Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Soldier Boy

Elvis and his fellow recruits. Still image from footage by Frank Koza.

On this day, 63 years ago, Elvis entered the Army by reporting to the draft board in Memphis at 6:35 a.m. After a physical at the Kennedy Veterans Hospital he and the other recruits boarded a bus that took them to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where they  arrived late in the evening. The next day began with reveille at 5:30 a.m. (it was the military, after all), after which followed further processing. 

At the beginning of this year, 18 minutes of new footage documenting Elvis' first two days in the Army, was made available on the Chicago Film Archives website. Shot by Frank Koza, one of the many photographers and reporters covering this historical moment, it shows Elvis putting on a brave face. But the camera also captures the uncertainty he obviously is feeling about what is going to happen. The same goes for his parents, especially Gladys, who looks devastated. 

Another thing I thought of while watching the footage, which is mostly silent but in excellent quality, is how intrusive the cameras were allowed to be. It couldn't have been easy for Elvis having a couple of cameras practically in his face while filling out some paperwork, or being filmed and photographed taking his clothes off and standing on the scale in his underpants. Still, to his credit, he endured it all.

Elvis looking a bit anxious. Still image from footage by Frank Koza.

Some 30 years later, I started my military service in the Royal Swedish Navy. There were no cameras present, but I think I can relate to some of what Elvis was going through as seen in the footage by Frank Koza. My face must have shown the same anxiety, and I remember the nervousness I felt. I had no idea what was going to happen, and I don't think Elvis had either.

In the end, it turned out all right. I made some close friends and adapted to military life, as did Elvis. On the bus to Fort Chaffee he met Rex Mansfield who was inducted the same day and would become one of his best army buddies. Later on he befriended fellow soldier Charlie Hodge, who also did his basic and advanced training at Ford Hood, Texas. They would bond during the crossing to West Germany and stay close friends until Elvis died in 1977. 

And though Elvis' life was affected in many more ways than mine during the service – starting with the loss of his mother – I guess he never forgot those first days in the military. I know I never will.

Friday, March 19, 2021

From Elvis In Memphis: The Eric Wolfson Interview (Part 2)

Interview with Eric Wolfson about his book From Elvis In Memphis (part 2 of 2).

Eric Wolfson is the author of From Elvis In Memphis, the first stand-alone book about an Elvis album ever written. Here follows the second part of an interview about the making of the book.

You describe the recording of the songs in a very vivid way. How would you characterize your style of writing?

Well, there’s that old adage (attributed to Frank Zappa, among others, depending on who you ask) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Describing something as intrinsically ephemeral and ethereal as music is hard enough, but then also being limited by copyright in terms of the amount of lyrics you can legally quote makes it even harder.

So I really just try to learn from the greats. For me, that would be Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick (both of who have not coincidentally written definitive tomes on Elvis in Mystery Train and Last Train to Memphis, respectively); Marcus as the rare ability to not just describe a song, but also how it feels to listen to it. Guralnick is more journalistic, but he can be subtly dramatic in ways that help set the scene. I also had a friend who was a journalist and music critic for several major newspapers and she once told me that you have to figure out how to describe the sound in a concrete way; whenever I’d give her my writing to look at, she’d say, “OK, but tell me how this sounds. I can’t hear how it sounds.” So I keep that in the back of my head too.

I have never thought of characterizing my style of writing other than that I think it’s somewhat romantic (lower-case “r”) and attempts to walk the line between scholarly but accessible. Part of the magic of Greil Marcus’s writing is how he can juxtapose two things that seem completely unrelated at first but then tie everything together, shifting gears with a masterstroke of words so that you never think of either thing in quite the same way again. I tried in my own way to use that idea by seeing each song as a sort of portal to reach out to something else that may not be entirely obvious and related—like Richard Nixon, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Charley Patton—to help enrich the cultural narrative. I see America as a big messy mash-up of a lot of interrelated things and try to capture that in my writing. So maybe I’m an Americana romantic, if that’s a thing? I’m going to have to keep thinking on that.

You also include chapters about “Stranger In My Own Home Town” and “Suspicious Minds” Why? Do you think they should also have been included on the album?

“Stranger in My Own Home Town” is a marvelous track that captures so many vital themes of the sessions—the idea of the singer as a stranger even though they’re in their own hometown, the fact it’s a one-take studio jam where you can hear The Memphis Boys feeling out the corners of the sound, the flashes of success and failure in the lyrics that are only deepened by the fact they are informed by what one might hear as Elvis’s own story—it was simply too perfect not to include. It’s almost like a theme song for the sessions. As a document of Elvis facing the strange new world of rock and roll in 1969, the only other song that comes close is “Wearin’ That Loved on Look.” So since it was recorded pretty much exactly in the middle of the sessions, I used it as an interlude between the first and second sides in my book.

“Suspicious Minds” also seemed too good to pass up. In this case though, it’s because the song is the official masterpiece of the sessions, the most instantly-recognizable song, and Elvis’s final #1 Billboard Pop hit of his lifetime. It was released after From Elvis in Memphis, of course, but it was the next thing released (as a summer single), so it worked as a sort of epilogue to the narrative. All throughout the sessions, Elvis is trying to claw his way back on top to this new era of rock and roll that has left him behind, and more than any other song, “Suspicious Minds” is the commercial homecoming he was seeking. And it was a true #1, the only Elvis hit that made the top of the three national US charts (Billboard, CashBox, and Record World) outside of his 1956-1962 commercial peak.

I’m torn about whether they should have been included on the album because From Elvis in Memphis is such a perfect record that stands on its own ground. Historically, it also came at a bit of a crossroads in the music industry where singles and albums were not being as segregated as they were a decade earlier. In fact, it was somewhat unusual that From Elvis in Memphis contained its lead single, “In the Ghetto.” Chips Moman was adamant about only releasing one album of great stuff and not follow it up with one of more mediocre stuff. (He of course was overruled as a sequel studio album, eventually titled Back in Memphis, came out later that year with a few highs that matched From Elvis in Memphis—namely “Inherit the Wind,” “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” “You’ll Think of Me,” and “Without Love (There Is Nothing)”—but otherwise sounded like the leftovers that it was.) At the same time, Chips understood the value of a potential hit single, so “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Cry Daddy,” and “Kentucky Rain” were also all held back and the single versions of none of these songs would appear on any album until compilation boxed sets in the early 1970s. 

The modern era of digital downloads, playlists, and bonus tracks has once again put the song above the album, so it’s irresistible to make a “what if” playlist. On one level, the 1987 compilation The Memphis Record was an attempt to do so, but it played around with running orders and used a few odd alternate takes and strange mixes of songs; far more successful in my opinion was the first disc of the 1999 Suspicious Minds anthology. I think it’s possible to take the dozen or so best songs from all the sessions and make what could have been an ultimate album of hits, and perhaps that would have been even better than From Elvis in Memphis. And as much as I’m an album purist, I believe that (unpopular opinion alert!) Pet Sounds would have been better if it had “Good Vibrations” and Sgt. Pepper would have been better if it had “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” And I’m sure someone could argue the same thing about From Elvis in Memphis and “Suspicious Minds.”

So I could go either way. But if someone put a gun to my head, I would say, yes, having “Stranger in My Own Home Town” and “Suspicious Minds” would make a stronger album than the two weakest songs on From Elvis in Memphis.

But then again, you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who could agree on what the same two weakest songs on From Elvis in Memphis.

Which of course is only a testimony to its greatness.

Elvis never returned to American Sound. Instead, he went to Nashville and recorded, among other things, Elvis Country. What do you think of that decision?

I think it’s a tragic missed opportunity. One of the great mysteries of Elvis’s Memphis sessions at American Sound was the fact that he was so engaged, successful, and productive—he got 32 masters from 12 days of work, his most productive sessions up to that point (with a full 12.5% of the songs hitting the Billboard Top 20)—yet he would never walk in the studio door again.

No one has a single good answer as to why, but it seems to me that it was a three-way standoff between three very strong personalities: Chips, the Colonel, and Elvis. Chips definitely felt burned about the way “Suspicious Minds” was treated in post-production and frustrated that there were no credits for himself or any of the musicians on the finished LP. For the many things Chips was, he was a man of principle and not the kind of person who would let themselves—or his friends at American Sound Studio—get double-crossed twice.

The fact that Elvis overruled the Colonel to record at American Sound, making it the second time in a year that Elvis had done so (the first was when he made “The ’68 Comeback Special” a rock and roll extravaganza instead of a tux-and-tails Christmas show), I’ve always imagined that if there was ever a time the Colonel felt like Elvis might be outgrowing him, this would have been it. As the sessions were wrapping up and post-production was humming along, the Colonel re-staked his claim on Elvis by setting up the next phase of his career: Las Vegas. This was a realm in which the Colonel could make the deals and call the shots. Elvis was initially engaged and did some great work, but it yielded diminishing returns as the ’70s wore on.

And I think even though Elvis was able to assert himself artistically with “The ’68 Comeback Special” and the American Sound Studio recordings, he never had the best track-record for extended engagement or self-assertion. Outside of the ’50s—when Elvis was really only commercially active as a recording artist for about four years all put together (yielding finished masters that comfortably fit onto four CDs)—Elvis had a way of showing initial engagement and then falling back on formula. You can sense it in his early films like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, as opposed to, say, later films like Paradise, Hawaiian Style or Clambake. Same thing with his post-Army records. After throwing himself all in at the Elvis Is Back! sessions, he largely sleepwalked through his records like he did his movie soundtracks, until they basically stopped issuing non-soundtrack LPs altogether. (The obvious exceptions to this were his three gospel LPs, all of which found him fully engaged and passionate.) On one level, I wonder if Elvis would come across a challenge, give it his all and defy expectations, only to then rest on his laurels in the afterglow.

Don’t get me wrong—Elvis made phenomenal recordings nearly every year he was commercially active, but rarely in a full project like the sessions for Elvis Is Back!, “The ’68 Comeback Special,” or From Elvis in Memphis. The sheer intensity of this music stands with his timeless Sun and early RCA work. It is the music that is why we still call Elvis the King of Rock and Roll.

Can we expect more books about Elvis from you and if so what would they be about?

I would love to write more Elvis books. I’ve got some ideas for a book about his life as well as his discography. We shall see if anything comes together.

What other album would you like to write about?

In terms of Elvis’s discography, I would love to write about his 1956 self-titled debut, which is the first #1 rock and roll album (for 10 weeks!). Along with Here’s Little Richard, it’s one of the greatest and most historically important albums that no one really knows about. I would also put Chuck Berry Is on Top, Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg, Buddy Holly’s The “Chirping” Crickets, and Bo Diddley on that list. All are five-star albums that hold their own against any of the greatest rock albums since.

In a similar boat is Elvis’s original 1976 Sun Sessions, which made #11 on Rolling Stone’s original 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time even though it had been out-of-print for roughly two decades. Blows my mind.

Some people have asked me if I will write more Elvis albums for the 33 1/3 series, but they have yet to repeat an author in their series, which I think is a good thing, since there are so many great albums and great writers out there. So if I were to write about another album, it would have to be in another venue. Which is totally fine by me.

Additional reading:

Monday, March 15, 2021

From Elvis In Memphis: The Eric Wolfson Interview (Part 1)

Interview with Eric Wolfson about his book From Elvis In Memphis (part 1 of 2).

After reading Eric Wolfson’s From Elvis In Memphis I contacted him to tell him how much I enjoyed his book and that I had blogged about it. I also sent him some questions for a follow-up post. His answers make for a fascinating read about the making of the book. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do, and I am grateful to Eric Wolfson taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly.

Why did you pick From Elvis In Memphis to write about?

I love the 33 1/3 series and had always wanted to write a book for it. They are one of the last places I’m aware of that have open calls for unsolicited manuscripts, usually about every other year. While the series is great—I have never read a bad volume—I was always frustrated at the lack of ’50s artists (although that is starting to change), which I felt was symptomatic of the modern assumption that “real” rock and roll didn’t start until The Beatles.

My first pitch was actually for Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg, which of course didn’t make the cut. I then got cocky and thought, “Well, if someone’s gonna do an Elvis book eventually, it may as well be me.” I spent the next decade pitching Elvis albums every time there was an open call. I wrote up proposals for the original 1976 Sun Sessions LP, the self-titled 1956 debut (twice, actually, when they switched editors), as well as the 50th Anniversary reissue of the (complete) Million Dollar Quartet session. None of them stuck and I began to think maybe I should move on.

I decided to give Elvis one last shot with From Elvis in Memphis, since that was my most favorite album I had yet to pitch. In hindsight, it was my best proposal and I am so glad that it is the one that became a book. It’s such a special album that’s rich with depth and fine performances all around.

How did you approach the album and the book to be?

Well, one thing I always felt about Elvis is that most books I’ve read about him are focused on him, for obvious reasons. But in terms of his music, it seemed to me that every peak of his career—his Sun sessions, his early RCA sessions, his 1960 Elvis Is Back! sessions, the sit-down concerts in “The ’68 Comeback Special,” and the From Elvis in Memphis sessions at American Sound Studio—he always had a phenomenal band playing with him. He isn’t an artist like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or Paul Simon, all of whom have made great music without or without a band playing behind them. Elvis is different. His career peaks are rarely ever solo performances. I wanted to show how making an album is a team effort, even when the artist is Elvis Presley—especially when that artist is Elvis Presley—and try to paint a portrait of a studio working at its peak.

I’m a sucker for an underdog story, so the ragtag nature of Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio—and his studio band, The Memphis Boys—make it a great subject to write about. I really thought of these sessions not like Elvis singing in front of a band, but more like Bob Dylan’s live 1966 recordings and his 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with The Band, in terms of a fully-integrated unit functioning behind a leader, yet still all listening to each other as they collectively chart their way forward. It is the story of a small community.

Once I had this approach, I knew exactly where to start. It used to be that in your 33 1/3 pitch, you had to submit the first 5 pages of the book as your sample, but recently they changed it to any 5 pages in the book. I really took advantage of this change because it allowed me to use my favorite track on the album—and, in my opinion, probably the finest studio recording Elvis ever made—“Long Black Limousine.” For me, that song touches upon so many aspects of fame, myth, and Americana. It’s a beautiful song with one of Elvis’s greatest vocals, which I believe was only possible because The Memphis Boys brought it out of him. It was a great test to describe the music and how it builds, keeping tabs on all of the players, as well as Elvis himself. As you can probably tell from the finished version of the book, it’s probably the Elvis song I have the most to say about—and I have a lot to say about a lot of his songs.

Nearly all the musicians, as well as producer Chips Moman, has passed away. What sources did you use instead?

I don’t know if I could have written the book without Roben Jones’ 2010 book Memphis Boys, the definitive history of American Sound Studio. It’s a true labor of love that took her years to write, and along the way she interviewed nearly every key person of the entire operation (the only major figures who seemed to escape her were bass player/band leader Tommy Cogbill, who died of a stroke in 1982 at the age of 50, and Alex Chilton, leader of The Box Tops and later Big Star, who has become a cult star in his own right before he died in 2010 of a heart attack at age 59).

Every one else who was key to Elvis’s sessions in 1969—producer Chips Moman, guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, bassist Mike Leech, pianist Bobby Wood, and organist Bobby Emmons, plus arranger Glen Spreen and engineer Ed Kollis—spoke extensively to her and shared invaluable memories and insight. Sadly, of this group, only Chrisman and Wood survive. (Young passed away the week I learned 33 1/3 was interested in publishing my book.) Through other scholars, I was able to get the emails for Wood and Chrisman, but never heard back from either one. I also reached out to some of the backup singers on the sessions, who I also did not hear back from. Luckily for me, Wood had written a memoir, Walking Among Giants: From Elvis to Garth, which provided his perspective of working at American Sound, with a full chapter on Elvis’s sessions.

For everyone else, I relied on secondary sources and interviews. Chips definitely had the most out there, but it seems like all of the band members were profiled at one time or another by one of the magazines that covered their instruments (Gene Chrisman in Modern Drummer, etc.). Also of great value were the interviews and articles posted on Allen Smith’s now-dormant “Soulful Music” blog, which chronicled American Sound Studio. I reached out to Allen and he very graciously helped me get some information.

What did you learn that you didn’t already know? Any surprises?

This sounds a bit silly because it’s so obvious in hindsight, but I hadn’t really considered how virtually every song on the album has a country/folk origin. Part of the magic of Elvis is how his singing transcends genre, so if I think of From Elvis in Memphis as anything, I think of it as a sort of blue-eyed soul, which I assume would draw from rhythm and blues and blues music. But oddly, nearly all of the songs that are not new are country standards—and even then, they’re not exactly deep cuts as “I’ll Hold You in My Heart” was a #1 country hit for 21 weeks in 1947, a feat that was then tied four years later by…Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On.” And yet, Elvis’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart” plays like a drawn-out R&B torch song and “I’m Moving On” plays like a funky blues. So I find it interesting that as a coming home sort of album, it is also one of his albums most rooted in country music, in a way that is natural and not played up as a gimmick like the 1971 Elvis Country album (which, don’t get me wrong, is still an excellent album).

Oh, and one completely random fun fact that I learned but have yet to include anywhere until now is that, when digging into the line “a tree won’t grow in Arkansas” in “Wearin’ That Loved on Look,” I learned that every other American state tree except for Hawaii (the candlenut) is native to Arkansas. So trees really do grow in Arkansas.

Listening to all the outtakes that exists, offers a fly-on-the-wall experience of how Elvis, Chips and The Memphis Boys” went about recording the songs. How did you use that knowledge in the book?

I tried to get my hands on all the outtakes that have been released, which, thanks to the invaluable trilogy of 2-disc FTD anthologies for From Elvis in Memphis, Back in Memphis, and a third of the “leftover” songs (which actually contained some of the biggest hits), From Elvis at American Sound Studio, was nearly all of them. (The proof for me was that when they issued the 5-disc 50th Anniversary set of the American Sound recordings, only 5 out of the 90-plus tracks were unreleased.) So I compiled playlists of all of the takes in order and really tried to listen to the evolution of each song and then listen as the overdubs were added.

There’s never enough room to go into all the detail you otherwise might like to, but having all of this listening experience gave me the confidence to (a) know if and when there was anything out-of-the-ordinary that happened on the way to a master and (b) be able to tap into that knowledge when an important song, such as “In the Ghetto,” called for it. It also further contextualized which songs were caught in only one take (“I’ll Hold You in My Heart,” “Stranger in My Own Home Town”) or two (“I’m Moving On”), versus others like “Only the Strong Survive” and “Suspicious Minds” that required a long slog with varying amounts of tweaking. For the songs on From Elvis in Memphis, the only one to begin differently than how it ended up was “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” which initially had a brisker pace, but was slowed down into a more dramatic and deeper reading.

But most of all, listening to the outtakes made me realize how full the core group sounded with just Elvis and Young’s guitar, Leech or Cogbill’s bass, Chrisman’s drums, Wood’s piano, and Emmons’ organ. You can hear it on the songs with no overdubs (“I’ll Hold You in My Heart”) and virtually no overdubs (“After Loving You”), but listening to them all with no overdubs gives you a new appreciation of what a densely rich sound The Memphis Boys were able to get out of their instruments. These guys were simply masters of rock and roll music. The fact none of them, including Chips Moman, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a travesty.

To be concluded in my next post …

Friday, March 5, 2021

From Elvis In Memphis Revisited

The last couple of days I have listened a lot to From Elvis In Memphis as well as outtakes from it. The reason for this: a great little book by Erik Wolfson about the album.

Erik Wolfson’s From Elvis In Memphis is the 150th paperback in the 33 1/3 series “Short books about albums” from Bloomsbury. Not only is it the first one covering an Elvis album in the series, it is actually the first stand-alone book about an Elvis album ever written.

Without a doubt, From Elvis In Memphis, released in June 1969 and recorded in January and February that same year, ranks as one of Elvis’ finest studio albums. Of course, this is something I have known for a long time. However, reading the book made me revisited the album and listen to the songs in a somewhat new light.

The main reason for this is Erik Wolfson’s style of writing. Like when he, early on in the book, explores the cover of the album by summarizing the 1968 television special (the image is from the opening segment) and then asks the question: “So where to go from here? Elvis went back to Memphis, where it had all begun.”

The reader then literally gets to follow Elvis into American Sound (“What a funky studio”) and meet producer Chips Moman and all the studio musicians, “The Memphis Boys”. This is cleverly done by describing them from the snapshots that exist from the day.

What really impresses me is the way Erik Wolfson describes the recording of the songs. This is how he paints the beginning of “Long Black Limousine,” one of the strongest tracks from the album:

“Bobby Wood’s sympathetic gospel piano weaves its way around Elvis’s melody, anchored by Bobby Emmons’s organ, lying low like a conspiracy. At first, Gene Chrisman’s drums do little more than keep time among the tolling bells, while bassist Mike Leech is not heard at all. The music coaches the singer as he watches the funeral procession, a long line of fancy cars in the little main street of his town. […] And then Chrisman hits a drum roll that shifts the song into an easy funk. Leech’s bass establish itself as the record’s secret weapon, its restless lines pushing the song forward without ever distracting from the proceedings. The music fuels Elvis’s uniquely American singer, a small-town man who uses simple words to conjure quick, clear images.”

After reading something like that, it is impossible not to put on a pair of earphones, turn the volume up and experience the song with new ears. Here is another telling example, this time the album opener “Wearin‘ That Loved On Look”:

“Elvis’s voice rings out strong and determined, with an edge of gruffness brought on by a cold he was fighting. ‘I had to leave town for a little while –‘ Reggie Young’s slick electric guitar bubbles around, answering his words, drenched in reverb. Gene Chrisman’s drums tumble in, setting the song’s funky rhythm, met by Mike Leach’s thumping bass. Only Bobby Wood’s piano waits in the wings, pouncing on the song’s breakdown in a gospel-style solo. The group plays cohesively, with Elvis stepping in the role of bandleader. RCA Records’ producer Felton Jarvis pays keen attention to Elvis’s mood; American Sound’s producer Chips Moman pays keen attention to everything else.

Each song gets its own chapter, and wisely, Erik Wolfson includes chapters for two songs not found on the album: “Stranger In My Own Home Town” and “Suspicious Minds.” By using many sources, he skillfully presents the context of each track, offering background information, the story behind other artists’ rendition of some of the songs as well as facts about Elvis and glimpses into his past. Although, in my opinion, the author stretches it a bit when he points out that “Only The Strong Survive” likely reminded Elvis of his mother’s wisdom, but who knows?

Speaking of “Only The Strong Survive,” Erik Wolfson also have this to say about the song, which is a thought for reflection:

“When Elvis sings that only the strong survive, the song seemingly casts him as a sage who lived through it all, but the truth is that he would be dead well within a decade of recording it. The song tells one thing, but the man who sings it tells another.”

The last song on the album and the first one, together with “Any Day Now,” to be heard by the public from the American Sound sessions is “In The Ghetto,” released as a single in April 1969. Like Erik Wolfson points out, “the song proved that Elvis still mattered – and that his music still had something to say.” In fact, that holds true for the whole album as well; it showed that Elvis was still relevant.

On the final pages of his book, Erik Wolfson summarizes From Elvis In Memphis by stating that “the result is a genuine artistic statement – the finest Elvis would ever make.” It is hard to disagree. From Elvis In Memphis is one of Elvis’ best and Erik Wolfson’s book a worthy companion. It comes highly recommended. 

Additional reading: