The following is an excerpt from my book Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, currently available in paperback and as a download for the Kindle. These pages discuss Elvis’s remarkable 1969 recording sessions in Memphis that produced two albums and four hit singles.
January 13-16 and 20-23, 1969: Studio Sessions
The TV special that had been filmed in June and which has become known as the “Comeback Special” finally aired on December 3, 1968 and, with If I Can Dream, Elvis scored his first real hit single in years. Around the same time, or shortly after, Elvis made the decision that his next scheduled recordings should take place at American Studios in Memphis rather than Nashville. Those sessions, recorded in January and February 1969 formed the second act of Elvis’s comeback.
Producer Chips Moman pushed Elvis in a way that no-one had done since Sam Phillips (and possibly not even Sam). The recordings that resulted are, arguably, the best that Elvis made. Many would argue in favour of the Sun recordings, but the tracks cut in Memphis in 1969 are deeper and darker from a lyrical point of view. They are performances that only the older Elvis could give. Elvis now had life experiences to draw on and that shines through almost every song recorded here.
A few months earlier, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the bell sounding at the beginning of Long Black Limousine was a death knell for Elvis’s career. Instead, it signalled the start of the sessions. Elvis bases his version of the song on the recording by O. J. Smith, or, at least, uses that as a starting point. As good as Smith’s recording is, Elvis’s is a tour-de-force. His voice retains some of the harshness utilised in the TV special, but there is something more than just “sound” going on here. Elvis had seen that there was a chance that his flagging career could be revived and he was determined to work at that chance with everything he had. Long Black Limousine tells the story of a girl from a small town who left the narrator behind to go and live in the city, boasting that she would return rich and in a “fancy car,” only to fulfil her prophecy at her own funeral. Elvis gives everything. He knows this story, he knows the frustrations the girl felt, and he also knows that he could one day be her. By the end of the performance he sounds totally exhausted.
This is the Story might not have the same depth, but Elvis is again in stunning form. The song itself follows unusual chord progressions, particularly in the verses, and this provides a slightly awkward melody line which Elvis negotiates with ease (and the second take was the master). The lyrics might not be the most original, but Elvis still digs in deep and gives a performance that is totally sincere without becoming maudlin.
Elvis yells out the opening lines of Wearin’ that Loved on Look, the effective mix of soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll that would become the first track on the first album released from the sessions. As he worked on the third great song in a row, he must have wondered why he had been so content singing bland songs for so long. This was a track that was perfect for Elvis, and he’s clearly having a ball, even adding his own “shoops” during the chorus almost as if he is singing to (and with) himself.
You’ll Think of Me is different and unusual. It’s a long song that is simple in structure. There are no real choruses, just verse after verse with a nice twist in the lyrics at the end. It’s not the most commercial song from the sessions, but it does show Elvis being interested in more challenging material. As with Long Black Limousine he appears to be relishing the chance to get inside a character and tell a story.
A Little Bit of Green has a more relaxed feel than those recorded so far. Written by the same writing team as This is the Story, this is a nice mid-tempo ballad with a lovely melodic hook in the chorus that stretches Elvis’s range to the limit. Once again, Elvis puts in a superb performance and is totally committed to the song.
I’m Movin’ On is an old country standard that Elvis gives a makeover, injecting the song with an element of soul. While this might at first seem like Elvis using his old technique of transforming a song to suit his own style, he did at least have a version to base his own on here. The Box Tops had included a great rendition of the number on their third album, Non-Stop, and this was the one that Elvis used as the basis for his own. What’s added in the Presley recording are his soul-filled vocals and the brilliantly-judged backing vocals during the choruses.
Gentle on my Mind was a much newer song, but it had already become a country standard by the time Elvis recorded it in 1969, with the number having received two Grammy awards in 1968. The recordings by John Hartford and Glen Campbell had been pure unadulterated country, but Elvis’s version has, in many ways, a much heavier sound that mixes the country sound with elements of soul and even gospel – the latter thanks to the nature of the backing vocals throughout the song.
Don’t Cry Daddy kept things in a largely country vein, and the song would provide Elvis with one of four hits from the two sets of sessions in Memphis. Views on the song vary depending on how much the listener can stomach the rather saccharine nature of the lyrics. Billboard called the song a “potent tearjerking ballad handled in standout style.” Elvis sings the song beautifully and with sincerity, but to this author the song hasn’t grown old particularly gracefully and is just too maudlin for its own good.
The same can be said about Mama Liked the Roses. However, this brings up the issue of association of where we first hear a song and if and when that matters in our appreciation of it. Many first heard this (as I did) as the final track of the Camden issue of Elvis’ Christmas Album and, because of that, it holds a special place because of the memories of hearing that album when growing up. That doesn’t make it any more or less maudlin than Don’t Cry Daddy, but happy memories of childhood Christmases tend to result in us making allowances. The song itself, though, isn’t a happy one as the singer remembers his now-deceased mother. Considering Elvis’s close relationship with his own mother, it’s hardly surprising that he wanted to record the number, and the fact it first appeared as the flip-side of The Wonder of You can hardly be seen as coincidental given the lyrics of both songs.
Inherit the Wind returned Elvis to rhythmical ballad material that had made up much of the session so far. The song was hardly top-drawer, especially when compared to some of the songs Elvis recorded at the session, but, by this point, Elvis seemed unstoppable and put in a great performance, almost snatching and biting at words at some points, most notably at the beginning of the final verse.
Similarly, My Little Friend is hardly a great song musically, but the lyrics about a man remembering his first love are interesting and often manage to capture the innocence and excitement of adolescence. It’s a surprisingly adult song in many ways, if not explicitly then buried just beneath the surface: “I learned from her the whispered things/The big boys at the pool hall talked about.” We all know what the narrator is talking about and probably also remember those overheard conversations of older kids as we grew up too. Elvis tells the story simply, and we believe every word.
Between 1968 and 1970, Elvis recorded a number of songs with a social conscience theme – something he never did in other periods during his career. Following on from Clean Up Your Own Backyard and If I Can Dream, In the Ghetto didn’t, therefore, appear out of nowhere. Written by Mac Davis (who also wrote the maudlin Don’t Cry Daddy), the track was described in one newspaper as a “message song of the disadvantaged in a Chicago ghetto.” Elvis immerses himself totally in the story at the heart of the song. Peter Guralnick writes that “the singing is of such unassuming, almost translucent eloquence, it is so quietly confident in its simplicity, so well supported by the kind of elegant, no-frills small-group backing that was the hallmark of the American style – it makes a statement almost impossible to deny.” Guralnick’s description sums up the number far more articulately than I could ever dream of, and so let’s move on by simply saying that this is Elvis at his very best.
Rubberneckin’, by comparison, is far from being a message song and yet coincidentally turned up in Change of Habit, Elvis’s last scripted film – and one that has a social message at its heart. The song itself is an infectious mix of rock ‘n’ roll, funk and soul that might not make a great deal of sense lyrically, but which Elvis attacks with abandon, seemingly letting off steam after over twenty takes of In the Ghetto.
This sense of simply playing around and making music at the same time is also apparent in both From a Jack to a King and Hey Jude. The former is a playful romp through Ned Miller’s song, but it all seems inconsequential compared to almost everything else recorded at the session, and the overdubbed female voices really don’t help matters.
Meanwhile, Hey Jude is an unmitigated mess. The number was held back from release until 1972 and some commentators suggest we shouldn’t take the song seriously as it was just an informal or incomplete recording. Had it been released posthumously then it would be easier to take that view, however it was released during Elvis’s lifetime in the guise of a finished master and so that’s how it should be judged. That Elvis doesn’t know the words doesn’t help, but that’s the least of the problems in a recording that sees the singer hitting a bum note at the same place in each and every verse. That Elvis thought that this was OK to release shows the lack of interest he must have had in his own career by 1972 and, arguably, a sign of contempt for his fans who were paying good money for a half-finished recording.
The next night, things were back on track. Without Love is a powerful ballad that Elvis infuses with a gospel feeling. It’s a song that follows the format of so many Elvis “big ballads” during the 1970s, but here it is performed without the bombastic vocal and arrangement that would mar so many of the later recordings.
I’ll Hold You in My Heart is incredible. Elvis takes this old country song and sings it over and over in the same manner as take 2 of You’ll Never Walk Alone and Saved during the TV special from the year before. Elvis wrings every last drop of emotion out of the song and yet, surprisingly, none of its lengthy running time seems forced or contrived. Peter Guralnick raved in Rolling Stone, writing that “nothing could better exemplify the absorbing character of Elvis’ unique and moving style. At the same time nothing could more effectively defy description, for there is nothing to the song except a haunting, painful emotionalism.”
With I’ll Be There, Elvis turned his hand to a pretty pop song written and originally recorded by Bobby Darin nearly a decade earlier. Darin’s version suffers from a tinny, almost toy-instrument sounding instrumentation and an unusually forced and unconvincing vocal. Elvis once again doesn’t know all the words, but shows Darin how great the song could be. He tears it up, giving it a natural flow that is completely missing from the original.
The session ended with the recording of the classic Suspicious Minds, a track that Billboard referred to as an “outstanding performance.” This song of romance gone bad would ultimately become one of Elvis’s most well-known and best-loved recordings. For a recording so artistically brilliant it was also remarkably commercial. The sudden drop to half speed during the bridge makes the listener take notice even on the first hearing and, while the fade out-fade-in ending could (and perhaps should) be viewed as a gimmick, it also meant that the song was instantly memorable and recognisable.
The sessions had finally come to an end, but that wasn’t the end of Elvis’s greatest set of recordings – another set of dates were pencilled in at the studio for the following month, and Elvis would pick up exactly where he left off.
February 17-22, 1969: Studio Session
Rather than seeming like the start of a new session, this seemed simply like a continuation of the previous one. The personnel were, by and large, the same, and Elvis, buoyant after the January recordings, was in good spirits and ready for work. However, before getting down to business there was time for a short jam with Elvis and the musicians working their way through a medley that included This Time (written by Chips Moman) and I Can’t Stop Loving You, a song which would become part of Elvis’s live act just a few months later.
Then it was down to the real work. The first song recorded was the rather clumsily-titled True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, a song that had been recorded the previous year by Duane Dee. Dee’s version was strictly in the country genre but, as in the previous recordings in January, Elvis took the country element and mixed it with a generous helping of soul. He also gave the song a more driving rhythm than the original and ornamented the melody a little, giving a looser feel to the number overall.
Stranger in My Own Home Town had been written and recorded by Percy Mayfield in 1963, but here Elvis doesn’t just alter the feel of the song but gives it a complete transformation. The length of Elvis’s version is nearly double that of the original, with Elvis singing the same two verses over and over again, subtly changing the melody each time. Unusually, there is an instrumental introduction lasting a full verse, and then a number of instrumental breaks over which Elvis improvises partly off-mic and tells the band to “give it clout.” Everyone seems to be having a great time and, more than almost any other Elvis recording, this portrays the great joy that music-making can bring.
Neil Diamond’s And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind is quite different again. Here, Elvis gives a gentle, delicate performance, while also negotiating the huge vocal range that the song requires. The overdubbing of the female backing vocals and strings might be a little saccharine, but it can’t hide the beauty of Elvis’s vocal.
Power of My Love is an edgy rock number in waltz time that sees Elvis digging deep and giving a dramatic, almost threatening, performance. It seems almost bizarre that this great number, one of the highlights of the session, was written by Giant, Baum and Kaye – one of the most prolific (and bland) of all the songwriters of the Hollywood years.
Elvis continues with the same style of attacking vocal with After Loving You, a country song that had been recorded by both Eddy Arnold and Della Reese, although Elvis’s version seems to be based on neither. As with Stranger in my Own Home Town and I’ll Hold You in My Heart, Elvis seems unwilling to let go of the song, not unlike Reese’s own recording of Someday, in which she repeats the last lines over and over.
Do You Know Who I Am sees Elvis firmly back in quiet, understated ballad territory in a song that lyrically seems like a distant cousin of Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello. In that song, the narrator has just spotted an ex-girlfriend across a crowded bar or in a restaurant. In Do You Know Who I Am he takes the opportunity to go over and say hello. Once again, Elvis gets to develop his story-telling skills, and gives a far more convincing acting performance here than in many of his movies.
The same can be said for Kentucky Rain, a rather more dramatic song with a strong narrative. Here, the singer is looking for the lover that left him without saying goodbye the week before. The song was the last of the Memphis sessions to be released as a single, and the only one not to reach the top ten in America, stalling at #16, and only reaching #21 in the UK. It’s hard to figure out quite why the track did less well than its predecessors for it’s a strong song and Elvis’s performance is totally compelling. Indeed, James E Perone wrote that Kentucky Rain is “among the strongest 1960s’ performances that Elvis gave” and that it has enough “genre-blurring vitality [that it] transcends many other releases from the 1960s.”
Only the Strong Survive sees Elvis back in soul territory, covering Jerry Butler’s U.S. hit single. Elvis puts in another strong performance here, but his version follows the original very closely, which is rather a shame when compared to the songs from these sessions where Elvis took a song and transformed it into something purely his. Even though it took nearly thirty takes to get it right, the arrangement barely moved away from Butler’s own at all.
It Keeps Right on a-Hurtin’ sees Elvis returning to country material. Here he gives the song a nice, easy-going feel that is less “straight” than Johnny Tillotson’s original. In a similar style is If I’m a Fool (For Loving You), written by Stan Kesler, who had written two of Elvis’s Sun sides. In comparison to other material recorded by Elvis at American Studios that winter, these are unremarkable, but they are still good country performances.
Any Day Now, written by Bob Hilliard and Burt Bacharach, has an awkward, hard-to-sing melody, but Elvis seems to manoeuvre around it with ease. The bridge of the song gives the appearance of dropping in tempo, but it’s just an illusion created by the sparser instrumentation. Elvis’s performance manages to retain some of the soul aspects of the number that were present in Chuck Willis’s original, but also seems to merge them with a vocal that clearly draws on the influence of Tom Jones, who had released his own version on his Green Green Grass of Home LP in 1967.
Two songs were recorded on the final night of the sessions and, while neither are highlights, both are pleasant enough. The Fair is Moving On is another song that clearly draws upon the influence of Tom Jones, not least in the big, belting chorus. Meanwhile, Who Am I is an understated religious number which, while attractive, lacks any real commercial appeal.
The material from the Memphis sessions was spread over two albums, a number of single sides (including four hits) and budget albums, with Hey Jude escaping quietly three years later on the Elvis Now LP. From Elvis in Memphis, the first album released, is probably Elvis’s greatest album and it received rave reviews. Billboard stated that “he’s never sounded better, and the choice of material is perfect.” Meanwhile, Variety referred to the release as a “tightly socked disk with adept Memphis backup.”
The second album, now generally referred to as Back in Memphis, was originally issued as part of a double album also containing an LP of live performances from August 1969. From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the original, rather un-snappy title of the double album, also received very good reviews. The New York Times stated that the “new pieces become quickly and comfortably familiar.” A week later, the same newspaper printed a second review, this time by Albert Goldman, author of a posthumous, controversial biography of the singer. Goldman admits that “this is Elvis Presley’s year.”
Despite the wonders of these sessions, some people still lived in the past, believing that nothing Elvis could do (even when it was this good) would match the wonders of his first recordings. Despite giving From Elvis in Memphis a glowing review, Peter Guralnick still wrote “And yet it’s still not the same. …You can’t recapture the innocent ease of those first sides, you can’t bring back the easy innocence of new adulthood, whether for listener or singer. What is so striking about the sides cut for Sun Records, even today, fifteen years after their release, is the freshness of style, the cleanness and the enthusiasm.”
The problem here is that Guralnick’s yearning for Elvis’s early style seemingly has little to do with Elvis himself. In fact, he has just spent two pages of a magazine praising his most recent work. No matter how much it might be denied, the comments he makes about the Sun sides here have little to do with their quality (wonderful though many of them are), and much more to do with Guralnick’s yearning to recapture the wonders of his own adolescence. By 1969, Guralnick was a grown man, and not a twelve or thirteen year old boy who was, no doubt, captivated by Elvis’s early records. By his own admission here, no matter how good Elvis was in 1969 (or after), it would simply never be good enough.
Much has been written about Elvis’s work in the final seven or eight years of his life, and much has been said about the material he chose to record, the genre he chose to sing in, and the arrangements he chose to employ. Blame has been put on all those things when critiquing Elvis’s final decade but they are often just a scapegoat. Even if the quality of those final years was as high as these masterful recordings in Memphis, they still wouldn’t have been good enough for those critics who were not able to face the idea that they had to grow up, and that their idols had to grow up too and sing about more serious things than “playing house.”
The Memphis sessions provided Elvis with three top ten singles. He had now conquered both television and the charts. All that was left was for him to return to live performing – the event that would be the third act of the Elvis comeback.
 “Top Singles of the Week,” Billboard, November 19, 1969, 48.
 “Elvis Cuts a Song of the Ghetto,” The Afro-American, May 3, 1969, 10.
 Peter Guralnick. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. (London: Abacus, 1999), 332.
 Peter Guralnick, “Records,” Rolling Stone, August 23, 1969, 34.
 “Spotlight Singles,” Billboard, September 6, 1969, 110.
 James E Perone, “From Elvis in Memphis (1969),” in The Album: A Guide to Pop Music’s most Provocative, Influential and Important Creations, Volume 1, ed. James E Perone (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012), 224.
 “Billboard Album Reviews,” Billboard, June 7, 1969, 51.
 “Baez, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elvis, ‘Midnight,’ Cowboy, & Lady Dead, Kaleidoscope Top New LPs,” Variety, June 11, 1969, 72.
 Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.
 Albert Goldman, “A Private Bag of Mixed Beauties,” New York Times, December 14, 1969, D44.
 Guralnick, “Records,” 35.