Last month, Sony’s Follow That Dream collectors label for Elvis fans released its Classic Album version of Back In Memphis. With the holidays over, I’ve finally had some time to listen to this 2-CD set.
Elvis loved Memphis, and no matter which of his eras you reference, he made some of his best music there.
The original Back In Memphis album was actually a 1970 re-release of Record 2 of the 1969 2-LP set From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis. Record 1 of that set was also re-released in 1970, as Elvis In Person.
Back In Memphis was a follow-up to the impeccable From Elvis In Memphis, recorded during the same 1969 sessions at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Unfortunately, the results were not nearly as strong.
In fact, Back In Memphis was one of the only disappointments I encountered in my first few years of collecting Elvis music. I was a huge fan of The Memphis Record, a 1987 retrospective album for the American sessions – compiling the entirety of From Elvis In Memphis, most of the singles, and selections from Back In Memphis.
While sound quality has come a long way since then, The Memphis Record was definitely a huge influence on me becoming the borderline obsessive Elvis fan I am today. I couldn’t wait to hear the remaining songs when RCA re-released Back In Memphis in the early 1990s on CD.
It turned out, though, that every “new-to-me” song on the album (i.e., those that weren’t on The Memphis Record) bordered on horrible. A bad Elvis CD, and from 1969 at that… I was shocked. I rarely played it.
Since that time, I’ve come to appreciate at least one of those Back In Memphis recordings that I initially hated: “Do You Know Who I Am,” which is a beautiful song.
If I play Back In Memphis these days, I prefer to kick it off by playing Elvis In Person. To me, Back In Memphis holds up better as Record 2 of a 2-LP set than it does as a stand-alone title. Elvis In Person, on the other hand, is powerful enough on its own.
Back In Memphis begins with “Inherit The Wind,” a great song written by Eddie Rabbitt – who also wrote “Kentucky Rain.” While I enjoy “Inherit The Wind,” I do not believe it was a good choice for first song.
Up next is “This Is The Story,” which sounds like a leftover – leading to an abysmal feeling for the beginning of Back In Memphis.
Fortunately, “Stranger In My Own Home Town” revs things into high gear. This is one of Elvis’ best performances from the American sessions, and it should have been the lead-off song for Back In Memphis. In fact, RCA wisely used it to kick off The Memphis Record. Say what you will about the sound, The Memphis Record had flawless sequencing.
Back In Memphis downshifts into low gear again with “Just A Little Bit Of Green.” Though better than “This Is The Story,” this is still lesser material. Elvis’ performance, as with just about everything he touched in 1969, is commendable, but the song itself is simply not worthwhile.
“Side 1” of the original album closes out with a real stinker, Neil Diamond’s “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind.” This is one of the few Elvis songs that I find nearly unlistenable. Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy who is a fan of “Old MacDonald.” To say that I give Elvis songs the benefit of the doubt is an understatement. This one is horrible, by far the worst on the album.
“Side 2” kicks off with “Do You Know Who I Am,” a very moving performance that always gets to me when I take the time to feel the words.
“I remember you said that you had to forget about me and be free. Do you know who I am, or have you forgot about me?”
Then we are back to sub-mediocre material with “From A Jack To A King.” Perhaps better than a typical movie song, but not by much.
Back In Memphis finishes strong, though. “The Fair’s Moving On,” “You’ll Think Of Me,” and, to a lesser extent, “Without Love” are all terrific songs.
All in all, it makes for an uneven album that pales in comparison to From Elvis In Memphis.
As a bonus, FTD includes the stereo version of “Suspicious Minds,” which was not released until a few years after Elvis’ death. The original single released in 1969 was mono and can be found on the 2009 Legacy Edition of From Elvis In Memphis.
What else can be said about “Suspicious Minds” beyond that it is one of Elvis Presley’s true masterpieces?
Some have argued that RCA should have included it on the original Back In Memphis, but that would have been problematic because a live version of “Suspicious Minds” was included on the Elvis In Person portion of the original release.
Instead, RCA should have considered using “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “Rubberneckin'”, “Kentucky Rain,” and even “My Little Friend” to bolster this lackluster album. The problem with those, however, is that they had not yet been released as singles prior to From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis hitting stores.
Anyway, the “Suspicious Minds” bonus song is welcome here, particularly since it allows the meat of this 2-CD edition to include every take of this classic.
Sound quality on this release is amazing, by the way. I probably don’t mention that enough anymore, because I have gotten used to this level of quality over the last few years of Elvis releases.
Inherit The Wind (Take 1; rehearsal; Take 4/master with vocal overdub #1): Take 1 and the rehearsal are instrumental only, both short. Vocal overdub #1 that Elvis performed against Take 4 is a gem. This is one of those where it is so clear that it sounds as if he is standing in your living room while performing the song. I’m thrilled to add this one to my collection. Previously unreleased.
A Little Bit Of Green (Take 1): Elvis sounds great here, of course, but I still don’t care very much for the song. This is a previously unreleased take. I think I like it better than the master, though that may just be the fact that it is “new” compared to that one. It is possible that this take could make the song grow on me. I like the stripped-down nature of it.
And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind (Takes 1-3; 5): This is a collection of previously unreleased false starts that did not change my opinion of this awful song.
Do You Know Who I Am (Take 1): This is a nice alternate, though I prefer the master. Previously released on Memphis Sessions.
From A Jack To A King (Takes 1-3): Takes 1 and 2 are false starts. Take 3 is worse than the master. Previously released on Memphis Sessions.
You’ll Think Of Me (Takes 1-6): Takes 1 through 5 are false starts. Take 6 is pleasant, but feels somewhat plodding at times compared to the master. Previously unreleased.
Without Love (Take 1): This alternate, which is very similar to the master, was previously released on Suspicious Minds.
Suspicious Minds (Takes 1-4; rehearsal; Take 5; rehearsal): This one track is the reason I had to have this CD upon release, rather than picking it up at some point down the road in 2013. Here are Elvis Presley’s first five attempts at “Suspicious Minds,” all blown takes. Elvis swears on some of his mistakes, and FTD has not edited his language. I commend this decision, since this is a collectors label. Anyway, I love hearing “Suspicious Minds” start to come together. Other than parts of the rehearsal segments, most of this track is previously unreleased.
Suspicious Minds (Take 6): This track begins with two more previously unreleased false starts before Elvis finally nails a complete take – as previously released on ELVIS: From Nashville To Memphis – The Essential 60s Masters I.
For some reason, FTD includes the undubbed “Stranger In My Home Town” master in this rehearsal section. This version was available before on Reconsider Baby and Memphis Sessions. “Stranger In My Own Home Town” is a song where I strongly prefer the dubbed version.
There is also a true rehearsal of “A Little Bit Of Green.” Elvis sings it very slow at first but eventually moves it closer to the familiar speed. I like this previously unreleased informal version better than the master.
Up next are three takes of “You’ll Think Of Me.” Take 8, though previously released on Made In Memphis, is new to me. Take 14 was previously released on Memphis Sessions. Take 16 was previously released on Suspicious Minds. All three takes are enjoyable.
Then, it’s back to “A Little Bit Of Green” for takes 2 and 3. Take 2 consists of a couple of false starts, while take 3 is actually the undubbed master with Elvis’ original vocals (he re-recorded his vocals to the song at a September session later that year in Nashville). He struggles with it in the January session. Fascinating, and exactly the kind of previously unreleased track that a collectors label should provide.
The previously unreleased vocal overdub #2 for “Inherit The Wind” proves interesting because Elvis spends part of it joking around, including use of his mock country voice.
Two false starts of “Without Love” are followed by Take 4 – previously released on Memphis Sessions. It’s a decent take, but this song wears on me after awhile. Too much style, not enough substance.
Take 7 of “Suspicious Minds” quickly re-energizes me, though. How I love this song. This take was previously released on Platinum: A Life In Music, though there are some extra talking bits before and after the song here.
Up first is the master Take 6 of “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind”, undubbed except for Elvis vocal repairs. While I still detest the underlying song, I do find this version better than the master.
Take 4 of “Do You Know Who I Am” was first released on Made In Memphis, but it is new to me and, thus, a highlight of this release. Elvis seems really into the song. He begins to clown around at the end and states afterwards, “You’re gonna save that last take, aren’t you? Because the first part of the take was pretty good.”
“This Is The Story” kicks off with a false start Take 1, followed by the undubbed Take 2 – previously released in shorter form on Memphis Sessions. This simpler version is far preferable to the master. I also enjoy the live version (Collectors Gold) due to Elvis injecting some humor into this melodramatic piece.
More “You’ll Think Of Me”, this time the undubbed master Take 23. This is a terrific track.
Back to “A Little Bit Of Green.” This time, it is master Take 3 with Elvis’ vocal overdub replacement, but without the other dubs. Accordingly, Elvis sounds much stronger here than in the “January Outtakes” instance of this track. Also, the song is admittedly much improved in its simpler form without the other overdubs. Oh what confusing webs ensnare Elvis fans.
Two false starts from Take 4 kick off “From A Jack To A King,” followed by the undubbed and unedited master Take 5 – previously unreleased. I prefer it over the released master, though this still won’t be a favorite. I may play it a little more often, though.
Next is the undubbed master (Take 5) of “Without Love,” previously unreleased and mostly unremarkable.
Here, at last, is the undubbed/unedited master Take 8 of “Suspicious Minds.” Boy, was it worth the wait. You’ll want to crank this one up and wake up your neighbors, folks. Wow. It is incredible to hear this song in its stripped-down form. While it is not better than the official master, I believe it will stand right alongside it for me. There are plenty of other great tracks on FTD’s Back In Memphis, but this one alone is worth the cost of admission.
From “Suspicious Minds” to “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” (master Take 6 with vocal overdub). Maybe this illustrates as well as any other two examples of the contradictory nature of Elvis’ career. So much incredible talent that is alternatively poured into a treasured work or into utter dreck. Yet, in both cases, the talent is always there.
Further proving my point, after “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” comes another great track, Take 7 (master, with vocal overdub) of “Do You Know Who I Am”. I love this one, too – including more fooling around by Elvis near the end. I can’t wait to go back and listen again to all of these “Do You Know Who I Am” takes.
Finally, “The Fair’s Moving On” (Take 1 master, with vocal overdub) provides an approriate album closer as Elvis sings, “Yes, the fair’s moving on, and I’ll soon be gone…” Another delightful track.
Cover & Booklet
As when FTD released Elvis In Person in the Classic Album series, the front cover art duplicates the reissue version of Back In Memphis, leaving out the From Vegas To Memphis title. At least they were consistent, but I would have preferred both use the From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis cover variants, as the odds of the original 2-LP version getting a re-release on its own are slim to none.
From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis actually would have made a great Legacy Edition release, but both Elvis In Person and Back In Memphis have already been part of separate releases in that series as supporting titles for On Stage and From Elvis In Memphis respectively.
The Back In Memphis FTD booklet cover is fantastic. I like to think of these as the album covers for the FTD editions, and this is one of their best alternate designs – right up there with the booklet cover for That’s The Way It Is FTD Classic Album edition.
The liner notes reveal no new information and often sound awkward. For example:
“One of the new songs Elvis performed at his shows was an extended seven-minutes plus arrangement of a yet to be released song from the Memphis Sessions, a Mark James penned song about the break-up of a relationship titled ‘Suspicious Minds’.”
I also wish the “In And Outtakes” notes had been more informative about the various takes, overdubs, etc. Instead, I had to use the Elvis Presley Recording Sessions section of the excellent Keith Flynn’s Elvis Presley Pages to unravel some of my personal confusion when compiling this review. Compared to initial releases, FTD has come a long way in the amount of information provided – but there is still room to grow.
When I first heard the original Back In Memphis, over twenty years ago, I was surprised by my disappointment. After listening to this expanded FTD release of the album, I am surprised yet again. Not by disappointment this time, but by how much I enjoyed it.
Verdict: 10 (out of 10)
“The Memphis Record” is huge for me, as well. Moving to my current, rural location north of Toronto, I played it a lot that summer, 16 years ago. So, not only do I get good, personal stuff out of it but the recordings are fantastic and, yes, the sequencing perfect.
Yes, personal associations definitely have so much to do with how we respond to music – particularly over the course of years. That’s why it’s really impossible to “objectively” review any of these Elvis releases. I bring all sorts of personal baggage into my reviews, but I guess people know that by now and take that into account.
I haven’t pulled out The Memphis Record in awhile. I didn’t like it as much on CD, but I loved the vinyl LP version. I may have to play that soon.
One thing I do often, though, is play the current Anesini mixes of this material with The Memphis Record sequencing in an iTunes playlist. Still holds up.