It took me almost six months but I have finally waded through all 60 CDs of Elvis Presley: The Album Collection (RCA-Legacy), the limited-edition boxed set commemorating the 60th anniversary of the release of Presley’s original self-titled debut. Fifty-seven of the discs that span 1956 -1977 come as originally released so they’re super-short by today’s standards. Some of the albums are only 20+ minutes in their entirety. Three rarities discs, one for each decade of his artistic life, complete the package. Elvis Presley came out on Mar. 23, 1956, and immediately shot to number one, as did its 1957 follow-up, Elvis. The iconic cover of the debut was the one that The Clash emulated on its 1979, London Calling, album. It’s one of the greatest debuts in rock’n’roll history as this brash young kid from Tupelo covers Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, Little Richard, The Drifters and others in a way no one could’ve ever predicted. The Sun Records stuff is here too because when Sam Phillips sold his biggest artist to RCA for a mere $35,000, all those masters went along for the ride and were sprinkled like pixie dust on a whole bunch of RCA releases.
All 17 soundtracks are here and if those movies were uniformly bad (except for King Creole), their soundtracks were always better. Sure, Parker had Presley record songs by only those composers the manager had contracts with and some of ‘em were real stinkeroos, but there are gems. “I’ll Be Back,” for instance, is one of the greatest Elvis songs no one knows (k.d. lang used it as her encore in her 1989 tour). But like a Beirut street littered with roadside bombs, some songs are so bad, they will leave an ugly after-taste in your ear.
Once Elvis went in and out of the army, he was never the same. There are those who say the army killed him artistically. I always said his evil manager Tom Parker killed him. Others have said his money-grubbing last girlfriend, Ginger Alden, killed him because she didn’t know enough to sleep with one eye open to make sure he was alright like Linda Thompson knew how to do.
So there’s a stark differential between the brilliance of the ‘50s, the schlock of the ‘60s (with a 1969 two-album rebound) and the awful ‘70s. There’s only four efforts in that first golden era: 1959’s, For LP Fans Only, and, A Date With Elvis, are the only other two studio albums besides the first two gems, the best-ofs, the soundtracks and Christmas music. Once 1960 rolls around, you can add two solid gospel albums. Just as the decade ended, Elvis made the two best albums he’d made since the early days: 1969’s From Elvis In Memphis, and, From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis (the 1968 NBC Special was a better TV show than it was an album).
The 1970s started a string of terrible albums with a few precious nuggets scattered like buckshot within the dross. It’s downright criminal how RCA thought so little of the artist who made so much money for them that they’d release records—one after another—that were so bad. To his credit, Elvis sang his heart out on every single track he ever laid down, but the King of rock’n’roll knew down deep his throne had been abdicated and the thought gnawed at him until he died.
One gem on the 1960s rarities disc is a live version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, wherein Elvis just can’t stop laughing. He laughs throughout the entire song. It starts with him changing the words of the 1926 song to, “Do you gaze at my bald head and wish I had hair?” This sets him off and he lustily cracks up with deep belly laughs and he just can’t stop. Every single time you think he’s going to stop laughing and start singing again, he cracks up even harder. Kathy Westmoreland, the operatic background singer, keeps wailing behind him and makes him laugh even longer and louder. He even yells out, “Sing it, baby!” Recorded during his Las Vegas debut, the audience doesn’t know what to make of it and politely claps. It’s a brilliantly human moment (was he high?), a classic bit of solid gold ephemera. I’ve heard it dozens of times but it never fails to make me crack up right along with him. Dude had a sense of humor.