Like I've done in a few other instances (Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Phil Spector come to mind), I'm going to break my self-imposed "no music before 1960" rule in order to review Elvis Presley, because what kind of music site would this be with no mention of The King Of Rock 'n' Roll? Although I grew up playing my parent's Elvis records (none of which I actually recall by name though I suppose most were hits compilations anyway), and I've always been a big fan, I myself have gone long periods where I've completely forgotten about him. After all, today the myth of Elvis largely overshadows his actual music, which sadly enough only seems to be readily available via "oldies" radio stations. Of course, there's the SiriusXM "Elvis Radio" station as well, which I occasionally listen to along with other favorite stations such as "Deep Tracks," "Lithium," ďThe Bridge,Ē and "Ozzyís Boneyard," but for the most part Elvis's music is no longer a part of the general public's consciousness.
I think a big part of the problem when investigating Elvis' music is that there is so much of it, and due to many poor artistic choices (often made by his manager Colonel Parker whose lead Elvis generally followed) not all of it is good; where should a newcomer start? Well, there are plenty of excellent possibilities, but for my money I think that Elvis 75 - Good Rockin' Tonight, released to celebrate what would've been his 75th birthday, is the best starting point currently on the market, because it's the only career encompassing box set that I'm aware of (sorry but single and even double-CD compilations simply don't dig deep enough). This makes it an excellent primer for newbies, as well as a deeply satisfying overview for diehards who simply want 100 of the best songs Elvis did all grouped together in chronological order. This set is reasonably priced, the sound quality is superlative, and it comes with an enticing booklet that includes a superb history by Bill Altman, details about each song, and lots of photos.
Of course, Elvis has his critics, but I'd recommend forgetting that he didn't write his own songs, and ignoring the complaints that he "stole" his crown from black artists; when Elvis was done transforming each and every song he sang into his own, via his own inimitable style and charisma, that song was typically his and his alone. Just listen to all the testimonials from the likes of Phil Spector ("You have no idea how great he is, really you donít. You have no comprehension - itís absolutely impossible. I canít tell you why heís so great, but he is. Heís sensational. He can do anything with his voice. He can sing anything you want him to, anyway you tell him. The unquestionable King of rock 'n' roll."), Bob Dylan ("hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail"), John Lennon ("before Elvis, there was nothing"), and Jackie Wilson ("A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis"), among others: when all is said and done, when you strip away the myth and have only the music, the fact remains that Elvis Presley was one of the greatest singers and performers who ever lived. Also, like any great solo artist, there was no shortage of unsung heroes who helped his cause, chief among them great bandmates and Hall Of Famers in their own right like guitarist Scotty Moore (and later James Burton), bassist Bill Black, drummer D.J. Fontana, plus his backup singers The Jordanaires who added a touch of class to every recording they contributed to. On the songs here that are obvious retreads of prior hits, and there are a few of them, these guys make them well worth listening to anyway.
When Elvis first went into Sam Phillips Sun Studios in 1954 to record "My Happiness" for his mother (included here and it has a naive charm), he bragged that "I sing all kinds" of music and that "I don't sound like nobody." Prophetic words, and when he fiddled around in the studio with Moore and Black on a version of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," Phillips recognized that this was something new and special; though this wasn't the first rock 'n' roll song (most would give that designation to Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88"), it was a pivotal song in rock 'n' roll becoming as big as it soon became. Other Sun classics soon followed, chief among them "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Mystery Train," before Phillips made the fateful decision to sell Elvis' contract to RCA Records. Though he would have his greatest commercial successes at RCA, there are many who feel that Elvis never topped his early "rockabilly" Sun recordings, and indeed there was something special about them, as they had a uniquely stripped down, atmospheric quality; I personally would've included more Sun songs here ("Blue Moon" and "Milkcow Blues Boogie," for example), but to get those you can complement this box set with the 2-cd compilation Sunrise, which includes all of Elvis' Sun sessions.
Moving on to RCA, where session aces such as guitarist Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer sometimes assisted, Elvis cut (and it should be noted that he self-produced and oversaw the majority of his sessions) the seminal rock 'n' roll classics that made him a global phenomenon, such as "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up," and "Jailhouse Rock." Man, on "Heartbreak Hotel" he really does sound so lonely he could die, while his swaggering performances on the others, replete with his much imitated trademark vocal ticks and hiccups, great energetic performances from his bandmates (like Fontana's powerhouse drum fills and Moore's superb guitar solo on "Hound Dog"), plus the Jordanaires adding a poppy doo wop flavor, are beyond classic. Elvis was also a masterful deep voiced balladeer, as exemplified by performances like "Love Me Tender," "Love Me," "(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley For Me," "Blue Christmas," and "Don't," the latter of which closes out the first and arguably best disc of this set.
Of course, you can get Elvis' biggest hits on any number of other collections, and what makes this box set so richly rewarding is that it digs deeper than the majority of them. On the first disc alone there are a number of excellent songs that casual fans aren't likely to be familiar with, such as the early rockabilly number "Baby Let's Play House," the memorably weepy ballad "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" (great song title too), the doo-wop flavored "I Was The One," the upbeat, bass-driven "My Baby Left Me," the delightful piano and guitar-led "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy," the catchy mid-tempo number "Too Much," the slow, deep-voiced gospel ballad "(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)," the great "One Night" with its wonderfully dramatic, quivering lead vocal, and "Treat Me Nice," which delivers more fun, lighthearted pop rock.
Disc two continues the high quality albeit not quite as consistently, as a two-year stint in the U.S. Army and too much time spent on bad movies and their accompanying soundtracks (often padded out with silly songs unworthy of his talents) took their toll. Still, Elvis had great songs and performances throughout his career, which this box set makes abundantly clear. Among the highlights on disc two are "Trouble," on which Elvis effortlessly sells the song with his swaggering charisma, the upbeat boogie rock of "I Need Your Love Tonight," the catchy mid-tempo pop rockers "(Now And Then There's) A Fool Such As I" and "Stuck On You" (his first #1 hit of the '60s), and the operatic, Spanish flavored "It's Now Or Never," which showed a different side of Elvis that would more and more take precedence over the rock 'n' roll with which he originally made his name: that of Elvis the deep voiced crooner. Other terrific tracks on disc two include the classic, sadly comforting late night ballad "Are You Lonesome Tonight" (also notable for its spoken word section), the bluesy "Reconsider Baby," the dramatic, pulse pounding "Surrender" (which also mellows out with a tropical island sound), the heartfelt gospel ballad "Crying In The Chapel" (among all music's gospel music was nearest and dearest to Elvis' heart), the romantic wedding song standard "Can't Help Falling In Love," the catchy up-tempo "(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame," and last but not least "Return To Sender," one of his most effortlessly catchy and likeable pop hits.
Disc three keeps the high quality coming, with notable highlights including the poignant, understated ballad "I Need Somebody To Lean On," the catchy, campy "Viva Las Vegas" (visions of Ann Margaret...), the anguished "It Hurts Me," another powerful gospel performance in "How Great Thou Art," a rare Dylan cover and a very good one in the spare folk performance of "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," the up-tempo "Guitar Man" with its superb Jerry Reed guest guitar pickin', and another big, intense ballad in the Martin Luther King influenced "If I Can Dream," one of several "wow that was powerful" performances on this set. And of course, after artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix threatened to make him irrelevant, Elvis produced a spectacular comeback in the late '60s, first with the '68 Comeback Special (a must-see on DVD) and then with arguably his best studio album, From Elvis in Memphis. Produced by the talented Chips Moman, one of the few producers to truly challenge Elvis, these sessions yielded terrific tracks such as "Only The Strong Survive," "In The Ghetto," "Kentucky Rain," and "Stranger In My Own Home Town" (the latter two werenít on the original album but are currently available on the recommended Suspicious Minds 2-cd compilation which includes all of Elvis' 1969 studio recordings at Moman's American Sound Studio). Oh yeah, there's also "Suspicious Minds," which may be his best song ever, with its lush "orchestral soul" sound, memorable female gospel backing vocals, and of course Elvis' own legendary lead vocals
Unfortunately, Elvis didn't build on that success, and the '70s are most known for the fat, divorced, drugged out "Las Vegas Elvis" who wore ridiculous jump suits and was a far cry from the "Elvis the Pelvis" stud who all the guys admired and who all the girls swooned over. Listening to disc four shows that Elvis recorded great music during this period as well, however, and in fact in many ways this is the most important disc on this set, as it makes a strong case that this period should be reevaluated. Musically speaking, these increasingly country influenced songs, some captured live, probably go overboard on the saccharine strings and prominent female backing singers, but there is no shortage of great singing performances on this set. For example, "Polk Salad Annie" showed that Elvis could still deliver lively, exciting rock 'n' roll, "Funny How The Time Slips Away" showed that Elvis could do "orchestral country" as well as "orchestral soul," "I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water" is another countrified, up-tempo winner, Elvis again makes me a believer on his big band rendition of "I Just Can't Help Believin'," the Spectorian "An American Trilogy" is wonderfully overdone, and the swinging rockabilly number "Burning Love" is just plain wonderful. After his divorce to wife Priscilla, a heartbroken Elvis naturally gravitated to sad, poignant, regret-filled ballads like "Always On My Mind" (later a big hit for Willie Nelson), "I'm Leavin'," "Loving Arms," "Hurt," and "Unchained Melody," the old Righteous Brothers classic on which he truly sounds like a broken man. Other highlights on disc four include a lively blues-based take on James Taylor's "Steamroller Blues" (and we even get an example of his much-parodied "thank you very much" acknowledgement to the crowd at the end of the song), the lovely, weary country ballad "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues," and "Promised Land," which delivers fast-paced country rock with that classic Elvis vocal delivery. But really, the entire disc, also including the fun if ill-fitting 2002 #1 hit remix of "A Little Less Conversation," is excellent, especially so when you consider that it came during a period where he was considered a washed up has-been. Then he died on August 16, 1977, of course; the infamous day on which The King was forever silenced.
Anyway, to speak in general terms about this box set again, spectacular though it is, it isn't quite perfect. Again, some of these songs sound like retreads, there's a "dated" element to some songs that I find to be the case with almost all early rock 'n' rollers (Elvis much less so than most), and this set is probably a bit more ballad-heavy than it needed to be. Also, Elvis recorded over 700 songs during his lifetime, and he certainly had more than 100 good ones; I could name numerous tracks that could've and maybe even should've also made the cut here, including more Sun Records songs as previously mentioned, but also "I've Lost You," "I'm Movin' On," "Never Been To Spain," "Please Don't Drag That String Around," "Edge Of Reality," "Trying To Get To You," "Money Honey", "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "I'll Remember You," "Long Black Limousine," "Any Day Now," "I Really Don't Want To Know," "Merry Christmas Baby," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "My Way," and "The Wonder Of You" (probably the most head scratching omission). So, for those who want to dig deeper, feel free to get the following more expansive, self-explanatory box sets: The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters, From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60's Masters, and Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential 70's Masters, as well as the all gospel collection I Believe: The Gospel Masters. However, keep in mind that if you already do own the three decades sets, this one is still worth getting due to its superior sound quality. For those who want to check out the original albums, I'd recommend starting with Elvis Presley (1956), also famous for its iconic cover, Elvis Is Back! (1960), and the aforementioned From Elvis In Memphis (or better yet, Suspicious Minds). For those who want less not more, there are innumerable "hits" compilations to choose from, so take your pick. I'd also recommend seeking out video clips of Elvis at his charismatic best, for example the aforementioned The '68 Comeback Special (arguably the first "unplugged" concert) and the 1970 concert film That's The Way It Is, for starters. Lastly, those interested in Elvis the man should read Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, arguably the best biographies ever written about a musician, while those interested in reading about the minutiae of Elvis' recording sessions should read the fascinating book Elvis Presley: A Life in Music - The Complete Recording Sessions, written by Ernst Jorgensen who also produced and selected the tracks for this box set.
My one final thought is that listening to this box set has renewed my love for the music of Elvis Presley, which never really left but was definitely misplaced somewhere along the way. All hail Elvis Presley, the once, future, and forever King Of Rock 'n' Roll!
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