This was a tame design by the standards of picture sleeves for rock and pop singles in the late ’60s. But it was a reasonably attractive (if bland) design for an Elvis sleeve.
Giving it our attention
While RCA Victor could exert a somewhat uniform look to their releases worldwide, occasionally one of their branches opted for a design that differed from the norm. This stunning sleeve was how RCA’s art department in Italy released “In the Ghetto.”
Psyched with anticipation
By early 1969, I had been a ‘serious’ Elvis fan for six years. By the time Elvis resurrected his career with his one-man special for NBC-TV in December ’68, I had already lived through such embarrassments as Harum Scarum and Paradise, Hawaiian Style (and listening to either album all the way through in one sitting was arguably the ultimate test of any Elvis fan).
There had been little anticipation prior to buying the Elvis records of 1964-1967. There was more of a sense of obligation—my obligation as a fan to keep buying Elvis’s mediocre offerings to keep his records on the Top 40.
But 1968 had been Presley’s best year in years, with four fine singles: “Guitar Man,” “U.S. Male,” “A Little Less Conversation,” and “If I Can Dream.” So when I went to buy the record, I was psyched. This was an unusual feeling for Elvis fans.
When I get to the record store, “In the Ghetto” was in a metal pocket on the store’s wall, the green picture sleeve with a lean, handsome Elvis was peering out. I pulled all the records out of the pocket, picked out the one with the nicest picture sleeve, and I gave Howard the 89¢ plus tax in payment and left with my purchase.
On the way home, I wondered about the blurb on the picture sleeve that told me that the new album From Elvis in Memphis was coming soon—what would that be like?!!?
This is what the now-legendary American Sound Studio on 827 Thomas Street in Memphis, Tennessee, looked like during its last years. (“Elvis Tours Daily!”) The studio ceased operations after a fire in 2005 but new owners restored it and reopened in 2011.
The vicious circle
In 1968, Mac Davis was an up-and-coming songwriter. He had already had three songs recorded by Elvis and issued as singles in 1968: “A Little Less Conversation” (for Live a Little, Love a Little), “Memories” (for the Elvis television special), and “Clean Up Your Own Backyard” (for The Trouble With Girls).
Davis wrote “In the Ghetto” under his pseudonym “Scott Davis”:
“It’s a simple matter of growing up with a little boy whose father worked with my father. He lived in a part of town that was a dirt-street ghetto. I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and it was a ghetto in every sense of the word, but we didn’t use the word back then.
“I was trying to come up with a song called ‘The Vicious Circle’—how a child is born, he has no father, and the same thing happens. The word ghetto became popular in the late ’60s to describe the poor parts of town.”
Here are the lyrics, laid out as I hear them and see them, although my layout differs greatly from most of those online:
As the snow flies, on a cold and gray Chicago morn
and a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto.
And his mama cries, because if there’s one thing that she don’t need
it’s another hungry mouth to feed in the ghetto.
People, don’t you understand—the child needs a helping hand.
He’ll grow to be an angry young man some day.
Take a look at you and me—are we too blind to see?
Do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?
Well, the world turns, and a hungry little boy with a runny nose
plays in the street as the cold wind blows in the ghetto.
And his hunger burns, so he starts to roam the streets at night
and he learns how to steal and he learns how to fight in the ghetto.
Then one night in desperation the young man breaks away.
He buys a gun and he steals a car,
he tries to run but he don’t get far.
And his mama cries,
as a crowd gathers ‘round an angry young man
face down on the street with a gun in his hand in the ghetto.
And as her young man dies,
on a cold and gray Chicago morning
another little baby child is born in the ghetto.
And his mama cries . . .
One remarkable thing about the record is that while the lyrics seem to call for melodrama—something that pop singers turn to even when it’s unnecessary—is that everything is understated. Elvis seems to tell a tale as much as sing the lyrics to a song. Chips Moman’s arrangement and production are full (there are strings and the ubiquitous chick singers) yet it all sounds subdued, if fully complementary to Elvis’s singing.
Davis published the song as “In the Ghetto (the Vicious Circle)” but Elvis received permission from Davis to drop the subtitle. Recorded in January 1969 at American Sound Studio in Memphis with producer Chips Moman, RCA Victor released it as a single in April 1969.
The Billboard reviewer said, “This performance is Elvis at his best and the vital lyric line is right in today’s selling bag. This one could easily prove one of his all-time biggest items.”
“In the Ghetto” debuted on the Cash Box Top 100 on May 3, reaching #1 on June 28, 1969. It was Elvis’ first US chart-topper since “Return to Sender” hit #1 in December 1962. On the Billboard Hot 100, “In the Ghetto” pooped out at #3.
The November 20, 1967, issue of Newsweek featured this dramatic cover and a special section on the riots rocking the inner cities at the time and discussing solutions to racial inequality. The title “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done” can be read many ways, not all of them positive—especially if you were a Negro in America.
So transcendent it can’t be denied
The next few paragraphs contain quotes from John’s article “How Much Can One Record Mean?” They are in italics and credited to John. Each is followed by my response. Please keep in mind I am in near total accord with John on 90% of his opinions, observation, interpretations and—and what else?—oh yeah, his opinions.
“If Elvis did anything so transcendent that it can’t quite be denied, we must rest eternally reassured that he was the last person responsible for it.” — John Ross
Agreed. This unbelievably ignorant (just plain stupid) attitude or belief was common for decades among writers and historians who should have known better. The litany went like this:
• The amazing Sun recordings of 1954-1955 were essentially the creation of Sam Phillips with help from Scotty Moore. Elvis was just a kid with pipes in the right place at the right time.
• The RCA Victor sides of 1956-1958 resulted from talented songwriters making highly stylized demos in Elvis’s style which Elvis—still a kid with pipes in the right place at the right time—copied slavishly.
• The huge success of the post-Army comeback sessions of 1960-1961 was because of the incredible band that backed Elvis in Nashville, including Hank Garland, Bob Moore, Boots Randolph, and Floyd Cramer under the watchful eye of producer Bill Porter. (And those amazing demos that the amazing songwriters kept submitting.) Elvis was just a wealthy young man with pipes who could afford to hire the best of the best.
And it goes without saying that the NBC-TV television special of 1968 was the brainchild of Steve Binder while the Memphis sessions of 1969 were the product of the vision of Chips Moman, and Elvis was just lucky they were there when he needed them.
Steve Binder, director of the one-man NBC-TV special “Elvis,” recalled that “HBO aired the entire unedited [sit-down session] calling it ‘One Night With You’ which I had nothing to do with. I mean, it’s Elvis Presley, and that proved he wasn’t just a myth of the Colonels PR machine. And it even proved to Elvis himself that he was that special and that fantastic.”
With and without laryngitis
“Sit down with any of the numerous editions of Elvis’ late-‘60s Memphis sessions, then close your eyes and try to guess which vocals were performed with and without laryngitis.” — John Ross
John wrote this in response to a critic who remarked that Elvis owed his remarkable performance in Memphis to an illness that curbed his post-Army excesses. The laryngitis part is apparently true; it delayed the sessions while Elvis stayed home and recuperated.
“Recording and releasing ‘In the Ghetto’ in the early months of 1969 may have constituted the single most important series of decisions in Elvis Presley’s career. Hence, the first single release from the Memphis sessions was a huge decision. If it didn’t meet or exceed the success of ‘If I Can Dream’ then the momentum built by the critical and ratings success of the television special would be effectively broken. Elvis would run the very real risk of finding himself back on the sidelines for good.” — John Ross
Especially if the decisions were Elvis’s, and every source assures us it was the singer who selected all of his major singles since signing with RCA Victor in 1955. And the follow-up single was “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” a worthy (if forgotten) return to the social consciousness of “If I Can Dream” and “In the Ghetto.”
In hindsight, historians unfamiliar with history often take a casual approach to Elvis singing a “protest song” (although it would be more accurate to call it a song of social consciousness). They dismiss him as too little or too late or him merely riding a bandwagon.
But as stated above, there was no bandwagon of social consciousness or protest songs in the ‘60s—at least not on Top 40 radio. Dylan had left them behind in ’64 and no one else—not Phil Ochs or Peter, Paul & Mary or anyone other folk-related musician was getting songs of this nature played on AM radio stations.
I suppose the building on the cover for this Supremes album represents the “rundown tenement slum” in the song’s lyrics, which I get. It also reflects the way the Supremes looked when they debuted this record on the Ed Sullivan Show. What I don’t get who goes barefoot in the slums.
The ghetto’s love children
When Elvis recorded “In the Ghetto,” the biggest hits in the country were Marvin Gaye’s tale of betrayal “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Temptations’ declaration of intent “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” Tommy James & the Shondells’ wistful dream of love “Crimson and Clover” (over and over), and the Doors’ ridiculous “Touch Me.”
Songs that exhibited some social consciousness included Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine,” Joe South’s “Games People Play,” and especially Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Love Child,” which was a kissin’ cousin to “In the Ghetto.”
“Love Child” had been an equally radical departure for the Supremes: rather than a tale of heartbreak and woe, it was a tale of an endless cycle—a vicious circle—of repeated mistakes, in this case, children born out of wedlock and going unloved because of poverty, and then bearing more children out of wedlock.
Love child—never meant to be.
Love child—born in poverty.
Love child—never meant to be.
Love child—take a look at me.
I started my life in an old, cold, rundown tenement slum.
My father left, he never even married Mom.
I shared the guilt my mama knew,
so afraid that others knew I had no name.
But aside from “Love Child” and “In the Ghetto,” there were few hit records expressing any awareness and concern for black youth in the inner cities were never in vogue. In fact, eliminate “In the Ghetto” and “Love Child” and the songs the recordings that meet that criteria that were getting serious AM airplay were effectively zero.
Keep in mind that 1967 was the year that psychedelia got some serious airplay and ’68 was the year that bubblegum music had its fifteen minutes of fame. There is no real history of protest songs or social consciousness songs ever having much impact on the Top 40.
Even if you count Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of Dylan’s less-than-rabble-rousing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the only protest song to top the charts was Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” in 1965!
Finally—and this is rather interesting—if we consider social consciousness songs as a sub-genre, then Elvis was one of the leading artists in that category in the ’60s. With “If I Can Dream,” “In the Ghetto,” and “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” he scored three Top 30 hits, placing him ahead of such folk-based artists as Peter, Paul & Mary and McGuinn and McGuire (who were still a-gettin’ higher in El-Lay and you know where that’s at).
Their manager initially sold the Rolling Stones as the “bad boys” of British rock & roll, a role they often played with glee. Like Elvis before him, lead singer Mick Jagger ushered in a new type of male beauty that made him arguably the most desired pop singer since Elvis.
In another galaxy
“But at least some things can be rationally assumed: perhaps the most important is that, by the late ‘60s, Elvis had kept himself in the game—something that ought to give pause to those who off-handedly dismiss his movie career.” — John Ross
I don’t completely agree with John here: by 1967-1968, Elvis’s soundtrack 45s weren’t making the Top 40 (according to Ernst Jorgensen, some were barely selling 200,000 copies), soundtrack album sales hovered around 300,000, and the movies were turning up at the bottom half of double-features at the drive-in.
While it is common to blame Presley’s lackluster performances on the charts on the heady competition of the second half of the ’60s, that was not the case. To most people who bought records and movie tickets, Presley was totally out of contact with any kind of reality in which they took part or were interested.
In their 1982 book Elvis – The Complete Illustrated Record, Roy Carr and Mick Farren summed up the “Kissin’ Cousins” single of 1965: “The single heralded yet another atrocious movie. In another galaxy, the Rolling Stones issued ‘Not Fade Away’.”
FEATURED IMAGE: The oh-so-serious Elvis in one of his earliest, simplest, and most effective jumpsuits on stage at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, in August 1969. In terms of Elvis-on-stage, this was arguably his peak—he would never be as lean or energized again.