Elvis Presley may be the most anthologized performer in history, and many among his legions will scoff at the notion anyone remotely interested in contemporary American music would not already own all the music on the new four-CD set Elvis 75 – Good Rockin' Tonight," (RCA/Legacy) being released this week to coincide with his 75th birthday celebration (Friday is the actual birth date, though events in some cities started Thursday).
It is the third Presley set issued in the past 12 months, and comes barely four years after the three-disc Hitstory that contained 80 tunes on three CDs. But the new release contains tunes not available on the previous collection, among them the track "My Happiness" that's now widely viewed as the first recording Presley made.
In addition, Elvis 75 runs the gamut of The King’s music, rather than focusing on particular periods or his most commercial recordings. While it contains only one more disc (and 20 more tracks) than its predecessor, Elvis 75 boasts better sound and there are many valuable features in the final edition (my advance review copy doesn't include the liner notes, photos and other items included in the deluxe version).
Most importantly, it takes the listener on a broad journey through the universe of American musical styles that he mastered — a feat that justifiably made Presley a legend. It offers the energy of his blues and country covers, and the influence of everything from white and black gospel to 1950s pop, bluegrass, doo-wop and R&B shines through in such tunes as "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy," "Baby, Let's Play House" (also the title of a new book about Presley), "Are You Lonesome Tonight" and "Guitar Man."
Of course it also has the familiar hits, movie themes and rock anthems that every Elvis fan comes to expect.
But by including novelty efforts, B-sides, unusual covers — even show tunes and religious/spiritual pieces — Elvis 75 presents the complete portrait of a consummate artist.
Those who dismiss Presley as merely a slavish imitator miss the fact his sound and approach encompassed Dean Martin and the Blackwood Brothers as much as the blues and R&B. Likewise, those fans who only cite the country, rock and pop tunes do his memory an equal disservice by ignoring the impact of the Mississippi Delta and Beale Street on his music, particularly in the early years, but also throughout his career.
Only by recognizing the vastness of his appreciation for American music can the Elvis Presley phenomenon truly be understood. The numbers on Elvis 75 separate the legitimate giant and incredible performer from the tabloid celebrity whose personal excesses, coupled with massive merchandising and overdone fan idolatry, turn as many people off as it fascinates and attracts countless others.
Fortunately, those who are drawn to the music can enjoy this and other valuable collections and ignore everything else.
The four-disc, 68-song Elvis Presley – I Believe: The Gospel Masters (RCA/Legacy) was issued last summer. It gathers all his inspirational tunes (He won three gospel Grammys) cut in the studio, plus tracks culled from television and road performances.
The two-disc From Elvis in Memphis (RCA/Legacy), also released in 2009, marked the 40th anniversary of his return to Memphis for a recording session. Spurred by the unexpected critical and ratings success of his 1968 NBC ‘Comeback Special,’ Presley cut tunes in his adopted hometown for the first time in 14 years. The results yielded enough material for two excellent LPs, From Elvis in Memphis and Back in Memphis — which are combined here.
Operating in Chips Moman's American studios (then a hotbed of pop, soul and rock chart successes), Presley eventually scored such anthems as "In The Ghetto" and "Kentucky Road" which are included in this collection. Each disc has the original album, plus additional material. The first CD has four bonus cuts, while the second has the original mono masters of songs from both sessions.
Though his movies ranged from effective to forgettable, Elvis' films always attract large audiences.
Turner Classic Movies will air nine of them Friday, starting with Harum Scarum at 5:15 a.m. and concluding with one of the best, Jailhouse Rock, at 11 p.m. During that time they'll also air a couple of documentaries, Elvis: That's The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour.
TCM is available on Comcast digital cable and both Dish Network and Direct TV satellite systems.