Elvis show features ’68 special collaborator Don Randi

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Award-winning tribute artist Dwight Icenhower provides vocals

“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’” “Then He Kissed Me.” “These Boots Were Made For Walkin.’” “God Only Knows.” “A Little Less Conversation.”

Chances are you, you know those songs well. You may not have known, though, that the legendary Don Randi played piano on all of them. Randi, 85, spent much of the 1960s and ‘70s as a first-call studio musician while part of a loose group of players known informally (especially later) as the Wrecking Crew. His contributions to hit records number in the hundreds. That distinctive harpsichord part on “Different Drum,” Linda Ronstadt’s first hit (as a member of Stone Poneys)? That was him.

Credit: Courtesy of Don Randi

Credit: Courtesy of Don Randi

Randi’s collaboration with Elvis Presley for what’s usually called the ‘68 comeback special (officially “Singer Presents...Elvis”) takes center stage in “Elvis: One Night With You,” a celebration of Presley’s music at Eddie’s Attic on Aug. 17. The show stars tribute artist Dwight Icenhower, whose band will be joined by Randi, both playing piano and talking about his work with Elvis.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“I hope we’ll get to tell some stories about it [the ‘68 Special],” says Randi on a recent call from his home near Los Angeles. “There were two artists I worked for — Nancy Sinatra and Elvis Presley — for whom the musicians came first. That was important to both of them.”

Icenhower, named the 2016 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Champion by Elvis Presley Enterprises, plans to perform both a stretched-out rendition of what’s known as the sit-down part of the ‘68 Special and a wider set of Presley hits from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

“We’re going to touch on everything in the show,” notes the singer, a day before flying to Australia for performances. “There’s no jumpsuits — I really wanted to focus on the music. I’m going to recreate the ‘68 Special, but in a setting like this I really think it’s important to focus on the music, especially having Don Randi with us.”

The TV special, recreated partially in Baz Luhrmann’s recent “Elvis” biopic, came almost a decade after Presley had traded his full-time music career for a run starring in mostly cheaply made, widely derided movies. The show drew huge ratings and successfully rejuvenated Presley as a live performer.

Randi’s memories of the program are fond ones. “Musically speaking, it was terrific,” he enthuses. “I love the band things the guys did together, just standing around, when he’s in that leather jacket. I think that’s when Elvis was really comfortable. That’s what made the special what it was — it gave him a chance to be what we felt he was.” The pianist played on the other parts of the soundtrack, while the group for the sit-down portion was limited to a few of Presley’s backup musicians from early in his career.

Icenhower, who first saw the show as a teenager in the ‘90s (via a library VHS rental), is equally enthusiastic about it. “Elvis really got back to his rock and roll, rhythm and blues, gospel roots in that ‘68 special,” notes the performer, “and it let the world know ‘Elvis is back.’”

One track re-recorded in parallel with other songs for the special (originally planned for inclusion in it, but later selected for the film “Live a Little, Love a Little”) is “A Little Less Conversation.”

Noting Billy Strange was its arranger and co-writer with Mac Davis, the pianist recalls the pair saying, “Guys, take 10, we have to write another song.” After consecutive breaks, they returned with the basics of a tune subsequently augmented by suggestions from Randi, drummer Hal Blaine and guitarist Tommy Tedesco. “We figured it out on the bandstand, so to speak,” he remembers. “The initial fee we got for that was close to $100 for the session. Over the years it’s been redone so many times that we all get residuals because it’s a union contract.” JXL’s 2002 remix of the track was a bigger hit than the original, boosting what Randi terms his “mailbox money” — residual checks arriving by mail.

It was quite a journey to the top of LA’s session world for Randi, who grew up New York’s Catskill Mountains. He’s classically trained, and pop music later paid the bills, but jazz remains his main musical love. “The first jazz piano player I ever heard was Nat Cole, because my dad would play those old LPs,” he notes. “And he was really a big influence on a lot of people.” Work at a jazz record distributor soon after his move to California cemented his fondness for the genre, and he formed a jazz trio.

Early studio opportunities in the ‘50s ultimately led to work for producer Phil Spector and playing on one of the best pop albums ever recorded (“Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys). Randi also took part in some of the marathon sessions for follow-up single “Good Vibrations,” its complexity matched by the expense involved in making it.

The sessions for “Good Vibrations” lasted so long that they tested the musicians’ ability to stay awake. “We had already been recording over eight hours, so you can imagine,” recalls Randi. Sitting at the Hammond organ behind baffles that obscured him from the view of Beach Boys leader and studio wizard Brian Wilson, he was asked to play the same note at length while other musicians were on break. “I grabbed a [nearby] pillow and I laid down, and I put the pillow over the note I had to play and put my head on it. If you could have taken a picture… it was marvelous,” he laughs. “I fell asleep. I was out in 30 seconds. About 10 minutes later, I heard, ‘Don, thanks—that was fantastic. I really appreciate that.’” A fellow musician saw this through a window and later asked if Randi had enjoyed his nap. Wilson didn’t hear the story until five years ago, but called Randi to confirm and the two shared a laugh about it.

Randi played on his favorite duet of all time, the 1967 cult classic and still mysterious-sounding “Some Velvet Morning” by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. The song drifts back and forth between Hazlewood’s acid country 4/4 sections and Sinatra’s ethereal 3/4 waltz portions. “That one, it was really special,” he relates. “The challenge of the time changes and everything was not easy to do. It’s just one of the most beautiful songs — I’m so glad Lee decided to do it.” The pianist was Sinatra’s bandleader for many years and remains close to her. “With Nancy, you’d always get a phone call: ‘Is everything OK?’”

He’s never stopped performing, including at his own jazz club, The Baked Potato, which he opened in 1970. Randi contributed to a highly regarded documentary about the Wrecking Crew, and has since penned his autobiography, “You’ve Heard These Hands.”

Icenhower is thrilled to be performing with the former Elvis collaborator. “You’re going to love hearing these stories that Don Randi will throw in there,” he enthuses, adding that he specifically picked songs from the ‘68 special that Randi played on for inclusion in the upcoming show. Randi is equally excited about the performances. “I think Dwight nails it,” he says. “He understands Elvis. He wants to tell that story, which is great.”

The stories — and songs — will be the stars of this rare opportunity to see an award-winning Elvis tribute artist making his Atlanta debut backed by his own band plus a living legend who played with the King himself.


“Elvis: One Night With You”

7 and 9 p.m. Aug. 17. $35-$59.50. Eddie’s Attic, 515-B N. Mcdonough St., Decatur. eddiesattic.com .