A new review by j. poet on Crawdaddy!, Oct. 19th, of this massive, ultimate, limited-edition 30-CD box set of everything Elvis ever recorded, good bad and indifferent!
Back in 1959 RCA released For LP Fans Only, which included some of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records outtakes along with a few RCA singles that had never been put on an album before. For LP Fans Only set the standard for RCA’s Presley reissue program. They slapped together old tracks, outtakes, and B-sides, gave them what they hoped were catchy titles, and released them. They put together hundreds of haphazard compilations and collections over the years, most with no liner notes, session information, or recording dates. Almost anything with the Presley name on it sold, so the albums kept coming. Even after his death in 1977, they continued repackaging the old material, first on LP, then CD, often with embarrassing cover art. They’d already paid him for the sessions, so except for artist and songwriter royalties, the reissues were pure profit.
That slapdash approach changed after the German company BMG bought RCA in 1986. They brought in Elvis expert Ernst Jorgensen, who supervised the first comprehensive Presley reissue program, starting with The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Complete ‘50s Masters, a five-CD set that contained most of the songs that made Elvis a star. They followed up with From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential ‘60s Masters on five discs and Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential ‘70s Masters on another five discs. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll box set just missed going gold, despite a hefty 80-dollar price tag, and the other sets also sold remarkably well.
Now we have The Complete Elvis Presley Masters. It’s the only Elvis album anyone will ever need, 711 master recordings and 103 rarities—outtakes, alternative versions, rehearsal tapes, and home recordings made by Presley himself on 36 CDs. It would take almost two days to listen to everything here in one sitting, not a likely prospect, even for the most rabid fan. The box comes with a 240-page coffee table book that includes the artwork for every original (not reissue) Presley album and a description of many of the most important recording sessions written by Presley experts Ernst Jorgensen and Peter Guralnick. Phew!
So what do these newly-restored versions sound like? In a word, amazing. On the early Sun sides, Scotty Moore’s subtle electric guitar fills and chomped chords are clear and crisp; Bill Black’s slap bass is full-bodied and relentlessly driving, and Presley, with a trace of echo on his voice, has an attack that’s full of jubilation and repressed emotion, a trick he may have unconsciously picked up from the country singers he loved. The pop standard “Blue Moon” sounds more soulful that anyone at the time would have though. “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine” had been a pop hit for Patti Page, but Presley cut it as a country-rocker, with Moore’s guitar shooting off a sparks that suggest pedal steel and Bakerfield twang.
The first RCA session in 1956 produced “Heartbreak Hotel”, and the recording here has a live-in-the-studio presence you’ve never heard before with Floyd Cramer’s late night piano fills accenting Moore’s clanging guitar. “Hound Dog”, the song that made Presley a star, sounds almost sedate today, but at the time it was a barn-burning rocker. He completely reinvented the tune, adding a syncopated handclap rhythm and driven over the top by D.J. Fontana’s dynamic drumming.
By the time he cuts “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” a year later, the band is smoking—the excitement jumps off of the disc. The ‘50s close with “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”, “I Need Your Love Tonight”, and “I Got Stung”… rockers that show off the fusion of country, R&B, and pop that made Presley’s reputation.
In the ‘60s Presley mostly recorded tunes for his movies, a lot of them as forgettable as the films themselves. The sound here is great, but nothing can save “Pocket Full of Rainbows”, “Song of the Shrimp”, or “Yoga Is as Yoga Does.” He got back on track for his Comeback Special on NBC, and the brassy big band that plays behind him often overwhelms the performances. On the small group tunes, particularly “Lawdy Miss Clawdy/Baby, What You Want Me to Do”, the sonic upgrade gives the performance an exciting live quality.
Presley only had one hit in the ‘70s, before his posthumous chart domination. “The Wonder of You” was cut live in Las Vegas, and while Presley may have been out of the pop mainstream and his performances erratic, he did make some decent recordings, but you have to wade through a lot of lesser quality moments to find them.
All of the cuts on the three rarities discs have been released before, so they’re not that rare. Standouts—“One Night of Sin”, a hit under the title “One Night With You”, sounds dark and dangerous on this 1957 take, “She Thinks I Still Care”, a country weeper recorded at Graceland with an over-the-top vocal, a live “Unchained Melody” from 1977, a perfect vehicle for Presley’s dramatic vocals, and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” one of Presley’s earliest known recordings. He sounds raw and nervous on the song, just 13 months before he stepped up to the mic to cut “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Presley learned the basics of singing in church, played guitar from the age of 11, and won a bunch of talent contests before he was a teenager, but until he got into the studio at Sun Records nobody thought he was anything more than a talented amateur. How he managed to synthesize blues, pop, gospel, African-American close harmonies, and more into the music that would soon be called rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll is unknowable. But you can hear it all in the music on this box set, songs that changed the history of pop music forever and helped lay the foundation for the rise of the counterculture with its disregard for the racial barriers that defined the hit parade in the ‘50s.