If the mark of a successful music book is to send you back to the artist or album again, Eric Wolfson’s “From Elvis In Memphis” accomplishes that in spades. Wolfson’s position is that the 1969 album, a return to the singer’s roots musically, is the best since his first couple of offerings, and perhaps the best of his career. Ironically, Elvis is better known for his singles rather than records, and while that was largely the case pre-Beatles, after his initial records, the King’s catalog largely focused on compilations and movie soundtracks. It seemed rock and roll’s ground zero had succumbed to simply issuing new product, a move largely backed and perhaps designed by his manager, Col. Tom Parker
But a couple of members of Elvis’ entourage — the aptly named Memphis Mafia — got in his ear at the right time, suggesting Elvis use the local American Sound Studio, producer Chips Moman and the shit hot house band The Memphis Boys. It’s important to note that Presley was just coming off his hugely successful TV show Elvis ’68, and his brand was rebooted and hotter than ever. His repertoire, band and presentation were not what manager Parker had in mind, and the fact the Elvis did it anyway, and that it was so well received, likely resonated when Elvis essentially said “What the hell. Let’s do it.”
Not being a songwriter, a likely contributor to Elvis’ tepid output was that he was essentially a slave to his song choices, and his overseers would often limit his choices to songs their publishing house could profit from. For this album, he would really test and challenge himself with his choices. Maybe that’s why it’s such a strong album.
The opening of “Wearin' That Loved On Look” lets the listener know immediately that we’re not in Graceland anymore. This is a rock band, and one fronted by the King of rock nd rol. “Long Black Limousine” is tragic and brutal, and Presley’s vocals are absolutely perfect. It is one of my all time favorite Elvis performances. And “Kentucky Rain” might match it. Bigger hits such as “Suspicious Minds,” “Any Day Now,” and the king’s take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” also come from this album, but it’s the classic “In The Ghetto” which always blows my mind. I don’t think Elvis could have picked a song further from his lifestyle and comfort and that fact that it’s so powerful is a testament to his artistry and what he could accomplish— when he wanted to.
Wolfson’s passion for these songs and particularly The Memphis Boys performances is both obvious and contagious. I routinely put the book down and dialed up the song in question, and it made both the book and the song better. As Wolfson points out — while not a concept album — Presley’s songs choices often put him in a character he had long abandoned; poor, heartbroken, jealous, and clearly back to his roots, and his Memphis hometown. If all you know of Elvis Presley is “Don’t Be Cruel,” "Love Me Tender," or that hideous white jumpsuit Vegas phase, do yourself a favor and check out “From Elvis In Memphis.” And while you’re at it, pick up Eric Wolfson’s wonderful celebration of that record. You won’t regret it.