Next year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will induct its 25th class of musicians. In honor of this event, Rolling Stone magazine has started a series that looks back at five pivotal albums by Hall of Fame artists, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle in Issue 1080. Likewise, I have decided to take a look back at a little Hall history myself, but in a slightly different manner. Beginning with the Class of 1986, I plan to revisit one of my favorite albums by an artist or group from every class. Starting things off is Elvis Presley’s 1969 classic From Elvis in Memphis.
By 1968, Elvis had been performing for some 15 years and had released more than 30 albums; he had changed the face of music and conquered the world. However, his career was in a bit of a lull. While radio was dominated by The Beatles and so-called Hippie music like Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, Elvis spent most of his time making cheesy movies and releasing soundtracks that failed to match the success and quality of his earlier work. But on Dec. 3, 1968, NBC aired Elvis and it became clear that Elvis was back.
Among other things, the special featured stripped down live performances of the star’s early material. Fans were treated to a leather-clad Elvis singing, playing guitar and shaking his hips like he hadn’t done since the ‘50s. With his popularity and confidence restored, Elvis took the energy from the TV special into the studio: the result was From Elvis in Memphis.
Elvis, deciding to take more control of his career, chose to record at the American Sound Studios in Memphis, Tenn. This was the first time he had recorded in Memphis since he left Sun Records in 1955. Since then, the city had become a center for Soul music, and that change can be heard throughout the entire album.
Another important change, besides location, was the addition of producer Chips Moman. As a songwriter, session guitarist and founder of the American Sound Studios, Moman was well-experienced in creating the Memphis soul sound, which involved putting strong, moving vocals (something Elvis had plenty of) in the middle of meticulous arrangements, often done by seasoned session musicians. For this album, Moman had assembled a group who were not only skilled soul players, but were also, like Elvis himself, familiar with country, blues and gospel. From Elvis in Memphis is the mixture of country and R&B that Elvis had pioneered filtered through the soul-pop machine of the Memphis studio.
Many of the songs came from the country music repertoire, such as “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin,” “Gentle on My Mind” and “I’ll Hold You in My Heart.” But Elvis’ singing makes them fit right in with contemporary soul numbers like “Only the Strong Survive,” bluesy romps like “Power of My Love” and pop songs like “Any Day Now.”
Elvis also included his most explicitly political song to date, “In the Ghetto,” which tells the tale of a young boy’s struggles in the slums of America. Elvis’ gospel-tinged singing—which is undoubtedly strengthened by his own connections to the song, having grown up just above the poverty line himself—gives the song power without turning it into a protest song. It was the first single off the album and reached No. 3 on the Pop Singles chart, his first top ten hit in four years.
The Memphis sessions produced even more hit singles with the non-album tracks such as “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “Kentucky Rain.” But the single biggest song that came out of this period was “Suspicious Minds.” On this soul classic, Elvis’ intensity as he pleads to “not let a good thing die” drives the band towards ecstasy—from the simple opening guitar lick to the full on blast of horns, strings and backing vocals that starts to fade out and then comes back for more. It deservedly gave Elvis his first No. 1 single in seven years.
From Elvis in Memphis was released to wide critical acclaim and has since gone on to be known as one of, if not the best, album of Elvis’ career. In 2003, Rolling Stone named it No. 190 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of Rock and Roll. And although he soon sank into the excess and schmaltz that came to define his Vegas Period, this album is a testament to why Elvis Presley was and always will be the King of Rock and Roll.
Sony USA will be releasing a 2-disc Legacy Edition of this album July 28, 2009.