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|REVIEWED: THE ALBUM COLLECTION
March 19, 2016 - By Joe Marchese for Second Disc / Elvis Express Radio
I. Playing for Keeps
“You don’t have to face the music…you don’t have to face the crowd…Just go back where you came from,” sings a world-weary Elvis Presley on “It’s Easy for You,” the closing track
of his 1977 album Moody Blue. “If you ever tire of the good life, call me in a year or two…I’ve got no choice, I’ll forgive you, ’cause it’s easy for you.” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim
Rice’s musical recrimination not only dated back to the superstar artist’s final studio session – at home in Graceland, in October 1976 – but became the final song released in his
lifetime; Elvis, of course, passed away on August 16, 1977 at just age 42. Indeed, listening to the 60 discs on RCA and Legacy Recordings’ remarkable new box set The Album
Collection, one is consumed with many questions. Historian-musician John Jackson poses many of them in his introduction to the indispensable 300-page hardcover book included
in the set. Why does he have so few classic albums? Why are there so many live albums? What’s with all the movie soundtracks? Why didn’t he work with any of the outside
producers or entities who were making the classic albums of the same period? They’re all valid questions – and have no easy answers. But never before has the oft-anthologized,
oft-dissected artist’s oeuvre been so potently addressed as a singular body of work as on The Album Collection. Its all-encompassing approach to the albums released by Presley
in his lifetime adds up to a cornerstone of any American music collection, ripe for hours of exploration, questions, and possible answers.
The Album Collection chronicles the transformation of Presley from rebellious rock-and-roll heartthrob and scourge of parents everywhere to B-movie leading man to jumpsuit-clad,
karate-chopping Vegas crooner. Note that the box’s title does not include the word “complete.” The 60 discs of the set are made up of 57 albums released during The King’s
lifetime (20 – or over one-third – with bonus tracks, primarily from singles and EPs, added) and three bonus discs of rarities, one disc each for the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The discs
include studio albums, movie soundtracks, live albums and compilations. (Several compilations released at the time were collections of singles not included on Presley’s albums.)
All of the artist’s “core” albums are here, with the exception of several 1970s compilation albums which contained little unique material. Also missing is Having Fun with Elvis on
Stage, but that’s hardly surprising. The spoken-word album was not originally released by RCA, and Presley himself asked that it be withdrawn from his catalogue.
The albums within the Collection fall roughly into three periods. Discs 1-13 contain many of the recordings on which Elvis’ reputation was built, from 1956-1961. This era contains
revolutionary rock-and-roll, a trio of movie soundtracks (how many remember that his third LP – 1957’s Loving You – was already a soundtrack?), Christmas and gospel albums,
long-playing repackages of singles and early Sun material, and his post-Army return, Elvis is Back!. Then comes Discs 14-33 (1961-1968), all but five of which are soundtrack
releases with some of his least compelling material. The third era, represented by Discs 34-57 (1968-1976), takes Elvis from his stunning 1968 comeback (the album Elvis (NBC
TV Special)) through the Vegas years and his abdication from the recording studio to months before his death.
II. Got a Lot o’ Livin’ to Do!
Early on, RCA Victor realized that its hot signing could prove to be far more than a flash in the pan or a passing fad. 1956’s Elvis Presley became the first-ever rock-and-roll album
to top the Billboard chart, and even its cover spawned scores of imitators. What’s radical about Elvis Presley, though, isn’t that it contained 12 nuggets of potent power to scare the
older generation. Far from it. RCA keenly suspected that the young singer could have cross-generational appeal, and his first LP is actually a fine collection of songs rendered in
varying tempi and styles. As Elvis was not first and foremost a songwriter, he had to draw on the likes of Carl Perkins, Don Robertson, Ray Charles, Leon Payne, Jesse Stone and
even Rodgers and Hart for material; the high quality of these gentlemen’s songs no doubt contributed to how fresh Elvis Presley still sounds today. That youthful vivacity – indeed,
the sense of an artist making history – permeates the earliest discs of The Album Collection. Sophomore album Elvis, which like its predecessor ranged from the raucous to the
tender, introduced songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller into the mix; they would, of course, play a key role in Elvis’ career. The fresh talent’s range and willingness to defy
expectation was characterized by departures such as Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957) and the gospel-themed His Hand in Mine (1960). During this period, RCA also began reissuing
Elvis’ raw, original Sun sides, still a potent blend of rock attitude with rockabilly, country, rhythm and blues, and pop influences. (All of the “core,” originally-released Sun sides can
be found in The Album Collection, hence the absence of 1976’s The Sun Sessions compilation.)
Though the fifties was in a great sense the era of the concept album, epitomized by Frank Sinatra’s remarkable string of releases at Capitol, Elvis eschewed the trend (as he would,
by and large, throughout his entire career). After the powerful punches of Elvis Presley and Elvis, the most essential album during this early period is Elvis’ Golden Records, a
compilation of non-LP singles released to that point. The 6x platinum-certified compendium was released in March, 1958, the very month that Presley entered the United States
Army. With hysterical fervor in the air (so memorably spoofed in the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie), demand for Elvis releases was high. Golden Records offered one
dynamic smash hit after another: “Hound Dog,” “All Shook Up,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender” and so on. These songs aren’t just
definitive cuts for Elvis during this time, but are truly era-defining. 1959’s Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2 – 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong was also designed to fill that need
while the artist was still serving his country. It’s no less enjoyable but has just two Pop chart-toppers – “Don’t” and “A Big Hunk o’ Love” – to Golden Records’ staggering array of
nine. It does, however, boast one of the artist’s most iconic covers. Volume 2 also premiered on LP some of the material recorded by Elvis in June 1958 during a brief break from
III. Doin’ the Best I Can
After the essential 1960 release Elvis is Back! (with “Such a Night” and Elvis’ fine rendition of “Fever” among its highlights), The Album Collection becomes dominated by film
soundtracks. These albums are generally swept under the rug when considering Elvis’ career as a recording artist, but here they become a crucial part of the story. In total, The
King made 31 scripted films between 1956 and 1969 – a substantial chunk of a career that, sadly, only lasted another eight years. Though he made four fine films before his 1958
departure for the Army, it was 1960’s G.I. Blues – made after his discharge, and capitalizing on the Elvis-in-the-Army scenario – that set the template and tone for his filmography.
It was felt that audiences wanted to see Elvis sing on the big screen, not “act,” and so (most of) the films became frothier and more musical.
These motion pictures allowed audiences to see their favorite superstar in a variety of colorful locales – Hawaii (multiple times!), Las Vegas, Acapulco, the Seattle World’s Fair,
even Baghdad. Though Elvis was let down by the formulaic scripts and songs, the movies were terrific successes, as were the companion soundtracks featured here. In the United
States, the music from Elvis’ movies achieved 17 gold and platinum singles, eight platinum and gold EPs, and five platinum and gold albums. Note that some of his famous pictures
are not represented with soundtracks on The Album Collection; both Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas received EPs, not full-fledged LPs and therefore aren’t included here as
originally issued. But the songs on those EPs – including Leiber and Stoller’s “Jailhouse Rock” and Pomus and Shuman’s “Viva Las Vegas” – can be found elsewhere in the box.
(The 1971 compilation Get Lucky, for instance, is almost exclusively dedicated to movie songs.)
Many of the film tunes (frequently written by a stable of songwriters including Sid Wayne and Ben Weisman; Bill Giant, Bernie Baum and Florence Kaye; Joy Byers; and Sid Tepper
and Roy Bennett) are just plain goofy, befitting the featherweight movies for which they were written. Unfortunately, the sixties’ top musical songwriters were never tapped for
Presley’s star vehicles. One wonders how Elvis felt about “Queen Wahine’s Papaya,” “Song of the Shrimp,” or “Yoga Is as Yoga Does.”
But there are highlights on these discs, too, including some tracks from surprising writers. Pete Anders and Vini Poncia (of The Tradewinds and The Innocence) penned “Harem
Holiday” for Harum Scarum. Oscar winners Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn wrote the sweet “Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby” for Speedway, which also features Nancy Sinatra’s
solo performance of Lee Hazlewood’s brassy “Your Groovy Self.” In addition to Viva Las Vegas, Pomus and Shuman’s songs appeared on albums for G.I. Blues, Kissin’ Cousins,
Frankie and Johnny, Spinout, and Double Trouble, while Doc Pomus co-wrote the title track of Girl Happy with Norman Meade, a.k.a. Jerry Ragovoy. None of these albums became
classics, but there are some wonderful songs along with some not-so-wonderful ones. Part of the fun of this set is exploring these less-played discs and finding the diamonds in the
rough. (And even many of the not-so-wonderful songs have a certain lightweight, nostalgic charm.)
IV. If I Can Dream
If not for Elvis’ Hollywood years which had kept him away from public performances since 1961, there might not have been any occasion for a “comeback special” – which is exactly
what Elvis delivered to NBC in December 1968. The special, chronicled on the disc rather unimaginatively titled Elvis (NBC-TV Special), reintroduced America to the lithe, leather-
clad artist still capable of electrifying rooms everywhere. Elvis revisited many of his early hits with a ferocity he hadn’t channeled in years, but if there was any evidence that the
singer was a changed man, it was in his emotionally-charged performance of W. Earl Brown’s “If I Can Dream.” Musically, it pointed Presley in the direction of Vegas – a big,
orchestral showstopper as far-removed from rock-and-roll as possible. Lyrically, its plea for peace inspired the singer to inspire his audiences once more with intensity and fervor.
The original LP (Disc 34 in this set) was released a couple of weeks before the special aired, and it ushered in a period of revival for Elvis’ as a stage performer and a recording
artist in which he would even make a couple of those truly “classic albums.”
One of them, From Elvis in Memphis, arrived mere months after Elvis (NBC-TV Special). Elvis recorded it at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios in his home of Memphis, away
the familiar confines of RCA’s Nashville Studio B or Radio Recorders in Hollywood. The resulting sessions helmed by Moman and Elvis’ usual producer, Felton Jarvis, were filled
with southern soul magic that lent the artist a contemporary R&B vibe. From Elvis in Memphis boasted indelible takes on the Philly soul classic “Only the Strong Survive,” Burt
Bacharach and Bob Hilliard’s “Any Day Now,” and Mac Davis’ “In the Ghetto,” the latter giving Elvis a Top 5 Pop hit. “In the Ghetto” built upon the singles-chart success of “If I Can
Dream,” making it all the way to No. 3 Pop. It was soon eclipsed, though, by non-LP track “Suspicious Minds.” The Mark James song gave Elvis his first No. 1 since 1962. It’s been
added to Memphis, along with Eddie Rabbitt’s equally sublime “Kentucky Rain” and two more hits, “Mama Liked the Roses” and “Don’t Cry, Daddy.” Elvis really was back!
Subsequent efforts showcased both his newly-energized recording career and his electrifying live shows. The title of his 1969 double album said it all: From Memphis to Vegas, or
if you turned the jacket over, From Vegas to Memphis. Here was the superstar showman who had triumphed at the super-sized showroom of Las Vegas’ International Hotel as of his
very first appearance there on July 31, 1969…and the onetime Sun Records prodigy who’d finally returned to his R&B roots. The live side had Elvis’ hits as well as an appearance
by The Bee Gees’ “Words.” Modern pop was entering The King’s repertoire. The studio side was culled from the American Sound sessions, but as evidenced by fine renditions of
songs including Neil Diamond’s “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind,” these were no mere leftovers. Though no studio album was released in 1970 – the live album On Stage sated
the demand for releases – the singer returned in January 1971 with Elvis Country: I’m 10,000 Years Old, and again he addressed his roots – this time back in Nashville and
employing strings and big, AM-friendly productions suiting his naturally-deepened voice.
A curious trend began in 1970, however: RCA began releasing new-to-LP material on its budget Camden imprint. Several of these albums appear on The Album Collection
including Let’s Be Friends, Almost in Love, C’mon, Everybody, and I Got Lucky. Still, the gamble to release “new” records by a superstar artist on a budget label paid off, and most
of Elvis’ Camden issues went Platinum. On the mainline RCA Victor label, live albums began to proliferate as his interest in the studio waned.
That’s the Way It Is was the title of both director Denis Saunders’ documentary/concert film chronicling the ascent of the “new Elvis” and RCA’s hybrid LP consisting of eight recent
studio recordings and four live tracks derived from the same 1970 Vegas “Summer Season” as the motion picture. (It was his third engagement at The International.) The matter-of-
fact title might have disguised the fact that the contents of both projects were far from standard-issue. Admittedly, a better hint might have been the album’s cover artwork of Elvis in
the kind of flamboyant white jumpsuit that defined his late period onstage attire. This wasn’t your mother’s – or at least, your older sister’s – Elvis. His past and present collided in
exuberant fashion. He was capable of channeling the rock-and-roll fire that exuded such danger and sensuality roughly fifteen years earlier, but had moved into a new period in
which he found the bigger the emotion, the better. “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” still played a part in this persona, but so did “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and
“Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
V. What a Wonderful Life
The role of big-voiced pop balladeer fit Elvis like a glove, and he filled much of his music in this era with equal parts heart, soul and sweat. Other landmark live albums followed,
including Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden (1972), Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite (1973), and Elvis as Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis (1974). (All of the above,
as well as On Stage and That’s the Way It Is, have been expanded in recent years in Legacy Edition format by Sony.)
Elvis even took a couple of successful stylistic detours in this period, returning to the holiday and sacred songbooks, for Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas (1971) and
He Touched Me (1972). Trips to Stax Records’ famed McLemore Avenue studio in July and December 1973 – a mere 5 miles from Graceland – yielded strong soul-pop material for
three albums: Raised on Rock/For Ol’ Times Sake (1973), Good Times (1974) and the spiritual-leaning Promised Land (1975). But it wasn’t until the compact disc era that the Stax
material was assembled in a truly organized fashion, depriving Elvis of the opportunity for another “great” album. (Legacy’s 2013 Elvis at Stax box set offers a comprehensive look
at these sessions.) RCA’s growing indifference to Elvis’ albums was evident in the interchangeable cover artwork; nearly every one of these generic covers featured Elvis in a white
glittered jumpsuit against a black background. These latter-day albums don’t offer much in the way of cohesion, but they do offer a lot of great music. One album, 1973’s Elvis (a.k.
a. Fool) is actually improved by the addition of numerous familiar bonus tracks such as “Always on My Mind,” “Burning Love,” “For the Good Times” and “An American Trilogy” –
some of Elvis’ most beloved recordings of any era.
1976’s Moody Blue was the last original album Elvis would release in his lifetime, but The Album Collection rounds up three more discs (one for each decade in which he recorded)
comprising 59 tracks of odds and ends. All of these tracks – alternate takes, outtakes, movie versions, home recordings, live performances, jams and rehearsals – were first
released in the years following Elvis’ death on various LP and CD anthologies. On these rarities discs, you’ll hear duets with Ann-Margret (“Today, Tomorrow and Forever”) and
Frank Sinatra (“Witchcraft/Love Me Tender), two more tracks from Elvis’ appearance on The Chairman’s 1960 Timex Show), his four first recordings at Sun Studios from 1953, and
songs in various stages of completion by Bob Dylan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Beatles, and Bobby Darin. These, of course, represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to
Elvis rarities, but they’re a choice selection nonetheless and add to one’s appreciation of his craft throughout his too-short career.
VI. Today, Tomorrow and Forever
The Album Collection follows in the footsteps of Legacy’s 2010 release The Complete Elvis Presley Masters. That box contained 814 recordings on 30 CDs arranged
chronologically, whereas the new set has a slightly slimmer count of 784 songs. (30 of the bonus cuts on the earlier box have been dropped.) Every track on The Album Collection
can be found on The Complete Masters except for the three performances from the Sinatra Timex Show (mentioned above). The main attraction here for collectors, then, will likely
be the packaging – which, happily, exceeds all expectations.
The 60 discs are housed in a large cube box with a lift-off lid, and the disc presentations are more detailed than in any past CD edition. (Longtime Elvis historian/producer Roger
Semon is responsible for the art direction, while Amy Knowles’ firm is credited with the design.) All of the albums are in mini-LP jackets with spines, and these replicate all of the
original LPs’ gatefolds and die-cuts and other unusual variations such as the booklet within Elvis’ Christmas Album. The disc labels feature the Side One designs for all of the
various (and colorful!) RCA variations. In addition, all of the original inserts have been reprinted, trading card-style. The 1963 calendar in Girls! Girls! Girls! is one fun such item.
Numerous other albums (like Harum Scarum, Frankie and Johnny, and Spinout) have photos of Elvis and still others have a listing of his available albums. Underscoring the
immense attention to detail in this set is the presence of a sheet with all of the stickers that originally appeared on the shrink-wrapped albums, and a key as to which album they
correspond. (Not that anyone is likely to actually apply the stickers to the mini-sleeves!)
Then there’s the thick, heavy 300-page hardcover book which occupies its own slot in the box. The book has John Jackson’s insightful introductory essay plus a note from
producer Ernst Mikael Jorgensen, and a 2-page spread for each album with track credits, discography, recording dates, and chart positions. (The track producers are a surprising
omission, however.) A fully-illustrated sessionography, single discography, and EP discography then follow. In addition, there are beautiful full-color photos throughout the book,
annotated with captions in the style of Semon and Jorgensen’s Follow That Dream releases as well as the Legacy Editions. All that’s missing from this exemplary book is a song
index (which certainly would have been helpful for locating a favorite!) and a more detailed explanation from the producer as to how and why the bonus material was chosen and
sequenced. Even a seasoned Elvis collector might wonder why these bonus cuts were chosen over others, and a little enlightenment would have gone a long way.
Remastering for The Album Collection is primarily courtesy of Vic Anesini, who remastered Elvis’ entire output prior to the release of The Complete Masters. It’s been indicated that
Anesini has reviewed, re-remastered and/or tweaked his past work, and additional mastering here is credited to Battery Studios’ Sean Brennan, Mark Wilder, Maria Triana and Mike
Piacentini. The sound here is uniformly excellent, and stylistically on par with The Complete Masters and Anesini’s other wonderful recent work on Presley’s catalogue.
The power and endurance of Elvis Presley’s music has never been in question, and certainly isn’t today. If I Can Dream, the 2015 album overdubbing orchestral tracks over Elvis’
original vocals, topped the U.K. Albums chart and has been certified multi-platinum. Here in America it was also a commercial success, hitting pole position on the Billboard
Classical chart and making the top 25 of the Hot 100. Elvis’ voice and image continue to resonate and cross the generational divide. The lavish Album Collection offers plenty of
bang for your buck as one-stop shopping for one of the great catalogues in American popular music. Elvis is back in the building – but then again, did he ever really leave?