Elvis Presley's "'68 Comeback" special, officially titled, Singer Presents ... ELVIS, is the stuff of legend. The television special that aired in December of that year presented both a rocking Elvis the world had not seen for years and a more sophisticated, yet no less energized, "soul-pop" Elvis, with tracks like "If I Can Dream." While the image of Elvis the rocker in black leather has proven to be the broadcast's most indelible spinoff, the singer bet his future on the soul-infused side of his sound. And the record he began working on after the special, From Elvis in Memphis, was the studio-album debut of this new direction.
A pivotal moment indeed, doubly so in that it marked the King's first return to a Memphis studio since he'd left Sun Records for RCA back in the 1950s. Thus, it's only fitting that the album is now the subject of a new book in the 33⅓ series by Bloomsbury. Each volume under the imprint documents the making of a classic album, and this 150th volume in the series is the first dedicated to an Elvis Presley record. Given his status as a singles artist, this might come as no great surprise, but one thing becomes clear the minute you listen to the record and read how it came to be: It is very much an album, cohesive in vision and performance.
And author Eric Wolfson does it justice. He begins the story as Elvis and the producer of his TV special engage in a little experiment: strolling down Hollywood Boulevard in 1968 to see if he'll be recognized. When he's not, he doubles down on plans to bring a new fire and vision to the television broadcast. It's the perfect opening scene, capturing the King's determination to master his own destiny, after years of dithering B-movies and their spin-off singles.
And Wolfson, who vividly evokes the characters from this history, frames both the TV special and the subsequent studio album in terms of Elvis breaking free from the commercial concerns of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It was Elvis' drive that made the "'68 Comeback" so memorable, and that fed into the pre-production of From Elvis in Memphis as well.
Even then, the singer was plagued with doubts as he planned the recording sessions. But an evening spent with two old Memphis high school friends shored up his confidence: Marty Lacker and George Klein exhorted him to break away from RCA's Nashville studios and try the local American Sound Studio, founded by Chips Moman. "They're cutting the greatest hits in the world right now," Klein told Elvis, describing American as "a small funky studio with the kind of feeling I know you like."
Elvis ran with it. Aside from the space itself, the studio hosted a house band now known as the Memphis Boys, and they were the ideal fit for the artist's new soul-pop direction. Drummer Gene Chrisman, bassists Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech, guitarist Reggie Young, pianist Bobby Wood, and organist Bobby Emmons were originally brought together by producer/engineer Stan Kesler for Goldwax Records sessions, but soon were lured away by American. Still known at the time as the 827 Thomas Street Band, after the studio's address, they had already cranked out hits by the likes of Neil Diamond, the Box Tops, and Dusty Springfield before Elvis booked time.
Wolfson takes careful note of the chemistry between the Memphis Boys, and how that helped shape the final product. Pianist Bobby Wood heard the schlocky songs that Colonel Parker had picked out and called them "shit," which Klein dutifully passed on to an amused Elvis.
In that single telling detail, one sees what a pivotal role the city itself played in making this album. In going with his gut feeling and advice from high school pals, Elvis' homecoming was made real in spirit and sound. And, contrary to the Colonel's predictions, it created an album bursting with hits: "In the Ghetto," "Kentucky Rain," and the post-album single, "Suspicious Minds," to name a few.
It was a short but career-defining moment in Elvis' artistic life, leading him to assemble another historic band for his first residencies in Las Vegas. Yet even that group, which included the guitar work of James Burton, didn't bring the soul chops that the Memphis Boys exuded so effortlessly. For they were a band who could ensure that the "in Memphis" of the title really meant something.
33⅓: From Elvis in Memphis by Eric Wolfson is available November 12th from Bloomsbury Academic.