Elvis AmericanSoundStudio

on the importance of “in the ghetto”

IN EARLY 1969, fol­lowing the as­sas­si­na­tion of Martin Luther King Jr and the Holy Week Up­rising and then the as­sas­si­na­tion of Robert Kennedy and the po­lice riot at the De­mo­c­ratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, Elvis Presley chose to record a mes­sage song about racism. It turned out to be one of the most im­por­tant records in his ca­reer, al­though it is rarely rec­og­nized as such.

He in­sisted In The Ghetto be re­leased as a single in the heady po­lit­ical cli­mate of the time. Given that he was just at the be­gin­ning of his come­back from years tar­rying in the back lots of Hol­ly­wood, it was a ballsy de­ci­sion. Yet very little at­ten­tion is given this recording in the many words written about Pres­ley’s ca­reer.

 This piece at­tempts to rec­tify that a wee bit. But first, this is the first guest ar­ticle by an­other writer that I have posted on any of my blogs. The site’s pro­pri­etor goes by the on­line moniker of Nondis­pos­able Johnny but who lives and breathes in Con­sen­sual Re­ality with an­other name. On his blog, he covers a lot of the same music and times that I do, in­cluding Elvis Presley (and books and movies and a few other things).

 

In 1969, In The Ghetto was not without its own trou­bles: the song’s po­lit­ical con­tent un­nerved some of Elvis’ friends.

 

Based on my reading, he is a few years younger than I am but has sim­ilar re­sponses to Elvis’s music, es­pe­cially with age and hind­sight. This ar­ticle ad­dresses one of the most im­por­tant record­ings and re­leases of Pres­ley’s ca­reer, In The Ghetto.

I am let­ting it stand alone: I have added photos with cap­tions and an ending but will ad­dress this at length in a follow-up post. So, here it is reti­tled as “On The Im­por­tance Of In The Ghetto” by John Walker Ross. His words begin after the first hor­i­zontal line below and ends just be­fore the second hor­i­zontal line. I tack a few words onto the end, of course.

 

Elvis_Ghetto_PS

The pic­ture sleeve for In the Ghetto was just an­other typ­ical Elvis sleeve from the time. Nothing about it her­alds the im­por­tance of the record within. 


How much can one record mean?

In The Ghetto was not without its own trou­bles: the song’s po­lit­ical con­tent (gentle, al­most vapid by today’s stan­dards) un­nerved some of Elvis’ friends.” – Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams from the liner notes to the 2009 Legacy Edi­tion of FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS com­pact disc.

Elvis Presley’s mon­u­mental come­back in the late ’60s has been parsed a thou­sand ways. He was rest­less after a decade of life­less movies and dead-end sound­tracks. He re­al­ized his ca­reer was at stake and de­cided he’d better get off his lazy hill­billy bottom and crank it up one more time. The Colonel let him out of the Zombie Pad on a twenty-four-month pass. He had a cold. Steve Binder—the ’68 Come­back Special’s ad­mit­tedly won­derful producer—caught him in a good mood and used some clever voodoo to get him in­ter­ested again.

The moon was about to be in the sev­enth house and Jupiter was about to align with Mars. I’m para­phrasing, of course.

There’s no point in dig­ging up the exact quotes; they’re too fa­miliar to those who know the ‘Elvis Nar­ra­tive’ to be worth re­peating and too lazy and hap­hazard to be worth dig­ni­fying for those who don’t.

 

Recording and re­leasing In The Ghetto in 1969 may have con­sti­tuted the single most im­por­tant se­ries of de­ci­sions in Elvis Presley’s ca­reer.

 

The basic drill is the usual one: 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.

The way In The Ghetto (RCA Victor 47-9741, April 1969) has been gen­er­ally handled—as a subset of the 1969 Mem­phis sessions—is typ­ical: it’s ig­nored. Or it’s side­lined. It’s good but it’s not … im­por­tant! Maybe as a piece of the overall mo­ment, but not for it­self.

It’s “gentle, al­most vapid by today’s stan­dards,” and Elvis re­ally, re­ally had to be talked into recording it even so. (Read: “What­ever he meant by it, don’t worry, be­cause he didn’t re­ally mean any­thing.”)

I guess I’ll have to say I beg to differ. 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.

I know nearly everyone who is old enough to re­member that par­tic­ular year has been trying to em­balm it ever since: it’s a dread, apoc­a­lyptic mo­ment for some, a moment-when-all-things-seemed-possible happy pill for others, and one state of de­nial is just about as thor­ough (and delu­sional) as an­other.

It’s useful, I think, to try and view it from Elvis’s per­spec­tive. I know this re­quires taking lib­er­ties. Elvis prob­ably held his views about art, pol­i­tics, and the world in gen­eral closer to the vest than any artist in his cen­tury who had both a le­git­i­mate claim to the last level of great­ness and a fair op­por­tu­nity to share what he thought about it all if he so de­sired.

So we don’t know much of what he was re­ally feeling; even quotes we can trust to be ac­cu­rate carry little real weight or con­text be­cause Elvis was a lot of things to a lot of people—including the people closest to him—and trying to guess who re­ally “got” him at any given mo­ment is a fool’s er­rand.

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.

The brief re­vivalist pe­riod of the early ’70s, when Chuck Berry and Rick Nelson could have big hits (well, one apiece anyway), was still sev­eral years off and would owe a great deal to Elvis’s own resur­gence, in any case.

•   In 1968, the Everly Brothers had re­leased ROOTS—one of the great al­bums of the century—and got ex­actly nowhere with it. Ray Charles was be­coming known as a reg­ular guest on tele­vi­sion va­riety shows and was al­ready three and a half years re­moved from the last Top 10 hit of his ca­reer.

•  Bo Did­dley was twenty years away from the Nike com­mer­cials that would give his nightly per­for­mance fee its one re­maining bump.

•  Jerry Lee Lewis was a rather safe, suc­cessful, main­stream country act and, de­spite his own far-reaching net­work va­riety show, so was Johnny Cash.

•  Brenda Lee wasn’t even that—though she would have a come­back on the country charts in the ’70s.

•  James Brown was still rel­e­vant, but he had only re­ally broken through to the com­mer­cial main­stream in the mid-’60s and wouldn’t re­ally stay there much longer.

Within a few months, on the oc­ca­sion of his epic Vegas opening, Elvis him­self would grab fellow head­liner Fats Domino—by then even fur­ther mar­gin­al­ized than most of the others—and in­tro­duce him as “the real king of rock and roll,” a pro­nounce­ment that was met with baf­fle­ment by the press corps at the time and has, along with dozens of other sim­i­larly ex­pressed sen­ti­ments, been dropped down the memory hole by those bent on prop­a­gating a cer­tain nar­ra­tive ever since.

Com­pared to every single one of his im­por­tant con­tem­po­raries, then, Elvis was in de­cent shape. He was on the side­lines while they were in the cheap seats on their way to being ush­ered quickly and qui­etly to the parking lot.

Com­pared to the gi­ants who had come to the fore as his con­tem­po­raries faded, how­ever, he was nowhere.

They were en­gaged, he was dis­tant.

They were speaking to the times, he was a thing of the past.

They were making the music “rel­e­vant,” he was the symbol of a phase that had to be passed through (rock ’n’ roll, the fifties) be­fore the re­ally im­por­tant stuff (Rock, The Six­ties) could happen.

They were the Bea­tles and the Stones and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hen­drix and Aretha Franklin and the Who and the Doors.

He was the ghost that they—or at least the times—had tran­scended.

Then, in the summer of 1968, using a TV Christmas spe­cial that would air in De­cember as his medium, he had “re-engaged” and—Voilà!—all that was swept away.

 

Elvis_AmericanSoundStudio

Be it ever so humble, for Elvis, there was no place like Chips Mo­man’s Amer­ican Sound Studio at 827 Thomas Street in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee. This photo was taken decades after the stu­dio’s heyday and de­spite having recorded great music and some big hits for the Box Tops, Neil Di­a­mond, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Spring­field, and B.J. Thomas (among many others) what should be a his­tor­ical land­mark is just an­other run­down building in Mem­phis.

This bird will have flown

Any se­rious stu­dent of Elvis Presley’s music knows this is a grossly over­sim­pli­fied nar­ra­tive. Elvis’s music ca­reer had been run­ning on dual tracks ever since he left the army in the spring of 1960. This isn’t the place to dis­cuss that journey in-depth, but suf­fice to say, the music he made in the “Come­back Spe­cial” and the sub­se­quent Mem­phis ses­sions that pro­duced In The Ghetto did not spring from a vacuüm. (I would rec­om­mend a close listen to It Hurts Me from 1964 and his gospel ses­sions from 1966 as easy proof, though that still only scratches the sur­face.)

Still, there was one place Elvis cer­tainly had not gone, and that was into the arena of top­ical protest music.

 

What was seldom ad­dressed was any con­dem­na­tion of the kind of cruel, cyclical, working-class poverty in which Elvis him­self had been born and raised.

 

Again, it’s easy to over­sim­plify this: the no­tion of truly pop­ular, overtly po­lit­ical “protest” music—not the working-man blues va­riety that was a staple of vir­tu­ally every pop­ular genre, but rather issue-specific ma­te­rial that not only lamented in­jus­tice but sug­gested real pos­si­bil­i­ties of chal­lenge and change—had been around for­ever.

But it had ac­tu­ally only come to fruition in the folk move­ment of the early ’60s—mostly with the dual emer­gence of the much-lauded song­writing of Bob Dylan and the seldom fully ap­pre­ci­ated singing of Peter, Paul & Mary, which ac­tu­ally put it on the charts.

Great as some of that music was, by the late ’60s top­ical music had more or less broken down into a handful of basic cat­e­gories: pleas for uni­versal tol­er­ance and broth­er­hood, de­pic­tions of so­cial un­rest or in­jus­tice (usu­ally racial), and war protest.

What was seldom addressed—and what re­mained es­sen­tially un­spoken on records meant to com­pete for high po­si­tions on the pop charts—was any con­dem­na­tion of the kind of cruel, cyclical, working-class poverty in which Elvis him­self had been born and raised.

And, since there was no role model for this kind of protest record having any kind of com­mer­cial suc­cess, it’s worth taking an extra-hard look at just where Elvis’s ca­reer stood at the mo­ment it showed up on his radar.

 

Elvis_IfDream_PS

Yes, the ’68 Come­back Spe­cial had been a tri­umph. Yes, the TV show’s first single, If I Can Dream, had been a big (though not mon­u­mental) hit, reaching #12 on the Bill­board chart. But the second re­lease, Mem­o­ries, got only to #35, not much better than av­erage for Presley’s post-1965 sin­gles. 1

Where all my brothers walk hand in hand

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 rating 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.

Looking back now, it’s very easy to see the re­maining arc of Presley’s ca­reer from 1968 on­ward as a se­ries of suc­cessful as­saults on one citadel after an­other: Christmas spe­cial, the Top 40, Vegas, Madison Square Garden, Global-concert-via-satellite and, fi­nally, the Pearly Gates—all falling down like domi­noes.

 

For all that Elvis knew at the time, In The Ghetto might make or break his fu­ture.

 

Where it all might have gone if the first single from the Mem­phis ses­sions had flopped–or even just done mod­er­ately well–is pure spec­u­la­tion. My own best guess is that it prob­ably would have gone just about the same. But the im­por­tant thing to re­member is that Elvis could not make any such safe as­sump­tions.

For all he knew—even with a string of what, with ben­efit of hind­sight, we know were sure­fire hits and per­ma­nent radio sta­ples in the can (Sus­pi­cious Minds, Don’t Cry Daddy, and Ken­tucky Rain) —that first re­lease might make or break his fu­ture.

Was he going to get back in the game or be un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously benched? Was he going to re­gain the throne, or spend the rest of his ca­reer swap­ping va­riety show bills with Ray Charles or “back to the country” tours with Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash?

Those pos­si­bil­i­ties may seem ab­surd now, but they must have seemed very real to Elvis in the early months of 1969 when he made—or at least approved—the de­ci­sion to re­lease In The Ghetto as his next single.

 

Elvis_GeorgeWallace

George C. Wal­lace, Jr was the 45th Gov­ernor of Al­abama who served in that ca­pacity for six­teen years as a De­mo­crat (1963–1967, 1971–1979 and 1983–1987). He served them as a seg­re­ga­tionist De­mo­crat back when that party was per­ceived as op­posed to the Great Eman­ci­pator Abraham Lin­coln, a Rep*blican.

All we need to do is listen

Be­fore I talk about the record it­self, I’ll cast my own memory back: I don’t re­member a whole lot specif­i­cally about 1969—I was eight years old. But I re­member the pe­riod. I re­member the gen­eral at­mos­phere in the working-class South throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s.

I re­member school bus rides and back­yard foot­ball games and lunch­room breaks where the boys’ talk oc­ca­sion­ally got around to “who your par­ents voted for” in both the 1968 and ’72 elec­tions. I’m not saying it was an everyday oc­cur­rence. Hardly. But once, maybe twice a year, some­thing or other brought it up.

So I can tell you this: I was al­ways in the small mi­nority of those who had to admit his par­ents voted for Nixon. And what this mostly met with was not so much hos­tility or scorn as puz­zle­ment.

The 10- or 12- or 14-year old boys I went to school with and played pick-up foot­ball with back in ’70, ’71, and ’72 didn’t es­pe­cially have any­thing against Richard Nixon. They had heard he wasn’t so bad. But they re­ally didn’t un­der­stand why any white person would vote for any­body but George Wal­lace.

I mean, didn’t my par­ents know that Wal­lace had promised to send all the black people back to Africa? (And no, they didn’t say “black people.”) Truth be told, I have no idea to this day what George Wal­lace promised in the 1968 or ’72 cam­paigns. It’s just one of those things I never got around to looking up.

But I know what the kids I rode buses with and ate lunch with and kicked the foot­ball around with thought he had promised. And, since I know how right they thought George Wal­lace was to make this promise, I know how right their par­ents thought he was, too.

So I also know this: for the most fa­mous Southern white man since George Wash­ington to pull In The Ghetto out of his demo pile in 1969 and spend twenty-three takes get­ting it right—more than twice his usual (for com­par­ison with a couple of other big hits from the same ses­sions, Sus­pi­cious Minds took eight takes, and Ken­tucky Rain took ten)—and then ap­prove its re­lease as a po­ten­tial make-or-break single at one of the most cru­cial points of his ca­reer meant some­thing.

What it meant to his­tory and the world at large can be de­bated eter­nally. But for what it meant to Elvis, I think all we need to do is listen.

 

Elvis_69Memphis_Girls

This photo was taken at Chips Mo­man’s Amer­ican Sound Stu­dios in Mem­phis on Jan­uary 22, 1969. Here Elvis is posing with his singers Mary Hol­laday, Jeannie Greene, Donna Thatcher, and Ginger Hol­laday. As Presley Product was re­leased sans credit or pic­tures of the mu­si­cians or singers that helped Elvis make his records, in 1969 we had no way of knowing that the in­cred­ibly soulful backing vo­cals on the Mem­phis record­ings were by four white girls—because they cer­tainly didn’t sound like any other white girls at the time!

The inevitable consequences of poverty

Backing up to the state­ment at the top of this post, Elvis’s most as­sid­uous bi­og­ra­pher, Peter Gu­ral­nick, has called Mac Davis’s lyric “ab­stract, al­most fairy tale” in form, while also sug­gesting that con­cerns with “the in­evitable con­se­quences of ghetto poverty and so­ci­etal in­dif­fer­ence and pleading for com­pas­sion for black youth … may well seem mild today.”

Ac­tu­ally, such sen­ti­ments are more like nonex­is­tent today and Davis’s lyric would be better de­scribed as tren­chant and prophetic. “Take a look at you and me,” Elvis sang in 1969, “are we too blind to see? Or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?”

 

Without yielding to even a trace of false piety, Elvis wrung every last bit of meaning from a lyric that was closer to bib­lical parable than fairy tale.

 

You couldn’t come up with a better de­scrip­tion of America over the last forty years than a na­tion learning to turn its head and look the other way—and not just at poverty. The Chicago streets that Davis–like Elvis, a southern white man raised breathing Pen­te­costal air–described so “mildly,” “ab­stractly,” “al­most va­pidly” are presently suf­fi­ciently awash in murder that it’s ac­tu­ally news.

And, hey, given the normal All-American murder rates, that’s saying some­thing. But Elvis’s ver­sion of In The Ghetto doesn’t draw its last mea­sure of power from its rel­e­vance to the head­lines of 1969 or yes­terday.

It still rings deep and true be­cause, for all the master touches of what were then pop fundamentals—the quiet shine of the acoustic guitar, the soulful fe­male backing chorus, the omi­nous, mar­tial drum­ming at the close—Presley’s vocal cuts too close to the bone to be hemmed in by the hit-making stan­dards of any par­tic­ular pe­riod, even one as great at the late ’60s.

Let’s be honest: protest lyrics date, even great ones like In The Ghetto. They date even if the un­der­lying mes­sage does not. Pro­duc­tion methods date. So do in­stru­mental styles and fash­ions in soulful fe­male cho­ruses.

The only thing that doesn’t date are the great voices.

As personal as a confession

For all its broad, po­lit­ical por­tent, In The Ghetto was prob­ably as per­sonal for Elvis Presley as a con­fes­sional. Think what it meant for the boy, born in poverty him­self, who had been walked to school by his own mother until he was a teenager, to con­tem­plate a woman so des­ti­tute she can only dread the ar­rival of “an­other hungry mouth to feed,” and you can readily un­der­stand Elvis’s al­most im­pos­sible com­mit­ment to nu­ance, his de­ter­mi­na­tion to make the con­nec­tion com­plete.

Nowhere else did he draw on his al­ways care­fully parceled “south­ernisms” more adroitly or ef­fec­tively. Over and over, for this per­for­mance as for vir­tu­ally no other, he used the common lan­guage of blacks and working-class white south­erners (“Mum-ma” for “mama,” the very slightly elon­gated “i” in “chi-ld,” the hard ac­cent on the second syl­lable in “get-toe”) to draw the scenes of a northern ghetto closer and closer to him­self and, by ex­ten­sion, to an audience—a very spe­cific part of his audience—which cer­tainly in­cluded at least some of the par­ents of the boys who thought it was weird my par­ents didn’t vote for George Wal­lace.

In a time and place where the word “ghetto” had long since been ap­pro­pri­ated from its Eu­ro­pean ori­gins and given the sin­gular meaning it still re­tains for middle-class Americans—a place where poor blacks are kept sep­a­rate from every­body else by any means necessary—the boy from the Tu­pelo shotgun shack by way of the Mem­phis housing projects took his sweet time and, without yielding to even a trace of false piety or self-righteous anger, wrung every last bit of meaning from a lyric that was closer to bib­lical parable than “fairy tale.”

The world’s a com­pli­cated place, of course. We shouldn’t forget that Elvis would even­tu­ally offer to hire a hit-man to take out George Wallace’s would-be as­sassin only to have Wal­lace gently re­buff him in the name of Chris­tian for­give­ness. We also shouldn’t forget that Elvis prob­ably left a few fa­ther­less, po­ten­tially “angry” young chil­dren roaming the earth him­self.

But the thing about art is that it does offer an op­por­tu­nity for tran­scen­dence.

In the mo­ment when it counted—the mo­ment when both the artist and the man had the most to lose—Elvis kept the deepest faith by very specif­i­cally picking up a song by a then little-known writer and putting the blame for the link be­tween a child whose “hunger burns” and “an angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand,” right where the now thor­oughly ne­glected New Tes­ta­ment he had been raised on said it be­longed.

On those too blind to see.

I don’t know if there will ever be a time when the world can’t use a little more of that, but I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet.

 

Elvis_MomanCrew

Elvis posing with the main mem­bers of Chips Mo­man’s house band at Amer­ican Sound Studio. From left to right: Bobby Wood (key­boards), Mike Leech (bass), Tommy Cog­bill (bass), Gene Chrisman (drums), Bobby Em­mons (key­boards), and Reggie Young (guitar) with en­gi­neer Ed Kollis and song­writer Dan Penn.

That shmaltzy sustain

The fol­lowing (in­dented) ob­ser­va­tion was made by Allen Lowe in an ar­ticle ti­tled “Ten Things You Prob­ably Don’t Know About Mis­sis­sippi Blues Mu­si­cians” pub­lished in the Ox­ford Amer­ican #75, the 13th An­nual Southern Music Issue from 2011.

“And, fur­ther, when [Elvis Presley] went to Mem­phis in 1968 to record with a fine mu­sical wrecking crew of ac­com­plished studio mu­si­cians, he sounded, once again, as though he was ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in what he was singing. And, even better, on some of the early songs he recorded there, he per­formed with a touch of laryngitis–which not only curbed some of his post-gospel ex­cesses (that heavy and throaty vi­brato and some­times shmaltzy sus­tain of cer­tain point­lessly held notes) but which made him, if only briefly, into a near-pure, hoarse-souled blues singer of deep southern res­o­nance.”

In case you missed the key nugget in there–and I can un­der­stand how the eyes might glaze–Elvis pro­duced the greatest vocal record­ings of the twen­tieth cen­tury be­cause he was lucky enough to get laryn­gitis at the be­gin­ning of the ses­sions.

Here’s a nice ex­per­i­ment: 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” …

My final words? Amen, brother.

 


 

Elvis_GoldSuit

POSTSCRIPTUALLY, the ar­ticle above (every­thing be­tween the sub-title “How much can one record mean?” and this post­script ex­cept the photo cap­tions was orig­i­nally posted on The Round Place In the Middle as “How Much Can One Record Mean – Volume 5″ (July 18, 2012) or on “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” (April 27, 2012). Doncha think it’s time to click on over to John’s site and reg­ister as a reg­ular reader?

 

 

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Nice job Neal and thanks for the shout-out and the thoughtful commentary.…Love those Amer­ican Studio photos, es­pe­cially the one demon­strating the point about the white back­ground singers! Racial con­fu­sion in “the rev­o­lu­tion” is some­thing I’ve been putting a lot of thought into lately with an eye to­ward a post or two on the sub­ject.

Also, I’m re­ally in­ter­ested if you know a good main source on Cash Box…the main reason I’ve re­lied on the Bill­board record so much is that it’s readily available…Would love to know if there are any pub­lished or on-line sources that do for Cash Box what Joel Whit­burn does for Bill­board. (Pop charts but others as well, es­pe­cially R&B). (I do have one book that was put out back in the late sev­en­ties, but it only covers Top Twenty Pop and up to 1973.) Anyway, thanks again!

JR

Just sent an­other email to your gmail ad­dress. Check your JUNK folder if you don’t re­ceive it soon.

NU

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