In Session: Elvis’ 1969 revival, Part II

By  Gillian G. Gaar

Elvis waits at the gates of Graceland. By the time of the Memphis 1969 sessions, Elvis' work indicated a more adult sensibility than he had shown earlier in his career. Photo: Graceland, Collins Publishers, San Francisco, 1993. Elvis, Elvis Presley and Graceland are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. Copyright 1993.
Elvis waits at the gates of Graceland. By the time of the Memphis 1969 sessions, Elvis’ work indicated a more adult sensibility than he had shown earlier in his career. Photo: Graceland, Collins Publishers, San Francisco, 1993. Elvis, Elvis Presley and Graceland are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. Copyright 1993.
Eliminating distractions

Presley finally returned to American on Jan. 20, and the size of his entourage had diminished. Both the musicians and Moman had been put off by the number of Presley’s friends and associates at the first sessions, whose presence seemed to be more of a distraction to Presley.

“There was just too many people,” said Moman. “I think they were kind of shocked when I stood up to them. They probably had never had anyone ask them to leave the studio before — but I did, and it turned out to be better for Elvis.”

“We got the riff-raff out of there and got down to business and only had Elvis’ key people around,” Bobby Wood agreed. “That’s exactly how we started cutting all the hits.”

And the first song cut on the 20th would become one of those hits, a song that further chartered the new direction Elvis was (momentarily) moving in: Mac Davis’ “In The Ghetto.” Presley had already recorded a number of Davis’ songs before the Memphis sessions; “A Little Less Conversation” had appeared in the film “Live A Little, Love A Little,” and “Memories” had been featured in the “Elvis” TV special. Davis had pitched “Don’t Cry Daddy” to Presley when visiting his home in Bel Air, and in advance of the sessions at American, he’d submitted a tape of potential songs, one of which was “Ghetto.”

“Ghetto” was a “message song,” though its scenario was one that was patently obvious to anyone who had any knowledge of modern-day urban life. The narrative told the tale of a boy born in poor circumstances and whose lack of opportunities leads to a life of crime and ultimately his death — at the same time as “another little baby child is born in the ghetto,” thus continuing the cycle; indeed, the song’s original title was “The Vicious Circle.”

Though the sentiments were hardly radical, and it could be said that Presley had already recorded a “message song” with “If I Can Dream,” there was some feeling that “Ghetto” might be too overt in its politics.

“I thought it might be too risky for Elvis, and he was too big to need to take risks,” George Klein confessed.
There was also the chance the song could be seen as condescending, performed by someone of Presley’s wealth… and race.

“There was a discussion about what people might think about a white guy singing about life in the ghetto,” said Moman.
Klein even went so far as to tell Presley he shouldn’t record the song. Moman then stated he’d simply give it to another artist, like former football star Roosevelt Grier, whom he’d just signed to his own American Group Productions record label.
On reflection, Klein told Presley he was mistaken, and with everyone soon in agreement, Presley devoted most of the 20th to recording “Ghetto,” cutting 23 takes before Moman was satisfied. He then cut a vocal track for “Gentle On My Mind” and wound up the session, which, like the rest, ended in the early morning, with the bluesy “Rubberneckin’.”

The next night began with a rather loose cover of “Hey Jude.” Presley planned to record a final vocal later (due to the fact that he didn’t know all of the words), but that never happened, and the song was later released as is. He spent the bulk of the evening doing vocal overdubs, then cut a breezy version of “From A Jack To A King,” in part for his father, who attended the evening sessions; the song was one of Vernon Presley’s favorites.

The 22nd was the final night of sessions then scheduled, and Presley began with the dramatic ballad “Without Love” (first performed by Clyde McPhatter), which he nailed in three takes. The soulful feel of the performance carried over into the next song, “I’ll Hold You In My Heart,” despite its being a country song first popularized by Eddy Arnold. After the more straightforward country of “I’ll Be There,” the sessions concluded with what would become another landmark track, “Suspicious Minds.”

Stay tuned for Part III!

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