From Elvis in 33 1/3

Eric Wolfson on why he wrote about From Elvis in Memphis for the 150th book in our series

Until now, Elvis Presley was the single most influential figure in modern popular music who did not yet have a volume in the 33 1/3 series. And at the same time, despite countless books about Elvis’s life, music, influence, movies, lovers, religion, favorite recipes, cars, horses, and scores of other topics, no one has ever written a stand-alone book about one Elvis album. So writing this book felt mutually beneficial to both the 33 1/3 and greater Elvis writing communities.

Of course, writing about an Elvis album comes with its own array of issues. First and foremost, Elvis was not really an albums artist. His peak years came in the mid-1950s, when the 45 single was king and the full-length album was mostly the domain of grown-ups buying Broadway soundtracks and Perry Como. Elvis’s most pioneering work, his five singles for Sun Records, were never even released together on an LP until The Sun Sessions in 1976. Elvis’s greatest “studio” album of the decade—his self-titled debut album on RCA from 1956—wasn’t a traditional studio album. If one looked closely, its seven new RCA recordings were buttressed by five leftover outtakes from Sun Records. Even still, it spent 10 consecutive weeks at #1 on the Billboard album chart.

But in many ways, the most quintessential Elvis album of the 1950s is also rock’s first greatest hits album: Elvis’ Golden Records, issued on the eve of Elvis entering the Army in early 1958. In the previous two years, he dominated American popular music like few others before or sense. He spent nearly half of 1956—25 weeks—with a #1 record on the Billboard charts: “Heartbreak Hotel” (8 weeks), “I Want You, I Need You I Love You” (1 week), “Hound Dog”/“Don’t Be Cruel” (11 weeks) and “Love Me Tender” (5 weeks). He then repeated this same feat in 1957 with another 25 weeks of #1 records: “Too Much” (3 weeks), “All Shook Up’ (8 weeks), “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” (7 weeks), and “Jailhouse Rock” (7 weeks). These nine songs provided the backbone for Elvis’ Golden Records.

Part of Elvis’s thrill was the seeming struggle between Elvis the Sexy Rebel and Elvis the Country Boy, a real-life version of Robert Mitchum’s tattooed GOOD and EVIL fists in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter wrestling it out. But when the Army shaved off Elvis’s sideburns, the country boy won out and everything changed. When he was discharged two years later, Elvis was welcomed home in a Frank Sinatra television special. So much for rebellion.

Photo: Frank Sinatra Enterprises

But Elvis was still great—and more importantly, engaged—and got things off to a strong start, spending 14 weeks of 1960 with a #1 song: “Stuck on You” (4 weeks), “It’s Now or Never” (5 weeks), and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (5 weeks). His triumphant comeback album, Elvis is Back!, hit #2, while later that year his far-weaker G.I. Blues soundtrack album hit #1 for four weeks. Soon Elvis’s engagement began to fade, and he spent an increasing amount of time making bad films and soundtracks that were even worse. Meanwhile, some of his biggest fans like the Beatles and Bob Dylan had begun making their own style of rock and roll, adding a musical sophistication and lyrical consciousness that one would be hard-pressed to find on the soundtrack to Elvis’ 1964 film, Roustabout (his final #1 album until 1973).

So Elvis retreated into his Graceland mansion in Memphis while living the playboy life in Hollywood, eventually looking to re-stake his claim on rock and roll. A chance came in mid-1968 when he was asked to headline a television special. It was called ELVIS, but nowadays it’s best known as “The ’68 Comeback Special.” Elvis’s domineering manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, wanted it to be a tux-and-tails family-friendly Christmas special, but for an all-too-rare time in his career, Elvis defied the Colonel, and made a rock and roll extravaganza.

Looking thinner and fitter than he had in years, Elvis opened with a newer song, “Guitar Man,” which he sang with a fervor that bordered on rage. The rest of the program followed suit, as he sang old hits with new muscle, led a rave-up gospel medley, and provided one of his greatest performances in the finale, “If I Can Dream.” But the best part of the special was a stripped-down jam session, which featured Elvis and his buddies playing a music that harked back to the music he first made at Sun Records in Memphis—hard, lean, and determined. Through this music, Elvis resurrected himself—at the age of 33, no less—as a prodigal son who found his way home.

So where to go from here?

Like a killer returning to the scene of the crime, Elvis went back to Memphis, where it had all begun.

Eager to recapture the spirit of his triumphant television special, Elvis once again defied the Colonel in early 1969. Eschewing the fancier RCA studios of Nashville and Hollywood, he set up shop at the ramshackle American Sound Studio, run by a maverick named Chips Moman with an in-house backing band now known as “The Memphis Boys,” and made the music of his life. The resulting work, From Elvis in Memphis, was a masterpiece, an explosion of mature confidence and fiery inspiration. It was the sound of Elvis establishing himself as a true rock and roll artist—and proving his status as a legend.

So while it’s not as epic as his The Sun Sessions, as much of an epoch as Elvis Presley, or familiar as the songs on Elvis’ Golden Records, From Elvis in Memphis is something else entirely.

It is a real studio album, the finest Elvis ever made.

Want to celebrate the 150th addition to 33 1/3? Check out Eric’s book and learn more about one of the most iconic rock stars of all time.

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