Mac Davis has had a pretty productive and varied career in entertainment. He had great success as a crossover country artist, with #1 pop and country smash “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” the most well-known of his many hits. He was a TV personality for a little while, hosting a variety show on NBC for three years in the mid-70’s. He even added movie star to his resume with his work as a playboy quarterback in the cult football flick North Dallas Forty.
All of that is impressive, but when you’re in the orbit of The King, everything else tends to lose a little bit of luster by comparison. That’s why, these days, many music fans know Davis primarily as a songwriter who wrote several big hits in the late 60’s and 70’s for Elvis Presley, including “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “A Little Less Conversation,” and “Memories.”
His crowning achievement with Elvis came with the 1969 #3 smash “In The Ghetto,” which was Presley’s first Top 10 U.S. hit in four years. The song closed out the excellent album From Elvis In Memphis and was part of a legendary Memphis session that included recordings of “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Don’t Cry Daddy,” songs which laid the groundwork for The King’s comeback from the musical doldrums of his movie years.
Davis spoke about the song last week at a gathering in Nashville of Elvis’ songwriters at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in honor of the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death on August 16, 1977. He said he was inspired by the ongoing Civil Rights movement to write “In The Ghetto,” which was almost called something else if not for a songwriting problem as old as time. “I was going to call it ‘The Vicious Circle,’” he said, “but try to rhyme with ‘Circle.’”
From such mundane problems, inspiration is often born, and Davis crafted a song that touched on subject matter that really wasn’t the usual chart fodder at that time. Credit Presley as well for a typically inspired interpretation, but, then again, you can say that with just about every recording he ever did.
The song has the devastating feel of inevitability to it, as if the fate that befalls the young man in the song cannot be altered. When Presley sings in the bridge directly to his audience, however, it is a direct address to all those listening that reacting to such realities with a shrug of the shoulder is tantamount to helping them to persist.
The fact that “In The Ghetto” never seems to lose its relevance is both a testament to the power of Davis and Presley’s creation and a sad commentary on the societal ills of poverty that never seem to relent. That vicious circle keeps perpetuating itself some 43 years after this song first brought it to the pop music masses.
“In The Ghetto”
As the snow flies on a cold and gray 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’s 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 a 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
As her young man dies, on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,
Another little baby child is born in the ghetto
And his mama cries
– Written by Mac Davis