Elvis Presley: In The Ghetto and its enduring relevance

Rob Steen

I probably shouldn’t be writing this. After all, I am by no means an Elvis fan. I giggled at his movies, never bought anything he waxed, only Spotified three of his songs (His Latest Flame, Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto). But that didn’t stop me from once having a shirty and shouty debate at Hammersmith Odeon with my best pal, an eminent newspaper critic, over the Tupelo boy’s importance to what forged our friendship, namely music.


The way this brother from another mother saw it, if Elvis hadn’t forced the censors governing the Ed Sullivan Show to ensure the cameramen shot him from above the waist, someone else, anyone else, could and would have come up with the same planet-shifting act. I wasn’t so sure. Elvis wouldn’t have got to square one, I argued, if he hadn’t been caucasian, hadn’t sung in English, hadn’t been a Yank and hadn’t been brought up within sniffing distance of a Mississippi African-American church and assorted blues clubs. But for the millions generated by Colonel Tom Parker’s obliging if willing puppet, would John Lennon ever have dreamt of starting a band? Wasn’t Beatlemania and all that seat-wetting simply a sequel to the knicker-flinging pubescents Elvis encouraged and lapped up? We still agree to differ.


My scant appreciation of Elvis the singer did not stop me rushing to see the 11am Rotterdam premiere of Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant new biopic – seven years in the making plus another 18 months on the shelves due to Covid. The wait was worthwhile, albeit rather more for disciples and newcomers than sceptics and truth junkies.


As a celebration of why and how Graceland’s glitter-suited guv’nor turned rock ’n’ roll into a zillion-dollar industry and socio-cultural revolution, Elvis the film does the business. While Tom Hanks is inevitably and impeccably convincing as that rotter Parker, the dodgy Dutch manager (born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) whose stateless status and unissued passport lay behind his meal ticket’s refusal to tour overseas, Austin Butler, 30, dazzles in the requisite sequins. He belts the bejesus out of the songs (no stunt bottom or voice for him), but whenever he sways those hips, swings those legs or curls that upper lip, you are left in no doubt what he’s selling: sex.


While (narrowly) avoiding hagiography, Luhrmann errs on the generous side. Most conspicuously – and unlike the 1997 mockumentary Elvis Meets Nixon or 2016’s Elvis & Nixon (the latter blessed with bravura performances by Michael Shannon as The King and Kevin Spacey as The Watergater) – there’s not a sausage about Elvis’s 1970 audience with Richard Nixon. It still seems inexplicable, and laughable, that Elvis volunteered his services – in vain, happily – as an armed agent ‘at large’ who would help get shot of all those pesky hippies, druggies, student activists and Black Panther militants both men believed were bringing their nation to its knees.

Small wonder, then, that Luhrmann, plainly bent on resurrecting Elvis from his latter-day image as a gun-toting burger-and-dope addict, chose In The Ghetto as the closing song. The director’s decision makes no artistic sense otherwise.


Originally titled The Vicious Circle, ITG has been covered by diverse interpreters ranging from Dolly Parton and Tracy Chapman to Sammy Davis Jr and Nick Cave. It was written for Elvis’s 1969 comeback album From Elvis In Memphis by that versatile country star from Lubbock, Texas, Mac Davis, whose other hits for him included A Little Less Conversation. It was recorded at the same Memphis session that produced Suspicious Minds, and ranks as The King’s most overtly socio-political song, never mind his lone dip into the troubled waters of civil rights. Which might surprise those watching Luhrmann’s Elvis.


Luhrmann shows the hero being turned on as a boy by gospel choirs, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup (author of his first smash, That’s All Right) and Big Mama Thornton, whose leonine growl first brought Leiber and Stoller’s Hound Dog to wider attention. Quite why Baz never brings up the following story is unclear, but it’s hard to resist concluding that doing so would have played merry hell with that palpable desire to restore Elvis to his plinth.


Elvis’s relationship with the black community, so brotherly in Luhrmann’s telling, was remarkably progressive for the mid-1950s – and a good deal better than the one certain rock stars enjoyed with the bluesmen they ripped off. Elvis knew, nonetheless, that being the object of so much male jealousy meant jaws would wag. In 1957, a rumour took root that he had once proclaimed: ‘The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.’


Later that year, while shooting Jailhouse Rock, he strove to quell such mumblings by granting a rare interview, to a reporter from Jet, an African-American magazine, claiming: ‘I never said anything like that, and people who know me know that I wouldn’t have said it... Rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.’


Support came from Jackie Wilson, whose breakthrough chartbuster, Reet Petite, was co-written by Berry Gordy Jr, and sowed the seeds for Tamla Motown. ‘A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music,’ declared Wilson, ‘when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied their stage mannerisms from Elvis.’ By the same token, like his chum Gordy, Wilson was not exactly averse to pleasing white honkies if it meant making a buck.


Not that the denials stopped the grapevine from buzzing for decades. Indeed, Public Enemy explicitly linked Elvis with racism on Fight The Power:


Elvis was a hero to most

But he never meant shit to me

Straight-up racist that sucker was

Simple and plain

Motherfuck him and John Wayne


First time round, ITG was actually the flip side to Any Day Now, a Burt Bacharach-Bob Hilliard composition, yet it became The King’s first US Top 10 hit for four years, and first big non-gospel seller since 1963. It was No1 in lands as far-flung and white as Australia, Norway, Spain, West Germany and Ireland, though whether many of those eager ears even suspected a hidden agenda for its release (if there was one) must be considered doubtful.


The ghetto in question is never specified as being a black neighbourhood, but in the 1960s, if you used the g-word in a North American context, that’s what you meant. Which might explain why, having sung the song on his earliest dates at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (which Baz recreates with the same lavish excess he brought to Jay Gatsby’s mansion), Elvis soon dropped it and seldom returned to such an unjolly ditty thereafter.

Which was a pity. From the vivid opening image to the resignation of that closing ‘Ah’, the lyric, most unusually for Elvis, is eminently worthy of full reproduction:


As the snow flies

On a cold and grey Chicago mornin’

A poor little baby child is born

In the ghetto

And his mama cries

’Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need

It is another hungry mouth to feed

In the ghetto


People, don’t you understand

The child needs a helping hand

Or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day

Take a look at you and me

Are we too blind to see?

Do we simply turn our heads

And look the other way


Well, the world turns

And a hungry little boy with a runny nose

Plays in the street as the cold wind blows

In the ghetto

And his hunger burns

So he starts to roam the streets at night

And he learns how to steal

And he learns how to fight

In the ghetto


Then one night in desperation

The young man breaks away

He buys a gun, steals a car

Tries to run but he don’t get far

And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers round an angry young man

Face down on the street with a gun in his hand

In the ghetto


And as her young man dies

(In the ghetto)

On a cold and grey Chicago mornin’

Another little baby child is born

In the ghetto

And his mama cries

(In the ghetto)

(In the ghetto)

(Ah)


Supplying the perfect vehicle is THAT voice. Deep and sombre and pleading to be heeded, each word, each syllable, is delivered as if Elvis was trying to rinse every pang of guilt from his conscience: about being filthy rich, about being untouched by the grim realities of life for so many; maybe even about turning his own head. Never mind Don’t Be Cruel or Heartbreak Hotel. Never did he sound sadder, or so helpless.


Forget Jailhouse Rock, Blue Suede Shoes and even Suspicious Minds. Of all Elvis’s songs, this is the one that most richly deserves a place in the time capsule. Re-listening to Davis’s words now, in the month their homeland re-outlawed abortion – a decision that can only hurt more African-American single mothers and encourage millions more heads to be thrust into the sand – feels even more contemporary than it did half a century ago.

 



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