Elvis Vegas 1969 karate pose 1500 crop

on a cold and gray chicago morn another love child is born

THE WORLD IN 1968 looked like it was on its way to perdi­tion. In the United States, the as­sas­si­na­tion of Martin Luther King Jr in April led to the Holy Week Up­rising. This was the greatest civil un­rest in the country in more than a hun­dred years! In June, “they” as­sas­si­nated Pres­i­den­tial hopeful, Robert Kennedy. In Au­gust, the Chicago po­lice ri­oted at the De­mo­c­ratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion. They at­tacked and beat people while tele­vi­sion crews filmed them—then they beat some of the TV crews!
 
Two weeks after Bobby’s murder, Elvis Presley recorded “If I Can Dream,” a song about peace and broth­er­hood. It was un­like any­thing he had ever recorded! It was also un­like any­thing ever played on Top 40 radio. It was part of the first steps that Presley had taken to re­store his ca­reer and his rep­u­ta­tion.
 
In Jan­uary 1969, Presley re­turned to Mem­phis to record in his home­town for the first time since 1955. “In the Ghetto” by Mac Davis laid among the pile of demos sub­mitted for his con­sid­er­a­tion. Elvis not only recorded the song but to re­lease it as his next single.
 
This was sig­nif­i­cant not only for Elvis but for pop and rock music. Ex­cept for Barry McGuire’s “Eve of De­struc­tion” in 1965, there wasn’t much of sub­stance about top­ical con­cerns on the radio. They usu­ally avoided sub­jects such as the Vietnam War and the draft or poverty and on Top 40 radio in the ’60s.

 

Elvis InTheGhetto PS AskFor 600

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

Elvis was a Southern white man often ac­cused of “stealing the black man’s music.” So it was a ballsy de­ci­sion to re­lease a record showing com­pas­sion for the young (black) men dying in the streets. And usu­ally dying be­fore re­al­izing any of their dreams.
 
“In the Ghetto” turned out to be one of the most im­por­tant records in Presley’s ca­reer. Un­for­tu­nately, writers have given it little at­ten­tion in the count­less ar­ti­cles and books about Presley’s ca­reer. We are giving it our at­ten­tion here at Tell It Like It Was.
 
 
“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.” (Mac Davis)
 
 
This is the second of three ar­ti­cles on the im­por­tance of “In the Ghetto.” The first part is “How Much Can One Record Mean?” There John Ross ex­am­ines the record from the per­spec­tive of someone who was a young­ster at the time of its re­lease. He came to his un­der­standing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its im­por­tance after the fact.
 
This second part looks at the same record from someone who lived through the de­cline and fall and res­ur­rec­tion of Elvis Presley at the time it was oc­cur­ring. While this took place in the space of a few years (1962-1969), it seemed like for­ever. In this ar­ticle, I refer to sev­eral state­ments from John’s ar­ticle: I re­spond and hope­fully add to John’s ob­ser­va­tions.
 
So, if you are reading this ar­ticle, you should first read “How Much Can One Record Mean?
 

 

Elvis InTheGhetto PS Italy 600

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?!!?

 

AmericanSoundStudio 1000

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.

 

Newsweek TheNegroInAmerica 11 20 1967 600

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.

 

Elvis SteveBinder talking 2 1968 1000

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.

 

Supremes LoveChild LP US 600

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).

 

RollingStones NotFadeAway PS US 600

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’.”

 

Elvis Vegas 1969 karate pose 1000

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.

 

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