Guest contributor, David Hopper of 360°Sound, spoke with Eric Wolfson, author of the new 33 1/3 book on Elvis Presley’s 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis (out now on Bloomsbury Academic). Hot on the heels of the ’68 Comeback Special, Elvis returned to Memphis to record there for the first time since his Sun records in the mid-‘50s. The sessions took place at American Sound Studio under the direction of producer Chips Moman. Backed by the ace house band The Memphis Boys, Elvis cut four Top 20 hits, “In The Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “Kentucky Rain.”
360°: You’re a longtime Elvis fanatic. Please start by telling us a little about your Elvis fandom and what led you to writing this book.
Eric Wolfson: When I got my first “boom box” for my ninth birthday and told my parents I wanted to hear the Beatles, they said I should listen to the oldies channel (which for me was Oldies 103.3 WODS in Boston). Although they never played much Beatles, I heard A LOT of Elvis. Within a few months, I was hooked. In grade school I would get up early on Sunday morning to hear Jay Gordon’s “Elvis Only” hour, which is now a nationally syndicated program; the first CD I ever owned was the 1987 double-album Elvis’s Top Ten Hits. Then-recent books by Peter Guralnick as well as visiting Sun Records and Graceland as a young teenager only solidified my fandom before I entered high school.
When I discovered the 33 1/3 series after college, I was always disappointed that there was never a volume on an Elvis album. At some point I got kind of cocky and said, “Well, if someone is going to write a 33 1/3 about an Elvis album, it may as well be me.” For the next decade, I pitched Elvis albums four consecutive times, every time they had an open call. I was on the verge of giving up on Elvis, but gave it one last shot with From Elvis in Memphis. Although I originally wanted to do an album that was recorded in the ’50s, From Elvis in Memphis is the one that told the best story. In hindsight, I am so glad that this was the album I got to write about because it tells a unique story from an overlooked time between “The ’68 Comeback Special” and his first Las Vegas shows, when he wanted to build on his recent success and make music that actually mattered.
Please talk a little about what American Sound Studio’s house band The Memphis Boys and producer Chips Moman brought to the sound of this record. Would you say it’s one of the funkiest and most R&B-heavy in Elvis’s catalog?
The American Sound Studio house band, The Memphis Boys, is one of the great unheralded groups in rock and roll history. Their closest parallels are Phil Spector’s “Wrecking Crew” for their versatility, but with less people, like The Band.
While the core group shifted here and there during the mid-’60s (at one point Spooner Oldham was a regular, at another point Bobby Womack), by the time Elvis got there, it had settled into its most famous incarnation: Reggie Young on guitar, Mike Leech on bass, Gene Chrisman on drums, Bobby Wood on piano, and Bobby Emmons on organ. Tommy Cogbill also played bass, but would come to be seen as a sort of bandleader and second producer under founder/producer/guitarist/songwriter/gambler Lincoln “Chips” Moman. The fact that none of these men are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a travesty.
That said, I wouldn’t say it’s the funkiest and R&B-heavy recordings in Elvis’s history because Elvis was a huge fan of all kinds of music, and The Memphis Boys were one of the few groups versatile enough to instinctively follow him wherever he wanted to go. Which is to say, things certainly could get funky (“Wearin’ That Loved on Look” and “Power of My Love”), and had Elvis wanted to make a funk record, it would have been top-notch. But Elvis also liked to sing country (“It Keeps Right on a-Hurtin’”), folk (“Gentle on My Mind”), and pop (“Any Day Now”).
In fact, some of the most effective tracks on the album were old country songs re-imagined: The burning blues torch-song take on Eddy Arnold’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart,” the funky (and to my ears, in parts, near-psychedelic) update of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ on,” and the soulful take on Vern Stovall and Bobby George’s “Long Black Limousine,” an old country weeper remade using the format of African American soul singer O.C. Smith, where it was the B-side of his million-selling “Little Green Apples.”
On paper, the only more consistently funky music Elvis had made was at Stax Records in July and December of 1973. While the July sessions were basically a wash that resulted in Elvis’s worst non-soundtrack studio album, Raised on Rock, the December sessions were much more fruitful, with hits and fan favorites like “My Boy,” “Loving Arms,” and “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” (all three recorded in the same night!), as well as his last truly classic recording, “Promised Land.”
But whereas Elvis was largely motivated by artist ambition to work at American Sound, one of Elvis’s chief reasons for recording at Stax was that it was down the road from Graceland. By the mid-1970s, Elvis grew increasingly resistant to recording, to the point where his final sessions were done with rented equipment in the basement of Graceland—and even then, he never seemed to want to leave his bedroom. From Elvis in Memphis marks the peak of a mature Elvis engaging in a studio project.
One of the keys to From Elvis in Memphis—and all of Elvis’s best music, arguably—is that he had a great band. Elvis may be the most famous solo singer in rock history, but to make rock and roll, you need a group. For every phase of Elvis’s career, one could find a stunning core band: At Sun, he had The Blue Moon Boys (guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black); at RCA he had The Blue Moon Boys plus drummer D.J. Fontana; at his first-post Army studio sessions he had Moore plus a tight-knit group of top Nashville musicians, at “The ’68 Comeback Special” he had Moore, Fontana, guitarist/vocalist Charlie Hodge and several other close friends who he had been jamming with for years, and finally, at American Sound Studio, he had The Memphis Boys.
The core band that Elvis toured with in the ’70s—guitarist James Burton, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Ronnie Tutt, and Charlie Hodge—was also excellent, but they were primarily a live outfit who made a music that reached for bigger stand-alone statements than a full rock and roll album. Their masterpieces were intense singles like “Burning Love” and “Always on My Mind,” but no one (including, it seems, Elvis) was interested in ever sitting down and making another front-to-back studio masterpiece.
Elvis was only able to do this in the first place because of the influence of Chips Moman, the first non-RCA staff producer he worked with in over a decade. For From Elvis in Memphis, Chips wanted a great album of all the best cuts and leave it like that. (RCA, always looking for more product, issued a second LP of Elvis’s American Sound session, eventually issued as Back in Memphis, and while its heights matched those of From Elvis in Memphis—“Stranger in My Home Town,” “Without Love (There Is Nothing),” and “Inherit the Wind”—they were few and far between; Back in Memphis was largely the album of filler that Chips always wanted to avoid.) So not only did Elvis ever make a better studio album than From Elvis in Memphis, he arguably never had a better studio band backing him either.
Without giving too much away, what were a few things about the album you learned during your research that you found especially fascinating?
Nearly all of the participants of the album have passed away—drummer Gene Chrisman and Bobby Wood are the only members of The Memphis Boys who are still alive; I reached out to both but never heard back—so the best way to put myself into the sessions was to listen to the specialty Elvis label Follow That Dream’s three double-CD reissue sets of his American Sound sessions (From Elvis in Memphis, Back in Memphis, and From Elvis at American Sound Studio), which included numerous working takes of virtually every song.
This fly-on-the-wall approach allowed me to hear the incidental chatter between Elvis, Chips, and The Memphis Boys, as well as how the songs evolved. One thing I found fascinating was how finished the songs sounded on Take 1. Even without the strings, horns, and backing singers overdubbed later, The Memphis Boys pack a full punch that I can only compare to The Band when they backed Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour. For someone who was a casual Elvis fan who only knew the famous songs from the sessions—“In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and “Kentucky Rain”—you could probably play them the first take of each and trick them into thinking that it was the official version of the song. The only song that really evolved on From Elvis in Memphis was “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” which began with more of a Mersey beat swing (think of the quieter songs on The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night), before shifting into a starker country ballad.
But the real discovery is in the nuance. Elvis recorded nearly two dozen takes of “In the Ghetto,” over which Chips kept chasing something he heard in his head. As Peter Guralnick once put it, Chips “played” all of the musicians like a finely tuned instrument from his producer board. His rare ability to know a hit recording when he heard it puts him in the ’60s producer company of Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, George Martin, Don Kirshner, and Brian Wilson. With all due respect to Elvis’s usual RCA producer Felton Jarvis (who was also there and technically co-produced the album), Chips was the key to taking this from a solid album to a masterpiece. Elvis hadn’t worked with a finer producer since Sam Phillips, and he would never work with a finer producer again.
In the years following this record, Elvis had his show in Vegas and became the overweight jumpsuit-wearing character that some people associate with Elvis. Do you think that period overshadowed his artistry and best works like From Elvis In Memphis?
I think the infamous “Fat Elvis” period of the ’70s does overshadow this album, for several reasons. For one, “Fat Elvis” is easier to understand. The default common standard story of Elvis’s career is ’50s Elvis (sexy god unleashed upon the world), ’60s Elvis (Hollywood playboy with diminishing returns), and ’70s Elvis (an overweight caricature of a singer past their prime playing endless shows in Vegas and across America).
Unlike these eras, the music that Elvis cut for From Elvis in Memphis does not fit into these categories. Even if you flesh out the outline with someone who knows a bit more about his life—the early Sun years, the breakthrough RCA years, the Army years, the Hollywood years, the Comeback years, the Vegas years, and the final years—American Sound is still overshadowed by the two things that happened on either side of it: “The ’68 Comeback Special” and Elvis’s Las Vegas debut in mid-1969.
Given Sony/RCA’s manic product creation for the 50th anniversary of “The ’68 Comeback Special,” which included new boxed sets, re-mastered DVDs, books, T-shirts, live concerts, special vinyl releases, and more, I was very excited to be writing about From Elvis in Memphis during 2019, the 50th anniversary of that album. I found that, aside from one “new” 5-disc boxed set, Elvis: American Sound 1969—I say “new” because the album only contained five previously-unreleased songs (all but one of which appeared on the first disc)—it just went to show how complete the three earlier double-CDs put out by Follow That Dream were in the first place. And unlike so much big-anniversary FTD material, it looks as though it’s already gone out-of-print.
Far more hoopla went to the 50th Anniversary of Elvis’s Vegas debut in the summer of 1969, which of course resulted in some inspired material, but also feels like one big you-kinda-had-to-be-there moment. Plus, when people think of “Elvis in Vegas” they think the fat jumpsuit guy, but this was before he even put on a jumpsuit. Any explanation for celebration seemed to be prefaced with “No, this is when Elvis first hit Vegas when he was still thin and fresh following his comeback…” So even his own record label literally allowed his Vegas period to overshadow his American Sound sessions.
Which isn’t exactly a surprise. The American Sound sessions are special because they are less familiar (except for hits like “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds”), and have a more complex story to tell. In the greater sessions, you can hear the fiery inspiration of “The ’68 Comeback Special,” as well as some of the schmaltz that lay the groundwork for his Vegas demise (nearly all of which was thankfully left off of From Elvis in Memphis). But perhaps more importantly, the album did not come with a big event like “The ’68 Comeback Special” and wasn’t a big hit like, say, his #1 soundtrack LP for his Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite concert in 1973.
In a year that brought us The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, The Who’s Tommy, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, The Band, Sly & The Family Stone’s Stand!, Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, under-the-radar gems like The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, The Stooges’ debut, and Nick Drake’s Five Years Left, not to mention the first two Led Zeppelin albums and three albums from Creedence Clearwater Revival (Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy and the Poorboys), plus Woodstock AND Altamont, it’s easy to see how Elvis’s From Elvis in Memphis got overlooked during what is generally considered rock and roll’s finest year.
But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Elvis’s finest studio album just happened to be made in this year—there was something special about 1969, as well as the ’60s in general—that brought a high-water mark for rock and roll. I think a big part of it is that most bands were still recording live in the studio (like Elvis was that year), as opposed to tracking each sound recording with such perfection that it compressed any space in the sound that can only be achieved by playing with live people in a room. But the relative obscurity of From Elvis in Memphis allows us to listen to it with fresh ears today—and the fact that it’s growing in fame every year since makes it all the more rewarding.
For more of the exclusive interview with Eric Wolfson, visit 360°Sound.
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