Book Review: Eric Wolfson “From Elvis in Memphis” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020)

Rather like the proverbial buses, another of Bloomsbury’s 331/3 books arrives soon after the recent, ‘Murder Ballads’, volume.  Whereas, ‘Murder Ballads’, was a universal tale of musical history and folklore focussing on a particular album and artist, ‘From Elvis In Memphis’, is almost wholly focussed on the artist and addresses wider issues only in passing. Ultimately it is likely to be much more specifically for Elvis fans,  whereas ‘Murder Ballads’, was relevant for more than just Cave aficionados.

Wolfson sketches some of the key points in Presley’s life; his attachment to his mother, his religious convictions,  the poverty, his poor choice of manager and friends and his ultimate conservatism (and some of its wilder manifestations).  He happily admits that the definitive biography is found elsewhere – written by Peter Guralnick.

There is a commemorative plaque at the old American Studios site in Memphis that recounts their overall achievements and also the time that Presley spent recording there.  In a nutshell, this is what the book is about.

To revive his recording career, Elvis came to American Studios in 1969.  Spending much of the 1960’s making movies, Elvis saw that his status as a pop singer had faded. Seeking a comeback, he worked with Chips Moman and the 827 Thomas Street Band. Together they combined Elvis’s unique talent with American’s trademark blend of country, pop, and rhythm and blues’.

Wolfson’s book puts forward a brief summary of Presley’s career after he exploded into American life in the 1950s in that unprecedented burst of energy.  In the 1960s he became bogged down in a succession of poor quality films with mediocre soundtracks (Wolfson would say that a poor choice of material by others was one reason for his decline). Thus by the end of the 60’s he was essentially irrelevant in a world of lightning change as counter-culture became increasingly mainstream.  In the 70’s Elvis decamped to Las Vegas (though Wolfson points out that he was in fine shape at the beginning of his time there).  He became bloated and phoned in poor quality performances of sub-standard material, whilst his fashion sense and sizing charts both went missing.

In between times in 1969, he went to American Studios in Memphis, allowing Chips Moman to do his thing with a great group of session musicians.  In doing all of this he managed to sideline Colonel Tom and his own group of hangers-on and produced some of his best music in years.  Wolfson believes that the album, ‘From Elvis In Memphis’, is his supreme artistic achievement.

Importantly Moman, The Memphis Boys, (Tommy Cogbill, Reggie Young, Bobby Wood, Bobby Emmons, Mike Leech and Gene Chrisman) and the Memphis Horns (led by Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love), operated as equals with Presley, helping to create the atmosphere in the studio that produced this resurgent collection.

All good so far. This is a long read and it does seem repetitive at times. Each chapter deals with an individual track and they do seem to meld one into the other after a while.  Wolfson seems to have listened to a great number of out-takes from the recording sessions and at times it seems like he might describe each one. There are many and repeated attempts to describe the sounds that are created in the studio and again they seem familiar and often without a great deal of resonance for the reader:

‘Suspicious Minds (part of the session though not on the album) has one of the greatest openings in rock and roll. Reggie Young hits the opening guitar riff like water trickling through a stream, rolling back and forth with a precision that belies its natural flow; Bobby Emmons organ holds the organ chords like clouds streaking from the sky above; Mike Leech digs into the earth with his pulsating bass; Gene Chrisman keeps the rhythm with the tip tap of raindrops on the roof of his high hat symbols; only pianist Bobby Long waits in the wings, as he will add his own piano-chord layering as Elvis comes in’.

Describing what music actually sounds like is no easy task and a well-placed phrase can illuminate so much – but it’s not clear that these descriptions add a great deal.  In similar fashion, much time is spent describing Presley’s appearance on the album cover in the final chapter, ‘The Back Cover’. There may be a point there about Presley’s state of mind but there may be briefer more straightforward ways to illustrate it.

There is a great deal to interest the reader in this book, not least some interesting anecdotes about Hank Snow (who describes ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker as, ‘The most egotistical obnoxious human I ever had dealings with’) and Charley Patton.  However, there also seems to have been something of a failure of editing and a shorter book might be more engaging. The central thesis is well argued and the research is clearly exhaustive.  It does not seem that we learn anything new about Presley but then his life has been picked over extensively so this is not a surprise.  It does leave you with a feeling of what might have been if this great singer had been better advised and able to exert a bit more influence over his own material.  Rick Rubin exercised a similar role to that of Moman in Johnny Cash’s later years – however, it was more than a one-shot wonder – Presley and Moman unfortunately never crossed paths again.

Whatever else, this album created some great music including four hit singles. It was thus commercially, artistically and critically successful and included the classic, ‘In the Ghetto’, – a song that suggested unrealised potential for a more positive future in a track that was at least as much a message as it was entertainment. That achievement is well celebrated here – but ultimately what a waste of great talent!

About Gordon Sharpe 87 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts

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