Riffs: New collection highlights classic Elvis CD

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 12:00am

In a year dominated by anniversaries of great labels and historic events, one that might get overlooked concerns Elvis Presley’s return 40 years ago to his Memphis recording roots.

He’d spent the previous 13 starring in a string of films (several of them quite forgettable) and also doing both studio and soundtrack sessions in Nashville and Hollywood. Many observers felt that his days of making hits — let alone significant releases — were long gone and that he was now more a brand and a casino draw than a major performer.

But the Presley comeback had already started a year earlier. His December 1968 television show (actually taped in June but not shown until that winter) proved The King hadn’t yet lost his ability to surprise and startle. The 68 Comeback Special, now available in DVD, was his first live show in front of an audience in more than eleven years, and the amazing live special aired on NBC was both a commercial and creative smash.

But what came after that proved even greater. Presley made one of his last great secular releases Elvis in Memphis at American Studios a year later. It was a vintage date in both sensibility and style, with Presley ranging all over the place vocally, doing folk, soul, and country. The single “In the Ghetto” (penned by Mac Davis) got him back on the charts, and his versions of “Any Day Now,” “Only the Strong Survive” and “Gentle on My Mind” rivaled the originals in quality and depth.

The new two-CD release From Elvis in Memphis: The Legacy Edition (RCA/Legacy) will be issued July 28. It contains not only all the tunes from the original Elvis in Memphis and subsequent From Memphis to Vegas albums, but other stirring singles that found their way on various Presley albums in the next few years.

Some, like his cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” are more important for their place in the Presley canon than anything else, but some others, particularly the covers of Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” Ned Miller’s “From a Jack to a King” and Eddie Rabbitt’s “Kentucky Rain” are magnificent. There’s also the glittering “Suspicious Minds,” written by Mark James, which featured another triumphant Presley vocal.

The special set also includes exhaustive and definitive liner notes from the husband/wife team of writer/filmmaker Robert Gordon and writer/historian Tara McAdams. Their essay puts in perspective not only Presley’s comeback, but also the roles played by producer/songwriter impresario Chips Moman and the contributions of many master musicians working at American studios.

Presley didn’t shed all his celebrity baggage when he came back home in 1969, but the music made and presented on From Elvis in Memphis: Legacy Edition comes very close to equaling the splendor of the Sun sessions that launched his extraordinary ascension to stardom.

New Little Richard reissues

Hopes were high on all sides in 1970 when Little Richard joined the roster of Warner Bros. At that time the label was one of the nation’s foremost, and Little Richard seemed primed to make the same major return to show business glory that Elvis Presley had two years earlier.

Unfortunately, none of the three albums he made for the company in the early ‘70s ever generated the type of momentum or reaction expected. But they still had plenty of exciting moments and now all three have been reissued by Collector’s Choice.

The Rill Thing was the first of the trio, and it includes some solid Richard compositions (“Freedom Blues,” “Dew Drop Inn,” “Somebody Saw You” and “The Rill Thing”) plus fiery covers of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” and the Lennon-McCartney blazer “I Saw Her Standing There.”

King of Rock and Roll moved Richard back more to his trademark, piano pumping, vocally exuberant rock and roll, with tunes like “King of Rock and Roll” and “Born on the Bayou” revisiting the barrelhouse stomps of his youth. There were more covers both good (“Brown Sugar,” “Joy to the World,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and not so good (“Dancing in the Street” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do” show that Motown and Little Richard weren’t stylistically good fits).

The final entry in the trilogy reunited Richard with Bumps Blackwell, the man behind the board during his legendary Specialty sessions. They tried to recreate that magic on such tunes as “Mockingbird Sally,” “Thomasine,” “Sanctified, Satisfied Toe-Tapper” and a whirlwind rendition of “Rockin’ Rockin’ Boogie.”

Indeed, all these discs had many moments when Little Richard demonstrated the ferocity and non-stop energy that made him a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. But the problem with these commercially is that by the early ‘70s, the beat and public tastes had changed. He still had (and to a large extent still does today) the performing gusto and charisma, but it was no longer able to click with the youth audience that was once his primary constituency.

However, these discs do have plenty of outstanding music and show that Little Richard could still belt out the nonsense lyrics at a fever pitch, assault the keyboard and reaffirm the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.


1 Comment on this post:

By: pswindle on 7/14/09 at 5:58

Elvis is my musical guy.