Everyone knows that Elvis Presley recorded the finest music of his life in 1954 and 1955 at Memphis' Sun Studio, under the direction of strong-willed producer Sam Phillips. It is not quite as universally understood that Presley recorded the second best music of his life — sessions that produced hit singles "Suspicious Minds," "In the Ghetto," and "Kentucky Rain" — in early 1969 at Memphis' American Sound Studio, under the direction of another strong-willed producer, Chips Moman.
Those were the only two times in Presley's career he recorded studio material in his hometown, but I tend to think the connection was more about having a producer with sharp taste who was willing to push him than it was about Memphis. As local writers Robert Gordon and Tara McAdams recount in the liner notes to the new From Elvis in Memphis: 40th Anniversary Edition, Presley was at the time surrounded by sycophants and handlers, but Moman and his "Memphis Boys" house band had been creating more hits than Presley. They weren't interested in coddling the returning King.
The music that emerged from these historic sessions has been released in many forms over the years. Initially the fruits from these sessions were divided among the stellar 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis, one half of the later 1969 double album From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis (the studio portion reissued the next year under the title Back in Memphis), and a handful of singles, most notably "Suspicious Minds." A 23-song, single-disc compilation of the American sessions were released in 1987 as the now long-out-of-print The Memphis Record, which is still probably the most user-friendly way to hear this music. The Memphis Record was replaced in the Presley catalog in 1999 by the more completist two-disc, 44-track Suspicious Minds compilation.
And now this, a two-disc, 36-track set that preserves the original track listings and artwork of both From Elvis in Memphis and Back in Memphis while adding singles and bonus tracks to the end of each disc.
Essentially a "return to roots" after a decade adrift in Hollywood and before his final Vegas voyage, the music Presley cut at American with Moman is rich in self-awareness. From Elvis in Memphis has one of the great, knowing opening lyrics on any rock album — Presley belting out, over a bed of soul organ, "I had to leave town for a little while ..." This is followed immediately by a cover of the then-contemporary Jerry Butler hit "Only the Strong Survive," where Presley turns the simple song of a mother offering a forlorn son romantic advice into something that feels more like a career rumination.
Later on the album is "Long Black Limousine," which Gordon and McAdams point out was the first song recorded at the sessions. It's the story of a woman who left her hometown to find fame and fortune and comes back in the gleaming black title car: a hearse. The subtext was, apparently, clear to everyone in the room, including Presley, whose performance in this context is both sardonic and triumphant.
Released on the second collection, but chosen as the lead track on The Memphis Record, is "Stranger in My Own Hometown," where Presley is clearly reveling in not-so-subtle autobiography. "I came home with good intentions," he sings with long-dormant blues swagger. "My hometown won't accept me/Don't feel welcome here no more."
All this subtext wouldn't be as rewarding if the music weren't so fine. Presley's post-Sun pop had been glorious at times ("Don't Be Cruel" is as monumental as anything he recorded), but over time the diverse influences (blues, country, gospel, crooner pop) he'd helped fashion into rock-and-roll had become flattened, unrecognizable.
Here, with Moman, the music was bumpier. The edges were back. The funky house band was rooted in soul, country, and swamp rock, and with Presley they crafted a dense, more contemporary update of the Sun sound. Here, Presley draws from soul (Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now," Butler's "Only the Strong Survive") and country both weepy ("It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'") and jaunty (Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On"). And the sound and spirit of those genres is still palpable. His gospel influence is there on "I'll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)" ranging from the hymn-like to wilder testifying.
He moves from tearjerkers ("Don't Cry Daddy") to leering rockers ("Rubberneckin'") with equal authenticity; bears down hard on lean arrangements ("After Loving You," reminiscent of the "Comeback" TV concert that set the stage for his Memphis return), and fights through maelstroms ("Suspicious Minds").
Singing the deep-soul classic "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road," Presley might be offering his own affirmative music criticism of the sessions: "Love is a stranger and hearts are in danger on smooth streets paved with gold/Oh, true love travels on a gravel road."
The music here was Presley's last true burst of greatness before the downward slide began. Most serious Elvis fans already own it in some form. But if you don't — or even if you're a casual Elvis fan or just someone with a healthy interest in Memphis music — this is the rare recent Elvis reissue worth getting.