Elvis Presley never called it the Jungle Room. For him, his breathtakingly garish tiki-tinged lair – sui generis in the realm of ostentatious kitsch – was merely “the den.” Constructed in 1965 as an addition to Graceland, Presley’s already-fabled Memphis headquarters, the room was the nerve center of his home life. There he would take his breakfast, contemplate the enormous artificial waterfall, entertain his coterie of confidants nicknamed the “Memphis Mafia” and, when the urge struck, shoot out his television set with a revolver. For a man who opened many of his concerts by singing “I’m the king of the jungle, they call me tiger man,” this unruly terrain of green shag carpeting, plastic plants, rainbow lights and ersatz animal fur seemed perfectly appropriate.
The den received its evocative sobriquet from a journalist soon after Graceland opened to the public in 1982, five years after Presley’s death. The newly dubbed Jungle Room was an immediate fan favorite, and not just because of the novelty. While other areas of the home make concessions to conventional aesthetics, the den brings you closest to the King’s personality. His eccentric style, playful humor, manic moods and sheer bravado ooze from every corner. No wonder the room draws 600,000 people to bask in its faux-wood-paneled glory each year.
The storied space also served as the site of Presley’s final recording sessions. On a handful of nights in February and October of 1976, Presley and his handpicked team of musicians and engineers – including longtime guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff and producer Tom Felton – cut 16 titles there with the help of mobile studio equipment. These tracks formed the bulk of Presley’s last two albums released before his death: From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976) and Moody Blue (1977).
Now the historic tapes are getting new life via Elvis: Way Down in the Jungle Room. The two-disc set, out now, is the most complete collection of Presley’s studio swansong ever assembled, including rare outtakes and alternate versions. Interest in Presley’s music has continued unabated for more than six decades, but the release has brought renewed attention to the Jungle Room. Alongside his birth home in Tupelo, Mississippi, and the floor of Memphis’ Sun Studio, it remains one of the most holy places in all of Presleydom.
The 14-by-40-foot area that became the Jungle Room was originally an open patio at the rear of Graceland, just behind the kitchen. Its transformation began in the early Sixties, following Presley’s return from military duty in West Germany. Thrilled to be home, the singer embarked on a series of improvement projects. After toying with the idea of building a two-story octagonal building made entirely of aluminum to house offices and a home studio, he settled on the more modest task of converting the patio into a screened porch.
By 1965 this had been fully enclosed into what would today be called a “man cave.” Thick drapery permanently cast the room into darkness, making it the ideal spot for Presley and his boys to put up their feet at all hours of the day and night. Still, it had yet to receive its distinctive décor. “None of the jungle stuff was there, then,” remembered Presley associate Marty Lacker in the book Elvis and the Memphis Mafia. “Vernon [Presley, Elvis’ father] decorated that room [with furniture] from Sears, with these big round tables like you’d see in a restaurant, with high chrome bottoms and big round black tops.” According to Graceland’s housekeeper at the time, the space also contained two sectional couches and a large high-backed chair for Presley, all upholstered in blond leather.
The den’s focal point was a massive color television, one of 14 in the home. Presley’s status as an RCA recording star ensured that the company provided him with an endless stream of complimentary television sets. This no doubt contributed to his cavalier attitude towards electronics, which occasionally resulted in Keith Moon-esque levels of destruction.
For reasons largely rooted in jealousy, Presley fostered an intense dislike of singing matinee idol Robert Goulet. The mere sight of Goulet on the television screen was reportedly enough to send him into a rage. With remote control technology still in its infancy, Presley found it more fulfilling to reach for his .357 Magnum and shoot the set. “That jerk’s got no heart!” he would say by way of explanation. “That will be enough of that shit!” Vernon offered a posthumous defense of his son’s outbursts with simple, irrefutable logic: “He was in his own home and shot out his own TV set. And when he’d done it he could afford to buy a new one.”
He could also afford elaborate customizations to his den. The well-known flagstone waterfall was added a year after the room’s construction. Builders curtained off the north wall until the finished product was presented to Presley in a grand unveiling. Although he was initially delighted, problems soon became apparent. “It was a great idea … except it flooded everything,” Presley’s former wife Priscilla told Larry King in 2007. “It never worked. The whole room would get flooded.” Lacker also remembers the accessory being more trouble that it was worth at times. “Vernon got this cheap-ass plumber – some $4-an-hour guy – to do it originally, and the guy botched the job,” he grumbled. “The whole wall leaked and water would flood the backyard.” The primitive plastic mechanism had to be overhauled by Laskey’s brother-in-law Bernie Grenadier, who would later oversee construction on Presley’s meditation garden.
Even after the repairs, the feature was not flawless. In the middle of Graceland’s 1971 Christmas party, far from festive due to Presley and Priscilla’s angry bickering, the waterfall shorted out and started a small fire. A frantic Vernon attacked the wall with a sledgehammer in a desperate attempt to reach the wiring before the entire home was set ablaze. Presley later claimed it was the highlight of his evening.
The fire was the sole bright spot in an otherwise troubling holiday. Five Christmases after Presley had proposed to Priscilla, relations with his 26-year-old wife had deteriorated beyond repair. They would ultimately go their separate ways by February 1972.
The den, a place that promised emotional refuge for Presley, was littered with bittersweet reminders of happier times. On the coffee table lay a cigarette case with a built-in music box that played his hit “Surrender” – a gift from Priscilla on their first Christmas together at Graceland in 1962. On the bar was a metal tray, etched with a photo of their wedding day. When Presley’s new girlfriend Linda Thompson moved into the mansion later that year, the couple marked this fresh start with a frenzy of redecorating.
The changes were severe. Author Karal Ann Marling would later christen mid-Seventies Graceland “the Taj Mahal of aesthetic misjudgment.” It’s known among Presley scholars as the “red period” for the yards of bright scarlet carpet that flooded the hallways. Thompson had made the selection at a local flooring store, and Graceland’s color scheme was soon altered to match. Antebellum pillars, balustrades and doorways were shrouded in heavy red velvet fabric, lassoed with gold tassels like a Las Vegas Versailles. Enormous overstuffed Louis XV chairs were reupholstered in candy-apple satin studded with rhinestones. Walls dripped with mirrors and black velvet paintings. Floors were cluttered with white fur rugs, robust caryatids and gaudy lamps bejeweled with fake rubies and sequins. Even Liberace would have blushed.
Designer Bill Eubanks nominally oversaw the alterations, but he ultimately disowned the job in the book Graceland: Going Home with Elvis. “[That’s] not my house. Nobody could ever make Elvis’ taste anything other than what it was.” Presley’s friend Alan Fortas described the appointments as “all the furniture you wouldn’t buy – not in a million years.” Fellow Memphis Mafioso Lamar Fike was more blunt: “Let’s face it – Elvis’s taste sucked … if something wasn’t overdone it was abnormal to Elvis.”
The den would not be spared from this extreme home makeover, although the exact circumstances are contested. Presley apologists insist he was fully aware that the mass-produced tiki furnishings were delightfully horrible and merely wanted to pull a prank on his father. In a story supported by several of Presley’s friends, Vernon returned home one day in 1974 exclaiming, “I just went by Donald’s Furniture Store and they’ve got the ugliest furniture I’ve ever seen in my life.” After describing it, Presley replied, “Good, sounds like me.” By afternoon Vernon found the same furniture sitting in the den, along with his laughing son.
Cousin David Stanley claims Presley hated shopping for furniture and bought whatever was in the window display just to get out of the store. Still others say he simply saw an ad for Donald’s Furniture on TV, spotted the set and decided then and there that he had to have it. Whatever the case, it’s agreed that Presley moved quickly, purchasing the lot in a single 30-minute shopping spree. Delivery took longer when some items proved so unwieldy that they had to be loaded in through the oversized picture windows.
The result was the stuff of Don the Beachcomber’s wildest fantasies. Joke or not, Presley grew to love the dark pine couches, stools, lamps, credenza, wet bar and end tables adorned with chainsaw-carved sea serpents and gargoyles. They reminded him of Hawaii, a frequent vacation destination and scene of some of his greatest triumphs. There he had filmed three of his most beloved movies – Blue Hawaii, Girls Girls Girls and Paradise, Hawaiian Style – and made television history with 1973’s Aloha From Hawaii satellite broadcast. In his den, holding court from his ornate wooden throne, cooled by a trio of air conditioning units and surrounded by friends, family and ceramic animal figurines, Presley was still king of the jungle.
But outside the walls of Graceland this was less often the case. As he approached the age of 40, it seemed that his career had plateaued. Though he continued to play sold-out shows across the country, the performances could be lackluster. His health also became an increasing concern as prescription drugs – long a staple of his diet – began to take their toll.
Perhaps even more troubling to executives at RCA, Presley had grown disinterested in recording. The year of 1974 came and went without a single studio visit, forcing the label to make do issuing live tracks, outtakes and repackaged hits. The following March he spent only three days in Hollywood’s RCA Studio C, recording songs that would yield that spring’s Today album. It would be his last time working in a professional studio setting.
RCA did what it could to make the recording process more enticing. They offered to hold sessions in Memphis, but top-of-the-line local facilities like American Sound Studios and Stax had recently shuttered. Facing limited options, producer Felton Jarvis had a novel idea: Why not bring the studio to Presley? The concept was not entirely without precedent. Two tracks from 1973’s Raised on Rock had been taped in the singer’s Palm Springs home with great success. Presley liked the idea, and it was agreed that they would record in Graceland.
The den’s expansive floor plan provided the ideal space for a live room, and rolls of thick green shag carpeting – which, in the high Seventies fashion, covered parts of the ceiling as well as the floor – acted as natural sound absorbers. An RCA mobile studio truck was dispatched from Nashville, but it broke down just outside of Memphis and had to be towed through the gates of Graceland. Not the most auspicious start to the project.
The furniture was cleared, the burbling waterfall switched off, and blankets hung as sound baffles. On February 2nd, 1976, Elvis and his team were ready to roll. The makeshift studio lacked the isolation rooms or vocal booths found in more formal set-ups, and more than a dozen band members and their instruments all squeezed in, elbow to elbow. “[Presley] always wanted the musicians and the singers right with him,” says James Burton, a fixture on guitar since 1969. “That’s because Elvis fed off of the emotion and the dynamics that you can get when communicating as musicians and artists,” continued drummer Ronnie Tutt, “And that is the best way that music is made.”
A dozen songs were completed over the course of six nights. Sessions usually began at 9 p.m., with Presley seldom making his entrance before midnight. Once everyone warmed up with a few gospel standards, work would continue until the early hours of the morning. Felton and engineer Brian Christian monitored the proceedings via closed circuit camera from their command center in the studio truck parked outside the windows. Presley would deliver his vocal parts on the landing adjacent to the kitchen, bathed in the glow of an ever-changing colored light bulb – swapped out as the mood of the song dictated. “We need a red light in here like a whorehouse, so these guys will be playing better,” he quipped.
In spite of the homey nature of these sessions, Presley chose to record some the most heartbreaking material of his career. The first song he attempted was a Larry Gatlin number, “Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall,” and it set the tone for the predominantly downbeat set list. The 1962 George Jones hit “She Still Thinks I Care” and Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell” were also cut the same night, and the next evening was entirely spent capturing Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire.” Presley frequently retreated upstairs to his bedroom between takes, where he’d espouse numerology, show off his collection of police badges or share his fool-proof plan for busting Memphis drug kingpins. Anything, it seemed, but record music. He appeared to be distracted, or maybe hiding.
It was obvious that Presley was lonely and adrift. His relationship with Linda Thompson had begun to falter, and they would split later in the year. Session tapes reveal a man working through his regrets the only way he knows how: through his music.
His spirits lifted on the fourth night when he tackled “For the Heart,” an uptempo track penned by Dennis Linde, who had written “Burning Love” years before. Several run-throughs left Presley primed to take on Roy Hamilton’s “Hurt” with a power and passion unseen so far during the session. Previous nights had seen Presley being forced to change keys to accommodate his vocal cords, weathered by middle age. But there were no such compromises on “Hurt.” He assailed the first few bars with a primal roar that could have only originated in the Jungle Room. That famous voice was back; the King had returned. The moment is a highlight not only of the sessions, but also of his entire Seventies output.
The high was not to last. Work sputtered to a stop on February 8th when Presley failed to appear for recording. After several hours of waiting, the band was sent home. But RCA got their album, releasing the 10-track From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee that May. It shot to number one on the Billboard Country charts.
Despite the unceremonious ending, Presley enjoyed the experience and even considered converting the den into a permanent home studio. Though these plans were never carried out, the Jungle Room sessions had a brief revival for two nights in October 1976. Much looser than the previous dates, these sessions yielded four songs before Presley’s demons began to overwhelm him. With Linda Thompson gone for good, and distraught by the news that three former bodyguards were writing a tell-all exposé about his sex life and drug abuse, he was in no mood to make music.
Offering his apologies to the band, Presley canceled the remaining dates and retired upstairs to his private quarters – where he would die on August 16th, 1977. The fruits of those final sessions were issued weeks before his death on the album Moody Blue, which topped the Country charts and reached Number Three on the Billboard 200.
For Presley fans, the Jungle Room remains a tiki-tinged, shag-carpeted mecca – the place where the King let his world-changing voice soar on record one last time.
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