In the Elvis Presley mythology, 1968 marks the year of the TV Renaissance, when Presley delivered a mesmerizing, passionate performance on NBC, which regenerated his career after years of kitschy movies and poor soundtracks. From Elvis in Memphis, recorded in Elvis’ hometown and released the following year, remains the studio sine qua non of his late-Sixties comeback period: new as polyester yet old as leather, religiously involved yet flashy as neon, refined like pop yet savage like rock & roll.
What pulled all these opposites together was the Memphis soul-recording-studio method, which also produced Aretha Franklin’s and Dusty Springfield’s work with Jerry Wexler, and Al Green’s classic records with Willie Mitchell. The Memphis style was to put a stirring voice in the middle of meticulous arrangements that had the sustained, snaky fervor of testimonies or sermons. From Elvis in Memphis represented the full-on immersion in the Memphis idea of Elvis Presley, the American singer second only to Frank Sinatra for the ability to conjure a particular sonic universe with his merest vocal utterance. And from the album’s first song, in which a bluesy Elvis espies a woman “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” to its last, in which a more straight-up-pop Elvis regrets the injustices of life “In the Ghetto,” his fully engaged, newly energized voice finds its most logical album setting in years.
In 1968, Elvis Presley was a more mannered and complex adult version of the Fifties kid with the nerve to combine the gnawing friction of the blues, the flourishes of gospel quartets, the zinging concision of pop and the melodic leisure of country. From Elvis in Memphis (the reissue of which contains the masterpiece non-album singles “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain”) is the maturation of that nerve, twisted and shouted and filtered through a city’s unique soul system.