Elvis Presley was reborn on 'From Elvis in Memphis
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I was in the car with a friend recently, explaining that I’d been stuck on an Elvis thing for a while and had been listening to him that afternoon.
“I’ve never really had an Elvis thing, to be honest.”
That’s understandable. We’re both in our early 30s, and for us the dominant image of Elvis Presley had been that of a rock and roll pioneer who, while influencing nearly every good and great musical artist after him, became something of a hokey caricature that inspired an army of impersonators and conspiracy theorists. He’s on stamps and commemorative plates and uncounted compilation albums, but not as many of our car stereos as he should be.
“I know, but seriously, check this out.”
I took his auxiliary plug and popped it into the headphone jack on my phone, called up From Elvis in Memphis and hit the opening track, “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” a frantic soul boogie where the singer is calling out his less-than-faithful partner. Elvis comes out guns blazing on this one, buzzing over a Hammond B3 organ before the drums kick in and the full Stax-style rhythm comes in to help. It’s a scream and it’s impossible not to be sucked in, judging by my buddy’s response:
“Holy shit this is awesome.”
The full reinvestment in Elvis Presley began a couple of years ago, diving back into the catalog beyond the Cliffs Notes of the assorted hits. The timeline had always been familiar — Sun Records, then Ed Sullivan, the military, lots of bad movies, the ‘68 Comeback Special, Las Vegas, death. But landing on some of the “sit down” sections of the ’68 Comeback Special on YouTube one bored afternoon was a revelation. Here’s Elvis, plus his band, basically hanging out and screwing around surrounded by a few dozen fans, throwing songs out, forgetting lyrics, repeating songs and laughing.
The power he had in this relaxed setting was captivating. At one point, he takes guitarist Scotty Moore’s electric Gibson and starts to lead the band through another run of “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” and really gets into leading the band, hitting the strings and tearing up the intro with authority. Throughout this song, and the rest in the set — “That’s All Right,” “One Night,” “Trying to Get to You,” his voice is a fore of nature, rising up without hesitation and knocking out anyone who happens to be in the way. He hadn’t played live in nearly a decade at this point, but he still always had this ability to overwhelm an audience.
At the time, it revitalized his career and his art. Intended as a Christmas special by his manager, Col. Tom Parker, producer Steve Binder steered him away from yet another schlocky production and helped Elvis present himself in a more natural, stripped down setting. It worked so well that, for a time, Elvis minimized Parker's imput, recommitted himself to music and set out back to Memphis to record real songs.
Armed with about 30 songs, Presley knocked out the sessions relatively quickly, and the blend of all those glorious Southern sounds set up not just an enormous comeback for the time, but a sound that jumps off the needle and out of his catalog today. The same way he naturally and comfortably dominated that small stage singing “Trying to Get to You” a few months earlier is replicated as he belts out “Long Black Limousine” and “Only the Strong Survive.” He can dial it back and give a song like “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” a gentle touch. But throughout, the soul of the recordings recalls Otis Redding, a personality so dominating and commanding that every song could just become his song.
Redding had died by the time From Elvis in Memphis hit the shelves, though Presley had preceded Redding’s debut by nearly a decade. But his career had basically laid in state for years at that point, and the power he could bring to music was a fading memory. That changed in Memphis. Giving Presley an arsenal of real songs and real backing in a warmer studio environment brought out the best in the singer, and the personality roars through the production.
The original album collected 12 of these tracks, and 45 years later, they work as well as ever together, with the momentum rolling and the loose unified theme resolved by the time the album’s biggest single, the topical “In the Ghetto,” appears in the conclusion. Now on CD, all the Memphis songs, including the hit “Suspicious Minds,” a cover of the Beatles “Hey Jude” and the songs that appeared on the studio half of From Vegas to Memphis/From Memphis to Vegas are pulled together, presenting the complete picture of a reinvigorated artist.
It’s all present, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and western, soul and gospel, melded together with an enthusiasm that was rarely present throughout the rest of the singer’s career. It’s nearly impossible to fake magic in music, and as he went through the motion on a number of mediocre soundtracks, listeners dropped off. When committed, though, fewer had as much magnetism in their voice, a charisma that leaps out as quickly as it takes to listen to it.
I was in Richmond, Va., over this past Thanksgiving break, and on the morning before I flew back to Boston, I found a used LP copy of From Elvis in Memphis in a shop. I paid my $6, put it in my bag, then set out for the airport to get re-acquainted with the folks at TSA.
The next day, back to normal and at home in the living room, I took this record out, cleaned off the grooves, placed it on the turntable and hit the button, lifting the automatic arm and dropping the needle onto the edge. In a second, Elvis was reverberating, “I had to leave town for a little while / You said you’d be good while I’m gone…” My girlfriend was doing something else in another room when I heard her shout:
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s the record I bought yesterday.”
“It sounds really fucking good.”
After so long in the wilderness, and so many sub-par records, imagine hearing that come off the hi-fi for the first time in 1969. Imagine, sitting on the other side of the recording studio glass in the room when he first belted that out. Imagination aside, I know it’s still a powerful force today.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org