"I had to leave town for a little while--" with these words, Elvis Presley truly came home to rock and roll. A little over a month earlier he had staged rock's first and greatest comeback in a television program, forever known as "The '68 Comeback Special." With this show, he resurrected himself--at the age of 33, no less--from the ashes of a career mired in bad movies and soundtracks. So where to go from here?
Like a killer returning to the scene of the crime, Elvis came back home to Memphis, where it had all begun. Eschewing the fancier studios of Nashville and Hollywood, he set up shop at the ramshackle American Sound Studio, run by a maverick named Chips Moman with an in-house backing band now known as "The Memphis Boys," and made the music of his life. The resulting work, From Elvis in Memphis, would be the finest studio album of his career, an explosion of mature confidence and fiery inspiration. It was the sound of Elvis establishing himself as a true rock and roll artist--and proving his status as a legend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eric Wolfson worked as an artist and musician in Boston and New York City, before settling in Washington, D.C. He works at the United States Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. He is the only employee in the agency whose desk has a shrine to Elvis.
"From Elvis in Memphis" is out now!
"Tosh and Kimley are joined by author Eric Wolfson to discuss his new book Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis (33 1/3). Elvis is a paradox who became the mold for all rock stars to follow. He was the King of Rock in the 50s and then the king of schlock in the 60s but made an impressive comeback with the release of this album in 1969 that reinforced his place in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. Going back to Memphis where he started and working at the gritty, down-to-earth American Sound Studio helped him create what is considered by many to be his best studio album."
"Book Musik 040 – From Elvis in Memphis (33 1/3)" with Tosh & Kimley, Book Musik, February 15, 2021.
"Like the best books of the 33 1/3 series, Wolfson's contribution brings alive an album that may be largely unknown to music fans but deserves serious appraisal–and gets it."
By Chris Ingalls, PopMatters, January 12, 2021.
"The resulting 'From Elvis in Memphis' album is the subject of a new book in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series by author Eric Wolfson. 'I think what makes it so interesting is that it’s a coming home album, and it’s definitely a more adult version of Elvis that we’re hearing,' says Wolfson, on the eve of the annual celebrations of Elvis’ birthday at Graceland. The King would have turned 86 on Jan. 8."
"From Elvis in Memphis": New Book Explores Hometown Sessions Of The King At Creative Peak
By Bob Mehr, Memphis Commercial Appeal, January 5, 2021.
“Go back and rediscover this album and buy the book as well, all about it…Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis…Eric Wolfson is the author.”
"The Daily" with Dave Hodgson, Talk Radio Europe, November 30, 2020.
"I can do nothing else than highly recommend this neat piece of work. It has been a pretty long time since I enjoyed an Elvis related book as much as this one. A well researched work is worth much more than rehashing of (more or less) the same old pictures."
By Lex, ElvisNews.com, November 21, 2020.
"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."
By David Hopper & Trina Young, Elvis News Examiner, November 23, 2020.
"More than any other Elvis studio album, all 12 songs are great and there’s no filler to skip over. But more importantly, he sounds truly engaged like he did only a few times before—at Sun, at his pre-Army RCA days, and “The ’68 Comeback Special”—and even fewer times since. And at the core of his engagement was the fact that the album was a rare team effort between Elvis and the backing musicians, now known as The Memphis Boys."
By David Hopper, 360°Sound, November 12, 2020.
"A pivotal moment indeed, doubly so in that it marked the King's first return to a Memphis studio since he'd left Sun Records for RCA back in the 1950s. Thus, it's only fitting that the album is now the subject of a new book in the 33⅓ series by Bloomsbury. Each volume under the imprint documents the making of a classic album, and this 150th volume in the series is the first dedicated to an Elvis Presley record. Given his status as a singles artist, this might come as no great surprise, but one thing becomes clear the minute you listen to the record and read how it came to be: It is very much an album, cohesive in vision and performance. And author Eric Wolfson does it justice."
By Alex Greene, Memphis Flyer, November 11, 2020.
"This book is a great, colorful and above all essential read on one of Elvis’ most important albums. It documents the story behind the album in-depth, keeping you engrossed throughout the book. It makes you think, re-listen to the songs from new perspectives and form your own opinion."
Review From Elvis in Memphis Book
By Kees Mouwen, Elvis Day By Day, November 7, 2020.
Eric Wolfson’s From Elvis in Memphis is one of the most important examinations of Elvis’ music ever released, and as an examination of a single Elvis album, unique. Its deeply considered perspective presents the authenticity of both the artist and the music. Importantly, it is not just about Elvis. It is a holistic treatise involving the music, the musicians, history, and the socio-cultural context of the time. Through his strong, evocative narrative, Wolfson challenges the reader to consider a fresh interpretation of Elvis’ “new” music. From Elvis in Memphis is a book of insightful riches.
By Nigel Patterson, Elvis Information Network, November 5, 2020.
Tosh and Kimley are joined by author Eric Wolfson to discuss his new book Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis (33 1/3). Elvis is a paradox who became the mold for all rock stars to follow. He was the King of Rock in the 50s and then the king of schlock in the 60s but made an impressive comeback with the release of this album in 1969 that reinforced his place in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon. Going back to Memphis where he started and working at the gritty, down-to-earth American Sound Studio helped him create what is considered by many to be his best studio album.
Book Musik 040 – From Elvis in Memphis (33 1/3) – discussion with author Eric Wolfson, posted, February 15, 2021.
Elvis Presley's Unlikely Comeback
By Chris Ingalls, PopMatters, January 12, 2021.
With the exception of his final years of deteriorating health, it would seem far-fetched to describe Elvis Presley in any of his professional incarnations as "down and out". But by the late 1960s, the massively popular and influential singer was deemed by many as irrelevant. The preceding handful of years produced the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion, in addition to psychedelia and folk, all competing for the public's attention while Presley, after his brief stint in the Army, mostly churned out soundtrack pablum and acted in some often – shall we say, inconsequential films. Presley had his day and the world seemed to be moving on.
Fortunately, a lean, mean comeback television special in 1968 helped Presley regain an artistic and commercially successful foothold. It was time to get back into the studio and make a new record.
That record would become From Elvis in Memphis, recorded in early 1969 and released that summer. As part of the popular 33 1/3 series, Eric Wolfson–a dyed-in-the-wool Elvis fan and impressive Elvis historian–dissects, analyzes, and celebrates what many experts consider to be Presley's finest album. The fact that it was hardly Presley's most commercially successful album– it only went Gold, while many of his others have gone Multi-Platinum–certainly speaks to the fickle tastes of the masses, which is all the more reason why this particular entry in the series is so important. Elvis Presley's From Elvis in Memphis makes a strong case for the validity and importance of this album far beyond sales figures.
Bolstered by the success of the 1968 television special, Presley entered the studio in January 1969, but it wasn't with his usual coterie of session players or even the studios he was used to in Hollywood or Nashville. Rather, Presley went back to Memphis (where it all began) and entered the ramshackle but highly prolific American Sound Studio. Backed by a collective known as "The Memphis Boys" with maverick producer Lincoln Wayne "Chips" Moman, Presley was setting himself up for success.
"Between late 1966 and late 1971," Wolfson writes, "the Memphis Boys recorded at least 120 charting hits; not a week goes by in this period that they do not play on at least one of the songs in the Billboard Hot 100 – and usually it's more, upward to 10 percent." In other words, he was in unfamiliar yet highly capable hands. Moreover, any possible friction from the combination of Presley's superstardom and the Memphis Boys' workmanlike professionalism was instantly dissipated, as mutual respect was soon formed. "The Memphis Boys had sensed that something had clicked inside of Elvis," Wolfson writes. "He was now ready to engage as a creative artist. For the first time in years, Elvis walked into a recording studio and acted like he cared."
Wolfson's descriptions of the studio sessions are crystal clear, highly descriptive, and filled with rich musical knowledge. For an artist like Elvis, who contains an almost mythical, impenetrable aura, it's refreshing to read about these sessions in such an intimate manner. Wolfson writes about late-night sessions where Presley flubs lines and cracks up the band with expletive-filled, off-the-cuff joke lyrics. The individual contributions of band members--including guitarist Reggie Young, bassist Tommy Cogbill, and Gene Chrisman, among others–are meticulously detailed.
After spending the last few years tossing off throwaway singles like "Bossa Nova Baby", "Do the Clam", and "Fun in Acapulco", Presley seems overjoyed and highly motivated at the prospect of singing and recording with a band often considered the artistic equals of Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew. The compositions are a handpicked, eclectic, and sophisticated bunch, including the sexually charged blues of "Power of My Love" a laid-back take on "Gentle on my Mind", Hank Snow's country standard "I'm Moving On", and Mac Davis' "In the Ghetto", a rare occasion for Presley to wax emotional on the subjects of racial and class struggle.
Wolfson points out the significance of "In the Ghetto"–released as a single from the album, becoming his first US Top Five single in six years–by placing it in the context of current popular music. "For the first time in years," he writes, "since the Beatles and Bob Dylan redefined rock and roll–an Elvis song truly resonated. If it didn't place him on the forefront of cutting-edge rock and roll per se, it repositioned him as a serious competitive artist, a real contender. 'In the Ghetto' proved that Elvis still mattered– and that his music still had something to say."
The song was a huge hit, but not as big as "Suspicious Minds," a song recorded during the American Sound sessions but released as a standalone single in August 1969 and becoming Presley's final US Pop Number One. While From Elvis in Memphis may have been more of an artistic triumph than a commercial one, it certainly yielded a good deal of chart success.
Still, the critical success of From Elvis in Memphis was largely short-lived. Some subsequent singles, such as "Burning Love" and "Always on My Mind", saw the artist reaching impressive peaks, but Wolfson writes that Presley was "largely sleepwalking through his 1970s recording sessions like he sleepwalked through his 1960s films. As an album of inspiration, talent, and vision, Elvis would never top From Elvis in Memphis." Like the best books of the 33 1/3 series, Wolfson's contribution brings alive an album that may be largely unknown to music fans but deserves serious appraisal–and gets it.
Posted 01/12/2021; Please see entire article at https://www.popmatters.com/elvis-presley-eric-wolfson-2649861168.html?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1
"From Elvis in Memphis": New Book Explores Hometown Sessions Of The King At Creative Peak
By Bob Mehr, Memphis Commerial Appeal, January 5, 2021.
By January 1969, Elvis Presley was at a creative crossroads. With his years of movie commitments satisfied and the televised '68 Comeback Special behind him, Elvis was ready to get back to serious recording. As it happened, the hottest producer (Chips Moman), band (The Memphis Boys) and studio (American Sound) in the world were right in Presley's backyard in the Bluff City.
Fifty-two years ago this month, Presley entered American with Moman and The Memphis Boys and created his most accomplished body of work, and perhaps his most significant behind only the seminal ’50s Sun sessions.
The resulting “From Elvis in Memphis” album is the subject of a new book in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series by author Eric Wolfson. “I think what makes it so interesting is that it’s a coming home album, and it’s definitely a more adult version of Elvis that we’re hearing,” says Wolfson, on the eve of the annual celebrations of Elvis’ birthday at Graceland. The King would have turned 86 on Jan. 8.
“Elvis was older and grappling with what had happened in music while he was in Hollywood. People like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones had gone past him creatively. Now it’s 1969, and Elvis is 34 years old. He’d helped to invent this music, but he’d been surpassed by these younger hipper people,” Wolfson says. “I think the question for him was, ‘What now?’”
The answer would come in the form of Lincoln “Chips” Moman. A guitarist, songwriter and producer, Moman had been instrumental in the early history of Stax, before going to launch American Sound Studios.
While Presley was busy turning out his movie musicals in the '60s, Moman and American — located on Thomas Street in North Memphis — had grown into a monster. Moman had recruited a crack unit of players from the house bands at Hi Records and Phillips Records to form the American Studio group, dubbed The Memphis Boys: guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons and bassists Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill.
The lineup, mostly with Moman behind the board, would become a hit-making machine in the latter half of the '60s, working up a series of chart smashes for artists like the Box Tops ("The Letter''), Dusty Springfield ("Son of a Preacher Man''), Neil Diamond ("Sweet Caroline''), B.J. Thomas ("Hooked on a Feeling'') and Bobby Womack ("Fly Me To The Moon").
Getting Elvis Back In The Studio
Given the firm grip of Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker, his label RCA, and song pluggers at Hill and Range Music Publishers, getting Elvis into Moman's studio proved a challenge. It was Marty Lacker — a onetime foreman for Presley, who'd gone to work for Moman — who brought the project in through the back door.
"Marty was working for me and he was still in close with Elvis," Moman recalled in a 2009 interview with The Commercial Appeal. "So Marty was talking to me about Elvis and talking to Elvis about me and slowly bringing us together. He's really the one that got that album to take place."
The sessions, which took place in January and February of 1969, began with a bit of turbulence, as Moman was forced to take charge, clearing the studio of Presley's pals and business associates, and setting the tone for the record he wanted to make.
"There was a big entourage and there were these publishers in town and they were pushing the kind of songs that Elvis had been cutting, and I wanted to change that," said Moman. "See, we all liked Elvis, but we all liked Elvis in the old days. And so we were really excited about cutting him because we thought that we could do something real special."
Collaboration Was Key To Producing A Hit Record
The secret of the sessions was finding the right material for Presley. A gifted songwriter himself, Moman was always looking for the next hit tune.
“Chips really had a great ear for songs and he was going to do things his way,” says Wolfson. “[Longtime Elvis collaborator] Felton Jarvis was a great producer but he was a yes man to the industry around Elvis. Chips wasn’t like that, he had a stable of his own writers, and he knew good material. It’s remarkable that only one track from the Elvis’ publishers, Hill and Range, made it through to the session. That shows the kind of influence Chips had.”
Among those who provided songs for the Presley sessions were up-and-coming young writers like Mac Davis (“In the Ghetto”), Mark James (“Suspicious Minds”) and Eddie Rabbitt (“Kentucky Rain”). Combining the fresh material with a mix of old country, R&B and rock favorites, Presley was able to showcase his range and interpretive gifts.
While the sessions at American not unique from a musical standpoint—“we did exactly what we normally did” Moman would recall—Presley was being pushed in the studio for the first time in more than a decade, and performing with a newfound energy and enthusiasm across the more than 30 tracks that were cut.
“He came in there and he was on fire, man. He really was,” recalled Moman. “He was excited about this session. I think he liked the strangeness of it, 'cause it was so different from his sessions that he'd been doing. And he really hit it off with the band.”
Wolfson notes that collaboration was always key for Presley. “Although we think of Elvis as a solo guy, pretty much all of his greatest moments — whether at Sun or early RCA or even his Marathon sessions in 1970 — he always had a great band, a great group of collaborators. He really needed the support, I think, of other musicians. He fed off them. Also, he was recording live in a room with them, and that spurred him as well.”
Released in June of ’69, “From Elvis in Memphis” would reach No. 13 on the Billboard album charts, while a string of singles from the sessions, including “In the Ghetto,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “Kentucky Rain” and “Suspicious Minds” would return Elvis to top of the singles charts. The King's musical resurgence continued with his return to live performing later that year in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, Presley did not return to record at American. “Looking back at that record, Chips and The Memphis Boys were essential,” says Wolfson. “The proof is in the pudding in that Elvis had never did it again in terms of having hits like those or making records as powerful.”
A year later another album, “Back in Memphis,” containing leftovers from the American sessions, was released. Over the decades various compilations and deluxe editions have further chronicled the sessions, including the 2019 digital box set, “American Sound 1969.” But ultimately, “From Elvis in Memphis,” remains a unique and essential entry in the King’s canon.
“It’s his finest studio album,” says Wolfson. “Only the Sun sessions and the first RCA album can stand up to it. But those were mish-mashes of material, whereas ‘From Elvis in Memphis’ is a complete statement of his artistry. It’s a remarkable record.”
Posted 01/05/2021; Please see entire article at https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/entertainment/music/2021/01/06/elvis-presley-books-from-elvis-memphis-chips-moman-hometown-sessions/4128498001/
Eric Wolfson talks about his new 33 1/3 book, "From Elvis in Memphis," on "The Daily" with Dave Hodgson, Talk Radio Europe, November 30, 2020.
From Elvis in Memphis (33 1/3)
By Lex, ElvisNews.com, https://www.elvisnews.com/ / November 21, 2020.
Bloomsbury Academic has a series about ‘important’ albums: 33 1/3, highly praised by well known magazines like NME and Rolling Stone. Finally after 150+ items Elvis turns up in the list, thanks to author Eric Wolfons who jumped into probably one of Elvis’ best albums (if not the best): From Elvis In Memphis.
After a short praise for the book series, the dedication by the author and the contents the real content of the book starts with the track listing of the album, just plain and simple. The prologue handles the situation Elvis was in after the movies (From Elvis in Hell) and the resurrection through the NBC special. All together a nice short essay on Elvis’ life and career so far, obviously gained by a lot of research, seeing the used works.
The front cover of the album starts the look into the album From Elvis In Memphis itself. Every chapter from now on starts with an excerpt of an interview with Elvis, mainly from the 50s, but also some later ones. The cover chapter ends up in a short description of the TV special, before the decision to record in Memphis is explained, without choosing side of neither Lacker nor Klein. Chips Moman and the musicians are also introduced in this chapter.
Next up is ‘The Arrival’ that describes the first meeting of Elvis with Chips and the ‘Memphis boys’ and the recording of the first track ‘Wearin’ That Loved On Look’
The next chapters all handle the tracks in order, as said with parts of interviews, a lot of ‘Elvis history’ and background information on the songs and eventually previous recordings by other artists. Even some of the other songs recorded during the session - and not only the singles like ‘Suspicious Minds’ or ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ - get attention.
I found no real nonsense in the book, as said it is obviously well researched, only a couple of unclarities, like the suggestions Elvis only started to use a drummer after going to RCA and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ is from 1971 (released yes, but recorded in 1970). Those being the worst ‘errors’ that caught my eye says enough about the quality (at least in my book). There are some parts that are not my piece of cake, about how Elvis felt or how Chips glanced, those things belong more in fiction. Then again it might exactly be the reason why this book is more than a dry list of facts and really gives reading pleasure.
After the musical content, the back cover is described where the biggest lack, the acknowledgement for the producer and musicians is explained as a sign of the time. Also the not so good relation with the Colonel gets some (more) attention, as does the weird RCA release policy.
The Epilogue (From Elvis In Paradise) handles the aftermath of the album and singles from the Memphis sessions.
I can do nothing else than highly recommend this neat piece of work. It has been a pretty long time since I enjoyed an Elvis related book as much as this one. A well researched work is worth much more than rehashing of (more or less) the same old pictures.
Posted 11/12/2020; Please see entire article at https://www.elvisnews.com/articles.aspx/from-elvis-in-memphis-33/1655
Interview About Elvis Presley's Monumental Album, "From Elvis in Memphis," With Author Eric Wolfson
By David Hopper & Trina Young, for Elvis News Examiner (https://elvis-news.com/) / November 23, 2020.
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 Leaves 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.
Posted 11/23/2020; Please see entire interview at https://elvis-news.com/2020/11/23/interview-about-elvis-presleys-monumental-album-from-elvis-in-memphis-with-author-eric-wolfson/
Q&A with "From Elvis in Memphis" Author
By David Hopper, for 360°Sound (https://360degreesound.com/) / November 12, 2020.
360°Sound caught up with Eric Wolfson, author of the new 33 1/3 book on Elvis Presley’s classic 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis (out Nov. 12 on Bloomsbury Academic). After a 14-year absence, Elvis returned to Memphis to record what many consider his greatest album. The recording sessions took place over about 14 days under the direction of producer Chips Moman at his American Sound Studio. Backed by the crack studio band The Memphis Boys, Elvis cut four Top 20 hits, including “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.”
360°: Is your book the first to focus squarely on the From Elvis In Memphis album?
Eric Wolfson: As far as I can tell, From Elvis in Memphis is not only the first book about this Elvis album, it is the first book ever about a single Elvis album. While scores of books have been written about his life, music, and influence—not to mention books about his various lovers, favorite recipes, and even his horses—there has never been a study of an album. The closest thing is books focused on various eras of Elvis’s life—his Sun years, his RCA breakthrough year of 1956, his Army years, and the road to his “68 Comeback Special”—but none of these were focused on a specific album.
I believe part of this is because Elvis is in an odd place in terms of the classic rock canon. While everyone agrees he is massively influential, he was not so much of an “albums artist” like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. Oftentimes the “Greatest Albums” lists have one of his Sun Records-era collections and/or his self-titled first album for RCA. Both are cornerstones for any rock and roll library, but they get lost in the deeper studio album-centric catalogs of other artists who came later.
I wanted to put the focus squarely on Elvis—and by extension, American Sound Studio, where he recorded the album—and not include any of my own personal stories or much specific Elvis history beyond the period in which he made the album itself. I instead went critically into each song, finding various themes and threads, and I then tried to both describe the actual recording of the song, as well as what meaning it may have held in Elvis’s greater life story. So instead of giving a chronology of the recordings, I did my best to let the album itself lead the story.
Why do you think From Elvis In Memphis is Elvis’s best album?
From Elvis in Memphisis Elvis’s studio masterpiece. The only other non-compilation Elvis album that could challenge it is his 1956 self-titled debut, Elvis Presley, but if you look closely, it too is not a traditional studio album—seven fiery new RCA recordings from 1956 and five excellent but older Sun Records outtakes from 1954-1955. Like many great ’50s albums, it’s a bit of a mishmash, even if it plays wonderfully as a statement. More than any other ’50s album, Elvis Presley threw down the gauntlet for new music (and its new icon) on an international level.
From Elvis in Memphis comes from the other side of the story. By the time he recorded this album, his position as King was challenged by inheritors like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who took this wild young music and helped it mature with a newfound musical complexity and lyrical consciousness. Meanwhile, Elvis had not been revolutionary since he joined the Army in 1958. He was welcomed home by a Frank Sinatra television special and then proceeded to spend much of the decade in Hollywood and Nashville, making increasingly uninspired movies and music. Within a day of The Beatles releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in early June 1967, Elvis released the soundtrack to Double Trouble, which contained movie junk like “Old MacDonald.”
Toward the end of the following year, Elvis wisely used a television project—then called simply ELVIS but now commonly referred to as “The ’68 Comeback Special”—as a rock and roll extravaganza to reclaim his crown. For an all-too-rare time in his career, Elvis defied the wishes of his domineering manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who wanted a Christmas program in tux-and-tails. Thrilled by the special’s rave reviews and excellent soundtrack album that went along with it, Elvis was anxious to follow this new sound—a soulful mix of pop, rock, rhythm and blues, with a touch of gospel, best heard in his special’s finale, “If I Can Dream.”
In early 1969, Elvis defied the Colonel once again to record at American Sound Studio instead of at the RCA studios in Nashville. Unlike much of his movie music, he recorded the songs live with the band and was challenged by the new creative environment to find his own mature sound. The result is the epitome of young rock and roll’s biggest star growing up in the music that seemed to have left him behind. More than any other Elvis studio album, all 12 songs are great and there’s no filler to skip over. But more importantly, he sounds truly engaged like he did only a few times before—at Sun, at his pre-Army RCA days, and “The ’68 Comeback Special”—and even fewer times since. And at the core of his engagement was the fact that the album was a rare team effort between Elvis and the backing musicians, now known as The Memphis Boys.
What’s your favorite track on the album?
My favorite track on the album is “Long Black Limousine.” I go into great detail in the book about it, so I don’t want to give anything away here. But in essence, I hear it as an American epic in miniature: A statement about love and loss, life and death, fame and anonymity, leaving home and coming back home. And, like another one of his finest tracks, “Mystery Train,” the whole thing revolves around a dead girl.
Lyrically, the album hits on a number of themes and topics associated with Elvis, such as fame and his close relationship with his late mother. Despite not writing the songs himself, Elvis sings with conviction and turns in great performances. Due to the lyrical themes and the fact that Elvis was returning to Memphis, do you think this is his most personal record?
In many ways, I do think this is his most personal record. As you point out, it certainly ties together the many threads of his life—fame (“Long Black Limousine”), motherhood (“Only the Strong Survive”), faith (“I’ll Hold You in My Heart”), sex (“Power of My Love”), poverty (“True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”), and race (“In the Ghetto”), among others.
One of the trickiest parts of writing this book is the fact that Elvis is the most influential rock and roll artist to never write his own material. Nowadays, when we listen to a song, we often imagine it as though we are looking into the singer’s diary, since the vast majority of modern artists write their own material. It’s easy to imagine that John Lennon or Bob Dylan or David Bowie or Prince or Kanye West or Adele are living through the song at some various levels because they are the ones who wrote it.
With Elvis, it’s not that simple. He looked up to a generation of pop singers that had their material written for them like Frank Sinatra and his idol Dean Martin. By all accounts, Elvis never got into songwriting because he wasn’t interested in it. He liked to sing, not write. In this way, his finest musical performances prove him to be a better actor than any of his films.
So yes, although this is music that was written by other people and played on by other musicians, From Elvis in Memphis is likely his most personal album. For Elvis, making an album meant putting his voice on to other people’s compositions, so while this may not be personal like a Neil Young or a Taylor Swift album, it’s Elvis’s version of one. And the fact that it’s literally a homecoming album after a triumphant comeback, allowed him the freedom and confidence to dig so deeply in himself to craft these mesmerizing performances in the first place.
Posted 11/12/2020; Please see entire interview at https://360degreesound.com/qa-with-from-elvis-in-memphis-author/
Memphis Boys: The Making of From Elvis in Memphis
By Alex Greene, Memphis Flyer (https://www.memphisflyer.com/) / November 11, 2020.
Elvis Presley's "'68 Comeback" special, officially titled, Singer Presents ... ELVIS, is the stuff of legend. The television special that aired in December of that year presented both a rocking Elvis the world had not seen for years and a more sophisticated, yet no less energized, "soul-pop" Elvis, with tracks like "If I Can Dream." While the image of Elvis the rocker in black leather has proven to be the broadcast's most indelible spinoff, the singer bet his future on the soul-infused side of his sound. And the record he began working on after the special, From Elvis in Memphis, was the studio-album debut of this new direction.
A pivotal moment indeed, doubly so in that it marked the King's first return to a Memphis studio since he'd left Sun Records for RCA back in the 1950s. Thus, it's only fitting that the album is now the subject of a new book in the 33⅓ series by Bloomsbury. Each volume under the imprint documents the making of a classic album, and this 150th volume in the series is the first dedicated to an Elvis Presley record. Given his status as a singles artist, this might come as no great surprise, but one thing becomes clear the minute you listen to the record and read how it came to be: It is very much an album, cohesive in vision and performance.
And author Eric Wolfson does it justice. He begins the story as Elvis and the producer of his TV special engage in a little experiment: strolling down Hollywood Boulevard in 1968 to see if he'll be recognized. When he's not, he doubles down on plans to bring a new fire and vision to the television broadcast. It's the perfect opening scene, capturing the King's determination to master his own destiny, after years of dithering B-movies and their spin-off singles.
And Wolfson, who vividly evokes the characters from this history, frames both the TV special and the subsequent studio album in terms of Elvis breaking free from the commercial concerns of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It was Elvis' drive that made the "'68 Comeback" so memorable, and that fed into the pre-production of From Elvis in Memphis as well.
Even then, the singer was plagued with doubts as he planned the recording sessions. But an evening spent with two old Memphis high school friends shored up his confidence: Marty Lacker and George Klein exhorted him to break away from RCA's Nashville studios and try the local American Sound Studio, founded by Chips Moman. "They're cutting the greatest hits in the world right now," Klein told Elvis, describing American as "a small funky studio with the kind of feeling I know you like."
Elvis ran with it. Aside from the space itself, the studio hosted a house band now known as the Memphis Boys, and they were the ideal fit for the artist's new soul-pop direction. Drummer Gene Chrisman, bassists Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech, guitarist Reggie Young, pianist Bobby Wood, and organist Bobby Emmons were originally brought together by producer/engineer Stan Kesler for Goldwax Records sessions, but soon were lured away by American. Still known at the time as the 827 Thomas Street Band, after the studio's address, they had already cranked out hits by the likes of Neil Diamond, the Box Tops, and Dusty Springfield before Elvis booked time.
Wolfson takes careful note of the chemistry between the Memphis Boys, and how that helped shape the final product. Pianist Bobby Wood heard the schlocky songs that Colonel Parker had picked out and called them "shit," which Klein dutifully passed on to an amused Elvis.
In that single telling detail, one sees what a pivotal role the city itself played in making this album. In going with his gut feeling and advice from high school pals, Elvis' homecoming was made real in spirit and sound. And, contrary to the Colonel's predictions, it created an album bursting with hits: "In the Ghetto," "Kentucky Rain," and the post-album single, "Suspicious Minds," to name a few.
It was a short but career-defining moment in Elvis' artistic life, leading him to assemble another historic band for his first residencies in Las Vegas. Yet even that group, which included the guitar work of James Burton, didn't bring the soul chops that the Memphis Boys exuded so effortlessly. For they were a band who could ensure that the "in Memphis" of the title really meant something.
33⅓: From Elvis in Memphis by Eric Wolfson is available November 12th from Bloomsbury Academic.
Posted 11/11/2020; Please see entire review at https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/memphis-boys-the-making-of-from-elvis-in-memphis/Content?oid=24171442
Review From Elvis in Memphis Book
By Kees Mouwen, Elvis Day By Day (www.ElvisDayByDay.com) / November 7, 2020.
Bloomsbury Academic finally added a book an Elvis Presley album to their popular 33 1/3 music history and criticism series. Eric Wolfson wrote an extensive examination of the 1969 classic ‘From Elvis in Memphis’. Time for a review of a ‘review book’.
The 184 page-book follows the standard design of the series, a small image of the album and a colored rectangle with the title of the album and name of the author. Basic, but very recognisable. Although part of a series, and thereby a format, the one thing I missed were illustrations. Although I must say Eric Wolfson’s colorful writing style makes up for this.
The book covers the album literally. Starting with the iconic front-cover and closing with the back-cover. In-between the twelve songs of the album.
The book opens with a short but to the point historical perspective on Elvis place in the birth of rock and roll - nice to read all the links between the legends, their band members and studio’s where they recorded - the changes in the music business and status of Elvis’ career in 1968.
And after a walk down the streets of Sunset Boulevard with Steve Binder in 1968 before the taping of the TV Special, not being recognized by anybody “he was reminded what it was like to be nobody. And Elvis worked hard on the special to make sure he would never feel that way again”. Binder stated.
“Elvis wasn’t a faker like Pat Boone, who sang a Little Richard song like “Tutti Frutti” with the same corny blandness that he applied to any other pop song. Elvis worked hard to learn the blues and rhythm and blues idioms, and brought it together with country music in a new way through his music”.
A good opener for a book like this, aimed at a broader audience than just Elvis Presley fans.
Following the '’68 Comeback Special' LP, ‘From Elvis In Memphis’ was the first proof of his comeback. For this he needed to come home first. “This is where it all started for me”, Elvis told a reporter after a session at the American Sound Studio’s where he made that fresh start on his own terms.
The great ‘Stranger In My Own Town’ illustrates this perfectly. It found its place on the album as a jam-like one-taker, recorded pure as in the first day at Sam Phillips SUN Studios.
Eric notes: “From Elvis in Memphis is very much a comeback album, looking to reposition its singer as once-again relevant. It’s telling that Elvis didn’t go off to San Francisco or London to make the album, chasing some fleeting trend in late 1960s popular music. As much as Elvis could be a musical chameleon, he was smart enough to know that he didn’t want to commit himself to music that he could not understand. By setting up shop in Memphis, he forced the new music to come to him, on his turf, and on his terms. … Sun Records and American Sound were both storefront operations where one could pop in off the street unannounced. There was an inherent casualness to the music Elvis made in Memphis up to this point that sets it apart from the slick, big-city studios in New York City, Nashville, and Hollywood”.
Elvis was home and reborn, and this album shows it as he throws himself into each and every song.
“Part of the thrill of listening to 'From Elvis in Memphis' is Elvis’s investment in the material. Elvis sounds focused, not just trying to entertain the listener, but to capture their attention and earn their respect”.
Eric Wolfson manages to capture this process in words. He put very much interesting details in his narrative, going from song to song. Details on everyone involved, in-depth analysis of the songs, the recording, personal memories from people involved and linking lyrics to Elvis’ life and current status his recording career. He connects the early hits and fifties influences right up to the new tracks on this album.
The author has a pleasant writing style, talking in pictures sometimes, keeping you engrossed in the story. Because he used so many reputable sources to tell, illustrate and build his story on, it is a well-founded and well-thought-out book and not just a fan’s perspective. While reading the book you almost feel like the proverbial fly on the walls of 827 Thomas Street.
I don’t agree with the observation that working with The Memphis Boys was the first time since years of recording movie soundtracks was a new for Elvis. During those ‘dark years’ he also recorded some real classics and hidden gems, but he did so mainly using his original musicians. The problem wasn’t the band, it was the quality of most of the songs. That said, our man did make a restart at 827 Thomas Street with a completely new band and producer.
The lyrics of many of these songs, not written with Elvis in mind, really fit his story. And with this strong and emotional material, it helps that this is the kind of material Elvis can relate to, resulting in strong performances.
Eric notes: “As a performer, Elvis’s gift was his sense of conviction, and this was something that transcended everything. When the material was good, and Elvis gave it his all, he made you believe what he was singing like few artists before or since. It is said that Elvis wanted to be an actor most of all--a real, respected actor like Marlon Brando or James Dean, as opposed to the cinematic joke he became--and somewhat ironically, you can hear it in his songs long before you can see it in his films”.
Sometimes the author stretches the interpretation a bit far in my opinion – especially on ‘Mama Liked the Roses' and Vernon’s place in the family. But because he substantiates his writing well, you can understand the reasoning. In itself this is one of the great things about this book, it makes you think, re-listen to the song from a new perspective and form your own opinion. All sources used in the book are acknowledged, handy for further reading. The author handles all elements of the album.
So, besides the music, the author also analyses the front and back-covers of the album. If only Elvis had stood up against The Colonel on the packaging of these great tracks as he did on selecting and recording them.
Although not a bad cover, it is built from recycled pictures and – like the carny Parked usually did – filled with advertisements, while it lacks proper credits. Although that wasn’t completely unusual back then, this could also be The Colonel getting back at Chips Moman who stood up against his policies in regard to song selection and copyright deals.
This book is a great, colorful and above all essential read on one of Elvis’ most important albums. It documents the story behind the album in-depth, keeping you engrossed throughout the book. It makes you think, re-listen to the songs from new perspectives and form your own opinion.
I surely hope the Eric Wolfson picks one of his other favorite Elvis albums for a follow-up! As there are at least a handful of Elvis albums that deserve a spot in the 33 1/3 series' line-up.
Posted 11.07.2020; Please see entire review at http://elv75.blogspot.com/2020/11/november-07-review-from-elvis-in.html
Book Review: "From Elvis in Memphis"
By Nigel Patterson, Elvis Information Network (http://www.elvisinfonet.com/) / November 5, 2020.
"In 1968, Elvis Presley was worse than dead – he was irrelevant. After helping to establish rock and roll as a cultural force and becoming its biggest star in the 1950s, he now found himself eclipsed by the music. New artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan blew the mid-1960’s rock landscape wide open, proving it could have both a musical sophistication and an articulated consciousness. Elvis, once the epitome of the young and exciting rock and roll star, had become old and stale.
From the moment that From Elvis in Memphis begins with a rock and roll Odysseus returning home after “a little while”, the album refuses to settle. Over the course of the record, people drive eight-wheel locomotives, ride in long black limousines, and soar like beautiful birds."
Eric Wolfson’s soon to be released, From Elvis in Memphis, fills a void in the Elvis story. While there have been essays about elements of his music canon, for instance, his seminal Sun Sessions, until now there has not been a serious analysis of any of his albums. With this book, we have the long overdue critical exploration of what many regard as his finest album.
Wolfson’s narrative is part-music lesson, part psychological consideration, and part history lesson. And this is necessary, in order to properly understand the circumstances of From Elvis in Memphis.
As Wolfson notes, From Elvis in Memphis is very much a comeback album, looking to reposition its singer as once-again relevant.
He also effortlessly conjures the atmosphere that was present in Chip Moman’s hip American Sound Studio during the first two months of 1969……warts and all:
The nearby restaurant’s garbage cans attracted rats that squeaked and ran across the rafters. Some claim that just before Elvis first walked into the studio, a rat fell off the roof and landed in front of him.
His brief reflection on the relevance of the ’68 Comeback Special includes this wonderfully expressive word picture:
Everything is backlit with cool red, as the floor becomes a watery mirror, dragging the background figures upside down into a fuzzy lake or fire. For a scene that implies so much movement, all is still…
Wolfson is a considered thinker and a strong writer. His prose is colourful, often arriving like a bull at a gate, while at other times rising and falling to create expectation, drama, and revelation around the “hot” music Elvis recorded inside American Sound, while outside Memphis was experiencing a bitterly cold winter. The contrast is stark.
In setting the context, the author reminds us of Elvis’ walk on Sunset Boulevard with Steve Binder prior to his ’68 Comeback Special, its outcome the motivation for what Elvis would achieve in the 1968-69 period. He also frames that incident in the psychology of Elvis’ life:
For Elvis, poverty wasn’t just a chapter in his past, but a condition that stayed with him, shaping his perspective for his entire life. Elvis’ humble beginnings haunted him, fearing it could all be taken away overnight. Instead of recognising his hard work and unique talent, Elvis grappled with what has become known as imposter syndrome, missing the obvious signifiers of his own success and feeling like he was just bluffing his way through.
At another point, Wolfson observes:
Elvis was able to succeed in part because he was a very charismatic singer and performer, which masked the battling inner-tensions and contradictions of both man and his music.
That the American Sound Studio was in Memphis is a key element to the narrative.
Memphis’ position in music is explained well in this reflection by Reggie Young:
It’s the dead center between Delta blues and Nashville country. Some of the things we cut could have been country. All of the club bands played that way. If you blindfolded me and took me into a club and I heard somebody play that way, I’d know I was in Memphis.
Wolfson builds on this reflection by noting:
Founded in 1819, Memphis was a unique city musically, reinforced by its location, forming a virtual straight shot with New Orleans and Jackson below it and St. Louis above it. This made it a popular route along the Great Migration as African Americans moved north in the early twentieth century, which in turn made it central in the geographical backbone of the blues.
Woven through the narrative are biographical elements of Elvis’ story which help contextualise important events.
There is also an engrossing examination of the importance of the “train” to music:
If the train is not single-handedly responsible for rock and roll, then it was an essential enabler of the music from which rock grew. Trains were a central motif in blues music. “Their engines, equipped with musical whistles, sang of escape routes to a wonderful free world somewhere else” ( wrote folklorist Alan Lomax in The Land Where the Blues Began)
The chapter titles are intriguing and symbolic. They range from The Confession, From Elvis in Paradise, and From Elvis in Purgatory, to The Beautiful Bird, The Cotton Dress, and The Vicious Circle.
The book also includes the author’s research around Elvis’ involvement with the Memphis Boys and among other things, reveals the Memphis Boy Elvis most connected with.
No book about Elvis can ignore the Colonel (or can it?). Wolfson ruminates that given ‘Colonel Tom Parker’s central role in Elvis’ life and career, he is conspicuously absent from Elvis’s sessions at American Sound Studio.’ This is given greater gravitas and context when we learn Tom Diskin informed the Colonel that Elvis wanted to handle song selection and publishing without him. In response, the Colonel reportedly replied, “Let him do it and fall on his ass.”
The theme is taken further with the author suggesting:
The fact that Elvis proved him wrong by getting some very real hits and arguably the finest and most productive studio sessions of his life was not lost on the Colonel. For him, it must have been even more daunting that the last time Elvis rejected his advice and took his own career by the reins – in making “The ’68 Comeback Special” a rock and roll extravaganza instead of a tux-and-tails Christmas program – was just as spectacular of a success, and a defining moment in his career.
Other stimulating sub-themes dot the narrative. The thorny issue of songwriters (and singer-songwriters) is discussed, with Marty Lacker taking the risk of telling Elvis why his material wasn’t good enough. Both Marty Lacker and George Klein were instrumental in convincing Elvis to record at American Sound Studio. Klein told Elvis:
It's a small funky studio with the kind of feeling I know you like. It’s not fancy, it’s not state-of-the-art, but they’re cutting fantastic records there…
There is also the revealing account of the studio blow up involving Chips Moman, Freddie Bienstock and Tom Diskin, while readers will also be interested in the (initially) less than complimentary comments made by the leader of the Memphis Horns, Wayne Jackson. Other inclusions are an absorbing account of the connection between Elvis and little known American Delta blues artist, Charley Patton, and Wolfson’s reflection on the tired, but still prevalent today, Elvis as “cultural thief” issue.
Wolfson’s ability to separate the real from the fake is apparent in each chapter. For example:
Furthermore, Elvis wasn’t a faker like Pat Boone, who sang a Little Richard song like “Tutti Frutti” with the same corny blandness that he applied to any other pop song. Elvis worked hard to learn the blues and rhythm and blues idioms, and brought together with country music in a new way through his music.
The story also has moments of poignancy. In relation to the death of one of Elvis’ favorite singers, Roy Hamilton, the author notes that while in hospital:
‘Hamilton all of a sudden raised up in his coma, and said “Angelica, Angelica, I’m coming.” Angelica was the song Elvis gifted to Roy six months earlier, when they met at American Sound Studio. Strangely, the lyrics of Angelica imply a coma or vegetative state.’
Nothing is left out in the book. Even the album’s front and back covers are subjected to the author’s critical mind. In particular, the back cover attracts a rare instance of criticism (and it is justified).
Wolfson introduces the first American Sound session and the first song on the 1969 album, “Wearin’ That Loved On Look”, in style:
“I had to leave town for a little while –“
Reggie Young’s slick guitar bubbles around, answering his words, drenched in reverb. Gene Chrisman’s drums tumble in, setting the song’s funky rhythm, met by Mike Leech’s thumping bass. Only Bobby Wood’s piano waits in the wings, pouncing on the song’s breakdown in a gospel-style solo.
Wolfson’s lateral interpretation of “Wearin’ That Loved On Look” is quickly on display:
Ostensibly, it’s about a lover being untrue, but the story takes on new meaning with Elvis’s circumstances. Elvis sounds as though he is singing not to person, but to rock and roll music itself – and what a mess it’s made since he’s been away.
The author takes his discourse further:
For Elvis, the late 1960’s America was a battleground with rock and roll caught in the crossfire. “Wearin’ that Loved On Look” plays like a dispatch from the frontlines, simultaneously addressing two different layers of home
before going on to discuss the relevance of these layers of home and cleverly segueing into an enlightening consideration of the doo-wop word “shoop” in the song.
Wolfson’s account of the story behind “Only the Strong Survive” is compulsive. We also learn that Moman pushed Elvis to do 30 takes before he was satisfied, and, not only that it is the song on the album where the band did not find its own groove, but also:
For “Only the Strong Survive”, (Tommy) Cogbill spends much of the song playing a single note in sync with Gene Chrisman’s bass drum. It amounts to little more than keeping time, sounding out like a steady heartbeat.
In further considering the song, Wolfson complex narrative conjures vivid pictures while also provoking thought on the part of the reader:
The singer finds filled ashtrays and dirty floors not to mention a man with long bushy hair – a leftover from a three-day party. He only has contempt for this man, which seemingly aligns with Elvis’s own socio-political views.
From Elvis in Memphis always adds to our knowledge of the album and its recording. Regarding I’ll Hold You In My Heart, a song of highs, lows and searing crescendo, we learn that it was the only song on the album ‘not to be sweetened with any overdubs.’
Wolfson also observes that while Dean Martin’s version of the song provides a map of where the song can go, Elvis’ version charts the journey of where it actually takes you. And Wolfson records in detail how Elvis achieved this and reinvented the song.
Moreover, he skilfully dissects the song’s evolutionary recording:
‘As Elvis sings the word “heart”, Bobby Emmons holds some wavering high notes on his organ, giving just the suggestion of church to the proceedings. By the time Elvis gets to the next line, Mike Leech’s bass ascends to meet him there, and the band members are in place.’
Throughout From Elvis in Memphis, Wolfson twists, squeezes, and dissects every sweet and sour element of each recording, uncovering hidden truths and offering important morsals of colorful background information which give new life to what was a challenging and revelatory recording experience for Elvis, Chips Moman, and the Memphis Boys. Almost reductively, Wolfson reveals the soul of From Elvis in Memphis, each sinew of aesthetic experience framed in the cloistered ambience of the lone recording studio. Be it about the Dionysian-like chaos and destruction in Elvis’ delivery of Power of My Love or how recording at American Sound brought out his “country roots”, Wolfson always, albeit, sometimes energetically, sometimes softly, brilliantly illuminates the story, and stimulates the reader’s thought processes.
He also challenges our perceptions:
The very first song Elvis recorded at American Sound was “Long Black Limousine”. The fact that he started with this song is astounding; it’s as if the Beatles’ first single was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or Bob Dylan’s first electric recording was “Like A Rolling Stone”. Elvis simply hits the ground running.
On the issue of Elvis having culturally appropriated African American music, these passages about “Long Black Limousine” are striking:
Nearly every distinctive element of O.C Smith’s version – from the larger aspects like the tempo and the chord structure all the way down to some of the instrumental flourishes and the trick key change before the last verse – is present in Elvis’ recording. For a song that evokes a singular performance by Elvis, its foundation is a virtual carbon copy of another man’s recording. It seems counter-intuitive that something copied can be heard as wholly original, but this is the effect of “Long Black Limousine”. This then turns the tenet on its head – Elvis’ performance of the song is singular not despite the fact that it copies an African American man’s version but because of it.
With lateral thought, Wolfson uses a thematic element from the classic Frank Capra film, “It’s A Wonderful Life” to symbolise the meaning and sense of finality present in the song. As a tale told from the lens of a nameless person (a nobody), in a little town, Wolfson discerns that this allows the song “to underscore Elvis’s own humble origins.”
A core strength of Wolfson’s analysis comes from his deeply considered understanding of Elvis and the music he recorded. It is impressive:
With hindsight, “I’m Movin’ On" blazed the trail for Elvis’ own major success some six years later.
The fact that “I’m Movin’ On” was chosen over other more studied productions from Elvis’s American Sound sessions for From Elvis in Memphis speaks to the recording’s natural spirit. It ends the first side of the album in fine form, taking the listener through the story of a man who returns home (“Wearin’ That Loved On Look”), reflects on his family (“Only the Strong Survive”), finds a spiritual center in love (”I’ll Hold You in My Heart Till I Can Hold You in My Arms”), loses his love (“Long Black Limousine”), mourns the loss (“It Keeps Right On A Hurtin’”), and then hits the road again (“I’m Movin’ On’). Elvis would never cut a better or more conceptually unified album side, and “I’m Movin’ On” is the exciting finale.
Chips Moman standing up to the Elvis’ un-fun Memphis Mafia is instructive, and even more importantly, Moman’s ability to give Elvis constructive criticism and at times blunt feedback, gets to the heart of Elvis being held accountable in the studio for the first time in years:
“Hey, this ain’t no fuckin’ movie soundtrack. You need to sing that song!”
You are in no doubt when Wolfson starts discussing side 2 of the album:
The second side of From Elvis in Memphis begins with a crash. The Memphis Boys bear down hard on the opening chord of “Power of My Love” like it’s a battleground to be seized. The sound initiates a raw blues riff that forms the backbone of the song.
The author also wastes no time in informing the reader of the change in musical tone/form:
Unlike the album’s first side, which can be heard as sort of a narrative, the second side of From Elvis in Memphis is more impressionistic and all about feeling, fleshing out a world that wills the first side into being.
Regarding the often underrated “B” side of In the Ghetto:
“Any Day Now” doesn’t just begin – it appears, coming at you all at once, a feeling than can no longer be contained. Strings swirl around the tight descending pattern of Reggie Young’s electric guitar, a spiral staircase enclosed in another spiral staircase.
In the late 1960’s Elvis recorded a number of songs with a social or moral conscious, including U.S. Male, If I Can Dream, Clean Up Your Own Backyard, and the #1 hit on Cashbox, In the Ghetto. About the latter, Wolfson notes:
“In the Ghetto” is not just a great song or a great performance, it’s a portrait in miniature of American Sound Studio at work.
Listening to “In the Ghetto” evolve over the twenty odd takes is a study in nuance. To the casual ear, it sounds like they get it right out of the gate with the first take, but the sound is nowhere near where Chips wants it to be. And so, subtle adjustments are made along the way.
About Elvis’ other #1 hit in 1969-70, Wolfson describes the classic, “Suspicious Minds” as having:
one of the great openings in rock and roll. Reggie Young hits the opening guitar riff like water trickling through a stream, rolling back and forth with a precision that belies the naturalness of its flow.
The tonal variation evident in the From Elvis in Memphis sessions is highlighted again in Wolfson’s analysis of Mama Liked the Roses (featured in CD editions from 1998 on). It is a song which would later achieve immortality by its inclusion on Elvis’ only RIAA Diamond awarded album, Elvis’ Christmas Album, and is a recording:
‘which finds Elvis at his purest level of schmaltz.
‘Whatever cheesieness might turn off listeners today, Elvis believed in it. He could hear through the cloying melody, syrupy strings, and maudlin lyrics.’
The book also features Acknowledgements, Contents, Track Listing, Chapter Notes and Works Cited.
EIN wishes to thank Bloomsbury Academic for providing an advance copy of From Elvis in Memphis for review.
Eric Wolfson’s From Elvis in Memphis is one of the most important examinations of Elvis’ music ever released, and as an examination of a single Elvis album, unique. Its deeply considered perspective presents the authenticity of both the artist and the music. Importantly, it is not just about Elvis. It is a holistic treatise involving the music, the musicians, history, and the socio-cultural context of the time. Through his strong, evocative narrative, Wolfson challenges the reader to consider a fresh interpretation of Elvis’ “new” music. From Elvis in Memphis is a book of insightful riches. This review only scratches its surface.
Posted 11.07.2020: Please see entire review at http://www.elvisinfonet.com/book-review-From-Elvis-in-Memphis-eric-wolfson-.html