To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to Elvis Presley between 1960 and 1969, while he threw away the talents he had and showed off the ones he didn’t in a stream of mediocre movies. He was under the sway of that carny barker Col. Parker, then considered some sort of hillbilly zen master of commerce—now revealed to be inept in every way at managing his boy’s career.
Then came the TV comeback special, where he reclaimed his glory years and promised some new ones.
And there were a couple—“Suspicious Minds” was one the great singles ever—until Vegas and concert spectacle became his new Hollywood.
When Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977, the TV networks showed little but the films and the 1970s concerts, with the jeweled jumpsuits and the karate kicks. Me, I went home and played my imported vinyl album, then only recently released, of the original sides Presley cut for Sun Records in 1955—the ones that changed music, and lives, forever.
In America, RCA hadn’t yet bothered to put them all in one place, leaving them scattered over a series of albums in no context.
In this week of the 30th anniversary of his death, you can see a parade of Elvis tributes, watch a movie marathon or buy a special 30th anniversary collector’s edition Elvis wristwatch.
Or, you can be reminded—or learn for the first time—why Elvis mattered. It’s exceedingly easy—just do it by the numbers:
There are countless remastered reissues and collections, and if you want an entire and concise historical overview, RCA’s three “master take” box sets that chronologically track his career, each devoted to be one decade: the `50s, the `60s, and the `70s.
If not, all you need are these:
“The Sun Collection,” (1976): This has all the tunes the 19-year-old Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black laid down in Sam Phillips’ studio. Let the musicologists argue about Louis Jordan and Ike Turner. This is Ground Zero of rock `n’ roll. The tracks were recorded in 1954 and 1955, but not collected on one disc until a 1976 English release. They have been best reissued, with outtakes and alternates, as “Sunrise.”
“Elvis Presley” (1956): The pink-and-green typeface cover has been endlessly copied, most famously for the Clash’s “London Calling,” but it’s what’s inside that counts. The first RCA sides still captured the raw, real hillbilly cat, gussied up with drums and piano. His covers of “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Money Honey” are here, although the best cut is still Sun leftover “Trying to Get to You.”
“Elvis!” (1956): His sentimental side comes out in “Old Shep” and his inner Dean Martin shows up, too, but the straight rock of “Paralyzed” and “Rip It Up” is the real stuff.
“Elvis is Back” (1960): He returned from the Army with something to prove, and he does—especially on the blues-drenched “Such a Night” and “Reconsider Baby.”
“Elvis NBC TV Special” (1968): Elvis comes out of the wilderness and into the black leather for this soundtrack to the comeback, with serious performances of “Trouble” and “I Can Dream” and the great boxing ring run-through of the old songs.
“From Elvis in Memphis” (1969): His first attempt to make an “album” as opposed to singles and filler. It’s a country soul affair, notably for its canny song selection.
“Elvis Country” (1971): Designed as a concept album of country and gospel songs that paid homage to his roots, it’s probably best heard without the linking interludes, but the passion is all there.
The only dramatic movies you truly need to own are “Jailhouse Rock,” just released in a new deluxe edition, mostly for the incredible title song production number, and the New Orleans-set “King Creole.”
After that, you want:
What’s now packaged as “Elvis,” the `68 TV special.
The surprisingly frank 1970 documentary “Elvis: That’s Way It Is,” just re-released with outtakes.
“Elvis `56,” an unauthorized account of his crash into fame, narrated by Levon Helm.
“Elvis” The Great Performances Vol. 1,” which collects the original TV shots. Including the Dorsey Brothers show performances and the infamous Ed Sullivan appearances.
The only biography worth reading is Peter Guralnick’s exhaustingly researched, rumor-free two-volume account of his life, music, and times, the joyful “Last Train to Memphis,” published in 1994. He followed that in 1999 with the sad “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.”
Should you want the details of how all that incredible music was made and under what circumstances, you’ll also need “Elvis Presley: A Life in Music” by Ernst Jorgensen. Jorgensen is a researcher that RCA—now Sony/BMG—ultimately had to hire to sort out what they had in the vault and clarify its significance.
Somehow, that seems appropriate: Americans wanted nothing but to devour the legacy and spit it out.