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 …


Kees said...

A great read, thanks. These kind of interviews add to an already great book. Hope Erik does some more volumes.

Thomas said...

Glad you liked it Kees! Yes, it's a great book, and I too hope he writes more about Elvis in the future, be it about an album or something else. I will be the first in line to buy it!

Phil Arnold said...

Wow, that was pretty great. Usually I don't like blog posts that are all text with no photos (or just a title one), but this worked very well. I wish there were several more parts to come.


Thomas said...

Thank you Phil! I usually try to insert one or two photos in my posts, but felt that it really wasn't necessary this time. One more part to come!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview. Just happen to come across your blog tonight. Ordered Eric's book a.d should arrive tomorrow. Even though you may not get a lot of comments, we're still reading. Keep up the great work