Elvis Gets The "Memphis" Blues from Lonnie and Johnny

May 15, 2012

In May, 1963, Elvis Presley spent a couple of days in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville working on an album project. Fourteen songs were recorded, of which “Devil In Disguise” and “Please Don’t Drag That String Around” were immediately siphoned off as a single. The balance of the tunes never did coalesce as a unit, but were parceled off as single B-sides or album filler.

Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee” seemed a natural fit for Presley’s repertoire, and Elvis set about to record the definitive version during that session. This particular take almost came out as a single, but the success of Lonnie Mack’s instrumental version of “Memphis” sent the track back to the bench. This recording wouldn’t resurface until a collector’s album of Elvis rarities in the 90’s. The song was revisited with a renewed vigor in January, 1964, evidenced from the start with the double-drum attack of DJ Fontana and Buddy Harman. Initially, the new “Memphis” was set to back the “Kissin’ Cousins” single, but was replaced by the ballad “It Hurts Me,” co-written by Charles E. Daniels. (We would later know him as Charlie.)

Seen as the candidate for a perfect single, Elvis played the remade “Memphis” for John Ramistella, a musician visiting Presley at Graceland. Mr. Ramistella knew a good thing when he heard it, and promptly made his own recording of the song, under his stage name Johnny Rivers. That single’s successful ascent to number two once again relegated the Elvis version back to the heap. Another year and a half would pass until it joined a ragtag collection of rejected and mostly forgotten tracks, picked from ten years of heaps, in the form of the album “Elvis For Everyone.” This was the “Island of misfit toys” of Elvis albums, and his first in the 60’s to sell less than 300,000 copies.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that Elvis was still making money hand over fist at the time in movies. He could film one in less than a month, and make more from that one project than in a year’s worth of RCA royalties. Take Roustabout, which opened in November of 1964 for example. In the pantheon of Presley filmdom, how often do you think of Roustabout? Yet the soundtrack hit number one on Billboard, even with no hit singles. It would, however, be Presley’s last number one LP of the decade. The relative success of the soundtrack albums, and the pace of the filming schedule, left no time for stand alone studio projects any more.

Despite the lack of non-soundtrack recording sessions, RCA was flooding the market with Elvis singles in 1964. Besides the singles from the movies (“Kissing Cousins,” “What‘d I Say,” “Viva Las Vegas“), “Kiss Me Quick,” released two years earlier on Pot Luck made the top 40 in May, ‘64. “Such A Night,” a cover of a Drifters song, was recorded in 1960, but hit number 16 as a single in summer of ‘64. In October, the pairing of “Ask Me” from the January session with “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” recorded in 1958 when he was on furlough from basic training in the army, made it to 12 and 16 respectively.

Meanwhile, back in Memphis, more and more bands were making their way out of the garage and into the studio, keeping the flame alive. Some, like Sam The Sham, were just on the verge of making noise nationally, but most were putting out records to earn a slot on the Talent Party TV show, which would bolster their acclaim and improve their chances of getting local gigs. Flash And The Casuals released “Uptight Tonight.” Tommy Burke and the Counts put out a few singles in 1964, including “Cute” and “You Took My Heart.” They even took a stab at comedy, recording the novelty record “Stronger Than Dirt” under the name “A. Jacks And The Cleansers.” What an appropriate song to come from Memphis, the only five-time winner of the Nation’s Cleanest City award.