July 18, 2014
When Mac Davis was 5 or 6 years old, the esteemed Nashville songwriter couldn't understand why one of his best friends had to live in a bad part of town.
He remembered that friend as he wrote "In the Ghetto," which Elvis Presley turned into a chart-topping hit in 1969. Davis recalled writing "In the Ghetto" with Bart Herbison, executive director of Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Bart Herbison: How was "In the Ghetto" created?
Mac Davis: "Well, it's kind of a convoluted story, but it's a true story. I had been trying to write a song called "The Vicious Circle" for what seemed like ages. I wasn't old enough (for it) to be "ages," but I was in my late 20s. The word "ghetto" was just becoming popular to describe the parts of urban areas where poor people were living and couldn't get out. They were stuck there, and everybody took off to the suburbs."
"I grew up with a little kid whose daddy worked with my daddy, and he was a black kid. We were good buddies, 5 or 6 years old. I remember him being one of my best buddies. But he lived in a part of town, and I couldn't figure out why they had to live where they lived, and we got to live where we lived. We didn't have a lot of money, but we didn't have broken bottles every six inches. It was a dirt street ghetto where he lived."
"At any rate, I'd always wanted to write a song about it, where a kid is born, he doesn't have a male parent, and falls into 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 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 (sings) "In the ghetto.""
"I didn't say anything, went home that night and sat down with that lick. I started singing "In the ghetto," and by about 2 o'clock in the morning, I had written the song. ... of course, I called Freddy up as I was wont to do in those days and sung him the song at 2 o'clock in the morning. There was a long silence, and he said some foul cuss word and hung up on me."
The biggest compliment he could have given you. (laughs)
"The biggest compliment, yeah. (laughs) He wasn't upset with me, he was just mad that he didn't get to write part of that song."
Do you remember the first time you heard Elvis' record of "In the Ghetto?"
Mac Davis: "Yes, I do. I heard it on the radio, driving down the street. I remember going, "I wish he hadn't said 'Ghet-to.' I 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."