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:


TY - The Mystery Train Blog said...

Wow! What a great review. The excerpts are definitely enticing. In fact, I am going to order the book as soon as I finish this comment.

Speaking of "Only The Strong Survive," I first heard it on The Memphis Record 2 LP set (still the best compilation of the American Studio masters, in my opinion; though it could use a new mastering, but I'm sure Jorgensen will never approve it since it was released under the previous Elvis regime). I was 13 years old. My first impression of the song was that it must have reminded him of his mother and advice she gave him after a breakup. Who knows if true, but that was my first impression as a teen.

Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I had heard of it, but for some reason figured it was one of those typical "mainstream" Elvis books that have the same info over and over.

Thomas said...

Thank you Ty, you could do a lot worse than ordering the book, and it doesn't make much of a dent in the wallet, either. :-)

I also own a copy of the The Memphis Record and have always loved it! It was interesting reading about your impression of "Only The Strong Survive," I guess being from Sweden, I just thought it was a great song and didn't reflect much over the lyrics. You might just be right!

Anyway, I really like Eric Wolfson's style of writing, and wish I could describe a recording of a song like he does. Here is for hoping that he gets the opportunity to tackle another album in the same way, like maybe Elvis Country or Elvis Is Back.