“In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley
It’s common to hear Elvis being negatively criticized as an artist who made a name for himself by blatantly ripping off Black artists. People who make such assertions probably never did any type of in-depth research into his career. For instance, the King once shocked the establishment by proclaiming that Fats Domino, a Black artist, was “the real king of rock and roll”. And one of the highlights of his early career was the fact that he was amongst the handful of White artists who were actually accepted by Black audiences. Also he dropped this track, In the Ghetto, in 1969. And its lyrics center on the plight of Black males in inner-city African-American communities. In other words, Elvis came out with a hit song dealing with this topic long before many Black artists also jumped on the bandwagon.
A song that centers on the ‘hood
Indeed in many ways, In the Ghetto is a song about the ‘hood which is being relayed by a Whiteman. Race is never explicitly referenced in the lyrics. But to people in places like the United States, the term ghetto in and of itself conjures up images of poor African-American communities. And with the singer referring to himself and the addressee as outsiders in the equation, i.e. people who should be sympathetic to children in the ghetto, the implication is that neither one of them are actually situated there.
In fact although this song is primarily a narrative, it’s not simply the case of highlighting the challenges of the ‘hood. Rather the singer is trying to elicit sympathy for people like the main character of the story. And the second verse in particular is dedicated to soliciting “a helping hand” for such individuals.
Main Character of “In the Ghetto”
And speaking of the main character, it is a boy who is born “in the ghetto”. The implication is that he is raised by a single mom, as his dad is never mentioned. And due to the poverty he was born into, he ultimately turns to a life of crime and violence in order to feed himself. This lifestyle eventually leads to him being killed himself, in full view of the public, with his mother of course being distraught in the aftermath.
So again, this is a theme which has become sort of a staple in African-American music itself, especially rap. And whereas Elvis may not have been overly-enthused to record In the Ghetto, at the same time it’s awfully difficult to argue that a White artist who would drop a humanitarian song set in the ‘hood was some type of a dirty racist. But at the same time, considering that no direct references to race are made, by extension the lyrics speak to the plight of all boys who are brought into the world under such challenging circumstances.
When did “In the Ghetto” come out?
In the Ghetto proved to be a major hit for Elvis Presley. In fact it is one of the most-outstanding songs on what has been dubbed the King’s “comeback album”, From Elvis in Memphis. And although this is the last song on the playlist of the album, it is also the only track from it which was released as a single. And that occurred, via RCA Victor, on 14 April 1969.
On the UK Singles Chart and Billboard Hot 100, this classic respectively peaked at numbers 2 and 3. It went on to top music charts in almost 10 other nations. And it charted in over 15 countries altogether.
Did Elvis Presley write “In the Ghetto”?
No. Actually Elvis initially did not approve of recording this classic when he heard it. And this was because he felt it might court controversy. However, he was convinced to do so after one of its producers, Chips Moman, threatened to rather give the song to African-American entertainer Rosey Grier to sing.
The other producer of the track was Felton Jarvis (1934-1981). And the song was written by Mac Davis (1942-2020).
Davis did not base the lyrics on his own personal experiences but rather those of an African-American boy he knew while growing up. The instrumental aspect of the tune originated from a ‘guitar lick’ which was shown to him by another musician he was associated with named Freddy Weller. And whereas Davis went on to have a storied career, In the Ghetto holds the distinction of being his signature song.
Other Versions of “In the Ghetto”
Elvis’s only child, Lisa Marie Presley, recorded a duet of this tune alongside her father. She did so in 2007, long after the King had passed away. And she recorded the tune in the name of raising money for an NGO she founded called the Presley Charitable Foundation.
Being an Elvis Presley hit, this song has been covered by many famous musicians such as Dolly Parton, Marilyn Manson, Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990) and even rap outfit Three Six Mafia. In 1984, a rendition by an Australian group known as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds actually topped the UK Indie Chart.
Also when Mac Davis passed away in 2020, Reba McEntire did a duet version of In the Ghetto alongside Darius Rucker.