Behind the Song: “In The Ghetto,” Elvis Presley

Mac Davis 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 ‘70s. 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 were in the orbit of The King, everything else tended 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 ‘60s and ‘70s for Elvis Presley, including “Don’t Cry Daddy,” “A Little Less Conversation” and “Memories.”

Davis’ crowning achievement with Elvis came with the 1969 smash “In The Ghetto,” which was Presley’s first U.S. Top 10 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.

In 2012, at a songwriter gathering at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville  honoring the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death on August 16, 1977, Davis 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 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 decades after this song first brought it to the pop music masses.

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