Why Sammy Davis Jr. Turned Down Elvis Presley’s ‘In the Ghetto’ and Wanted the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll to Sing It

“In the Ghetto” is one of the most famous songs Elvis Presley released during the 1960s. In her autobiography, Elvis’ girlfriend, Linda Thompson, said Sammy Davis Jr. initially turned down the song. She said Davis felt Elvis should sing “In the Ghetto” for an interesting reason.

Elvis Presley playing songs on a guitar
Elvis Presley | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. opened up about his friendship with Elvis Presley

According to the 1989 book Why Me?: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, Davis discussed his relationship with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “I’d met Elvis Presley on the set of his third picture, Loving You,” Davis recalled. “Both of us were rebels in our own ways and we’d gravitated toward each other.”

Davis and Elvis regularly fraternized together with their motorcycles. Whenever the two singers were in the same town, they would ride on their motorcycles together. Davis also recalled singing together with Elvis for fun, impersonating the likes of Ray Charles and Dr. Jekyll.

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Why Sammy Davis Jr. felt Elvis Presley should sing ‘In the Ghetto’

Elvis’ girlfriend, Linda Thompson, wrote a 2016 book called A Little Thing Called Life: On Loving Elvis Presley, Bruce Jenner, and Songs in Between. Thompson recalled an anecdote about “In the Ghetto.” “Elvis said when his friend Sammy Davis Jr. was given this song by a writer he turned it down,” she wrote. “Sammy said, ‘In all authenticity, I can’t do this song because I never lived this way, but I will tell you who did: Elvis Presley.'”

Thompson felt “In the Ghetto” related to Elvis’ life. “So [songwriter] Mac Davis gave the song to Elvis, she said. “And while Sammy would go on to cover it, the definitive version was, of course, recorded by Elvis, who could sing it with such authority and feeling because he had lived in the ghetto. 

“He’d experienced firsthand the desperation and injustice of that kind of life,” Thompson continued. “Anyone who knows the song only has to think of the recurring line, ‘And his mama cried,’ to be reminded of the powerful love he had for his mother.”

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The way the world reacted to ‘In the Ghetto’

“In the Ghetto” became a huge hit for Elvis. The track reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed on the chart for 13 weeks. Elvis initially released “In the Ghetto” on his album From Elvis in Memphis, the first studio album the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll released after his ’68 Comeback SpecialFrom Elvis in Memphis peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, lasting on the chart for 34 weeks.

“In the Ghetto” became significantly more popular in the United Kingdom. According to The Official Charts Company, the song reached No. 2 in the U.K. It lasted on the U.K. chart for 19 weeks. Meanwhile, From Elvis in Memphis hit the top of the U.K. chart for one week. It lasted 14 total weeks on the chart. “In the Ghetto” became an international hit — even if Davis turned it down.

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