Mac Davis Talks Elvis and “In the Ghetto”

There are some songs that reflect society’s ills better today than the day they were written. “In the Ghetto” is one of those songs. Penned by Mac Davis during a tumultuous period of American history, the tune poignantly illustrates the bitter reality of class division.

It spells out the fact that crime and poverty are products of systemic inequity and doomed to repeat. Davis’ words strike a major chord because they are honest and harsh. But the message would be lost without a sincere delivery. Elvis Presley was the perfect messenger. These are the reflections of Mac Davis concerning his groundbreaking song and the icon who made it a timeless anthem.   

Mac Davis: Forgotten Legend

Scott ‘Mac’ Davis was one of the most versatile performing artists of the 20th century. Mac was not only a prolific songwriter, but a gifted musician, radio personality and talk show host. He also branched out into acting, including stints on Broadway and several motion pictures. Davis appeared opposite Nick Nolte in the 1979 football classic “North Dallas Forty”, still his most admired role.

As a boy growing up in Lubbock, Texas, Davis was influenced by a variety of musical styles, much like another Lubbock local named Buddy Holly. Mac had an unbelievable career that was riveled by few. He won ACM Entertainer of the Year in 1974 and in 2006, was honored with induction into the esteemed Songwriters Hall of Fame. Davis was unexpectedly called home in 2020. He was 78 years old.    


Like every other musician of a certain age, Elvis Presley was a major influence on Davis. Mac recounted his initial exposure to the boy who would be king: “The first time I saw Elvis play live was in the Fifties in the parking lot of the Hub Motor Company in Lubbock, Texas.” Elvis and Mac teamed up numerous times from the late 60s until Presley’s premature death in 1977. They shared a lot of success, but their most venerated collaboration was a tune from 1969 called “In the Ghetto”.  

Origins of “In the Ghetto”:

“It’s kind of a convoluted story, but it’s a true story. Had been trying to write a song called ‘The Vicious Circle’ for what seemed like ages. I was in my late 20s. I grew up with a little boy who lived in the ghetto in Lubbock, Texas. We didn’t have what is commonly known now as a ghetto, but they’re problems were worse. It was a dirt street ghetto. And it was a part of town I could never understand why my little buddy had to live over there and I lived where I lived.”

“At any rate, I’d always wanted to write a song about it. A kid is born, he doesn’t have a male parent, falls in with the wrong people and dies. Just as another kid comes along and replaces him. It’s just a vicious circle. Long story short — I couldn’t find anything to rhyme with ‘circle.’ I started thinking about the ghetto as a title for the song.”

Writing the song:

“I was sitting in the office one day. Nancy Sinatra had signed me to her publishing company, and a buddy of mine, Freddy Weller, came over … He said, ‘Hey, I got this lick that Joe South showed me.’ He played this lick on the guitar, and boy, I just heard ‘In the ghetto.’”

“I didn’t say anything, went home that night and sat down with that lick. Started singing ‘In the ghetto,’ and by about two o’clock in the morning, I had written the song. I called Freddy up as I was wont to do in those days and sung him the song at two o’clock in the morning. There was a long silence, and he said some foul cuss word and hung the phone up on me… He wasn’t upset with me; he was just mad that he didn’t get to write part of that song.” 


Enter Elvis:

“Elvis was looking for material. I had written a song called ‘Memories’ for his 1968 Comeback Special. And ‘Memories’ was going up the charts and they called and said do you have anything else?

Were gonna go to Memphis and record with Chips Moman. I said, ‘Sure.’ So, I sent them a tape. It had nineteen songs on it, and the first song on there was ‘In the Ghetto’.  The second song on there was ‘Don’t Cry, Daddy’. They ended up recording both of them for that album that they did in Memphis”.

Hearing Elvis’ version the first time:

“I heard it on the radio, driving down the street. I remember going, ‘I wish he hadn’t said Ghet-to. Wish he had just said In the Ghetto.’ That’s a typical, songwriter, you know. But that lasted about maybe five seconds, and then I realized that I had a huge hit. I knew it was gonna be a really, really big hit.” Mac released his own version of “In the Ghetto” in 1970, but nothing holds a candle to Elvis performing the song live.

“In the Ghetto” was a phenomenal success. It topped the charts in eight countries and was certified platinum in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It was Elvis’ first Top 10 hit in America in four years and remains a fan favorite. “In the Ghetto” was also the key to unlocking the floodgates of Mac Davis’ career. As Mac said, “people started talking to me and let me in the front door.” It is a stirring song that was needed for its time. Unfortunately, it may be more relevant for our time.  

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