If Elvis’ 1968 Comeback Special was the sound of a king, lean and hungry, reclaiming his throne, then this album, released on June 17, 1969, is the sound of Elvis solidifying his powers and proving that the TV special was, indeed, no fluke.
Elvis returned to Memphis on January 13th of that year to record for the first time since he left Sun Records back in 1956. After many years of terrible movies that brought diminishing box office returns and vapid songs that Elvis hated singing, he was clearly ready for a change. His career was on a severe decline, artistically and commercially. He had flailed through the past several years with no direction and little enthusiasm. With the TV special, though, there was hope. He had some momentum and he wasn’t about to concede an inch. He knew this was his last chance to get his career back on track, and start producing music of substance and quality again – to prove that he was no washed-up relic from the distant past. After recording “If I Can Dream” for the special, the year before, he noted, “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in.”
And so set the stage for this album. He went to American Studios, run by producer and songwriter Chips Moman, where dozens of hits were being recorded at the time by this young hotshot. Moman was skeptical, though, as to whether Elvis could still turn out anything of worth, as were the house session musicians. Moman was in awe of Elvis, but he was not about to let that interfere with his judgement. He meant business, and expected the same from Elvis. Everyone’s fears subsided in an instant. Elvis arrived, ready to work. He proved himself right away with a brilliant recording of the song “Long Black Limousine,” whose subject deals with a girl returning to her hometown, after seeking fame and fortune – only the vehicle she’s returning in is a hearse. The poignant subject matter was certainly something that reflected Elvis’ situation. Was he back in Memphis to reclaim former glories or to be buried? Judging from his impassioned reading of this old country song, the answer is clear: this was to be no funeral. As he states in the first line of album opener “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” “I had to leave town for a little while.” Well, he’s definitely back. Sometimes, you really can go back home again.
From there, it just got better. Elvis recorded one soon-to-be classic after another. There were so many, in fact, that some were held over for future albums. Others, like the brilliant “Suspicious Minds” or “Kentucky Rain,” were released as singles only – returning him to his hitmaking glories. One of the most underrated recordings of his career came with a marvelous reading of the then-current Jerry Butler R&B hit, “Only the Strong Survive.” Elvis’ version more than holds its own, as he turns this song into an autobiographical anthem – his statement of purpose. With the inspired background vocals, excellent playing by the musicians and the slightly speeded-up chorus, perfection was achieved. Elvis never sang better. Elsewhere, he recorded great versions of country tunes like Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and Eddy Arnold’s “I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Hands)” (complete with false starts). On the bluesy “Power of My Love,” Elvis sounds hungrier than he’s ever sounded in his life. The man is ferocious and ready to take prisoners.
Elvis showed with this album, that, as always, he could handle any type of material – rock & roll, country, R&B, ballads, blues – you name it. His soulful reading of the Burt Bacharach ballad “Any Day Now” (a hit for Chuck Jackson in 1962), is another highlight. Again, Elvis proved, once and for all, what a truly breathtaking singer he could be when given the right material. “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” is also given a beautiful reading, with excellent backing by the musicians. Elvis proved during these sessions that he had developed a newfound maturity as a singer. As great as he was in his earlier days, he could have never pulled off these kinds of performances during that time.
The album closes with his classic recording of the Mac Davis topical song “In the Ghetto,” which became a big hit for Elvis. This poignant song, which he sings with understated subtlety and heartbreaking pathos, never fails to move. In a few short, simple lines, this song, and Elvis’ reading of it, conveys the tragedy of the unending cycle of poverty. The song can bring you close to tears. And so the album ends on a sad, but emotional high. Elvis clearly wanted people to walk away with something on their minds beside merely feeling entertained.
From Elvis in Memphis made it to #13 on the Billboard charts when it was released. It set up his triumphant return to live performing and proved his comeback special was only a warmup. His resurgence and commercial fortunes would continue for a few more years before the concerts started to become as much of a grind as the movies had been. Elvis grew bored, his marriage collapsed, his health declined, his pill-taking increased, and it all ended in unspeakable tragedy, as we all know. The momentum couldn’t be sustained indefinitely. None of that takes away one single thing, though, from what he accomplished in a small Memphis studio in the early part of 1969. As the liner notes to the new expanded edition of this album state, “A comeback is, damn it, still a comeback.” And with this collection of songs, Elvis certainly proved one thing – he was back, better than ever.