[15 December 2009]
Elvis is back. RCA/Legacy has begun unearthing his catalog and reissuing all of his titles on newly remastered compact discs. The process began in July with an expanded edition of the classicElvis in Memphis. The second release, a deluxe four-CD, 100-song compilation that spans the King’s career has just come out, which will soon be followed by a slimmer 26-song single disc extract for the less fanatical. Then the floodgates open and everything else will find its way to the marketplace, purportedly to commemorate Elvis turning 75. Is this a commercial move by his record company? Of course, but that’s in the tradition of Elvis recordings dating back to the ‘50s. The whole point of RCA signing the singer was to market him for profit, which it did in an extreme way. In 1956 more than 100 lipsticks, lunch boxes, scarves, trinkets, badges, etc. were sold using his image.
Even Elvis’s song selections were chosen with an eye for profitability. So let us not damn RCA/Legacy for putting a heap of music back on the market, but praise the label for doing so in such a classy way. Elvis 75: Good Rockin‘ Tonight is packaged in a sturdy black box that contains an 80-page booklet with lots of iconic photographs, intelligent liner notes by culture critic Billy Altman, and an informative discography. More importantly, the sound quality is first rate. The songs sound bright and shiny, the way this kind of pop music should be. One can hear every nuance of the King’s voice, whether he’s hitting a low note, sighing into the microphone, or reaching back for operatic effect. The clarity of his vocals can be heard even on Elvis’s first recording, the demo acetate of “My Happiness” that he made at the Memphis Recording Service of Sun Records as a gift for his mother.
“My Happiness” opens the box set, which ends with the 2002 JXL Radio Remix Edit of his 1968 single “A Little Less Conversation” commissioned for Nike’s World Cup ad campaign that became a worldwide number one hit. These two anomalies frame the other 98 songs most associated with Elvis during his lifetime. As with all collections of this type, one could quibble with the song selections (i.e., why aren’t there more songs from the Sun years, where’s “Moody Blue”, etc.), but the box contains the classic Elvis tracks in strict chronological order of when they were recorded to reveal a musical portrait of the man.
Much has been written about Elvis. Peter Guralinck’s epic two-volume biography is especially noteworthy. These four discs provide a different type of story. One could say Elvis peaked early. John Lennon once smartly remarked when he learned that Elvis died that he thought that had happened 20 years earlier when Elvis entered the U.S. Army in 1958 as his music changed from hard rock to softer material. Yet, Elvis remained a gifted musical interpreter with a splendid voice and oodles of charisma. There was a reason he was the one that lasted with audiences, while his contemporaries from the ‘50s had turned into oldies acts with diminished fan loyalties. It was not just nostalgia, Elvis was damned good until the end.
Still, the first disc (1953-1958) is the best. The electricity that flows from Elvis’s voice on his first single, “That’s Alright Mama”, still jumps right out of the speakers and grabs the listener. The first seven songs here are from the Sun sessions, but the stuff he recorded soon after at RCA in 1956-57 still rocks. Not only on the more famous tunes like “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Jailhouse Rock” , and “Don’t Be Cruel”, but even lesser known gems like “One-Sided Love Affair” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry Over You” still rock hard. Elvis warbles and hiccups rockabilly to full effect without ever sounding gimmicky. He sounds like a man possessed.
The second disc (1958-1962) shows Elvis still rocking on songs like “Little Sister” and “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, but also stretching out in sultry ways on “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. This was the period during which Elvis was in the service, his beloved mother died, and he re-entered the public consciousness as a more adult performer via a television special with Frank Sinatra. At this point in his career, Elvis still plays for record crowds and his discs sell well, but one can sense from the different types of material he is performing that he does not want to remain just a teen idol.
The period from 1963-1969 might be the most turbulent in America’s history. Elvis’s musical output shows him doing everything from campy, faddish numbers (e.g., “Bossa Nova Baby”, “Viva Las Vegas“) to songs of social relevance like “In the Ghetto” to more mature country rock style tunes, such as “Kentucky Rain” and “Suspicious Minds”. This was the period of Elvis’s famous comeback on a television special that made him hip again with young audiences as well as older fans from his youth.
The final disc covers the King’s last years, and his song choices and performances show him to be a vital entertainer. He covers Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie” and James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues” with a sneer as if to say, I am still a man baby—“a churnin’ urn of burnin’ funk”, so to speak. Sometimes the arrangements get flashy and reveal that Las Vegas was now his kingdom, not to mention Hawaii where he had the world’s first live concert satellite broadcast that reached at least a billion viewers live and launched a number one live album that spent a year on the charts. The other material shows that for the most part he has slowed down some (“I Just Can’t Help Believin’”, “Always on My Mind”, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”, etc.) but that his voice is still as strong and rich as ever.
There are no unreleased cuts or alternate takes on this collection, just 100 of the King’s best songs pristinely recorded. These are the jewels of the royal collection, and as anybody who has seen pictures of Elvis in costume can tell you, you can never have enough jewelry.