How Elvis Rediscovered Greatness

Why do artists lose their creative spark? And how do they regain their mojo?

To find an answer, I examined two famous artistic comebacks: Elvis Presley’s resurgence in 1969 and Johnny Cash’s return to glory in 1994. Both men have a lot in common. They started their careers in Memphis recording at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips in the 1950s. They suffered creative tailspins before experiencing triumphant comebacks (in Johnny Cash’s case, two comebacks).

Elvis and Johnny Cash also regained their creative powers by collaborating with the right partner.

Let’s take a closer look at Elvis’s story. I’ll follow up later with a post about Johnny Cash.

The Return of the King

In January 1969, Elvis made one of the most important decisions of his life when he chose to record music with producer Chips Moman in Memphis, the city Elvis called home. This was a crucial time for the King. He had pissed away most of the 1960s by making bad movies and recording horrible soundtracks. But in December 1968, he showed signs of greatness when the “Elvis” Christmas special showcased the raw talent and charisma that had catapulted him to fame in the 1950s. On the heels of that artistic and commercial triumph, he wanted to go back in the studio and record new music.

But he couldn’t pull it off by himself.

A Decade in Decline

Elvis was acutely aware of the creative decline that had taken hold after he’d returned to the States in 1960, at the conclusion of a two-year stint in the Army. The problem stemmed from Elvis’s Hollywood train wreck. He had started making movies in 1956 with Love Me Tender, and at first putting Elvis in the movies made sense. Movies broadened his reach globally, and they provided lucrative earnings from sales of tickets and soundtracks. Elvis had even made a few good films such as King Creole before he was drafted into military service in 1958.

But his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, flogged the formula. Between 1960 and 1969 alone, Elvis appeared in 24 films. And they were shlocky films with pointless plots. The titles alone said a lot: Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco, and Harum Scarum to name a few. The soundtracks were wretched, requiring Elvis to sing numbers such as “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya,” “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Yoga Is as Yoga Does.”

He knew those movies and songs sucked. He coasted through soundtrack recording sessions as quickly as he could, arriving late for recording sessions, taking as few takes as possible, and leaving early. Every once in a while, he’d jump off the miserable creative treadmill and record gospel music, but gospel had limited commercial appeal. And there was always a new film and soundtrack to make. The ugly truth was that the allure of money was too great for both Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis needed the money. He spent it as fast as he made it. And he spent a lot — on himself, on his large entourage known as the Memphis Mafia, and on his family and friends. The Colonel lived extravagantly, too, and he was a notorious gambler. He needed his cash cow.

But did the movies and soundtracks have to be so bad, though? Well, when your goal is to crank out as many films as you can even though you are not a natural actor, standards are going to go by the wayside. In addition, Elvis’s own business interests got in the way. Elvis did not write his own songs. But through his publishing ventures, he collected a share of the royalties of the songs that other people wrote, an arrangement that the Colonel engineered to line the King’s pockets with more cash (and, by extension, the Colonel’s). The problem from a creative standpoint was that not every songwriter was willing to cut a deal to share the profits of their music with Elvis. So he was limited to the songwriters who would play ball with the Colonel. By limiting his choices, he hurt his creative range.

It must also be noted that when Elvis was in the Army, he began abusing Dexedrine pills (the start of a lifelong dependency), but it’s unclear how much his drug use might have impaired his creativity in the 1960s (although the impact of drugs would become painfully clear in the 1970s). He did not write his own songs. And drugs did not cloud his ability to recognize both bad and good material. He constantly expressed disappointment with the quality of the songs he recorded for his movie soundtracks. When he recorded gospel, where he had more creative control, his instincts were spot-on. It’s likely he would have deferred to the Colonel’s game plan with or without the influence of the pills he abused.

At first, it didn’t matter how bad the movies were; his early soundtracks sold tremendously well. But then the sales dried up. So eventually he had two problems: he was making bad music that no one was buying.

Elvis could have landed some good movie roles during this period were it not for the publishing entanglements and the Colonel’s lack of imagination. At one point, Elvis was considered for the lead role of Tony in West Side Story. But the Colonel shot down the idea, partly because he didn’t want Elvis in a movie about gangs — but also because Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who composed the film’s songs, were not about to give Elvis’s publishing ventures a cut of their earnings.

Imagine spending nearly 10 years creating something you hate. Over and over. All you get is the money, and then less of it. Now imagine doing that knowing you’d once recorded some of the most important songs in popular music. You invented rock and roll. Now you were a joke.

The Beginning of the Comeback

But the jokes stopped — temporarily, at least — in December 1968, when the Elvis Christmas special reminded the world he was still relevant as an artist.

The Colonel had wanted Elvis to sing a bunch of Christmas carols for the show. But fortunately for Elvis, the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, and director, Steve Binder, had other ideas. Elvis had not performed in front of an audience for many years. They decided it was time to reintroduce him to the American public by having him sing the hits of his glory years in front of a hand-picked audience. To pull it off, Elvis would need to get physically trim and rehearse. Matched with someone who challenged him creatively, Elvis rose to the occasion. Dressed in a stunning black leather suit, he practically seduced his audience in the studio and on TV. The show was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the Number One show of 1968.

But a one-off TV special relying on his past hits was one thing. Could he actually record great music again? He and the Colonel knew they needed to strike while the iron was hot. He might not get another chance at credibility if he blew it. The easy and predictable choice was to go into the studios in Nashville, where Elvis was comfortable recording, and work with producers and musicians who would never challenge him. He was, after all, still the king of rock and roll, and the king operated by his own rules.

But Elvis had a good friend named Marty Lacker, who had recorded with a hot shot producer named Chips Moman over at Moman’s own American Sound Studios, also located in Memphis. Lacker told Elvis that Moman was someone who understood how to make hits — and great ones. Moman had produced the first-ever hit single for Stax Records, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” for Carla Thomas. He cowrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which had become a phenomenal success for Aretha Franklin, and Elvis needed someone who could write good songs. As a producer, Moman worked with stars such as Joe Tex and Dusty Springfield (Moman produced her iconic version of “Son of a Preacher Man” that would enjoy a revival when it appeared in Pulp Fiction years later). He was working with Neil Diamond on a single, “Sweet Caroline,” that would become a hit later in 1969. He also employed a crack studio band, the Memphis Boys, who could go toe to toe with the great studio bands of Motown and Stax.

The Memphis Boys consisted of guitarist Reggie Young, bassists Tommy Coghill and Mike Leach, keyboardist Bobby Emmons, drummer Gene Chrisman, and pianist Bobby Wood. They could play anything from rock to soul (still emerging as a musical form in the 1960s). Tommy Coghill had played a celebrated bassline on “Son of a Preacher Man” and had performed with King Curtis. Reggie Young had opened for the Beatles in 1964 when he played with the Bill Black Combo. Bobby Emmons would go on to work with superstars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. In 1977, Emmons would co-write, with Moman, one of the biggest hits of Jennings’s career, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” The Memphis Boys never sought the spotlight. They chose to elevate other more famous musicians with their considerable talents.

Elvis knew he couldn’t afford to play it safe this time. And besides, when he’d collaborated with Bob Finkel and Steve Binder on his Christmas Special, he’d achieved both artistic and commercial success. Finkel and Binder had brought skill, passion, and vision to the Christmas special. If Moman could do what they did, maybe he’d score another success.

So he headed to American Sound Studios. He brought plenty of company including his longstanding producer, Felton Jarvis (technically there to assist but mostly there to keep an eye on Moman); a suit named Harry Jenkins from his record label, RCA; Tom Diskin, the Colonel’s right-hand man and spy; and, of course, Memphis Mafia. In addition, other members of Team Colonel Tom Parker would occasionally surface at the studios to Moman’s annoyance.

Welcome to American Sound Studios

Now, there was something else about Chips Moman that Lacker probably kept to himself. Moman was a king, too, and he was not to be trifled with. American Sound Studios was his empire, and the Memphis Boys ruled along with him. The Memphis Boys had their own opinions about how a song should sound, and they were not afraid to share them. Moman and the Memphis Boys didn’t need Elvis. He was a guest in their house.

Elvis walked into American Sound Studios for the first time at 7:00 p.m. on January 13, 1969. Right away he knew this experience was going to be different. For one thing the studio felt different. The place was located in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood. You could hear rats scurrying in the rafters.

“What a funky place,” he said. “I like it. It reminds me of Sun.” Which was a very good sign. Sun Studios was where he had invented rock and roll with Sam Phillips.

At first no one knew what to make of Elvis. From the moment he walked in with his Memphis Mafia, he exuded star power. He was slender and beautiful, like some sort of Greek god, and he took command of the room before he’d even sung a note. As pianist Bobby Wood said, “He was in his prime. He looked better than most women I’ve seen.”

But Elvis also dressed and acted like he was performing for his entourage, cracking jokes and horsing around. Most star performers wore jeans and T shirts in the studio. Elvis wore silk scarves, fancy jackets, and even capes, like he was onstage. And the butt-kissing Memphis Mafia was annoying. When Elvis produced a cigarillo to smoke, several toadies simultaneously whipped out lighters to assist him.

The Memphis Boys were horrified. Who were these people? Was Elvis serious about making music, or was he just going to stand around acting like Elvis? They were about to find out.

Getting Started

The first step in recording was for Elvis to review a batch of songs that the Colonel had sent with him from his publishing company, Hill & Range. Little did Elvis realize, but he also had a few hits in his possession already — the song “In the Ghetto,” which songwriter Mac Davis had sent him just before the sessions started, and “Kentucky Rain,” a song written by Eddie Rabbitt that Elvis friend Lamar Fike had recommend. Moman and the Memphis Boys all offered opinions of the song line-up. Some of the Hill & Range songs, such as “Long Black Limousine,” made the cut. But the Memphis Boys told Elvis many of the other Hill & Range selections were worthless. Elvis’s own people were aghast. No one ever spoke to Elvis like that. He’d recorded with yes-men who’d done what they were told, which meant recording all the songs that Elvis had a financial stake in recording.

As Reggie Young said in an interview years later,

He brought his publisher and they began to play songs they wanted to record. Like those songs he did in his movies. Elvis would ask me if I liked the song we just heard, and I said “No.” He asked Bobby, and he said, “No” also. We didn’t realize that you didn’t say “No” to Elvis.

But Elvis could take a “No.”

He may have been a star who surrounded himself with toadies, but he never lost his ear for good music. It’s just that with the movie soundtracks, no one was presenting him with good music. He was intrigued by the opinions he heard. He’d wanted to try something new, and that’s exactly what he was getting. He listened without argument.

The first song they recorded, “Long Black Limousine,” is a cautionary story about a woman in search of fame who leaves a man behind in a small town, only to return, dead, in a hearse. The song is told from the perspective of the man she left behind. The moment Elvis started singing, Moman and the Memphis Boys knew he was serious about recording great music. From the very first takes, his voice resonated with a sadness and hurt that brought an emotional depth to the words. Elvis’s voice also had a husky edge because he was suffering from a cold. The cold served him well. The Memphis Boys played along with him, tight and powerful.

Elvis sang three songs during his first session. He didn’t stop until 5:00 a.m. the next day. And Moman worked him hard. He patiently insisted on multiple takes. Elvis never flinched. His voice came alive, take after take. It was as if he were unleashing all the pure emotion and passion that had been bottled up during the fallow years. He kept at it until he started to lose his voice.

A Creative Breakthrough

That first night had been a breakthrough. Elvis realized he was going to have to work harder than perhaps he’d ever done in his life. Moman and the Memphis Boys realized that when presented with good songs and challenged by good creative partners, a talented band, Elvis would rise to the occasion, as he had with the Christmas special.

Now that he’d gotten the measure of Elvis, Moman began to make his mark even more. As Elvis returned for more sessions in January and then later in February, Moman started to offer him more songs that he thought might work well, including one that would become a career landmark “Suspicious Minds.” 

“Suspicious Minds” would also cause friction between Moman and Team Colonel Tom Parker. When the Colonel’s men pressured Moman to share the writing credits for the song with Elvis’s publishing interests, Moman pushed back — hard. He threatened to can the entire session right then and there. Team Parker appealed to Elvis, but he refused to play referee. Fortunately that RCA suit Harry Jenkins, who seemingly had nothing to do but watch his star record songs, ended up playing a pivotal role: he resolved the problem by sticking up for Moman.

But the distraction over the songwriting credits annoyed Moman, and he let Elvis know it. There were just too many people hanging around the studio between the Memphis Mafia and the Colonel’s people. Again, Elvis listened. He showed his entourage and the Colonel’s people the door. The Memphis Boys breathed a collective sigh of relief. (When Diskin informed the Colonel that Elvis had cleaned house, the Colonel replied, “Let him fall on his ass.”)

These decisions were crucial. Free of distractions, it almost felt like Elvis was one of the Memphis Boys. He became less self-conscious and more relaxed. He joked around with the band and laughed at his mistakes. And Moman had Elvis’s ear. The Colonel was absent from the recordings, and there was no one around to filter the song choices. There was just Chips and Elvis talking face to face about songs.

Elvis and Chips Moman

Elvis’s musical instincts were true. He wanted to hear more of what Moman had to offer. He told his own publishing team, “From now on, I want to hear every song I can get my hands on. If I’ve got a piece of the publishing, that’s fine. But if I don’t and I want to do the song, I’m going to do it.”

But he was still a star, and stars have egos. Moman knew how to handle Elvis’s. To gain Elvis’s trust and to avoid embarrassing him, he approached Elvis quietly and one on one when he needed to correct his delivery instead of broadcasting instructions through a talkback microphone from the producer’s booth. Moman also appealed to Elvis’s competitive side. Moman knew that “In the Ghetto” had greatness written all over it. But Elvis was reluctant. He agreed with Moman about the song’s potential, but it was unusual for Elvis to address social themes, and he wondered if he could credibly pull it off, being a wealthy white man who knew nothing about the ghetto. Moman listened and then shrugged his shoulders. If Elvis didn’t want the song, he’d give it to someone else to sing.

Elvis backed down and insisted on singing the song.

Of course, “In the Ghetto” would go on to become a hit and one of Elvis’s best vocals ever. Although Elvis knew nothing about ghetto life, he knew something about growing up poor, based on his hardscrabble childhood. The artist in him drew from an inner well of compassion to deliver the words with sensitivity and grace. A lesser artist would have overdelivered the song. Elvis went in the opposite direction. His quiet delivery gave the lyrics space to be heard, which made the song better. (Listen to how he slows down the tempo on the verse, “Steals a car/tries to run/But he don’t get far.” His phrasing underscores the tragedy of the narrative.)

Redefining Elvis

During these sessions in January and February, Elvis sang songs that redefined him as a contemporary adult star who bridged the worlds of country, soul, and pop. On “Kentucky Rain,” his voice captured a heartache and hope of searching for something lost. 

On “Suspicious Minds,” he created an emotional terrain that spanned paranoia, angst, guilt, and jealousy. He was bluesy on “After Loving You” and flat-out hurt on “Wearin’ That Loved on Look.”

He gave us a new Elvis: someone who had lived and lost. He wasn’t a brash, youthful tease anymore. He wasn’t singing “Love Me Tender” to an adoring woman. He was grappling with rejection and betrayal. Another song from the Moman sessions, “Don’t Cry Daddy” (also written by Mac Davis) explored the topic of divorce, which was also new ground for Elvis. What made all these songs feel fresh was an emotional authenticity in Elvis’s voice.

The Memphis Boys in Their Glory

The Memphis Boys filled out his sound in a way that no one else ever had. Bobby Wood’s piano gave “Wearin’ That Loved on Look” a gospel refrain. Guest pianist Ronnie Milsap (who would become a country) added a forceful piano touch to “Kentucky Rain” (Elvis told him he wanted to “hear the thunder roll”). Reggie Young’s urgent guitar on “Suspicious Minds” added to the song’s sense of fear and angst, and his sitar on “You’ll Think of Me” was soulful and funky. The bell overdubbed at the beginning of “Long Black Limousine” set an ominous tone for the story that followed.

Here, the wisdom of working with a creative force like Chips Moman paid off. These musical flourishes, often overdubbed after Elvis was done recording, elevated the songs to another level of greatness.

Hits and Acclaim

The sessions resulted in two albums, From Elvis in Memphis (released in May 1969) and Back in Memphis (November 1970).

Both of them were excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is regarded as the better of the two. It received uniformly strong reviews and is ranked among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. As AllMusic’s Bruce Eder put it, From Elvis in Memphis “was one of the greatest white soul albums (and one of the greatest soul albums) ever cut, with brief but considerable forays into country, pop, and blues as well.”

RCA also released four singles from the Chips Moman sessions, all of which were Top 20 hits: “In the Ghetto” (Number 3), “Don’t Cry Daddy” (Number 6), “Suspicious Minds” (Number 1), and “Kentucky Rain” (Number 16). In addition to hitting Number 1, “Suspicious Minds” became one of the biggest sellers of his entire career. With a new decade dawning, Elvis, in the prime of his life, was once again an artist to take seriously.

The Aftermath

Elvis would go on to enjoy an all-too-brief creative renaissance. He never returned to American Sound Studios, likely because Chips Moman was just too headstrong for Colonel Tom Parker. But for the next few years, he achieved greatness on stage by redefining the Las Vegas entertainment industry, a period of his life that I discuss in my October 2019 post for Festival Peak, “The Myth of Fat Elvis.”

Elvis managed to squeeze in one more great album, Elvis Country (1971), and a few good ones, too. Unfortunately, a punishing workload and personal woes accelerated Elvis’s drug abuse. His health declined visibly as the 1970s wore on until his death in 1977. But before the fall, he rose mightily and astonished the world.

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