The Stories Behind Elvis' Number 1 Hits
I have been a fan of Elvis Presley's music for my entire life. Thus, when Chicago Review Press gave me the opportunity to do a book on the stories behind his greatest hits, I jumped at it. Even before writing this book I had been doing research on the subject. Whenever I met one of the writers of an Elvis song, I asked about it. Thus I had a library ready and waiting when the project began. The book turned into a real snap shot of not just the singer, but of the times in which he lived. This is one that I believe any music fan will enjoy.
I have chosen to spotlight Mac Davis' amazing composition "In The Ghetto."
In The Ghetto
One of the first pioneering rock and roll stars with whom Elvis developed a friendship was Lubbock, Texas native Buddy Holly. During his years with Sun Records, the Memphis singer often ran into the West Texas teen while he was working Texas clubs. The two budding musicians would drink Cokes and visit back stage before and after shows, even having their pictures made together from time to time. Over the next few years, they both kept up with each others careers and songs. When Presley was stationed in Germany, a plane crash dashed Holly’s career just as it seemed to be ready to jump into high gear. Friends at the time said that Buddy’s death hit Elvis hard. Presley had to figure that no one from that West Texas city would ever mean as much to him as Buddy. Elvis could not have guessed that a decade later another young man from Lubbock would play a very important role in redefining the King’s own career and musical direction.
Scott Davis was born on January 21, 1942, on the flat Texas plains that surrounded the city of Lubbock. Davis always loved music, and growing up in an area where western swing met rock and roll meant that he heard a lot of different types of songs. Inspired by both Holly and Presley, Scott, “Mac” to his friends, began his own rock and roll band. By the early sixties, Davis had moved to Atlanta and expanded his musical outreach. Not only was he singing and fronting for his own group, but he was the regional manager for a Chicago-based record label, Vee-Jay. Success at Vee-Jay opened up new doors of opportunity for the young man. In 1967, Mac moved to Los Angeles and took over Liberty Records’ publishing outlet, Metric Music. It was here the creative Davis not only ran into a host of songwriters, but some of the hottest west coast recording acts. One day, in his role as Metric’s Manager of Operations, Davis got call inquiring if any of the company’s writers would be interested in submitting some compositions for Elvis Presley’s next movie, Live A Little, Love A Little. Mac didn’t know about anyone else, but he was sure he wanted to be included in this group.
“I had written a couple of things for the movies,” Davis recalled “and Billy Strange told me that Elvis was looking for new writers and new materials. In the script there was this situation where Elvis’ character was leaving this swimming pool and going home with a girl. At that point they had inserted the words, ‘Elvis sings.’ I submitted a song I had already written and they used it. It was kind of a lucky fluke.” More than three decades later, this composition would sweep the world, but for the moment it was just the break that got Elvis interested in Mac’s work.
A few months later Davis got another call. Presley was in need of new music and some type of positive exposure. Movies like Live A Little, Love A Little were no longer doing enough to sell the singer or his songs. The Colonel finally sensed he was going to have to do something on a much grander scale. In early 1968, the manager dialed up the networks and told them Elvis wanted to do a Christmas special. NBC-TV bought the idea and Singer Sewing Machines signed up as the lone sponsor for the one hour special. In Parker’s mind, this program would be nothing more than Presley’s version of what Bing Crosby did every year. Sing a few carols, have a skit with a couple of well known guests and go home. Producer/director Steve Binder had other things in mind. He wanted to reintroduce the real Elvis to a new generation. To make this a reality, he needed creative writers like Mac Davis to provide original material.
Binder dreamed up a show that was half Broadway style production numbers and half live concert. The showcase portion would have Elvis dressed in black leather and singing his old hits to a crowd filled with pretty girls. Filmed in late June of 1968, the concert was pure magic. The production portion, also filmed that week, would tell the Presley story in song. Because Elvis so liked his work, Mac Davis was called, then brought in to arrange the scores and pen original music to bookend various segments of the program. One of these Davis numbers, which gave Elvis a chance to review his life and career, was the beautiful ballad, “Memories.” Presley loved it, declaring it to be one of the best things he had cut in years.
Airing on December 3, the Presley special was not just a ratings winner, but one of the most riveting pieces of television ever broadcast. It was Elvis at his rocking best. Presley interacting with an audience as he never had on film or on programs such as Ed Sullivan. This hour long musical special, now simply called The 68 Comeback Special, proved the singer was not just potent, but still the most powerful live entertainer in the world. Millions who had never even listened to the original Elvis found themselves caught under the singer’s spell. When Binder had Presley conclude the special with an incredible topical protest song, “If I Can Dream,” staged in front of Elvis written in lights twenty feet high, even the harshest of critics stated that chills raced up their spine. “Elvis,” magazines and newspapers declared the next day, “is back!”
Over the next few months, “If I Can Dream,” the inspired and hopeful show ending protest song, sold well enough to hit #12 on Billboard’s Top 40. This was the highest Elvis had climbed on the rock charts in two years. But the label felt they could still do much better. So they started looking for a heavy powerful number to take Presley into a new direction. Little did they know that Elvis had already found the song that could accomplish this mission and it was anything but a rocker.
Mac Davis had been invited to Presley’s Los Angeles home one evening for a small party. As was usually the case, it was a tame affair filled with conversation, a little gospel singing and story swapping. As Davis and Presley talked, Elvis asked the songwriter if he had anything special that could be used in his upcoming recording session. Mac answered by picking up his guitar and playing a song inspired by his boyhood in Lubbock.
“I grew up with a young kid whose dad worked for my father,” Davis explained when recalling the history of the song he sang to Elvis that night. “My father’s employee was a black man and his son was about my age. My dad had a warehouse in the area where they lived. After we would play together, we would often take Smitty home. Basically their home was on a dirt street lined with houses that had broken windows, leaking roofs and peeling paint. The area was called Queen City. I always wanted to know why did this little black kid have to live where he did and why he couldn’t live in the nice part of town like I did. As I kid, it was something that bothered me a great deal.”
No one could give Davis any answers on Smitty’s plight. Mac was simply told again and again, “That’s just the way things are.” Though long separated from the situation and the childhood friend, Davis again thought back to the time as he watched the world come crashing down around him during the race riots of the 1960s.
“On the news I kept hearing the term ghetto being used to describe the slums in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York,” Mac recalled. “I had always thought of ghettos being associated with Europe during World War II. I had never thought of our slums as being ghettos.”
Davis watched the news and saw the faces of the children in these areas, their homes on fire and violence everywhere. The hopelessness of the kids’ plight and their mothers’ sadness all but overwhelmed him. It also took him back almost twenty years.
“It was like the world my friend had lived in at Queen City,” the songwriter noted. “It was a vicious cycle. A kid is born into a situation like that and never gets out. And when he dies, another kid takes his place.”
Davis knew there was a song in the thoughts coupled with his own childhood experiences, but didn’t immediately try to pen the number. How to tell the horrid and hopeless story in three minutes and somehow capture the life of a family in Watts or the south side of Chicago was not something that came to him overnight. Yet as the weeks became months, he continued to come back to the idea.
“One night I was with Freddie Weller,” Davis continued. “He is a country singer now but then was playing with Paul Revere and the Raiders. Freddie showed me a guitar lick and it stuck in my mind. I went home that evening and wrote the song about my childhood friend who had been born on the wrong side of the tracks in a world where he could not get a break. I wrote it around Freddie’s guitar lick.”
Mac changed the location of the story from Lubbock to Chicago and moved the setting from Queen City’s dirt streets to the concrete world of the slums. But the guts of the number were still locked in the unanswered questions and experiences of his youth. He called his finished piece “The Vicious Circle.” Yet because the subject was both serious and depressing, he hadn’t pushed it to any recording artist until he played it for Elvis. Having grown up poor on the wrong side of the tracks, Presley immediately identified with the number. The singer would even tell friends he felt a “calling” to share Davis’ emotional and important song with the world. Elvis assured Mac that this song would be on his next album.
Presley brought “The Vicious Circle” with him when he returned to Memphis to record what some would consider one of the most dynamic and impressive sessions in music history. Besides the song about life in the slums, Davis’ “Don’t Cry Daddy” would join a long list of other powerful numbers. “Daddy” would even become a Top 10 hit 1970.
Though Elvis pushed to record “The Vicious Circle,” RCA and the Colonel were not sold on Davis’ protest song. In the Colonel’s mind, this was a political hot potato better suited for the likes of George Harrison or Peter, Paul and Mary. Yet Elvis, who in the past had usually given in to the Colonel, would not back down this time. Presley now felt a need to make a difference in the world and he was convinced this song could do just that. So, in spite of the dangers others perceived in its message, Elvis demanded the tune be included in the Memphis session.
“When I got the word he was cutting it,” Mac remembered, “I was as shocked as anyone. Elvis had always stayed away from the protest thing. It had to be pretty scary for him and must have taken a lot of courage to risk a part of his career with that song.”
On January 20, 1969, just six weeks after Elvis’s triumphant television special, the singer walked into the American Studio in Memphis. Al Pachucki would be the engineer for these recordings and Chips Moman would produce what for Presley was a homecoming. As the singer relished recording so close to the spot where his musical career had begun at Sun Records, a new group of musicians surrounded him. Reggie Young played guitar on this eight track recording session. Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech were on bass. Gene Chrisman beat the drums. The piano was manned by Bobby Wood, while Bobby Emmons created magic on the organ. Though the final version of the single would contain strings, horns and backing vocals, all of these were added later. It would be just this small core group creating the powerful sound that brought to life Mac’s inspirational story of grief and despair.
Elvis, who in the past few years had hurried through most of his movie sessions, took great pains to get Davis’ song right. Harkening back to his first RCA sessions, Presley forced the musicians to record “The Vicious Circle” over and over again. The singer fought to present the message of this song in a powerful and almost sermon like fashion. It was in a sense a ballad, but Elvis demanded that the message be more. He wanted the number to reflect a musical version of what Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speach had become. This was a vehicle of change and the singer did not want the message to be lost in vocal theatrics or too much orchestration. Therefore, he kept it simple. But a simple arrangement did not mean the session was easy. Elvis kept going and going and going, always looking for perfection. This was a song that he felt would define him for years to come. Though almost thirty takes were rumored to have been cut, it would be the twenty-third that was picked for pressing. RCA used a ballad, “Any Day Now,” as the B side. Then, with great reservations, the label shipped the song, now retitled “In The Ghetto,” to radio stations and record outlets on April 14.
On May 10, the new Presley single became the fastest moving record on the Billboard rock charts, jumping thirty eight places from #79 to #41. On Memorial Day weekend “In The Ghetto” would enter the Top 10 in the ninth position. It would hit #3 on the rock playlist a week later and remain in the Top 10 until July 5. The Beatles’ “Get Back” would prevent Elvis from taking #1 on the American rock lists, but it would be the American singer who would overtake the Liverpool group and rule the English charts with his song about the tragedy of life in the south side of Chicago. Presley would also top all other American pop and easy listening charts at the time. Yet more than just sales and playlist numbers, it was the song’s impact on the social movement of the era that would be most lasting.
“In The Ghetto” was a song that captured a snapshot of the plight of millions trapped in American poverty. This song, inspired by a boy from Queen City, Texas and written by someone from the flat plains of West Texas, made people think and feel. At least a portion of the reforms passed by Congress to combat poverty and create programs designed to reach out and improve the lives of poor children caught in American ghettos, can be traced to the sincere, prayer-like manner Elvis sang Davis’ song. Presley’s voice and determination brought a problem into a context that anyone could understand. It woke people up and forced many to look beyond long held prejudices. It proved again that music could change the world.
“Elvis recording ‘In The Ghetto’ turned my life around,” Davis remembers. “In fact Elvis was the first major artist to cut anything I had written. His cutting those songs put me on the map. And when ‘In The Ghetto’ went #1, I was suddenly the fair-haired boy of the song writing world. Everyone wanted to cut my songs. Thanks to the success of that record, I had a bullet in the charts every week for a year and half.”
Mac Davis would go on to write numerous pop, rock and country hits, eventually landing his own recording contract and becoming one of the most important players in both the pop and country fields. His success would then extend to television, the movies and finally Broadway. And Mac owed it all to an unanswered question from his youth and a singer who once played Lubbock with hometown hero Buddy Holly.
For Elvis Presley “In The Ghetto” would become his most important single since “Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel.” This protest number reestablished the singer as a major force in the music world. Within four months he would again claim a #1 record and rule the Las Vegas stage as the world’s highest paid and unchallenged greatest entertainment force. Few would have predicted in 1968, but by the end of the next year, Elvis was cool and on top again!