360°Sound caught up with Eric Wolfson, author of the new 33 1/3 book on Elvis Presley’s classic 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis (out Nov. 12 on Bloomsbury Academic). After a 14-year absence, Elvis returned to Memphis to record what many consider his greatest album. The recording sessions took place over about 14 days under the direction of producer Chips Moman at his American Sound Studio. Backed by the crack studio band The Memphis Boys, Elvis cut four Top 20 hits, including “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.”
360°: Is your book the first to focus squarely on the From Elvis In Memphis album?
Eric Wolfson: As far as I can tell, From Elvis in Memphis is not only the first book about this Elvis album, it is the first book ever about a single Elvis album. While scores of books have been written about his life, music, and influence—not to mention books about his various lovers, favorite recipes, and even his horses—there has never been a study of an album. The closest thing is books focused on various eras of Elvis’s life—his Sun years, his RCA breakthrough year of 1956, his Army years, and the road to his “68 Comeback Special”—but none of these were focused on a specific album.
I believe part of this is because Elvis is in an odd place in terms of the classic rock canon. While everyone agrees he is massively influential, he was not so much of an “albums artist” like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. Oftentimes the “Greatest Albums” lists have one of his Sun Records-era collections and/or his self-titled first album for RCA. Both are cornerstones for any rock and roll library, but they get lost in the deeper studio album-centric catalogs of other artists who came later.
I wanted to put the focus squarely on Elvis—and by extension, American Sound Studio, where he recorded the album—and not include any of my own personal stories or much specific Elvis history beyond the period in which he made the album itself. I instead went critically into each song, finding various themes and threads, and I then tried to both describe the actual recording of the song, as well as what meaning it may have held in Elvis’s greater life story. So instead of giving a chronology of the recordings, I did my best to let the album itself lead the story.
Why do you think From Elvis In Memphis is Elvis’s best album?
From Elvis in Memphis is Elvis’s studio masterpiece. The only other non-compilation Elvis album that could challenge it is his 1956 self-titled debut, Elvis Presley, but if you look closely, it too is not a traditional studio album—seven fiery new RCA recordings from 1956 and five excellent but older Sun Records outtakes from 1954-1955. Like many great ’50s albums, it’s a bit of a mishmash, even if it plays wonderfully as a statement. More than any other ’50s album, Elvis Presley threw down the gauntlet for new music (and its new icon) on an international level.
From Elvis in Memphis comes from the other side of the story. By the time he recorded this album, his position as King was challenged by inheritors like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who took this wild young music and helped it mature with a newfound musical complexity and lyrical consciousness. Meanwhile, Elvis had not been revolutionary since he joined the Army in 1958. He was welcomed home by a Frank Sinatra television special and then proceeded to spend much of the decade in Hollywood and Nashville, making increasingly uninspired movies and music. Within a day of The Beatles releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in early June 1967, Elvis released the soundtrack to Double Trouble, which contained movie junk like “Old MacDonald.”
Toward the end of the following year, Elvis wisely used a television project—then called simply ELVIS but now commonly referred to as “The ’68 Comeback Special”—as a rock and roll extravaganza to reclaim his crown. For an all-too-rare time in his career, Elvis defied the wishes of his domineering manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who wanted a Christmas program in tux-and-tails. Thrilled by the special’s rave reviews and excellent soundtrack album that went along with it, Elvis was anxious to follow this new sound—a soulful mix of pop, rock, rhythm and blues, with a touch of gospel, best heard in his special’s finale, “If I Can Dream.”
In early 1969, Elvis defied the Colonel once again to record at American Sound Studio instead of at the RCA studios in Nashville. Unlike much of his movie music, he recorded the songs live with the band and was challenged by the new creative environment to find his own mature sound. The result is the epitome of young rock and roll’s biggest star growing up in the music that seemed to have left him behind. More than any other Elvis studio album, all 12 songs are great and there’s no filler to skip over. But more importantly, he sounds truly engaged like he did only a few times before—at Sun, at his pre-Army RCA days, and “The ’68 Comeback Special”—and even fewer times since. And at the core of his engagement was the fact that the album was a rare team effort between Elvis and the backing musicians, now known as The Memphis Boys.
What’s your favorite track on the album?
My favorite track on the album is “Long Black Limousine.” I go into great detail in the book about it, so I don’t want to give anything away here. But in essence, I hear it as an American epic in miniature: A statement about love and loss, life and death, fame and anonymity, leaving home and coming back home. And, like another one of his finest tracks, “Mystery Train,” the whole thing revolves around a dead girl.
Lyrically, the album hits on a number of themes and topics associated with Elvis, such as fame and his close relationship with his late mother. Despite not writing the songs himself, Elvis sings with conviction and turns in great performances. Due to the lyrical themes and the fact that Elvis was returning to Memphis, do you think this is his most personal record?
In many ways, I do think this is his most personal record. As you point out, it certainly ties together the many threads of his life—fame (“Long Black Limousine”), motherhood (“Only the Strong Survive”), faith (“I’ll Hold You in My Heart”), sex (“Power of My Love”), poverty (“True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”), and race (“In the Ghetto”), among others.
One of the trickiest parts of writing this book is the fact that Elvis is the most influential rock and roll artist to never write his own material. Nowadays, when we listen to a song, we often imagine it as though we are looking into the singer’s diary, since the vast majority of modern artists write their own material. It’s easy to imagine that John Lennon or Bob Dylan or David Bowie or Prince or Kanye West or Adele are living through the song at some various levels because they are the ones who wrote it.
With Elvis, it’s not that simple. He looked up to a generation of pop singers that had their material written for them like Frank Sinatra and his idol Dean Martin. By all accounts, Elvis never got into songwriting because he wasn’t interested in it. He liked to sing, not write. In this way, his finest musical performances prove him to be a better actor than any of his films.
So yes, although this is music that was written by other people and played on by other musicians, From Elvis in Memphis is likely his most personal album. For Elvis, making an album meant putting his voice on to other people’s compositions, so while this may not be personal like a Neil Young or a Taylor Swift album, it’s Elvis’s version of one. And the fact that it’s literally a homecoming album after a triumphant comeback, allowed him the freedom and confidence to dig so deeply in himself to craft these mesmerizing performances in the first place.
To order a copy of Eric Wolfson’s book From Elvis in Memphis, click here.