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Only memories left of site of last No. 1 Elvis hit

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Elvis Presley fans flocking to Memphis this weekend to remember the day he died are being encouraged to also celebrate the 40th anniversary of his final No. 1 hit single, "Suspicious Minds."

While they can tour Graceland, the estate where he died 32 years ago, or Sun Studio, which helped make him the King of Rock 'n' Roll, the Elvis faithful can't see the place where that hit record was made. There's nothing left, not even a historical marker, to remind people of the sessions that produced the "From Elvis in Memphis" album.

American Sound Studio folded in 1972 and the building was later torn down. In its place is a beauty shop and a crumbling parking lot.

"I haven't been back there to see," said Chips Moman, who ran the studio and produced the 1969 Elvis sessions. "I put it out of my mind."

But in 1969, American Sound Studio was at the top of its game, in the middle of a three-year span that would yield more than 100 hit records for artists that included B.J. Thomas, Neil Diamond and Dusty Springfield.

Presley, meanwhile, had spent much of the previous years filming and recording soundtracks to his largely forgettable movies. He hadn't recorded in Memphis since leaving the Sun label in 1955.

But he was also coming off the roaring success of his televised comeback special in December 1968 and proved willing to take some risks in hopes of charting his first No. 1 hit in six years.

"All of us had always liked Elvis, his early stuff," Moman, 72, said in a telephone interview from his home in LaGrange, Ga. "We didn't like all that movie stuff, so when we got our chance we wanted to cut some stuff that we liked."

Initially, it didn't appear Presley was going to want to move in a different direction. He arrived at the studio in January 1969 with his sizable entourage of friends and handlers, and some potential songs were presented to Moman and the band.

"And of course all those guys were boogalooing to all those terrible songs," recalled Bobby Wood, 68, piano player for the 827 Thomas Street Band. "And we were just standing around wondering, 'What in the world is going on here?'"

Wood said he was approached by Elvis confidant George Klein and asked what he thought about the songs. He answered frankly that he thought "they were a bunch of crap" and was shocked when Klein carried that message back to Presley.

"I didn't know whether Elvis was going to say 'Get out of here,' or what," Wood said. "But he just started laughing, and he was laughing to the top of his voice. So I knew he was all right after that."

The entourage began melting away as Presley began to gel with Moman and the house band in overnight recording sessions. He agreed to record "In the Ghetto," unusual in Elvis' repertoire for its social commentary on the cycle of crime and poverty, and "Suspicious Minds," which became a centerpiece of his live Las Vegas performances that would begin that year.

"I knew that he was only a good song away from being as big as he ever was," Moman said. "I knew Elvis had what it takes.

"We just gave him something new, and a new kind of groove."

Four years later and well into his jumpsuit-and-cape era, Elvis returned to Memphis to record at Stax Records in an effort to recapture the feel from the American sessions. Wood and several other members of the band — now known as the Memphis Boys since moving to Nashville — were brought in to back him up.

"The whole scenario had changed, and even Elvis didn't seem like he was that interested anymore," Wood said.

The studio was teeming with people and there were too many distractions to record quality music, he said.

"If you're not in control of the recording and getting it done with a small group of people, it's just not the same," Wood said.

Presley never lived to see another No. 1 single. He died Aug. 16, 1977, of heart disease worsened by years of prescription drug abuse.