For a long time I never bothered to question the long-established narrative surrounding what in Elvis Presley's long and winding career has come to be known as "the '68 comeback." It goes like this: After nearly a decade of Hollywood pap, The King of Rock 'n' Roll, wrapped in skin-tight black leather, violently reclaims his throne with an NBC-TV special that airs on December 3, 1968 ("I don't know if I can convey how transcendent, how thrilling, a moment it was," once wrote Peter Guralnick).
Soon afterward, Presley returns to Memphis, hooking up with producer Chips Moman and an ensemble cast of Southern musicians who are equally versed in R&B, country, gospel, soul and, yes, rock 'n' roll. They enter American Sound Studio and cut the most meaningful music Elvis has been associated with since his debut album for RCA. Just about every tune is a knockout: "Wearin' That Loved On Look," "In the Ghetto," "Stranger in My Own Home Town," "Kentucky Rain," "Long Black Limousine" and, of course, the monster hit "Suspicious Minds."
With the resultant From Elvis in Memphis album reaching No. 13 on the Billboard 200 (it shoots to No. 1 in the United Kingdom), Presley sets his sights on Vegas. Early on, the singer enraptures audiences, with many fans making the pilgrimage from the farthest reaches of the planet. Gradually, however, the energy and novelty of those earliest performances give way to ugly self-parody: one too many peacock jumpsuits, not to mention all the pop schmaltz, karate demonstrations, vocal decadence, self-loathing and drug-induced paranoia, rendering a body once sleek and sexy into something puffy and gelatinous. What a cryin' shame. C'est la vie. R.I.P. And all that stuff.
I've been a big fan of From Elvis in Memphis since my college days. I place it right alongside the Sun sessions as Presley's greatest music. But recent reissues of Elvis Country (an LP from 1971 that I was unfamiliar with until recently) and Elvis At Stax (collecting his fiery sessions at the legendary soul studio just two years later) have forced me to reassess the scope of his comeback. I now see it as incorporating far more than the TV special and Memphis sessions.
To begin with, I'm of the opinion that Presley actually busted out of his Hollywood prison a year earlier with the release of How Great Thou Art, the B side of which finds him returning to the ecstatic worship music of his childhood -- seriously hard-rocking gospel. He sounds vital and passionate. At the other end, there is this Elvis Country record: Featuring a version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" that swings with tidal-powered ferocity, it's nearly as good as From Elvis in Memphis. The same can be said of his Stax sessions, too; dig the way he transforms Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" into hard-rocking country-funk.
But there's also the initial wave of Vegas documents. Both On Stage and That's the Way It Is contain plenty of Cheez Whiz, but when Elvis does tear it up, he does so like a force of nature: funky, sultry and wildly potent. Then there's Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. Released in fall 1970, it's probably the best of the three, slathered as it is in the same grease as the TV special. Needless to say, Elvis' band smokes, especially on Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," which sounds like rockabilly shot through with blue-eyed gospel mania.
So yeah, the '68 comeback was far more robust and productive than I had long assumed. But there's one other point I want to touch on. Elvis mythology is so titanic, self-reflexive and hermetically sealed that it tends to cloud our understanding of how his musical evolution relates to the larger trends and movements comprising rock 'n' roll history. Whenever I read music writing or watch a documentary that addresses the rise of country rock and what Gram Parsons called "cosmic American music" in the late 1960s, the bands and artists that tend to get mentioned are The Band, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Creedence and so on. Whom I don't see often mentioned is Elvis, which is odd, considering From Elvis in Memphis, Elvis Country, Elvis At Stax, Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, et al., are transcendent examples of Parsons' cosmic American concept: rockabilly, gospel, Southern soul, bluegrass, blues, funk, honky-tonk, country boogie and pop all collapsed into one grand fusion of American roots.
In fact, to these ears, none of the longhair classics of the era in question -- be it Music from Big Pink or The Gilded Palace of Sin or Exile on Main St. -- sounds nearly as prophetic. A lot of this has to do with Presley's mammoth personality and the way he used it to propel the music. That aforementioned version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" writhes in carnal intensity, building, tightening and building even more until Elvis erupts with a banshee wail at the 2:35 mark. After hearing that, the hardest boogie from Exile sounds like nothing more than scrawny-Brit simulation. Though all the "meta" buffoonery (an actual Wiki page devoted to the peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich???) has done its best to destroy Presley's legacy as a singer and musician, what has to be stressed is the fact that Presley was, at his very best, one truly visionary artist.