Back to Stax: Promised Land at 45

Looking back at one of the final Elvis Presley studio albums 

Elvis ’75 (Art: Ron Hart)

Over six days in December 1973, the King of Rock ‘n Roll went to Stax Studios in Memphis with his backing band and cut a plethora of material, enough for multiple albums.

What was apparently considered the “first pick” largely made up 1974’s Good Times, while much of the rest became 1975’s Promised Land. That’s an all too simplistic version of what happened, however — because the ‘75 record is solid-to-great. (And for the full aural story, including tracks from a July ‘73 Stax session, you should by all means check out the 2013 release Elvis at Stax, which collects much of this material in one place, including a number of alternate takes and even a few unreleased songs. The triple-disc version is easily available and well worth your time, if you care about Elvis in the ‘70s — and you should.)

After his famed 1968 Las Vegas comeback, Presley’s records took a fascinating turn, getting both more country and more southern soul in their backbones. He was making records with grit again, in a way he really hadn’t since perhaps the late ‘50s. By the early ‘70s, he was regularly issuing singles with a pop side and a country side, and charting each side separately; that strategy worked for Presley four times from ‘72-’75, including with two singles from Promised Land

Elvis Presley Promised Land, RCA 1975

Its first single, issued in June 1974, a full six months prior to the album, was “Help Me”/”If You Talk in Your Sleep.” The former, a dramatic ballad written by then-new country artist Larry Gatlin (who’d have his first country hit in the same year), climbed to #6 on the Hot Country Singles chart, while the latter, a deliciously soupy soul record of the kind just about only Elvis could get away with (backing vocals, strings, horns all included, and they all work and add something to the record) hit #17 on the Hot 100. The follow-up single, “It’s Midnight” made it to #9 country, with its flip, “Promised Land,” a Chuck Berry song, getting to #14 pop. “Land” has that classic Berry chuck-a-boogie (sorry), but Presley makes the song his own in that way that, again, only Elvis could truly do. The man was a brilliant interpreter of other folks’ songs from the start of his career to its end.

Promised Land has other highlights, too. “There’s A Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me Back In),” co-written by Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Troy Seals (“Seven Spanish Angels,” “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”), is a killer straight country record that Presley sings the hell out of, while album closer “You Asked Me To,” co-written by Waylon Jennings, is country, but at the same time still has a groove to it. The record never truly falters; probably its biggest failing is that it’s too short, at just 10 tracks it clocks in at 29:41. Fortunately, for more where this came from, there’s Elvis at Stax (which, again, I can’t recommend enough). But if you just want a taste, Promised Land is a fine place to start.

 

AUDIO: Elvis Presley Promised Land (full album)

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Thomas Inskeep

Rock and Roll Globe contributor Thomas Inskeep is a pop critic with three different music blogs, and a former contributor to Stylus, Seattle Weekly, and SPIN. He lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow him on Twitter @Thomasinskeep1.

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