In Session: Elvis’ 1969 revival, Part IV

By  Gillan G. Gaar

Elvis Presley favored jumpsuits in the latter part of his career. Photo: RCA Records and Tapes.

Elvis Presley favored jumpsuits in the latter part of his career. Photo: RCA Records and Tapes.
Singles going steady

Presley’s work was finished, but further overdubbing sessions were held in March and May, at both American and RCA’s studio in Nashville, with horns, strings and backing singers added to flesh out the sound.

“Chips knew what a modern record, a pop record, as opposed to a country record, should sound like,” says Jorgensen about the end result. “He had an exceptional band, skilled players. And he was very focused on making records. Chips, in his head, had a vision of what a record should sound like. He cared only for those records that were taken to the full extreme, taken all the way, from his perspective; that would be records like ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘In the Ghetto.’ He didn’t want Elvis to sing old country songs like ‘I’ll Hold You in My Heart,’ or ‘Stranger in My Own Hometown.’ But those stand up as well as Chips’ masterful productions of ‘Only the Strong Survive’ and ‘Any Day Now.’ It’s a funny mixture of Elvis’ own creativity and Chips’.”

“In The Ghetto” was the first single released from the sessions in April; it peaked at #3. From Elvis in Memphis followed in June, with a final track listing of “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” “Only the Strong Survive,” “I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)” “Long Black Limousine,” “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’,” “I’m Moving On,” “Power of My Love,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “After Loving You,” “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road,” “Any Day Now” and “In The Ghetto.”

To get an idea of how impressive the album was, compare it to the last non-soundtrack, non-religious album Presley had released, 1965’s Elvis For Everyone. That album was cobbled together from tracks dating back to the Sun sessions, giving it something of a grab-bag feel.

In contrast, From Elvis In Memphis had a cohesiveness in sound, feel and theme. There was a keen vulnerability in songs like “Only the Strong Survive,” “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” and “Any Day Now,” each of which showed the singer nursing a broken heart. They were balanced by the aggressive “Power of My Love,” and even “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” which, though it dealt with suspected infidelity, felt upbeat. Elsewhere, the repeated false starts of “I’ll Hold You In My Heart” imbued the track with a you-are-there quality.

A major problem with the songs Presley recorded during his movie career is that, as a performer, they kept him in a state of prolonged adolescence. But the new-found, hard-won maturity of the songs on From Elvis In Memphis showed Presley finally making the transition from teen idol to adult with ease.

The album didn’t quite build on the success of the “Elvis” TV special soundtrack, only peaking at #13, though it received strong reviews. But “Suspicious Minds,” released as a single in August, was a flat-out hit, going all the way to #1. It was Presley’s first single chart-topper since “Good Luck Charm” in 1962. The song addressed the lack of trust in a relationship, climaxing in the repeated phrase “We’re caught in a trap/I can’t walk out/because I love you too much baby.” In his live shows, Presley would sing this phrase for several minutes, the band and singers wailing behind him, while he pumped his body in a fury.

The single tried to emulate something of this in what might be called a “false fade”; the song fading out as Presley sang the phrase, then slowly coming back up again. Neither Moman or the musicians who’d worked on the song liked the ending.

“We laughed at it — let’s put it that way,” Glen Spreen, who’d done the song’s original arrangement, told Peter Guralnick. “We all just kind of went, ‘God, how can they do this?’ as it kept going and going and going. But we couldn’t do anything about it.”
But that didn’t keep the song from becoming a hit. As Presley told his stepbrother, David Stanley, on the day he heard that “Suspicious Minds” had reached the top, “David, I been wrong for so long, but I’m right tonight.”

“Don’t Cry Daddy,” released in November, also reached the Top 10, peaking at #6; its flip side, “Rubberneckin’,” was also featured in Presley’s final feature film, “Change Of Habit.” The double-album set From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis, released in November, featured more material from the Memphis sessions.

One album in the set was drawn from Presley’s just-completed engagement in Las Vegas; the other drew on the Memphis studio tracks, the lineup being “Inherit the Wind,” “This Is The Story,” “Stranger In My Own Home Town,” “A Little Bit of Green,” “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind,” “Do You Know Who I Am,” “From a Jack to a King,” “The Fair Is Moving On,” “You’ll Think of Me” and “Without Love.”

In comparison with From Elvis In Memphis, this collection of songs (eventually released as an individual album in its own right, Back In Memphis) wasn’t as strong, but again, it easily outclassed Presley’s soundtrack work of recent years. “Stranger In My Own Home Town” had a wonderfully bluesy vocal from Presley. “You’ll Think of Me” was an unexpectedly dark “post-love” song, with Presley speculating on how a past love will soon find love with someone else more deserving than him. He was disarmingly gentle in “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind,” while “Without Love” was indicative of the over-the-top style that would become one of his trademarks during ’70s live performances. The double album set reached #12 on release.

Other songs trickled out as singles or miscellaneous album tracks. “Kentucky Rain”/ “My Little Friend” was released in January 1970. The A-side was the story of a man searching for the woman who’s run out on him and was one of the few songs from the Hill and Range catalog (who supplied most of Presley’s material) that Moman admitted he liked; it reached #16.

“If I’m A Fool (For Loving You)” and “I’ll Be There” appeared on the 1970 budget album Let’s Be Friends. “Mama Liked The Roses” turned up as the B-side of “The Wonder of You” (a Top 10 hit). “Who Am I?” appeared on the budget version of Elvis’ Christmas Album, released in 1970. Two years later, “Hey Jude” appeared on the album Elvis Now, released in 1972. And nearly 20 years later, the “This Time”/“I  Can’t Stop Loving You” jam finally appeared on the 1993 box set From Nashville To Memphis: The Essential 60’s Masters I.

Alternative takes have appeared on numerous releases over the years, such as Platinum: A Life In Music and Today, Tomorrow & Forever; the 2001 Follow That Dream release Memphis Sessions is drawn entirely from the sessions. The early takes, which don’t feature the later overdubbing, are especially fascinating to listen to.

Minus the horns and strings, you get a real sense how good a voice Presley actually had, alternately powerful or sensitive, as the song demanded. “I loved Elvis’ singing,” said Wayne Jackson, one of the trumpet players. “He was a powerful soul singer. Elvis had a real love affair with his voice.”

Promise unfulfilled

While the overdubs made the songs undeniably more commercial, had the tracks been initially released without them, the resulting albums might have been even more revolutionary, taking Presley’s career in an entirely different direction.

As Guralnick observed on listening to the multiple takes of “In The Ghetto,” “As the song develops… one is provided with an incontrovertible glimpse of what the process might have been like for Elvis, if only he had been able to approach recording consistently as an art.”

Yet the promise of those sessions, when Presley stepped outside his comfort zone to work with someone who truly challenged him, would not be fulfilled. There were to be 11 more studio sessions before Presley’s death in August 1977 (three of those at his home), and while there were some great moments, nothing reached the emotional heights of the material he’d recorded over 11 days in early 1969.

In addition to producing a number of Presley’s most notable songs, the Memphis sessions stand as a testament to the heights Presley could reach when he was provided with material that was equal to his talents. 

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