35 FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS
Released in the USA June 17 1969
In a busy year Richard Nixon became President of The United States and the Americans landed a man on the moon. Two other events, though, happened in 1969 that promised permanent change. Terrorists bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange, and Elvis recorded From Elvis In Memphis. Capitalism shrugged off the 27 injuries caused by the Montreal Stock Exchange explosion, and in the next decade Thatcher and Reagan arrived. They had help. In 1969 Rupert Murdoch had bought the News of the World newspaper and challenged what romantic opinions remained of the British working class. As H L Meinken had stated decades earlier about the American people, nobody ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of the public. And we all know what happened to Elvis.
1969 was also the year when The Beatles added frayed tempers to their flared trousers. The Beatles went into decline which was odd because it should have been their year. Terrorism, bold kidnappings and a protest of 250,000 against the Vietnam War had waved in their own way the flag for the counterculture. If the old order had become suspiciously fragile, the rebels could only advance and retreat simultaneously. A huge crowd turned out at Woodstock and an awful lot of people bought the double album but after a stock exchange being exploded by a bomb the hippie shenanigans in a large field only helped the establishment to relax and count their dollars. Before the end of the year Charles Manson did his own thing and formed a commune that not only explored philosophical alternatives but slaughtered nine people including the pregnant Sharon Tate. No wonder students found it difficult to leave University and take any of the world seriously. This one did.
Before I left, though, I bought From Elvis In Memphis. Three mates and me went to London and found an American and advanced edition of the album in the same record shop where our well-heeled friend had bought the Elvis TV Special. In the shop the four of us were allowed to listen to part of the album. We swapped the headphones as Elvis warbled his way through the two opening tracks. We each gave a thumbs up to the edgy rocker Wearin’ That Loved On Look. But the moment that stays more than any in my memory was the startled expression on the friend that listened to the start of the second track. Because I had been conditioned to have low expectations, I asked the bloke under the headphones whether this track also had merit. He looked at the three of us and said, ‘Elvis is talking.’ The serious awe with which my mate shared this discovery was not unlike an explorer lighting a candle over an Egyptian tomb.
The agreement of Elvis to record in Memphis was a change of plan. The initial idea was to use a studio in Nashville. Elvis began recording at American Sound Studio on the 17th of January 1969. The decision to use the Memphis studio was taken just 11 days earlier on the 6th of January. The session cost $25,000 but what that payment covered is not clear. There were two sessions booked at American Sound Studio. Each lasted a week. The likelihood is that the second session cost another $25,000. Producer Chips Moman might have also been able to bill for additional expenses, and it is possible that Mike Leech and Glen Spreen submitted another account for their string arrangements. In 1969 few albums, though, would have cost more than $25,000 to produce. I visited American Sound Studio in 1979 and spoke to the Vice President. He was organising Elvis tours around the studio. Neither he nor his daughter looked affluent.
Chips Moman began his musical career in the rockabilly band of Warren Smith. That alone, because of the links of rockabilly to rhythm and blues, indicates an interest in African American music but Moman in the 1960s also found the building in McLemore Avenue that became Stax Records. Chips Moman not only produced marvellous soul records at Stax but he was also co-writer on the great Aretha Franklin hit Do Right Woman and Do Right Man and the ultimate deep soul anthem Dark End Of The Street by James Carr. Moman left Stax after an argument with Jim Stewart the owner. Moman, unlike Stewart, was not an ideologue devoted to a narrow definition of African American music. Joe Tex used American Sound Studio but so had Petula Clark. To accommodate an Elvis recording session Chips Moman had postponed recording Neil Diamond. American Sound Studio produced not only records by Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack but chart hits. Between 1967 and 1971 there were 120 American Sound Studio records listed in the Billboard top 100. After their American Sound Studio recording sessions were completed Elvis and Moman faced a journalist. ‘We have some hits, don’t we, Chips?’ said Elvis. Although Elvis admired the music of Aretha and other soul singers the reason Elvis was at American Sound Studio was simple. He needed hit records, and American Sound Studio made them.
The people at American Sound Studio may have had commercial instincts but in these Memphis sessions Elvis forgets his pop singer fame and remembers his roots. The material on From Elvis In Memphis includes two soul numbers previously recorded by the African American singers Jerry Butler and Chuck Jackson, a couple of fierce rockers and eight country songs all delivered in a style that would have even been acceptable to Stax owner Jim Stewart or just about.
If none of the music on From Elvis In Memphis was unfashionable or hard core roots music, neither is it pop. At the time in Elvis Monthly a British fan reported being upset by a meeting with Elvis loyalists from Memphis. Somewhat bewilderingly, a group of fans from Memphis disapproved of Elvis making the music of African Americans although they did not use the term African Americans. How typical was their reaction in the American South is difficult to know. Counterculture institutions like Rolling Stone acclaimed From Elvis In Memphis but on the Billboard pop charts the album reached no further than number thirteen whilst on the country chart it managed second spot.
The album is great and it might even be the best music Elvis ever recorded as was claimed in the Rolling Stone review by Peter Guralnick. From Elvis In Memphis has strengths that do not exist in either the previous or subsequent records of Elvis. Of course the other records of Elvis also have commendable qualities that are not present in From Elvis In Memphis. These other records not only include the early rock and roll triumphs but even moments from his embarrassing decline in the 1970s. From Elvis In Memphis, though, is special. Elvis is committed, ambitious and consistent. The sneer and defence mechanisms were for once left in Graceland. Even the weaker tracks, which are not really weak, are important. The trendy British disc jockey John Peel wanted his once rock and roll idol Elvis to be resurrected as a left wing counterculture hero. Peel was affronted that Elvis had included Gentle On My Mind on the album. The song may be fake folk but the impassioned vocals of Elvis and the complex production of Moman ensure significance. Film critic David Thomson claimed that the cinematic genius of Orson Welles had in The Magnificent Ambersons added a Henry James highbrow sensibility to the middlebrow prose of Booth Tarkington. Elvis does something similar with Gentle On My Mind. Without ever leaning on a Thesaurus for inspiration, like most folk singers have to if they are going to claim consequence, Elvis creates a mood that suggests a complicated future in the gritty and far from accommodating back lands of America.
At most no more than ten days were available to Chips Moman before the Memphis recording sessions began. Moman contacted songwriters and asked for country tunes. Thanks to the passionate vocals of Elvis and the production of Moman, many think that From Elvis In Memphis is the supreme soul album by a white singer. The similarly styled Dusty In Memphis is a credit to all but it is nowhere as accomplished and it operates at an impressive but lower level. Elvis has surprises and a power and an intensity that are beyond not just Dusty Springfield but most. There are soul albums by African Americans that are superior to From Elvis In Memphis but that depends on whether all you want is a soul album. A Touch Of The Blues by Bobby Bland and I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You by Aretha Franklin are superior rivals to From Elvis In Memphis for best soul album. But even those exceptional achievements contain nothing that equals the free form I’ll Hold You In My Heart in which Elvis for four and a half minutes repeats with variations one verse from the song until it digs deep and redefines not just emotions but its actual form. It compares to a great solo by a jazz saxophone master. Soul hitmaker Percy Sledge covered the track True Love Travels On A Gravel Road. It is a decent version but compared to how Elvis makes the song purr the efforts of Sledge sound ordinary.
From Elvis In Memphis also features Elvis the musician. He leads the band on both I’ll Hold You In My Heart and After Loving You. On the former by playing the piano, and on the latter with an electric guitar. In very different ways the songs Long Black Limousine and In The Ghetto add his voice of protest to the frustration of the age. The true conformation of From Elvis In Memphis as a great album, though, does not consist of mentioning highlights and exceptional examples. From Elvis In Memphis is a classic because it is now over 40 years old and its music improves with age or at least it does to those who listen to it on a regular basis. For once the efforts were not compromised by the decisions of the inept buck chasers that had gathered around Elvis after he had left Sun Records in Memphis. Chips Moman said that you had to be an idiot to fail with Elvis. Well, there were plenty of those idiots but in 1969 the skill, taste and tenacity of Moman helped Elvis for a short while to put them in their place.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.