King vs. King: Debating Elvis Presley's best songs, Part IV
Today's the day! It's Elvis Presley's 75th birthday (and a happy 63rd to David Bowie too -- rock's original Martian monarch). To honor Elvis the musician, I've been sampling from the new boxed set "Good Rockin' Tonight" (reviewed here by Robert Hilburn), pitting song against song in the ultimate cage match of King versus King. Yesterday we considered a couple of his heart-rending ballads. For my last installment, I'm all about the great late Elvis, from his 1968 comeback special until his recording sessions at Memphis' famed Stax studios in the winter of 1973.
Elvis would live on until 1977, and he kept working until his sad final exit. But fans and skeptics alike agree that the period I'm highlighting was his second flowering, producing commercial successes that often artistically matched his earlier material. "Suspicious Minds," "In the Ghetto," the albums "From Elvis in Memphis" and "Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old)" -- these are high points that would top virtually any other artist's career. It's hard, however, to hear the late Elvis without becoming entangled in the pathos and kitsch of his personal descent.
His version of "Always On My Mind" captures the uncontrollable ebb and flow of a left lover's regrets, but its artistry has been overshadowed by gossip about Elvis' split from his ex-wife, Priscilla. "Burning Love" is a soul burner with the joyful punch of Martha and the Vandellas' "Heatwave," but today it mostly raises laughs -- it provided the punchline for a greeting card my husband recently received, which featured a gold-belted Vegas Elvis exhorting him to have a "hunk-a hunk-a birthday cake."
Mr. Presley loved a good gag, and he probably wouldn't begrudge the kinder jokes thrown in the direction of his legacy. But for a few minutes, let's give his later music respect, apart from both the hand-wringing over his self-destruction within the fame machine and the giggles that make us feel better about it.
What later Elvis song do you think is his best? My call comes after the jump.
"Stranger in My Own Home Town"
Honestly, I'm making this selection because I set myself up to choose something, and right now, as I sit in my dining room with my finger on the "play" button, jumping from cut to cut, it seems the most representative of the Elvis I choose to remember today.
I went into this round thinking I'd argue for "Suspicious Minds." That song was the final No. 1 pop hit of Elvis' career and remains a prime example of how he could pull melodrama back from the precipice of schlock. I've also long been fond of "Kentucky Rain," a more sentimental outing marked by the piano stylings of a then little-known Ronnie Milsap. And then there's "In the Ghetto," the Mac Davis ballad of murder-by-poverty that is one of Elvis' only clear statements of social protest, a song that carries the weight of his sorrow over the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
But I keep replaying the version of the Percy Mayfield song Elvis recorded with producer Chips Moman at American Sound Studios in 1969. His spirit returned after his comeback special success -- the singer brought a remarkable intensity to these sessions. But he's older and, if not necessarily wiser, more aware of how both he and the world have changed in the wake of his fame.
The story of a man set adrift in exactly the place where he should feel most comfortable, "Stranger in My Own Home Town" is classic haunted blues. But under Moman's guidance, Elvis and the band -- especially Reggie Young on guitar -- make the song totally of the explosive late 1960s, when both Utopian soul and rebellious rock were feeling the perils of the time, and party music reached new levels of darkness, even menace.
As in all of his best performances, Elvis sings with a remarkable mobility. One minute he seems to be laughing at the messed-up situation that his life has become; the next he has his fists up, ready to fight. It's exhilarating to hear so much going on in what should be a simple studio outing. Telling a story larger than the song itself -- a story of a changing popular culture and a changing South, and the unwitting agent of all that change, now trying to survive it -- Elvis' "Stranger in My Own Home Town" really is rock as revelation.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc./TV Land