- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Elvis Presley
From Elvis in Memphis
Sony Legacy

Elvis Presley was flush from the runaway success of his legendary NBC “Comeback Special” broadcast in December 1968 when, the following January, he stepped into American Studios in Memphis to record the slate of songs that would power the next phase of his career.

Mr. Presley, whose career had been stage-managed assiduously by his overweening and overcompensated manager, Col. Tom Parker, agreed to record in Memphis without his minder in tow. The idea was to rekindle the King’s recording career back in the town where he had cut his early hits under the tutelage of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. However, the lean, vocal-heavy style that characterized Mr. Presley’s Sun hits was discarded in favor of a more contemporary soul sound, heavy on bass and organ, that for the first time integrated Mr. Presley’s voice into a tightly orchestrated band. No Jordanaires. No Memphis Mafia. Just Elvis Presley and a crew of top-flight players.

For Mr. Presley’s fans, this was the first taste of the real Elvis since the 1960 LP “Elvis Is Back!” which celebrated the singer’s discharge from the Army. Mr. Presley spent much of the ‘60s off the concert stage, appearing for his fans only via a series of popular but largely execrable films (“King Creole” not withstanding) and recording their equally mediocre soundtracks.

The sessions were led by producer Lincoln “Chips” Moman, a legend in his own right. Mr. Moman was a producer at Stax Records before a falling out with management, and he had helped create the bright, dense and soulful orchestrations that came to characterize the Stax sound. He also was a guitarist and composer, notably a session player for Aretha Franklin and others at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama.

The result was the liveliest, most textured and most competently executed music of Mr. Presley’s career. The bass pounds, the organs hum, strings soar, brass pulsates and electric guitars quiver with syncopated picking as groovy and contagious as anything you’ll hear on a Stax recording. Mr. Presley’s voice has never sounded better than it does here as one instrument among many. Even listeners with only a dim awareness of Mr. Presley’s work (they’re out there) will know “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” However, the work here cuts deep and is surprisingly ageless.

Forty years hasn’t drained the sweet, honest humility of “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road.” The funky “Rubberneckin’” is still startlingly carnal for an Elvis song, with its Gainsbourgesque exultations on the backing vocals. “Wearin’ That Loved on Look,” the opening track to the collection, still cooks, mixing a low-church organ with gospel-inflected backing vocals.

The cuts from the two months of recording sessions sprawled over the albums “Elvis in Memphis” and “Back in Memphis” as well as the double-LP “From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis,” released to coincide with Mr. Presley’s much-hyped return to the stage. This 40th-anniversary two-CD edition brings together 36 tracks from the American Studios sessions, including 10 mono tracks. It’s a slight variation on the 30th-anniversary tribute, which included the songs from the two Memphis LPs along with a smattering of alternate takes. The monophonic cuts will have some niche appeal to audiophiles, but owners of the 1999 version (released as “Suspicious Minds”) shouldn’t feel compelled to upgrade.

Over the years, a wealth of outtakes, including some unprintable flubs by Mr. Presley himself and playful exchanges between Mr. Presley and Mr. Moman, have seen the light of day, first on the bootleg market and later on the Internet. While the Elvis police try to keep a lid on the online distribution of unauthorized material, collectors of Presley bootlegs manage to stay one step ahead. The online clips available aren’t top quality, but they communicate the easy joy Mr. Presley must have experienced cutting these records — as well as Mr. Moman’s tight studio discipline. A complete, chronological version of the Memphis sessions might be just the thing for their golden anniversary, 10 years from now.

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