BY JANUARY 1968, a new Elvis single was successful if it merely reached the Top 40 and sold 300,000 copies. This was a far cry from three years before when a new single reached the Top 20 and sold at least a half million copies. And that was a far cry from the dizzying heights of 1960 when a Presley hit sold in the millions!
His albums also sold fewer copies with each passing year. And the only theaters that would book his movies were drive-ins—and then as the bottom half of a double-feature!
Colonel Parker convinced the Singer Sewing Company to sponsor Elvis in a one-man television special. They taped the show at NBC’s studios in Burbank, California, in June 1968. Fans had to wait until the last week of October to hear the fruits of those efforts when radio stations played “If I Can Dream.”
Pairing Elvis with Chips Moman could have proved a disaster, but Presley buckled down and, for a change, didn’t try to do it his way.
To say this new single and the special that followed on December 3 had been worth the wait would be a gross understatement of what fans thought in 1968. “If I Can Dream” was his biggest hit in years and the soundtrack album that followed was also a big seller. Their combined success put Presley back into play again.
In the wake of this success, the next question for Elvis was, “How the hell do I that follow that up?!!?”
Elvis with guitar posing for a publicity photo to promote Clambake in early 1967. In a review of one of his movies from this period, Variety noted that the “songs are dull, physical values are standard, and mediocrity prevails.” Dull and mediocre accurately defines the experience many fans had sitting through these movies in sparsely attended theater showings around the country.
Any day now
As his comeback was far from assured, he took another bold step and booked time with American Sound Studio in Memphis. There he put himself in the care of owner and producer Chips Moman. This was a daring move as Presley’s method of recording music was at odds with Moman’s.
Elvis preferred to record “live” in the studio, capturing a complete recording in one take. Moman was a painstaking producer who approached recording like it was a construction project. First, he nailed down the instrumental track and then he had the singer to do the vocal in bits and pieces, over and over, until he had a perfect record.
While pairing up these two men might have proved a disaster, Presley buckled down and, for a change, didn’t try to do it his way. The results were extraordinary! The music made in January and February 1969 was the best—the most masterful—of the singer’s “mature” period.
The artistic and commercial success of “If I Can Dream” required a follow-up that was at least its equal to cement Presley’s reputation. He chose “In the Ghetto,” which more than lived up to the expectations of fans.
A daring single, “In the Ghetto” reached #1 on the Cash Box Top 100! Presley followed with the From Elvis in Memphis album, which was the equal of any album released that year. This is a helluva statement because 1969 was a helluva year for albums:
The Beatles: Abbey Road
Captain Beefheart: Trout Mask Replica
Crosby, Stills & Nash
The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin
Aretha Franklin: Soul ’69
The Kinks: Arthur
The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed
Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis
Neil Young: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
These are just ten I pulled out of my list of faves—the list of superfine long-players from the decade’s ultimate year is a lengthy one.
Elvis with guitar filming his one-man special for NBC-TV in their Burbank studio on June 27, 1968. I don’t recall anyone thinking the songs dull or mediocre and Grate Grommett in Heaven knows the physical values were anything but standard when reviewing the special. (Well, Albert Goldman may have . . .)
He cleaned up his own back yard
During the mid-’60s, Elvis’s appearance had changed: he put on weight noticeable in his rounded, puffy face. A rounded, puffy waist occasionally accompanied this. Reputedly, he made it through his movies by taking a variety of pills. His appearance in these movies and in the photos on his record sleeves showed someone out of touch with the popular culture around him.
For the shooting of his NBC-TV special, he got back into shape, both physically and psychically. He entered 1969 looking better than he had in years, which was obvious in the photos used on the sleeves of his new records. Presley’s “new” appearance gave his fans a sense of joy, of expectation.
I was one of those fans. I was 17 years old when NBC-TV broadcast Singer Presents Elvis on December 3, 1968. It was one of the great moments in my life as a fan of not only Elvis Presley but of rock & roll music.
This photo was taken during the June 1968 sessions held at NBC’s soundstage studio in Burbank, California. It has been used by RCA Victor on various picture sleeves and album covers in various countries around the world since 1969.
A sampling of sleeves
This is the third of three articles addressing the importance of “In the Ghetto” in Presley’s career. I have collected a sampling of sleeves and album covers from around the world associated with the ’69 Memphis recordings. This is not a complete collection of sleeves and covers from this era—just the original US issues and interesting non-US version.
Many of these photos were from the filming of the television special in June 1968. Others are from the photo sessions used to promote that show. Unfortunately, none are from the actual sessions at American Sound.
Before reading any further here, check out my other article “What in Tarnation Are the Haircut Sleeves of the ’60s” and see the difference between the Elvis Presley of 1966 and the Elvis Presley of 1969.
Finally, in the US record buyers and collectors tend to refer to the thin, paper sleeves that house seven-inch singles as sleeves. We refer to the cardboard sleeves that house ten-inch and twelve-inch records as jackets or covers. In much of the rest of the world, both are referred to as sleeves.
In the Ghetto / Any Day Now
The initial printings of the US picture sleeve from May 1969 promised us that the From Elvis in Memphis album was “Coming soon” (top). Later printings—probably June and July—told us to “Ask for” that same album (bottom).
This Italian sleeve is stunning with the black border, but the translation of the flip-side is curious. According to the Google translator, “bambolina” means baby doll, a term that doesn’t even appear in the song’s lyrics. “Any day now” in Italian is “qualungue giorno de oggi.”
This Japanese sleeve uses the same design as the US sleeve, but the Japanese characters set it off from the other similar sleeves for this record. The “font” used for those characters is okay—not as ugly as the one used for “Suspicious Minds” but nowhere near as attractive as the one used for “Kentucky Rain.”
This is not a single but a 4-track EP album from Portugal. This particular photo of Elvis from the ’68 NBC-TV special was used often by RCA. I never liked it: the spotlight on his face makes it look flat and chubby at the same time, the opposite of how he looked in June 1968.
This particular photo of Elvis on this Turkish sleeve is from the NBC-TV special and has not been used much. This looks like a well-made bootleg.
From Elvis in Memphis
This is a copy of a factory-sealed album from 1969. It includes a red sticker affixed to the shrinkwrap advertising the bonus photo included with initial pressings of the album. This is the album I bought in June 1969. It was the most stunning cover on an Elvis album since his self-titled first album in 1956.
As I walked home from the record store with my new purchase, I was excited by what the front cover promised for the music within. The Elvis on the front cover looks like the man who had been born to be the King of Rock & Roll.
But I was also trepidatious about that music because of the blandness of the back cover. The design was lackluster and the photo of Presley was several years old. The Elvis on the back cover looks like the man who had been born to star in Hollywood pablum like Roustabout, Harum Scarum, and Double Trouble.
This scared me.
When I got home and played the album, the opening bars of the first song immediately allayed my fears: “I had to leave town for a little while. You said you’d be good while I was gone.”
Like the NBC-TV special, From Elvis in Memphis was more than I had dared hope for! The impact of this music on me proved as profound and moving as that of any album ever made.
I don’t do the “desert island disc” thing, but if I did, this one would be in the running!
This is the bonus photo that was included inside initial US pressings of From Elvis in Memphis. I don’t think that this photo was included with any other pressing of this album outside of the US.
Whereas the picture sleeve for the single that preceded this Italian album had been an exercise in black on black, this album cover is one of the whitest covers ever released by an artist not associated with Liverpool, England.
Apparently, Japan was the only country to release From Elvis in Memphis as a discrete, 4-channel stereo (quadraphonic sound) LP, probably in 1972. The gold border with black graphics is not especially effective. The copy above has a paper banner on the left that wraps around the jacket vertically and is known as an obi (like the horizontal sash on a kimono).
Instead of the 7½ IPS that gave exemplary sound, this reel-to-reel tape was the inferior (and less expensive) 3¾ IPS used American record companies trying to keep the format alive.
The 8-track tape was booming in the late ’60s—at least it was in the US, where millions of cars with cheap decks needed millions of cartridges to play. This cheap and inferior format wasn’t anywhere near as successful in the rest of the non-automobilized world.
The only quadraphonic Elvis issued in the states was this 8-track tape, probably released in 1973-1974. The reader’s next question should be, “But, Neal, how many people had a quadraphonic set-up in their Pontiac?” To which I might answer, “No one I ever met.”
Clean Up Your Own Backyard / The Fair Is Moving On
The importance of this record has been under-appreciated for decades. “Clean Up Your Own Back Yard” didn’t sound like anything Elvis had ever recorded for a movie soundtrack. In fact, drop it onto the From Elvis in Memphis album and I doubt anyone but Chips Moman would know that it hadn’t at American Sound.
The lyrics address hypocrisy and people prying into others’ business: “Clean up your own backyard—you tend to your business, I’ll mine.” Along with “If I Can Dream” and “In the Ghetto,” as the third and final part of a trilogy of records expressing social consciousness from Elvis.
But it wasn’t a good choice for a single as it was too country for Top 40 radio. In the ’60s, country radio refused to play much of anything but artists who weren’t pure county. (And whose politics weren’t a smidgen to the right of Attila the Hun.)
“Clean Up Your Own Back Yard” peaked at #25 on Cash Box and sold about half of what the previous two singles had sold.
As a singer, Elvis was certainly more popular in many countries in Europe than he was in the US. Nonetheless, by 1968 his movies had done so poorly in the previous years that they weren’t even released in some countries.
Consequently, there was no point in advertising those movies on pictures sleeves. Unlike the original US sleeve, this sleeve from West Germany does not include a blurb for The Trouble with Girls. It is a cleaner, simpler design, and a much more attractive design.
Suspicious Minds / You’ll Think of Me
Some records are born to be #1, born to be played through eternity. “Suspicious Minds” is one of those records.
Another dramatically dark Italian sleeve, this time with a photo from the “Guitar Man” / “Trouble” portion of the NBC-TV special.
I should point out that Japanese record companies have a long history of taking great care with and pride in their records. Japanese records have been among the finest in the world since the 1960s. Their picture sleeves are also usually of a higher quality than any other county’s similar sleeves.
The “font” used for the Japanese characters is rather ugly and certainly nowhere near as attractive as the one used for “Kentucky Rain.”
This is a Mexican EP album from early 1970 that contains both sides of Presley’s last two singles. The Spanish “Cedeandose” translates as hobnobbing because the term rubbernecking had little meaning outside of the US at the time.
This sleeve from New Zealand features another less-than-flattering photo of Elvis from the NBC-TV special.
This Portuguese EP album was apparently released in late 1969 and features the photo of Elvis from the NBC-TV special that was used on the cover of the From Memphis to Vegas album (below). This uncluttered design here is so much more effective and attractive than the one used on the LP album.
Hmmm, what can we read into the artwork on this Turkish sleeve? Elvis smokes dope and meets Yellow Submarine? Or maybe he met Skip Williamson?
From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis
The two records that make up this album are jointly known as From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis. That title only appears on the jacket, not on the records, which have separate titles. The first record is Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada while the second record is Elvis Back in Memphis.
The front cover of the gatefold jacket above has a green sticker advertising two bonus photos (below) that were included with the album. The sticker was affixed to the shrinkwrap.
In 1970, the two records were issued separately as two single albums titled Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada while the second record is titled Elvis Back in Memphis.
Initial pressings of the US album From Memphis to Vegas (LSP-6020) included two of these four possible photos as bonuses. I don’t think that these photos were included with any other pressing of this album outside of the US.
This 3¾ IPS reel-to-reel tape contains both records.
This 8-track cartridge tape contains both records.
In Italy, From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis (LSP-6020) was issued as two single albums, Da Las Vegas a Memphis, Volume 1 (LSP-6020-1) and Volume 2 (LSP-6020-2). Each volume had the same photo from the NBC-TV special from 1968.
Don’t Cry, Daddy / Rubberneckin’
A year after the broadcast of the NBC-TV special and Colonel Parker still had RCA Victor using photos from it on singles and album covers. Don’t Cry, Daddy is saved from its maudlin lyrics by yet another superb, heart-rending vocal from Elvis.
It was a big hit and his third single of the year to sell a million in the US but it was not the right choice for a single. What as needed at this point was something that rocked—something for new Elvis converts, not something for their grandparents.
The all-black look of this Italian sleeve just doesn’t work this time.
This Japanese sleeve uses the same design as the US sleeve, but the color of the border and the tone on the photo make for a more eye-catching design. The “font” used for the Japanese characters is okay—not as ugly as the one used for “Suspicious Minds” but nowhere near as attractive as the one used for “Kentucky Rain.”
It’s hard to criticize the use of this image by RCA in the Netherlands, no matter how often it was used.
This sleeve from Turkey is unlike any sleeve I have ever seen associated with an Elvis Presley record. The hand-lettered titles make it look like a bootleg. And what’s the with the guy with the beard?
I didn’t know that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia allowed rock & roll in 1969 let alone made picture sleeves for decadent, capitalist American pop singers.
Kentucky Rain / My Little Friend
“Kentucky Rain” is a brilliant record, one of the very best of the Memphis ’69 sides. But it was not the best selection as a single in 1970: it was too country for the pop stations and too pop for the country stations.
The photo on the sleeve is one of the best from this period, even if it’s more than a year old and Elvis has already appeared in Las Vegas with his new look.
RCA Victor in the UK rarely sprung for a picture sleeve for an Elvis single but they did for “Kentucky Rain.” But instead of something fresh, they recycled the same photo and design used on the original “Suspicious Minds” sleeve for several singles in 1969-1970.
Picture sleeves from India are rather rare, as is this one for “Kentucky Rain” using a rather familiar image.
This Italian sleeve uses another well-known photo from the 1968 NBC-TV special.
This Japanese sleeve is identical to the original except for the Japanese characters, which stand out. The “font” used for those characters is very attractive and makes this version of this sleeve the most effective.
Let’s Be Friends
The simple cover design of Let’s Be Friends was a relief from all the over-busy designs of the standard catalog Presley Product with their blurbs for movies and ads for coming attractions. The Camden line albums played a key role in re-establishing Elvis in the US market in 1969-1971.
These first few Elvis budget albums were attractively packaged and contained previously unreleased recordings or 45 sides that had not been compiled onto an LP before.
Let’s Be Friends was one of the best: except for “Mama” from the 1962 soundtrack to Girls! Girls! Girls!, all the tracks are from 1968-1969, making this the most stylistically and chronologically cohesive of the Camden titles.
Let’s Be Friends included a pair of left-overs from the Memphis session, “If I’m a Fool (for Loving You)” and “I’ll Be There.” These alone practically justified the album’s release. It’s a shame that Presley and Parker and RCA didn’t continue to use the Camden titles for tasteful, intelligent, and enjoyable issues like this.
But the Presley-Parker-RCA threesome was rarely noted for taste or intelligent decisions.
Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada
This single-record album is a reissue of is the first record from the two-record set From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis that had been issued one year before in October 1969.
Elvis Back In Memphis
This single-record album is a reissue of the second record from the two-record set From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis that had been issued one year before in October 1969. The front cover photo was taken during Elvis’s first weeks on stage at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in July 1969. It was the only time he wore a simple, two-piece black stage outfit.
Had Parker and the decision-makers at RCA Victor not released a two-record set and instead focused on the success of the Memphis singles, then they could have added “Suspicious Minds” and titled it Suspicious Minds – Elvis Back in Memphis. It might have been his biggest selling album of the ’60s.
This is one of my favorite Elvis album covers.
In a series of comments posted on Facebook (April 4, 2019), Frank Daniels and I discussed the picture sleeve for “Don’t Cry Daddy” from Turkey above. In one of Frank’s comments, he asked, “Daddy is crying over the divorce, right?” In fifty years of knowing this record, I had never thought of it being about divorce!
I had always heard the singer (Daddy) referring to his wife dying and leaving him and two small children behind. But reading the lyrics again, I see that the song’s writer Mac Davis left them open to interpretation:
“Don’t cry, daddy. Daddy, please don’t cry.
Daddy, you’ve still got me and little Tommy,
together we’ll find a brand new mommy.”
They could be about death or divorce or even abandonment.
FEATURED IMAGE: By 1972, the kind of earthy music that was made at Chips Moman’s American Sound at 827 Thomas Street in Memphis, Tennessee, was no longer in vogue as radio turned to the softer sounds of Philly Soul and L.A.-based singer-songwriters. Moman ended up in Nashville, making hits for country artists instead. This photo of the studio was taken years after its closing and it looks like a rundown bar in a rundown neighborhood where you go to pick fights instead of picking up women.