1969 is weighing heavily on the pop-culture nostalgist’s brain this summer. Between anniversaries of the moon landing, Woodstock, the Manson family murders and the Stonewall riots, the year is being rightfully acknowledged as a watershed. In all of these discussions though, nobody’s talking about Elvis. Long seen as more of an icon of the ’50s, Elvis’ impact was still enormous throughout the 1960s, and 1969 was the pinnacle of Presley’s late-decade reinvention. The cheesy B-movie roles were still coming, but Elvis had again turned his focus onto making quality music. Beginning with the stripped-down and soulful ’68 Comeback Special, Presley became intent on presenting himself as a credible pop singer; although he certainly knew that he was in no position to challenge the counterculture’s dominant grip on the zeitgeist, he also knew that he was far and away more relevant than the AM-radio schlock with which he had become associated.
The culmination of that reinvention is the utterly confident and musically solid From Elvis In Memphis, which marked the first time that Presley had laid down tracks in Memphis since his mid-’50s Sun Studios days. Remarkably, the sessions didn’t see Elvis trying to fool his audience into thinking he was that same vivacious young troublemaker, but instead he created a clutch of skillful and stylized songs that were both age-appropriate and light years beyond the syrupy schmaltz most people expected of him. By recording at ex-Stax producer Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios (the same locale where Dusty Springfield laid down Dusty In Memphis), Presley was able to tap into just enough gut-bucket soul to remind him of where he came from, and the tracks on From Elvis In Memphis find Elvis doing what he does best: incorporating elements of the music that appealed to him on a visceral level – soul, gospel, country – and reconfiguring them into a contemporary format. The result is one of the best studio albums Elvis ever recorded.
To be sure, there’s not the level of raw energy and visceral looseness that marked his early Sun material or his legendary RCA debut album, but Elvis’ voice is in top form here, reminding even the most casual listener of just how powerful that voice really was. The arrangements are, appropriately enough, remarkably spare; while one will hear string swells, horn stabs and background choirs, they’re kept to an elegant minimum, allowing Presley’s voice to handle the emotional heavy-lifting. Moman’s decision to let this be an “Elvis album,” rather than an “Elvis sings soul/country/whatever standards” album was incredibly wise, and that muddle of ingredients laid the foundation for such classics as “In the Ghetto,” “Long Black Limousine” and, of course, “Suspicious Minds.”
Originally, the Memphis sessions were parceled out on different releases throughout 1969; the original Elvis in Memphis only included the first dozen cuts; this reissue packages together those, along with the Back in Memphisalbum (which, itself, was part of the From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis two-fer), and a handful of singles that were released throughout the year. Compiled together, the 36 tracks work amazingly well as a consistent album. While these incredible sessions are unlikely to be treated as rock ‘n’ roll masterpieces along the lines of the Beatles’ and Stones’ late ’60s work – after all, 1969 was also the year that Presley began his first Vegas residency – they certainly deserve to be. Not because Elvis is and was a legend, but because when forced to decide between bubblegum pop, adult-contemporary snooze and ill-fitting youth revolution, Presley instead struck out on a path that was uniquely his own, and created material that was far stronger than it needed to be, and exponentially more interesting than the majority of what it was surrounded by.