Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis

Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis
Released June, 1969

I finished off last week’s review hoping that Elvis Presley would bring the goods this week… and boy did he. The album “From Elvis in Memphis” was released in June, 1969. Throughout the late 50s and 60s, Elvis starred in 31 movies that capitalised on his success as a star. Let’s just say that with Elvis’s looks and popularity, film was a great medium to sell soundtracks, ie. bring home the bacon. “From Elvis in Memphis” was recorded at a time when Elvis was getting back to his roots, which was making bloody good music, after years of being a bit of puppet with all the film hoopla. It had commercial success and is highly regarded critically as one of his best pieces of work. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #190 on the “500 Greatest Albums of all Time” list.

To record this album Elvis headed back to where it all started in Memphis. Taking in all of the influences of the time, “From Elvis in Memphis” is a joyous mix of soul, blues, country and gospel. Whilst this era brought us the jazz and crooner sect covering what went onto to be known as “The American Songbook”, Elvis here tapped into the country vein and gave these songs new life with a gospel, soul and at times even a pop spin. It’s interesting to compare this album to Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis”, which was recorded only months earlier in the same studio sharing many backing musicians in the form of “The Memphis Cats”. To me “From Elvis in Memphis” sounds like a group of musicians at the top of their game all hanging out in a big room having a big old fat time. Sure the mix isn’t great, but that slight echo adds to that big room feeling and captures the moment. Musically it is never overstated. So many times I would notice different instruments coming in and out only on the fourth of fifth listen, never sounding out of place and with it almost being hard to imagine them not being there. The musicians are phenomenal – the subtle strings, the horns, the crazy bass licks, the backing vocals. Despite being an album of mostly covers, Elvis and his band take hold of each song and make it their own.

Opening track “Wearin’ That Loved on Look” grabs you from the get go. Who can deny a song with a “shoop shoop” call and response? Other killer songs include “Only the Strong Survive” and its belting chorus; “Power of my Love” where harmonica and trumpet make an unusual yet awesome pairing; the classic Elvis croon and 12 bar blues on “After Loving You”, which reminds me of parties my mum and dad would throw when I was a kid; and let us not forget lead single “In the Ghetto”, which was the comeback song that Elvis needed to announce to the world that he was back. The tender emotion conveyed in that song is stunning. Really, there isn’t a bum track on the whole album.

I’m surprised at how much my love for this album grew with each listen. It took me all week to put my finger on why I loved it so much. It came to me as I hung out with my dad as I usually do for a few hours on the weekend. This is the music I was bought up on. Not this album per se, but this sound. Heck, as a six year old my favourite song was ‘Green Door’ by Shakin’ Stevens, the 80s Welsh Elvis. I love these songs so much because I’ve loved this style of music for as long as I can remember, and it connects me to my dad. Music is at its most powerful and most enjoyable when we have an emotional connection to it. I have a feeling there will be a few more albums like this for me over the course of the five years.

I’m going to make a big call here… this is my favourite album thus far for afyccim. Having never really listened to Elvis by choice before this album I now get it. I understand the hysteria and outpouring of love for the man. What I love about it most is that it’s just good honest music. It’s such a joyous recording with Elvis sounding at his freest. A man truly connecting to his passion and delivering an album so unpretentious and uncontrived, which was such a far stretch from Elvis the movie star. This was his way of announcing to the world that he was back and as relevant as ever.

I’ve been really looking forward to listening to “From Elvis in Memphis” since we started this project. It was the first of Elvis’ albums after his contract doing movie soundtracks for Paramount Pictures, and it’s really something quite special. The first thing I notice, naturally, is the bass. And the bass in this album is extraordinary. So I wasn’t surprised to find out that the bassist for “From Elvis in Memphis” was Tommy Cogbill, the same bassist I made mention of in the Dusty Springfield review. Amazing. And it’s on every track. The arrangements are brilliant through the whole album. The use of big horns and what sounds like a large choir makes for a massive sound. You can really notice the effect the choir has in “Wearin’ That Loved On Look”, or as what Ang and I have come to affectionately call “the Shoop Shoop song”. I really don’t think there are any weak songs on this album. Every track is unique and masterfully arranged, and managed to hold my attention, which is a feat in itself! Honourable mention has to go to “In the Ghetto” though. The emotion in Elvis’ voice is perfect, and the string arrangement is just something else. It’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t help but feel that the way Elvis died was such a massive waste of talent. This album is so brilliant. He died at 42 and had 18 number one albums. Imagine how many it could have been if he’d not lived his life to such excess! This was Elvis’ thirty fifth studio album. Thirty five! He released 102 singles and seventy albums with RCA! His last album, “Moody Blue” was released just a month before his death. “From Elvis in Memphis” was already on my iPod, and that’s exactly where it’s staying.

Holy moly, this was Elvis’ 35th album?  I nearly fell off my chair when I found that out! He certainly was a music-making machine!  I’ve always had a bit of a secret crush on Elvis, after watching heaps of his corny, romantic and super-predictable (totally my favourite kind) movies with my Dad on Sunday afternoons as a kid. Having said that I’m not really familiar with much, if any, of his solo albums. In releasing this album, Presley basically created his own brand of ‘blue-eyed soul’ blended country, gospel, rhythm and blues, and soul, and for me, it’s a formula that worked a treat. This was Elvis’ first non-soundtrack album, born out of his desire to ‘never sing a song he didn’t believe in ever again’. And you really do get the sense that he had a vested interest in these songs. He sings with emotive conviction on tracks such as the famous protest song ‘In the Ghetto’. Listening to Presley swoon in ‘I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)’ you’re convinced that he really is struggling through a tough long distance relationship. In fact this album creates so much atmosphere that I sometimes feel like I’m sitting alone in a dingy blues bar at the end of a long night and he’s singing just to me while the gum chewing, chain-smoking bar maid mops the floor. I found this album really easy to listen to; it’s the kind of album I would play on a Saturday morning when I’m doing my domestics or baking. And guess what, it was recorded in the same studio in which Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” was recorded. Coincidence? I think not.

I find it amazing that this was Elvis’s thirty-fifth album release. Considering his debut came out in 1956, that’s a staggering output for that time period. After a run of mediocre chart success and a loss of credibility due to the quality of his films and their soundtracks, Elvis recorded a Christmas TV special performance to be aired in December 1968. Encouraged by its success, Elvis headed to Memphis and began recording at the American Sound Studio, which is also where Dusty Springfield’s Memphis sessions began. Many of the musicians from that album appear here, and think they play a big part in its appeal. Some songs that could have sunk into the quagmire of ‘just another Elvis ballad’ are lifted by the band’s energy and keen arrangements. One such example is ‘I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)’ which I began to judge before note one. However, a couple of false starts at the beginning of the song while the musicians chat and laugh show that this is a game changer. Rather than a slow plod, the band offer up an easy groove, while keeping the song’s ballad status. There’s a wonderful organ part and some of the best high notes I’ve ever heard Elvis reach. ‘I’m Movin’ On’ features some of the most frenetic bass-playing ever recorded and the syncopation of ‘Only the Strong Survive’ during the chorus is quite surprising. Their version of Chuck Jackson’s 1962 hit ‘Any Day Now’ (penned by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard) is fabulous and Elvis steams things up on the sexually suggestive ‘Power of My Love’. The absolute highlight for me is the album’s chilling closer ‘In the Ghetto’ which always gives me goosebumps. Released as a single, this became Elvis’s biggest hit since 1965. I liked this album more with each listen and I think it has something for everyone.

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