In spring 1956, former Sun Records artist Elvis Presley released his debut for the RCA label. “Heartbreak Hotel” was a monster hit, having reached the top of the Billboard pop, R&B and country charts, and starting a run of more than two-and-a-half years where at least one Presley record was on the Top 100 each week. As Elvis-mania gripped the country, the only ones who remained rather oblivious to all the hit records were Presley and his band mates, who were busy making stage and TV appearances across the country.
For executives at RCA, the pressure to maintain momentum with a strong follow-up to what would become one of the most iconic rock & roll songs of all time was intense. But that was nothing compared to the scary situation in which the young singer and his fellow musicians found themselves on the way to Nashville to lay down tracks for his next release. Instead of a rousing rock number, the kind of songs for which he was gaining notoriety, the tune chosen for Presley was a dramatic ballad called “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.”
Having played a show in Amarillo, Texas, on Friday, April 13th, the group chartered a twin-engine plane to make the recording date the following day. Scotty Moore, Presley’s longtime guitarist who died last month at age 84, recalled in his 1997 memoir, That’s Alright, Elvis, that although their plane was scheduled to make a refueling stop in Little Rock, they were instead forced to make an emergency landing in Hot Springs, Arkansas. After refueling, they took off again, but when the aircraft reached an altitude of 2,000 feet, there was trouble.
“The pilot turned to me and said, ‘Here, hold the wheel while I get the maps out from under the seat,'” Moore wrote. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to fly a plane.’ He said, ‘Just hold it a minute.’ Just as I put my hands on the wheel, both engines sputtered and quit. Soon as that happened the pilot reached over and threw a switch, then took over the wheel. Both engines restarted, but it was enough to shake everybody a little bit.”
Although they ultimately landed safely (after some additional turbulence over the Mississippi River), the experience was harrowing enough to keep Presley grounded as often as possible, preferring to travel by bus.
Once Elvis, Moore and fellow band members D.J. Fontana and Bill Black were in the studio to record, the usually quick-learning vocalist had trouble getting the song right. The situation was exacerbated by the exclusion from the session of all but one of the Jordanaires. Having worked so well together, Elvis and the Jordanaires agreed they should continue to record together, yet only Gordon Stoker of the backing quartet was present, with Ben and Brock Speer also providing vocals.
Seventeen takes in a three-hour session may have yielded unsatisfactory results for the musicians, but it couldn’t slow down the Elvis juggernaut. Released on May 12th, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” became another Number One pop smash. Sixty years ago today, on July 14th, 1956, it also topped the country chart for the first of two weeks, becoming Presley’s fourth of six Number One country songs in 1956, and one of three songs he had in the pop Top Twenty simultaneously.