"I had to leave town for a little while," begins Elvis Presley, singing the opening words from his 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis
, "you said you'd be good while I'm gone."
There's more than a hint of mischief in these words, superficially words to an unfaithful lover, but in the wider sense a pretty accurate summary of his career to date. He continues, "but the look in your eye told me you told a lie. I know there's been some carryin' on." The sixties hadn't been good to Elvis, musically; as the decade wore on, he took on more and more acting roles at the instigation of his manager, Col. Tom Parker, giving up live performance to concentrate on what he referred to as "travelogues". At the same time, the dual-effect of a shrinking pool of pop songwriters and those writers' unwillingness to submit to Parker's miserly contracts meant that the songs he did record were rarely of the quality to which he was accustomed.
Eventually, Elvis began to yearn for something more substantial. Firing the increasingly withdrawn Chet Atkins, he began working on his first great gospel album, the Grammy-winning How Great Thou Art
. It's either to his credit that he managed to pull himself out of this rut, or to his shame that it took him so long, but following the massive success of the '68 Comeback Special
he experienced a renewed vitality and longing to record musically significant material. The "lightbulb moment" seems to have occurred towards the end of planning for the show, when following a series of deep conversations with the performer, musical director Earl Brown wrote the classic modern gospel track 'If I Can Dream'. Elvis loved the song, even though its implied anti-war message contradicted the Colonel's "no politics" policy, going so far as to declare, "I'll never record another song I don't believe in." And he carried this attitude into the recording of From Elvis in Memphis
He hadn't recorded in Memphis since signing with RCA and leaving Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in 1955- he was long overdue for a return. In the time since he left Memphis, and the seven years since he recorded his last proper album, the town had changed. Now Memphis soul ruled the roost; Elvis was irrelevant and, in Stax and American Sound Studios, Memphis was once again the homeland of pop music. Chips Moman, one of the men behind the success of Stax, had been pushing for half a decade to get Elvis to record at his American Sound Studios in black downtown Memphis, right in the centre of the civil rights fallout. As it happens, a better setting couldn't have been chosen for Elvis' most explosive recordings in fifteen years.
With a more commercial and country sound than the rival Stax and Muscle Shoals studios, and 125 hits in its first five years of existence, American Sound Studios was the perfect place for Elvis to perfect his return to form. Moman had assembled one of the tightest house bands around at this point, tighter even than Booker T. & the MGs over at Stax and Volt- derivative of the MGs, certainly, but slicker and more professional. Guitarist Reggie Young was every bit the measure of Steve Cropper, and had worked with Elvis' original bandmate Bill Black in the Bill Black Combo before the bassist's untimely death in 1965. The rest of the band (all white, incidentally) had grown up as fans of Presley’s music, putting them in prime position to ease the singer into a new era where music had essentially left him behind.
Elvis, too, was perenially at the mercy of his material, having only written a handful of songs himself. At his very best, Elvis was capable of transforming a good track into something quite wonderful. One doesn’t have to delve too far into his catalogue for examples: 'That's All Right', 'Blue Moon of Kentucky', 'Hound Dog'. But if Elvis wasn't inspired by a track, he was known to simply ape the demo track, unable or unwilling to personalise something which clearly didn't meet his standards. The material varies from old country standards from Elvis' childhood, written and performed by Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold, more contemporary r&b numbers like Jerry Butler's 'Only the Strong Survive,' and fresh new material by Mac Davis ('In the Ghetto') and Mark James 'Suspicious Minds,' recorded by the songwriter and Moman a year earlier at American. Not only was each track a great song in its own right, Elvis believed in each and every track and infused each recording with his own vision of what it meant and where it should be, often resulting in radical new arrangements.
American's musicians were certainly used to recording a wide variety of music; it was their job that they may need to record blues standards in the morning and rock n' roll in the evening, or that Aretha Franklin or Dusty Springfield (Elvis entered American Studios the very day Dusty in Memphis
was released) may cut between soul and country numbers as the mood takes them, yet what they were asked to do on From Elvis in Memphis
was entirely different. Elvis and Chips didn't want them merely to play from a sheet; what they were expected to do sounded suspciously like innovation
. This was pop, blues, soul, rock and country all at once or not at all, while numerous tempo and key changes tested both theirs and Elvis' technical skill to the max. The opening bars of Hank Snow's 'I'm Movin' On' may suggest country, but the funky jam that follows is anything but. Here, honky-tonk lead guitar breaks couldn't sound anything less than natural with beefy rhythmic horns and a syncopated bassline.
If Hank Snow would be hard pushed to recognise his own tune, then Eddy Arnold would be equally baffled to hear his sentimental country ballad 'I'll Hold You in my Heart 'Til I Can Hold You in my Arms)' transformed into a dynamic blues-gospel piece. Elvis' heavily ornamented vocals are rendered all the more impressive by the fact he was actually playing piano while he sang. 'Power of my Love' came from the same writers as 'Devil in Disguise' and many of Elvis' better movie songs, but the heavy blues treatment it's given here seems a million miles from the fluff Elvis had so recently turned his back on. Again, a dynamic horn section gives the track extra weight without making it so glossy as to detract from its raw emotional power.
The gospel-tinged pop track 'In the Ghetto,' backed with the Burt Bacharach number 'Any Day Now' (the closest to a faithful rendition on the album), was the only hit single from the sessions to actually appear on the album, a sensitive treatment of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who never truly gets a break in life- a story close to Presley's heart given his background and the amazing opportunities afforded him by his own talent and hard work. It was written by Mac Davis, who also wrote 'A Little Less Conversation' for Elvis and the hit single 'Don't Cry Daddy,' and leads with the famous line, "On a cold and grey Chicago morn', another little baby child was born in the ghetto."
'In the Ghetto' certainly struck home for Elvis, but it was his masterful vocal portrayal that sold the track, as the slick string-heavy arrangement could grate was the vocal track not so capable of grabbing the listener's undivided attention. There's little alteration in terms of the arrangement of Jerry Butler's 1968 r&b hit 'Only the Strong Survive,' but Elvis' impassioned delivery blows Butler's almost ironically detached performance to pieces, while both band and singer handle the furious tempo changes with enviable ease.
During his period of stagnancy, Elvis had allowed both the British Invasion and the emergence of soul to pass him by; still chruning derivatives of his '50s hit, he had become completely irrelevant. That soul was a music form grown from the exact same roots as rock n' roll, and his early records included covers Ray Charles and other genre founders, made his self-imposed exile all the more bemusing. With From Elvis in Memphis
, he produced a record that not only rivalled his early recordings in terms of historical importance and innovation, but thrust him back into the charts in a manner that would suggest he'd never left in the first place. Though subsequent releases were as inconsistent and often unlistenable as at any point in his career, From Elvis in Memphis
is downright essential
, for any Elvis fan and for any music fan.