Reviewed: Elvis 75 Good Rockin' Tonight



How do you put together a four-disc introduction to Elvis Presley? Ask my advice, and I'd probably tell you to seek out four separate but almost equally essential discs: Start with The Sun Sessions, which compiles all the essential music (and then some) that Presley recorded in Memphis with Sam Phillips to launch his career. Next comes 30 #1 Hits, the self-descriptive compilation that captures Presley the genius pure singer and mutable pop superstar across a 20-plus-year span. The third choice would be The Memphis Record, a 1987 disc that pulls together the very best of his 1969 Memphis homecoming sessions (initially released across multiple albums and singles). The final pick is a tough one. I'd be tempted to tab Elvis is Back!, the most recent CD issue of Presley's first post-Army LP which also includes the separate singles from those sessions. But really I'd hate to miss out on the casual yet often overpowering live material he recorded for his 1968 "comeback" television special. And you can hear one of those full sets — with no fat — on the 1998 Tiger Man release.

Not bad, but not without problems. Whichever way you go on that fourth disc, you're missing some classic stuff. And even with both there are pockets of material crucial to the Elvis story unrepresented.

A bigger problem is that The Sun Sessions and The Memphis Record are long out of print, replaced in the catalogue by double-disc sets (Sunrise and last year's From Elvis In Memphis reissue, respectively) packed with alternate versions and lesser songs nice for completists but unnecessary for normal everyday listening.

So it isn't easy. But the powers that be at RCA have attempted to tell Presley's story in four discs with Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight, a 100-song boxed set timed to coincide with what would have been Presley's 75th birthday today.

Given all the constant repackaging of the King's catalogue and my own inherent skepticism toward single-artist boxed sets, I'm happy to report that Elvis 75 is not consumer fraud. True, if you already have a pretty full Elvis collection, this probably isn't for you. But if you're starting from scratch or if you're a novice wanting to dig beyond 30 #1 Hits (all but two of which — the admittedly expendable "Wooden Heart" and "Wonder of You" — are included) but don't want to struggle too hard to find those superior out-of-print collections, this is the way to go.

The chronological set hits most of the key periods in Presley's career in acceptable fashion, with one glaring exception (more on this in a bit), and shines new light on some nice moments still not well known. Unlike my cobbled-together four-disc suggestion, it acknowledges passages that are crucial to the Elvis story but not exactly "highlights" — the movie music, Vegas, Hawaii.

Sure, four discs is an awful lot of music for a newcomer or novice to wade through, but in this case it's not overkill. Elvis' career, however disappointing in its well-established way, could hardly be contained by less. Though not tightly thematic, Elvis 75's four discs divide into relatively self-contained segments of Presley's career.

Disc one is the most obvious and most essential, covering the Sun years and his earliest pre-Army work with RCA, first in Nashville (the Sun trio augmented by drums and piano, featuring the breakthrough but somewhat overrated "Heartbreak Hotel"), then New York ("Don't Be Cruel"), and finally Hollywood ("All Shook Up").

The disc contains only six recordings from the Sun sessions, which seems skimpy considering it's both Presley's best and most important work. Though I cherish it, I can understand leaving out the whispery, spooky version of "Blue Moon," but "Tomorrow Night" and "Milkcow Blues Boogie" ("Let's get real, real gone") should really be here.

The second disc starts with some stray pre-Army singles that couldn't fit on the first disc, but really focuses on his post-Army re-entry in the early Sixties, an explosion of rich, diverse recordings he made in Nashville ("Stuck On You," "It's Now or Never," "Crying in the Chapel," "Reconsider Baby").

The third disc opens heavy with pure movie music ("Bossa Nova Baby," "Viva Las Vegas") and reflects Presley's diminishing artistry, featuring only one recording each from 1964 and 1965, when Presley should have been in his prime, but rebounds in the late Sixties with six selections from those "Memphis" sessions. As with Sun, six seems too skimpy, and the absence of Presley's personalized reading of "Long Black Limousine" is a head-scratcher. But even that isn't as questionable as the treatment Elvis 75 gives the "’68 Comeback" special, including only two orchestral selections ("If I Can Dream," "Memories") and not a single example of raw, casual live performances that are among Presley's most compelling music.

The final disc, with no more obvious glories to survey, contains the least essential music — big hits "Burning Love" and "Way Down" — but in pulling together the stray strands of Presley's final years, it's a compelling listen: "Polk Salad Annie" live in Vegas. "Funny How Time Slips Away" in a Nashville studio. "Always on My Mind," an inevitable, towering match of song and singer. Three songs — including a take on Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" — from a little-known 1973 session at Stax.

Though it's hard to imagine leaving "Milkcow Blues Boogie" or "Long Black Limousine" off a 100-song Elvis overview, Elvis 75 is a pretty well executed compilation. If you or someone you know is starting an Elvis collection from scratch, this is now probably the way to go.


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