Saturday, November 07, 2020

November 07 - Review From Elvis in Memphis Book

Bloomsbury Academic finally added a book an Elvis Presley album to their popular 33 1/3 music history and criticism series. Eric Wolfson wrote an extensive examination of the 1969 classic ‘From Elvis in Memphis’. Time for a review of a ‘review book’. 


The 184 page-book follows the standard design of the series, a small image of the album and a colored rectangle with the title of the album and name of the author. Basic, but very recognisable. Although part of a series, and thereby a format, the one thing I missed were illustrations. Although I must say Eric Wolfson’s colorful writing style makes up for this. 

The book covers the album literally. Starting with the iconic front-cover and closing with the back-cover. In-between the twelve songs of the album. 


The book opens with a short but to the point historical perspective on Elvis place in the birth of rock and roll - nice to read all the links between the legends, their band members and studio’s where they recorded - the changes in the music business and status of Elvis’ career in 1968. 

And after a walk down the streets of Sunset Boulevard with Steve Binder in 1968 before the taping of the TV Special, not being recognized by anybody “he was reminded what it was like to be nobody. And Elvis worked hard on the special to make sure he would never feel that way again”. Binder stated. 

“Elvis wasn’t a faker like Pat Boone, who sang a Little Richard song like “Tutti Frutti” with the same corny blandness that he applied to any other pop song. Elvis worked hard to learn the blues and rhythm and blues idioms, and brought it together with country music in a new way through his music“. 

A good opener for a book like this, aimed at a broader audience than just Elvis Presley fans. 

Following the '’68 Comeback Special' LP, ‘From Elvis In Memphis’ was the first proof of his comeback. For this he needed to come home first. “This is where it all started for me”, Elvis told a reporter after a session at the American Sound Studio’s where he made that fresh start on his own terms. 

The great ‘Stranger In My Own Town’ illustrates this perfectly. It found its place on the album as a jam-like one-taker, recorded pure as in the first day at Sam Phillips SUN Studios. 

Eric notes: 'From Elvis in Memphis is very much a comeback album, looking to reposition its singer as once-again relevant. It’s telling that Elvis didn’t go off to San Francisco or London to make the album, chasing some fleeting trend in late 1960s popular music. As much as Elvis could be a musical chameleon, he was smart enough to know that he didn’t want to commit himself to music that he could not understand. By setting up shop in Memphis, he forced the new music to come to him, on his turf, and on his terms. … Sun Records and American Sound were both storefront operations where one could pop in off the street unannounced. There was an inherent casualness to the music Elvis made in Memphis up to this point that sets it apart from the slick, big-city studios in New York City, Nashville, and Hollywood”. 

Elvis was home and reborn, and this album shows it as he throws himself into each and every song. 

“Part of the thrill of listening to 'From Elvis in Memphis' is Elvis’s investment in the material. Elvis sounds focused, not just trying to entertain the listener, but to capture their attention and earn their respect”. 

Eric Wolfson manages to capture this this process in words. He put very much interesting details in his narrative, going from song to song. Details on everyone involved, in-depth analysis of the songs, the recording, personal memories from people involved and linking lyrics to Elvis’ life and current status his recording career. He connects the early hits and fifties influences right up to the new tracks on this album. 

The author has a pleasant writing style, talking in pictures sometimes, keeping you engrossed in the story. Because he used so many reputable sources to tell, illustrate and build his story on, it is a well-founded and well-thought-out book and not just a fan’s perspective. While reading the book you almost feel like the proverbial fly on the walls of 827 Thomas Street. 

I don’t agree with the observation that working with The Memphis Boys was the first time since years of recording movie soundtracks was a new for Elvis. During those ‘dark years’ he also recorded some real classics and hidden gems, but he did so mainly using his original musicians. The problem wasn’t the band, it was the quality of most of the songs. That said, our man did make a restart at 827 Thomas Street with a completely new band and producer. 

The lyrics of many of these songs, not written with Elvis in mind, really fit his story. And with this strong and emotional material, it helps that this is the kind of material Elvis can relate to, resulting in strong performances. 

Eric notes: “As a performer, Elvis’s gift was his sense of conviction, and this was something that transcended everything. When the material was good, and Elvis gave it his all, he made you believe what he was singing like few artists before or since. It is said that Elvis wanted to be an actor most of all -a real, respected actor like Marlon Brando or James Dean, as opposed to the cinematic joke he became - and somewhat ironically, you can hear it in his songs long before you can see it in his films”. 

Sometimes the author stretches the interpretation a bit far in my opinion – especially on ‘Mama Liked the Roses' and Vernon’s place in the family. But because he substantiates his writing well, you can understand the reasoning. In itself this is one of the great things about this book, it makes you think, re-listen to the song from a new perspective and form your own opinion. All sources used in the book are acknowledged, handy for further reading. 

The author handles all elements of the album. So, besides the music, the author also analyses the front and back-covers of the album. If only Elvis had stood up against The Colonel on the packaging of these great tracks as he did on selecting and recording them. 

Although not a bad cover, it is built from recycled pictures and – like the carny Parked usually did – filled with advertisements, while it lacks proper credits. Although that wasn’t completely unusual back then, this could also be The Colonel getting back at Chips Moman who stood up against his policies in regard to song selection and copyright deals. 


This book is a great, colorful and above all essential read on one of Elvis’ most important albums. It documents the story behind the album in-depth, keeping you engrossed throughout the book. It makes you think, re-listen to the songs from new perspectives and form your own opinion. 

I surely hope the Eric Wolfson picks one of his other favorite Elvis albums for a follow-up! As there are at least a handful of Elvis albums that deserve a spot in the 33 1/3 series' line-up. 

You can visit the author's website at: >>> From Elvis In Memphis.