From Elvis in Memphis
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2009, Volume 16, #11
Written by John Metzger
Thu November 19, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
Elvis Presley might not have invented rock ’n‘ roll, but he did come to define it. He seemed to absorb every sound with which he came into contact — from the bluegrass works of Bill Monroe and the western swing of Bob Wills to the gospel recordings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the early R&B of Arthur Crudup. By channeling all of it into a youthful blast of raging hormones and intense longing, Presley became a massive cultural force in the 1950s, the likes of which hadn’t previously been seen.
Arguably, Presley’s recordings at Sun Studios in Memphis remain the pinnacles of his career. In fact, nearly everything that followed can be viewed as an attempt by Presley to recapture the raw power of his emergence as an artist. In his defense, though, his ascent was extraordinarily rapid. Once he was thrust into the limelight, the demands that were placed upon him were undeniably immense. For a while, Presley managed to weather the storm of attention, and his two-year stint in the armed forces likely provided him with a much needed respite.
When he returned in 1960, though, Presley hadn’t figured out how to escape from the insanity of his schedule. He plunged back into the same routine of recording music and making movies, but the process became ridiculously formulaic. It’s no wonder his passion was noticeably absent to the point where his soundtrack albums were padded with previously unreleased material. The most perplexing thing of all, however, was the fact that he appeared to have no desire to break out of his artistic decline. By the middle of the decade, his career was in a tailspin, and his reign over the charts had been supplanted by The Beatles.
Consequently, when Presley entered the recording studio to begin work on From Elvis in Memphis, everything was on the line. He knew this might be his last chance to salvage his legacy, too. His audience had been primed for his return-to-form by a television special that had aired in December 1968. Featuring his first live performances in seven years, the program not only provided a retrospective examination of Presley’s career, but it also alluded to the places he would go on From Elvis in Memphis. For the first time in quite awhile, Presley wasn’t merely going through the motions in order to earn a big paycheck.
If there were any doubts about Presley’s ability to mount his creative re-emergence, they quickly were erased when he returned to Memphis in January 1969. Settling into American Studios, which was in the midst of spawning an astounding string of hit singles, Presley began to run through the material that would compose From Elvis in Memphis. The expanded Legacy Edition of the recording features all of the tracks that were completed for the project, including the songs that fueled its sequel From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis as well as several tunes that turned up on other efforts in the early 1970s. As such, the collection serves as a thorough examination of this portion of Presley’s career.
Throughout From Elvis in Memphis, Presley sounds fully engaged in his work. Although he deployed many of his familiar touchstones, the outing wasn’t meant merely to retrace his steps. Instead, Presley concocted a complementary blend of country, gospel, and R&B that was more sophisticated and mature, one that was dipped in more modern influences that ranged from Otis Redding to The Beatles. Like many of his outings, it is adorned with an assortment of strings and horns. Yet, the arrangements aren’t nearly as obtrusive as they could have been. They don’t mask the in-the-moment urgency of Presley’s impassioned delivery, largely because he fought hard to be heard above the din that surrounded him.
Much has been written over the years about Presley’s various personal and professional struggles. He seems to address many of them head-on during From Elvis in Memphis. Each song seems to have been selected to serve a purpose, one that allowed Presley to make a statement about his own experiences. His fight to reestablish himself as an artist and reconnect with the fans who had deserted him seems to play out in his tales of broken relationships. Of course, the themes that bind the set together also could be taken literally, foreshadowing many of the problems that would plague his family life.
Despite the clarity of its mastering, the latest installment of From Elvis in Memphis still sounds like it was meant to be heard through the diminished speakers of a countertop A.M. radio. Most of the material is presented in stereo, but the 10 mono singles that are appended to the end of the set pack the greatest sonic punch. Within this confined format, tunes — such as In the Ghetto and Any Day Now — were able to blossom within spaces that just felt natural. It’s no wonder that other tracks from the era — Suspicious Minds, Kentucky Rain, and Don’t Cry Daddy, among them — were presented solely as 45s.
Presley had been lost in the wilderness for so long that he was just beginning to explore the possibilities that a cohesive suite of songs could present. The thematic flow of From Elvis in Memphis is an indication that he was ready to turn the page and carry his career into a new era. Unfortunately, under the weight of renewed pressures from the outside world, Presley was never able to capitalize upon his new objectives. If he had, there’s no telling what he might have accomplished alongside the other artists — most notably Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash — who were reshaping Nashville by leaving it behind.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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