Bill Porter: Recording engineer who helped shape the Nashville Sound
Monday 20 September 2010
Visiting RCA Studio B in Nashville can be an eerie experience because the place has changed so little since the early 1960s, when the American sound engineer Bill Porter recorded 150 tracks by Elvis Presley, including the Transatlantic chart-toppers "It's Now or Never", "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", "Surrender" and "Good Luck Charm" on a then state-of-the-art three-track machine.
A perfectionist and audio pioneer, Porter helped producer and guitarist Chet Atkins, producers Owen Bradley and Bob Ferguson, and musicians of the calibre of pianist Floyd Cramer develop the lush "Nashville Sound" for country artists like Don Gibson, Jim Reeves and Skeeter Davis. Porter also recorded several US No 1 singles, including the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown" and Roy Orbison's "Running Scared" and "Oh, Pretty Woman". Indeed, in one week of 1960, 15 recordings he had engineered were listed on Billboard's Top 100, a feat which has yet be matched or bettered.
In 1966, Porter moved to Las Vegas. He bought the United Recording of Nevada eight-track studio, where, at the behest of producer Felton Jarvis, he mixed the King's 1969 US No 1 "Suspicious Minds". The following year, Porter replaced Presley's live sound-engineer for a concert at the International Hotel. The superstar was so impressed that he hired Porter to mix the sound at all subsequent appearances, and rewarded him handsomely for "taking care of business."
"The last 'performance' I recorded for Elvis was his funeral service in Memphis in 1977," Porter remarked.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1931, Porter grew up in Nashville. After serving in the Army reserves, he joined WLAC-TV, the new CBS affiliate station in Tennessee, where he excelled as a sound technician. "There really weren't any books available. And it was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. What felt right, what you heard," he said.
In early 1959, after being told the position of staff engineer at RCA Records had become vacant, he showed up at Atkins' office every day for two weeks until the producer agreed to give him a shot. Within a fortnight, Porter mastered the art of mixing the input of up to 12 microphones and soon cut his first hit, Gibson's "Lonesome Old House". With producer Fred Foster he began a fruitful association with Orbison, whose distinctive, quasi-operatic voice he captured beautifully on the UK chart-topper "Only the Lonely" and further '60s hits such as "Blue Angel", "Dream Baby", "In Dreams" and "It's Over".
Porter was an innovator and enjoyed the technical challenges presented by what would be considered primitive equipment today. In order to improve the acoustics at RCA's Studio B, he hung fibreglass panels from the ceiling. He experimented with the echo chamber unit adjacent to the studio to achieve a brighter, fuller effect. "I worked extremely hard to keep the signal-to-noise ratio up. It was a constant struggle," he explained. "I'm somewhat of a purist. To me, if you mike an instrument, you have to mike it in such a way as to get the tonal balance. The sound has to radiate out into the air, and you've got to get back far enough to get that overall sound."
Porter came to the Elvis sessions with an open mind and proved an integral member of the team behind Presley's successful comeback after his two years stationed in Germany with the US Army. Instead of playing safe and repeating what others had done, Porter used a Telefunken U-47 microphone, rather than the RCA 77D, in order to capture the King's unique voice.
"The session was booked at seven o'clock on a Sunday night. Elvis showed up at about a quarter to nine. It was the first time I'd met the guy," Porter recalled. "He hadn't sung in a studio in two years, so a lot was riding on that. I had kind of a reputation going for me by then, and they wanted everything possible going for him."
After cutting "Make Me Know It" and "Soldier Boy" – which wound up on the Elvis Is Back! album – the session continued with "Stuck On You". "One of Elvis's valets mentioned to me that they never got that kind of sound out of the RCA studio before," said Porter. "The session ran all night long and wrapped up about 7am on 21 March, 1960." Rush-released within days, "Stuck On You" returned Presley to the top of the charts.
The session of 3-4 April 1960 proved even more productive. "In those two days, we recorded 12 songs, two of which went to No 1," Porter remembered. "Elvis was having trouble with "It's Now or Never" because he basically sang in the baritone range, and the end was in the tenor range. We recorded this song for at least seven or eight takes. At one point, I finally pushed the talkback button and said, 'EP, we can just do the ending. I can splice it on without doing the song all the way through again'. He answered me with, 'Bill, I'm gonna do it all the way through, or I'm not gonna do it at all!' So, we did it again. And, of course, he got it the way he wanted it."
But Porter's splicing skills came into play when he tacked on a new ending by the Jordanaires to the only take, complete with Shakespearean monologue, Presley had done of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" in a darkened RCA Studio B and thus created one of the King's definitive records.
"Arrangers were never used on any of the Elvis sessions I recorded. Instead, the musicians would create the arrangements after listening to demo recordings of the songs. For many, Elvis's songs were a celebration of the music. When there was a vibrancy and vitality to the music that made even the bad times seem good, the days worth living, and the memories worth keeping," said Porter.
He went on to engineer "I Feel So Bad", "(Marie's the Name of) His Latest Flame", "Little Sister", "She's Not You", "(You're the) Devil in Disguise" and "Crying in the Chapel", and helped Presley score 15 UK No 1s. Then, because of a supposed conflict of interest with a small publishing company he had started, Porter left RCA at the end of 1963. After six months at Columbia Records in Nashville, he moved on to Monument Records where he continued working with Orbison.
Porter later launched the short-lived Vegas Music International label. He also engineered sessions for Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ann-Margret's TV and live appearances. All told, Porter engineered around 7,000 sessions and was involved in the making of 580 records that made the country or US pop charts.
From the mid-1970s, he taught audio-engineering courses and he lectured at three US universities until 2005. He was inducted into the TEC Awards Hall of Fame in 1992, along with synthesiser pioneer Robert Moog and record producer Phil Ramone. Many considered him the greatest recording engineer of all time, someone whose skills enabled many artists of the 1950s-60s to transcend the limitations of technology and make superb records that have endured for half a century.
Billy Rhodes Porter, sound engineer: born St Louis, Missouri 15 June 1931; five times married (one daughter, one son); died Ogden, Utah 7 July 2010.
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