|Review by Michael Cheah
Back in 1969, Elvis made headlines as regularly as Microsoft does today whenever Bill Gates makes more money or dominates some other part of the new economy. Nobody, least of all the cigar-chomping Colonel, gave a hoot about the King of Rock 'n' Roll's real power which was his music.
Over the past years, Elvis had been a prisoner of Hollywood, living it up and earning easy money with sugary pop songs written by rote from his publishing company. He was close to an overdose of crap songs when he met TV producer Steve Binder. Binder "found" the real Elvis and for a brief year in 1969, Elvis was back in the studio determined to prove he still had the "jewels" in his trousers.
So, while the Colonel was setting up his boy for another session to produce an album of songs and some singles and plotting to bring the King to Las Vegas, the musicians in Memphis were attempting a counter-revolution to help the King regain his crown. According to Peter Guralnick in his excellent essay in Suspicious Minds: The Memphis 1969 Anthology, it was a coincidental confluence of events that led to Elvis recording at American studios. Producer Felton Jarvis was itching for a change of scenery from Nashville. Elvis' friends, Marty Lacker, George Klein and Red West all had a connection with Chips Moman, the producer and owner of American studios. Moman was an established hitmaker (delivering hits for The Boxtops, Neil Diamond and Dusty Springfield) and had connections to deliver contemporary songs.
The challenge they all faced in that tiny studio was how to make Elvis relevant again. The only clue was from the final song Elvis sang at the end of his '68 TV special, 'If I Can Dream'. It was a song that connected Elvis to his roots. The young trucker who wanted to prove he could be a singer. 'If I Can Dream' was as personal a message as Elvis could deliver. Now the challenge was the music scene out there. The British invasion had shaped the direction of pop music towards a harder, louder sound. The watchwords were "creative" and "original". Almost every new act wrote its own songs. Music was suddenly personal and confessional. It was also social and purposeful. Elvis belonged to an old-fashioned way of making music, relying on publishing agents to supply the hits. It was impersonal and too crafted. He needed to be re-invented.
Chips Moman was the right man for the job. The songs offered to Elvis can be described as either tuneful pop ballads with an edge or songs that were rooted to Elvis' country, blues and r&b influences. New talents like Mac Davis, Eddie Rabbit and Neil Diamond were approached for songs, as were memorable hits from the forgotten past. Taken together, the Memphis sessions was the sound of an established talent regaining his momentum, not by stooping to copy what's fashionable, but by reviving what made him famous in the first place.
On American Crown Jewels, the best 19 songs from the 33 are presented in undubbed alternate takes in close to excellent studio quality. The ones that could be labeled personal are 'You'll Think Of Me', 'True Love Travels On A Gravel Road', 'Do You Know Who I Am?', 'Only The Strong Survive', 'Any Day Now' and 'If I'm A Fool'. Much has already been said about the blues songs from these sessions. 'Long Black Limousine' predicted Elvis' own fate. A singer who tried so hard to be famous returns home in a hearse. The social 'In The Ghetto' was attempted in 20+ takes and goes a long way in cementing Elvis to his blues roots, not because it is a blues song but because it was about the underclass at the time closely identified with Negroes. With 'Suspicious Minds', Elvis took the love ballad a couple of rungs up the ladder. It was adult and the theme was real.
While three decades have passed, music fans still come back to this period of Elvis. The songs 'Do You Know Who I Am?' and 'Only The Strong Survive' are like premonitions of a future foretold. Don't we all wish he had the strength to resist the Colonel? If he had gone on recording instead of the punishing schedule of months-long tours, he probably would have built upon this crucial collection of critically acclaimed songs to leave behind a larger body of studio works. Hell, he might even have lived longer. Not even Sinatra, after the peak of his Capitol years, ever won critical acclaim again. Like Elvis, he relied on publishing agents to find the songs but unlike Elvis, he never succeeded in re-inventing himself for a contemporary audience. The less said about Sinatra's Duets album the better.
Elvis scored big in the early '70s with charting singles starting with 'In The Ghetto'. To rattle off a few 'Suspicious Minds', 'Kentucky Rain', 'The Wonder Of You', 'I've Lost You', 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me', 'Rags To Riches', 'Life', 'I'm Leavin', 'Burning Love' and right up to the end with 'My Way'.
On hindsight, the albums From Elvis In Memphis (June '69) and Back In Memphis (November '69), which contain the American recordings, were like blueprints for Neil Young's "On The Beach" or Bob Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks" which came out in the early '70s. Thematically they all bared their souls and aspired for something beyond sales figures and the rock star charade. Elvis was the elder statesman who again drew the map for future rock stars when they made "adult" albums.
The 14 days that Elvis spent in American produced 30 plus songs, the bulk of which emerged on two albums. Other songs were scattered on budget releases and one even appeared on a Christmas compilation. You can find them all now on BMG's new Suspicious Minds 2CD collection with the bonus of alternate takes. But American Crown Jewels with its fresh "in your face" sound and some off-color remarks and mistakes remains a Holy Grail for all Elvis fans to search out. The pacing and selection of tracks paints a different picture of the man as an artist. Remember him this way.
© Michael Cheah, March 4 2001