Mac Davis' 'In the Ghetto' Was a Famous Hit for Elvis, But 'Memories' Deserves Another Listen

Mac Davis' 'In the Ghetto' Was a Famous Hit for Elvis, But 'Memories' Deserves Another Listen

09/30/2020

Mac Davis had a number of his songs recorded by Elvis Presley, most famously the 1969 tale of inner-city poverty “In the Ghetto.” The vivid depiction of social inequality was a Top 3 hit for Elvis and became as synonymous with the latter part of his career as “Suspicious Minds.” But for all its importance to Presley’s Seventies-era catalog, it’s not the best Davis composition that Elvis put to tape.

That’d be “Memories,” a gorgeously mournful ballad about the passing of time and the fleeting nature of our days. Davis, who died Tuesday at 78, performed a solo version of the song in tribute to Presley during a 1994 TV special.

“Back in the late Sixties, Elvis had become restless and he was tired of releasing the same old weary soundtrack music from his movies,” Davis said to introduce “Memories.” “He let it be known that he was looking for some new material and new writers and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

As for Presley, he recorded “Memories” a few months before “In the Ghetto,” debuting it in the round during his iconic 1968 NBC “comeback special.” Surrounded by adoring female fans, Presley performs the vocal to a prerecorded tape of swelling backing music. He looks awkward for a moment, seated on the stage and adjusting his legs to find some level of comfort in his tight black-leather suit. When he opens his mouth to sing, the metaphors in the lyrics are abundant: autumn leaves around his feet, aging wine, and red bouquets, all of it destined to fade.

Ballads like “Memories” quietly reinforced Presley’s reputation as an interpreter of great songs — the kind that Mac Davis wrote. Whether he was probing societal issues in “In the Ghetto” or inhabiting the grief of a widower in “Don’t Cry Daddy,” Davis gave Elvis prime vocalist material. It wasn’t all sad stuff however. Like he did with Tony Joe White‘s “Polk Salad Annie,” Presley also embraced the funkier side of Davis’ catalog. “Clean Up Your Own Backyard,” from 1969’s The Trouble With Girls, was back-porch soul, and “A Little Less Conversation,” from Live a Little, Love a Little a year earlier, was a swaggering come-on — even before the Dutch DJ Junkie XL remixed it into an ubiquitous dance-club hit in 2002.

Together, Davis’ lyrics and Presley’s magnetism made for an irresistible combination. Davis recalled witnessing Elvis’ pull firsthand during a concert engagement in Las Vegas, where women were “wanting him to come over and sweat on them,” he told Rolling Stone in 2019. “He was the superstar of all superstars.”

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