16th, 1977, Presley would not live to see the song reach its peak. Having climbed into the Top Thirty on the pop chart, it began its descent in early August, but bounded back after his death, reaching the peak spot of 18 in September. The tune was the Number One country hit the week after his passing. Presley notched 10 Number One country tunes in his lifetime, and one posthumous chart-topper, “Guitar Man” (penned by Jerry Reed, who also played guitar on the King’s version) in 1981.
The take of “Way Down” featured in the above video comes from sessions recorded in the “Jungle Room” at Presley’s GracelandMansion in 1976. In the intro, as the musicians prepare to record, Presley jokes, “When Briggs’s fingers start bleedin’ we know we got it,” a reference to keyboardist David Briggs. Other players on the session in the Hawaii-themed room at Presley’s home include guitarist James Burton and Glen D. Hardin on keyboards (both of whom would go on become members of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band), Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps on backing vocals. Way Down in the Jungle Room, a two-disc set of Presley’s final recordings, was released in 2016 and includes several outtakes mixed at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. Recorded in two sessions in February and October 1976, the collection brings Presley’s recording career, which began at Phillip’s Sun Records in 1954, full circle and also includes his first posthumous hit, “Moody Blue,” as well as a version of “She Thinks I Still Care,” a massive hit for George Jones.