THIS SECOND PART of “The Importance of ‘In the Ghetto’ ” is a follow-up to the previously published “The importance of In The Ghetto.” This piece here is a sort of addendum of bits and pieces that can be associated with In The Ghetto the record. It includes an account of my purchase of the record in April 1969, an introduction to the song as Mac Davis conceived it and Elvis recorded it, and my responses to some of John’s key points.
Scattered throughout are some tidbits on Elvis’s final movie and his attempt at “serious acting.” A third part will include a discography with a gallery of images along with record collectors information (a price guide).
In the mid-’60s, I felt an obligation to Elvis to keep buying his increasingly mediocre offerings to keep his profile active on the Top 40.
My buddy Jimmy Peipon and I went record shopping, not something that we usually did together. We ended up at Joe Nardone’s shop, a space that he rented from Wayne’s Department Store in Edwardsville (with wall space!). The day that we were there was sometime in April 1969 and we were both there for the same reason: to buy Elvis Presley’s new single, In The Ghetto.
There was a difference though: for me, buying the new Elvis record was the predictable patterned behavior of the Elvisaddict (not then diagnosed as a personality or social disorder).
I had already lived through Do The Clam (1965), Frankie And Johnny (1966), Long Legged Girl With The Short Dress On (1967), and A Little Less Conversation (1968). So this was just another Elvis score for me and yet not: first, it was the follow-up to the extraordinary If I Can Dream and, second, I had already heard it on the radio and it was fantastical!
First thing I did was email Joe Nardone back in Wilkes-Barre and requested a picture of his shop from the ’60s. Nope! Like most of us, he lost all of those things in the Great Flood of ’72. So I went looking through the Internet for photos of Joe’s shop that may have been posted by an old employee or customer. Nope! So I settled for an image of a small shop in 1967 that at least captures the personal feel that such shops had back then.
Weird scene in the basement
Keep in mind, that there was no anticipation prior to buying the singles above (1965-68), simply a sense of obligation, an obligation to Elvis to keep buying his increasingly mediocre offerings to keep his profile active on the Top 40.
Beginning with If I Can Dream and the with the Memphis singles—In The Ghetto, Suspicious Minds (especially Suspicious Minds!), Don’t Cary Daddy, and Kentucky Rain—there was a great deal of anticipation and the pleasant sort of butterflies-in-the-tummy effect that such forward-looking excitement causes.
Jim, on the other hand, had never bought an Elvis record before. While we were both nerdy kinda guys, his older brother John was pretty hip when it came to knowing what was up in the world of rock. A diehard Stones fan (a group that I loathed at the time), he had a friend in California send him copies of tapes from the Doors’ first album before it was released.
Listening to that music in late 1966 when we were just 15 was a weird scene, although not inside a gold mine but in the Peipon’s basement. There, John had his craft shop—he worked wonders on cheap WWI model airplanes with paint and fishing line (as guy-wire)—and hideaway.
This performance of In The Ghetto 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 item!
So Jimmy was exposed to a lot of cool music and for him to want an Elvis single was great. Maybe it would be the gateway drug into Elvisdom and he would discover the transcendent Sun sides of 1954-55 and the extraordinary 1956-57 Victor recordings and ELVIS IS BACK and Hell’s Belles maybe even HIS HAND IN MINE, the only gospel music that I owned.
Anything was possible that day in ’69.
There it was on Joe’s wall, in one of the metal pockets that held a 45 face out. The Top 40 according to WARM (“The Mighty 590”) took up the top four rows on Joe’s wall and In The Ghetto was on the bottom row. It may have been the WARM Pick Hit of the Week but it didn’t make no know-how to me!
I just pulled all of the records out of the pocket, picked the two mintiest (a term that had little meaning at the time as collectoritis was still years in the future for Americans in general) picture sleeves out of the stack, handed one to Jim and we each paid Howard 79¢ (plus a few pennies tax) and that was that.
As we left with our records (and I assume that we bought others as we were both into the contemporary scene and ’69 was a heady ear for rock music), I was left to wonder about the blurb on the picture sleeve that told me that Elvis’s new album FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS was coming soon! 1
Mac and Elvis in the ghetto
Mac Davis published In The Ghetto under his pseudonym Scott Davis. He had already had four songs recorded by Elvis in 1968: A Little Less Conversation for the movie Live A Little, Love A Little in March; Nothingville and Memories for the Singer Presents Elvis television special in June, and Clean Up Your Own Backyard for the movie The Trouble With Girls in October.
Another one of his songs, Don’t Cry, Daddy, would be Elvis’s third hit from the ’69 Memphis session. According to 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.” (Mac Davis, 2002)
Davis published the song as In The Ghetto (The Vicious Circle) but RCA received permission from Davis to drop the subtitle before giving the song to Elvis. Released as RCA Victor 47-9741 and backed with Any Day Now (a track that I would have no difficulty in arguing as Elvis’s best-ever performances).
Billboard’s review said that “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.”
Above is a video of the stereo mix of the recording from the 20 #1 HITS album; below are the song’s lyrics. I have laid the lyrics 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 mornin’
a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto.
And his mama cries,
’cause 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 someday.
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 mornin’
another little baby child is born in the ghetto.
And his mama cries . . .
In The Ghetto debuted on the Cash Box Top 100 on May 3, 1969. It peaked at #1 on June 28, 1969, on the Cash Box Top 100, spending five weeks in Top 10. Alas, it only reached #3 on Billboard, but that is the number everyone bandies about these days.
At the annual American Medical Aggregation’s Doctors & Their Patience With Patients Banquet, Dr. John Carpenter was presented with the award for Best Sideburns of 1969. Here he shows the ‘burns off and explains their origin and conception to two new volunteers for the good doctor’s clinic in an inner New York City neighborhood.
The next few paragraphs contain quotes from John’s article (in rusty-brown print) followed by my responses in normal black type. Please keep in mind that 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.”
Agreed. This unbelievably ignorant (just plain stoopit?) attitude or belief was common for decades—DECADES!—among rockwriters and historians who should have known better. The litany went like this: the amazing Sun recordings were essentially the creation of Sam Phillips and/or Scotty Moore. While Sam did go on to do some amazing work with Jerry Lee Lewis, he never came close to the Elvis sides. And Scotty went on to become a footnote in most historians’ notebooks.
The RCA Victor sides were a result of Steve Sholes’ not interfering with Leiber and Stoller in the studio and the “genius” of the Colonel everywhere else.
The post-Army comeback was the incredible band that backed Elvis in Nashville (Hank Garland, Bob Moore, Boots Randolph, and Floyd Cramer supplemented Elvis’s regular crew) and engineer/producer’ Bill Porter’s studio savvy.
The HOW GREAT THOU ART SESSION sessions were owed to the enthusiasm of new producer Felton Jarvis while the NBC television special Singer Presents Elvis was the brainchild of Steve Binder.
The Memphis sessions were the product of the vision of Chips Moman.
Only in the ’70s do these folks allow Presley the dignity of crediting him for his creations. And then they dump on him: this despite THAT’S THE WAY IT IS and ELVIS COUNTRY (recorded in 1970) and HIS HAND IN MINE (1971) and Burning Love and Always On My Mind (1972) and Promised Land and Lovin’ Arms (1973) and yada yoda blah blah blah.
“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.”
Agreed. 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 July 12, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone (#37) gave Elvis the cover and feature story. Titled “Elvis Presley On Set: You Won’t Ask Elvis Anything Too Deep?” by William Otterburn-Hall, it addressed Presley on the set of his latest movie, Change Of Habit. Please note that while it took Elvis five million-selling singles and four million-dollar albums in an eighteen-month period to qualify for the cover of Rolling Stone.
There was no bandwagon
The laryngitis part is apparently true; it delayed the sessions while Elvis stayed home and recuperated (Moman and the band laid down instrumental tracks—the time was paid for and work needed to be done.)
“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 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.”
Especially if the decisions were Elvis’s, which every source assures us that 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, perhaps the best soundtrack recording in six years and a worthy follow-up 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 merely riding a bandwagon.
But there was no bandwagon of social consciousness or protest songs in 1968-69. 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 Top 40 radio.
The only protest song to ever top either the Billboard or Cash Box charts was Barry McGuire’s Eve Of Destruction in 1965!
In January 1969, when Elvis decided to cut Mac Davis’s song, 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 to be Crimson And Clover, the Doors’ ridiculous plea for some form of contact Touch Me.
Songs that can be considered to exhibit some social consciousness included Sly & The Family Stone’s Everyday People, the Temptations’ Cloud Nine, Diana Ross & The Supremes’ Love Child, Joe South’s Games People Play, and Elvis’ If I Can Dream.
That was it.
So it wasn’t that an avenue for recordings of white singers expressing awareness and concern for black teenagers in the country’s inner cities suddenly came into vogue. In fact, eliminate In The Ghetto and the songs the recordings meet that criteria that were getting serious AM airplay was effectively zero.
Keep in mind that 1967 was the year that psychedelia began getting some serious airplay and ’68 was the year that bubblegum music had its fifteen minutes of fame so there was no recent history of such songs to point to. In fact, 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 ever top the charts was Barry McGuire’s Eve Of Destruction in 1965!
Finally, if we consider social consciousness songs as a sub-genre, then Elvis Presley 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 PP&M and Dylan and McGuinn and McGuire (who were still a-gettin’ higher) and I could go but will end here because I have never ever read anywhere else that Mr. Presley was at the head of his class in this particular school . . .
“My friends really didn’t understand why any white person would vote for anybody but George Wallace.”
This statement was not only common in the South but wherever there were large pockets of racist whites. (Not that racism is confined to any group of people; humans are predisposed to xenophobia via evolution, otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have survived.)
Sheet music for Mac Davis’s version of In The Ghetto retains “The Vicious Circle” as its subtitle. It was published by Screen Gems/EMI Music and Elvis Presley Music in 1969.
Back in the real world
But among Democratic-leaning voters in the Northeast, Wallace was beyond creepy, the epitome of that which was horrifying and revolting about our Southern Americans: a white man that actively sought office by keeping down the black man and who had millions of supporters.
Of course, these people are still with us today, many of them in the latest version of the “D0-Nothing” 113th Congress of these here (dis)United States of America.
“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.”
I don’t agree with John here: by 1967-68, Elvis was not only not having hits on the Top 40, but he also wasn’t selling any LPs either. While it was common to blame it on the heady competition of the second half of the ’60s, but that simply was not the case. Presley was totally out to lunch by most record-buyers and moviegoers’ terms.
His take on the consensual reality of popular culture was so askew that his movies had been tagged “Elvis movies,” a sub-genre of B- (bee minus) films that existed in a world of their own. As 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 – The Complete Illustrated Record, 1982)
After six shows in three days at the Houston Astrodome, a special press conference was held on February 28, 1970. There Elvis was presented with RIAA Gold Records Awards for five records released in 1969. There were three singles (sales of 1,000,000 copies in the US): In The Ghetto, Suspicious Minds, and Don’t Cry, Daddy. There were also two albums (for $1,000,000 in wholesale sales in the US): FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS and FROM MEMPHIS TO VEGAS.
The header image explained
The photo at the top of this page was taken in March or April 1969 during a break in the filming of Change Of Habit. In the movie, Elvis played a doctor working in a ghetto. The film was conceived of in 1967 and was scheduled as a starring vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore when she signed on in late 1968. She graciously surrendered that prestigious position to Presley when he agreed to come aboard in January 1969.
Coincidentally, it was in January ’69 that Elvis recorded In The Ghetto at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Two things have always surprised me: first, that Colonel Parker did not make In The Ghetto a part of the soundtrack for Change Of Habit. Certainly, the inclusion of a worldwide hit record would have secured the movie far more free (the Colonel’s favorite word) publicity than the inclusion of another single’s B-side.
Second, that more people (read rock-writers and historians) have NOT pointed out the obvious and intentional connection between the song’s theme (a tough, short life in the ghetto)—which was almost certainly short-listed as a single while still a demo, meaning in no later than January ’69—and the movie’s premise (inner-city neighborhoods need free clinics for the tough, short lives of their inhabitants).
Also, movies about the experiences of real black Americans in real white America were scarce as black major league sports owners then. The very idea that Elvis-bloody-Presley would make a movie that even broached on the topic should have had social and movie critics talking.
It did not . . .
Despite the fact that Change Of Habit was a superior Presley movie, that it came after Presley’s reinvigorated career and success as a recording artist (In The Ghetto and Suspicious Minds and FROM ELVIS IN MEMPHIS) and entertainer (his precedent and attendance breaking comeback in Las Vegas), Change Of Habit was ignored by all but the diehard fans (and everyone else who got stuck watching it as the warm-up film at a drive-in double-feature).
It is mainly viewed today by non-Elvisaddicts as a curio, a dated bit of liberal Hollywood’s social consciousness (when the mainstream corporate media had none). 3
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, I want to thank John Ross for granting permission for me to use his work and to motivate me to address some of the issues surrounding Elvis and the ’69 Memphis sessions in general and the first single from those sessions especially. And recommend that everyone check Change Of Habit out of the library and give it a look-see . . .
1 James John Peipon was one of the few people that I grew up with that fulfilled his lifelong ambition (he may have been the only person I knew with a lifelong ambition!), that was to be a doctor. He has been a pediatrician for ages and it suits him well: when I went back east for my 25th high school reunion, Jim and his wife stood out as the couple who appeared most content with themselves and their place in life. (I did not ask him if he ever developed a greater love for the music of Elvis Presley.)
2 While it is usually only Elvis completists who seek out the Gold Standard Series, I want to point out that many of these reissues are very hard to find, especially the black labels with Nipper on the left side (1965-68), which sell for $25-50 apiece, and the orange labels (1969), which sell for $50-100 each.
3 In the movie, Dr. Carpenter gives soothing physical and emotional attention to a little girl who may be an example of autism decades before its rise to prominence as yet another malady of life in the Atomic Age.