By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
In both casual cultural representation and informal memory, the life of Elvis Presley is often divided into two parts: Young, hip-shaking Hound Dog, and bloated, jumpsuit-wearing Vegas icon.
From Elvis in Memphis — Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Eric Wolfson’s 2020 contribution to the Bloomsbury Publishing 33 ⅓ book series — explores a time in-between, when the King, if only temporarily, reclaimed relevance and musical power.
The Elvis of this book — an in-depth track-by-track study of the 1969 record From Elvis in Memphis — is a man at an artistic and cultural crossroads. In just over 160 pages, Wolfson offers a compelling, slightly tragic, and surprisingly full look at the ultimate larger-than-life artist.
Having spent most of the 1960s phoning-in musical schlock and acting in cheesy Hollywood movies (and living more-or-less under the control of his manager Colonel Tom Parker), Presley was wildly out of step with the explosion of hippie culture and psychedelic rock happening in the culture at large.
Wolfson writes that by the late ’60s Presley, then in his mid-30s, was “worse than dead — he was irrelevant,” and he knew it. It was time to make a move. Plans were put into motion for a live NBC comeback special, which would air in December of 1968. Against the wishes of the Colonel, who wanted a traditional Christmas program, variety show producer Steve Binder was hired to tweak Presley’s sound and image and make something that would appeal to younger audiences.
One day, while Binder and Presley were driving down Sunset Boulevard, Binder asked what Presley thought would happen if he walked down the street unattended. Would he be mobbed? Presley didn’t know.
A few days later, as an experiment, the two men ventured out on their own. Binder recalled:
“We were both waiting for something to happen. Cars were driving by, not even bothering to look at us. No horns were honking, and no California girls were rolling down their windows to get a look at Elvis or scream his name. A couple of seedy-looking hippies almost bumped into us as they were heavily engaged in their own conversation.”
Binder allowed that, had the public been given a heads up, it would have been a different situation. As it was, most jaded Hollywood types would assume they were seeing a look-alike. But for just a moment, Wolfson writes, “[Presley] was reminded what it would be like to be nobody.”
The comeback special was a huge success. Like a man outrunning his own cultural demise, Presley gave one of the freest and liveliest performances of his career. Within months, he’d ride that energy back to his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., returning as a prodigal son looking to claim his inheritance.
Defying the Colonel’s plan for him to record at RCA, Presley chose Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio. Between opening in 1964 and closing in 1972, the studio facilitated more than 100 hits including tracks by Wilson Pickett, Neil Diamond and Dusty Springfield. Part of what made American Sound special was the studio’s house band, The Memphis Boys, for whom Presley would be playing bandleader. After what Wolfson describes as “years recording filler tracks for generic films with faceless musicians,” working with a real, legit live band would be a change of pace for Presley.
“He was now ready to engage as a creative artist,” Wolfson writes. “For the first time in years, Elvis walked into a recording studio and acted like he cared.”
Wolfson was around 8-years-old when he was given his first radio. He wanted to hear the Beatles, and asked his mom what station he should listen to. She directed him to the oldies station. “Which probably wasn’t the best answer because the oldies station — Oldies 103.3 in Boston — played about one Beatles song for every five Elvis songs. At the same time, 8-year-old me didn’t consider that I could change the channel,” he laughs. “So I basically got inundated with Elvis.”
By the time he was a teen, he’d visited Graceland and Sun Studio, the latter of which really knocked his socks off. Where Graceland felt like a museum, Sun Studio felt like a laboratory. “I loved the community of it, and the history,” Wolfson recalls. “The fact that that was the one room where everything happened, it just blew my mind.”
At CMU, Wolfson took a rock history class taught by Scott Sandage (author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America) and later did an independent study about rock, history and writing with Michael Witmore, who is now the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. (Wolfson also lives in DC, and works at the Library of Congress in the United States Copyright Office).
Both former professors have continued to support Wolfson’s work: Sandage, in particular, served as a sounding board for From Elvis in Memphis. “Part of why it reads so well, I would say, is because of his input,” Wolfson says.
From Elvis in Memphis is, somewhat stunningly, the first book to focus on one individual Elvis record. Wolfson digs deep into each song, exploring the personal and biographical motivations behind Presley’s selections. He also examines the larger musical lineages, unearthing similar songs from earlier eras, and including stories about the songwriters themselves (Elvis famously didn’t write his own stuff). Moving forward and backward in time, he places Presley within a larger context of rock ‘n’ roll specifically and American culture in general.
This record wasn’t Wolfson’s first choice: before this, he’d already pitched several other ideas to 33 ⅓, none of which panned out. From Elvis in Memphis was, finally, “the best Elvis album that I hadn’t tried to pitch yet,” he laughs. But, “as I approached it, I realized that it was actually a good one for me because it’s really Elvis facing adulthood.
“Now that I’m, like Elvis, a grownup, and have kids and stuff, it’s interesting to hear it as more of a mature statement as opposed to him being young and sexy and footloose and fancy-free,” Wolfson says. “I love that it’s a homecoming album, I love that it works in terms of his own career’s narrative. This is a literal comeback, this cashing in on the blank check that was the success of the TV special.”
In working with the Memphis Boys, Presley not only engaged with highly skilled musicians, but — for the first time in years, and maybe for the last time in his life — he received constructive pushback from the people he was working with.
He arrived at American Sound with his own posse of producers, engineers, and friends, some protecting the Colonel’s interests and all ready to do his bidding. As Wayne Jackson, who appeared on the record as part of the Memphis Horns recalls, the entourage all tried to talk to Presley at once, “and we were tryin’ to get a job done. …All they wanted to do was entertain Elvis.”
There were too many people in the studio, Moman said, “and it was aggravating, I guess, on all sides.
“But I think they were kind of shocked when I stood up to them. They probably had never had anyone ask them to leave the studio before — but I did and it turned out better for Elvis.”
Therein lurks the ultimate tragedy of From Elvis in Memphis. “He does this comeback special, defying the Colonel and then the Colonel is behind the scenes, getting all this stuff set up for Vegas,” says Wolfson. “And that basically puts Elvis back under his thumb, you could argue.
“I feel like if Elvis had done a couple more maneuvers like that, he could have just thrown off the Colonel.”
After this record, Elvis would never again set foot in American Sound. “He never made as good an album again. And he basically went back to doing schlock,” Wolfson says. “[He] just kind of went nowhere again. And just as he spent the ’60s being coddled by Hollywood, he kind of gets coddled again by Vegas and his neverending tours.”
In his 1975 book Mystery Train, music critic Greil Marcus describes Elvis as “a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparison.” In other words, the problem with discussing Elvis is that, well, he’s Elvis.
There’s looming racial baggage (Wolfson addresses well-established accusations of theft from Black artists early on in the book), complicated sexual identity (Elvis is both heterosexual god and campy fashion icon), and political ironies (he longed to join the Feds in cracking down on illegal drug use, while hastening his own demise with the same).
But there’s also an inescapability to this “supreme figure” that can render him almost invisible, or at least easy to tune out. The signifiers of Elvis are as meaningful (or meaningless) as the man they signify.
Wolfson mentions, for example, a scene from PAW Patrol, of which his young son is a fan. “There’s a Halloween episode, and one of them is a superhero, one of them is like a pirate or whatever, and one of them is Elvis,” he says. “And they never say, like, oh you’re dressed up as Elvis. He just has the hair, he has everything. It’s like the Munch Scream being an emoji.”
Along the same lines, Marcus, in his book, recalls a friend seeing the “Big E” in person and crying out, “He looks like Elvis Presley! …What a burden to live up to!’”
Given that, “some of the feedback that’s made me the happiest, from the people that like the book, [was that] they sympathized with Elvis,” Wolfson says. “And [otherwise] they’d never think of him as someone to sympathize with, either because he’s Mr. Cool, or they didn’t think anything at all, or they thought he was kind of a jackass. And all those things are true. So it’s kind of a question of how you slice it.”