Being dead has no bearing on an artist’s career other than not being able to tour. In the case of Elvis Presley, though, he actually toured after he died. His recent Radio City Music Hall show was part of a tour that featured his exact band, back-up singers, opening-act comedian and Elvis himself, on a giant screen, singing and engaging in between-song banter.
The new three-CD boxed set Elvis At Stax: Deluxe Edition (RCA/Legacy) rights many wrongs in the handling of latter-day Elvis records. Its 28 masters and 27 outtakes is the first time Presley’s last recording session has been documented so accurately. (Besides the three-CD box, there’s a single disc of highlights and a 180-gram, double-vinyl LP.)
RCA screwed it all up in the 1970s when it came to their biggest star. Everything had to go through Colonel Tom Parker, now seen, through the lens of history, as the biggest detriment of all to Elvis’ art. Parker was a con man, a carnival barker, an illegal alien and he couldn’t care less about music. Thus, Elvis, coming off 27 mostly horrible Hollywood movies where he had to sing some of the most cringe-worthy songs of his career, and after 12 years away from the stage at the dictate of Parker, was hell-bent to right the ship and become relevant again. Don’t think he didn’t notice the shift in the musical terrain of the times. Labelmate David Bowie had just put out the groundbreaking Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Labelmate Lou Reed had just put out Transformer, his solo debut after leaving Velvet Underground. Elvis wanted that kind of independence to do whatever the hell he wanted. He may not have wanted to follow their artistic lead but he had had it with the crap Parker forced him to sing due to contractual obligations. Hell, he knew he was The King…and he knew he had abdicated his throne. It was eating him up alive on the inside.
One of the members of his Memphis Mafia, Marty Lacker, was working at Stax Records, the label that was revolutionizing soul music with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Booker T & The MGs and Isaac Hayes. Even Wilson Pickett recorded his greatest Atlantic sides at Stax. Elvis wanted to record there too, not so much because of their music, but because it was only 10 minutes away from Graceland.
So he did.
The results signified a major return to greatness. RCA then proceeded to totally drop the ball, scattering the greatness onto mediocre albums filled with old live tracks and lesser sessions in Nashville and Hollywood. In fact, according to historian Roger Semon, “by the time Elvis’ last album featuring recordings from the Stax sessions was issued in January 1975, no fewer than 20 albums had been issued by RCA that featured Elvis onstage wearing a jumpsuit. This repetitious process, regulated by [Parker], undeniably abetted a lack of clear focus…”
There are so many great highlights in the Deluxe edition, it would take this entire newspaper to detail them all. Suffice it to say, Presley really tore into the material with renewed passion for the first time in years. He had hated the songs he was forced to sing for so long that he had Parker start a new publishing company and he took great pains to find just the right material. Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” for instance, has him rocking out harder than he ever had, and that includes his pioneering Sun Records stuff. From Tony Joe White’s “For Ol’ Times Sake” and Waylon’s “You Asked Me To” to Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” and Leiber/Stoller’s “”If You Don’t Come Back,” (not to mention “Raised On Rock,” his greatest latter-day rocker), Presley is revitalized, renewed and transformed into what he had stopped being during so many dreary years of cultural nothingness. This would be akin to if Bob Dylan started singing stupid Neil Diamond songs at roadside lounges for the rest of his career after writing “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Elvis knew he had a ways to go to repair his damaged credibility.
Although most of this material is already out there, to hear it all together in one fell swoop restores the ‘70s cultural importance of an artist who heretofore only merited ‘50s cultural importance. To be fair, Elvis did do some remarkable ‘70s work: four sold-out Madison Square Garden shows…the Golden Globe-winning Elvis On Tour movie… Aloha From Hawaii, the first satellite feed concert ever that, when combined with a tape delay, reached an estimated billion people around the world.
Elvis is back. He has officially been restored to his former greatness. This box is stunning.