15 Essential Elvis Items (and why his music has been put on the backburner)
January 8th will see the 75th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley. Undoubtedly you will see a story or two about that on CNN on that day and you may even be able to watch a few of the movies that Elvis hated making on TCM or AMC. But you won’t hear about the music. This is perhaps the most ironic statement ever made, but Elvis Presley is both the best known and most under-rated recording artist of all time.
Sad to say, but most people today think of Elvis as an image and the image is wrong. They think he was a fat, badly dressed, drug addict who made a few decent records in the ’50s and dozens of horrendous films for the rest of his career. Those who may think of him in a positive light most likely only know him from dance remixes and commercials that Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) have pimped him out to in recent years.
On the other side of the aisle is the mega fans who cannot admit that Elvis ever made a bad album, bad song, bad movie, or bad decision. They and EPE want to “protect” the world from Elvis the revolutionary and Elvis the man. He was not “the All-American boy” as was often said and he had more than his share of problems both professionally and personally. So did Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Johnny Cash.
While those in charge of Cash’s estate have undoubtedly made some mistakes (the remix album), for the most part they have done far better in 6 years than EPE have done in 33. There have been expanded and re-released versions of Cash’s iconic concerts at San Quentin and Folsom, the stunning American V album, the equally stunning Personal File, various live DVDs of Cash at the top of his game, and, most significant in terms of pop culture acceptance, an award-winning film which went out of its way to acknowledge his personal shortcomings. What is most ironic is that Cash, while no saint, was much closer to it than Presley ever was and yet Cash is thought of as the ultimate badass, equally loved by traditional country fans and metalheads, while the EPE version of Elvis is seen as a kid-friendly “entertainer” with a personal life that apparently did not exist.
It goes s something like this: He was born in a two-room shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. Family moved to Memphis. He records for Sun in 1954 and is signed to RCA two years later. In 1958, he was drafted into the Army and went AWOL until 1968 when he mysteriously appeared at a Hollywood TV studio. He then disappeared again in 1973 and has not been heard from since. In short, they have stripped him of every human quality and for that reason people are unable to take his music seriously.
I am here to tell you it is ok to take him seriously again. There are 20 items listed below which will help you discover (or rediscover) Elvis. Some of them do not fit into the image created by EPE and some may not even be in print (one, in particular, has NEVER been in print officially). But if you want to look beyond the official story and go beyond the hits, this list will help you get started.
(Before getting into the main list, I also encourage all of you to read Peter Guralnick‘s excellent two-volume biography of Presley. The first volume is Last Train to Memphis and the second is Careless Love. They are two of the finest books ever written about music. Anything written about Elvis by Greil Marcus is also worth checking out.)
1. From Elvis in Memphis (1969)- Contrary to what they may lead you to think, Elvis did not make his best music at Sun Records in 1954 and ’55. Nor did he make it at RCA in 1956 or even in 1968. Just listen to “Long Black Limousine” and you will see that this is the absolute best Elvis music. Get the Legacy version from last year and you will also get the album Back in Memphis and various singles recorded at the same time. The album begins with the line “I had to leave town for a little while” and his voice and the music speaks for itself. He has returned and he is hungry with the desire to make good music. Over the course of the sessions, he recorded everything from Hank Snow to Neil Diamond to Glenn Campbell to the Beatles. From R&B to honky-tonk to high-class gospel ballads. All with the backing of wonderful musicians and background singers. His voice is better than ever before and better than it would ever be again. I consider the ’60s to be the absolute greatest decade for recorded music and if I were to make a list of the best albums of that decade, this would be no lower than number two and would possibly be higher.
2. Elvis at Sun (1954 and 1955)
These were Presley’s first recordings. Before this, Sun Records was known (if at all) for recording such blues artists as Little Walter and BB King. Afterward. Sun become nationally known as the label as Presley, Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich, and lesser-known greats such as Warren Smith and Charlie Feathers. In short, I highly doubt if this website or the music it is based upon would exist without these recordings and I can think of no better recommendation than that.
3. The ’68 Comeback Special- Deluxe Edition
This television special brought Elvis back into the spotlight after spending eight years making atrocious films. All of it is available here, including outtakes, and it is all wonderful stuff: the cool rebelliousness of the opening medley of “Trouble/Guitar Man”, the smooth and slick gospel production number, the arena shows with Elvis and an orchestra, the show-closing peace anthem “If I Can Dream”. But all pale in comparison to the two sit-down shows (a definite forerunner to MTV Unplugged featuring Elvis on electric rhythm guitar, Scotty Moore, Alan Fortas, and Charlie Hodge on acoustic guitar, and D.J. Fontana pounding on a guitar case with drumsticks. It is as stripped-down as Elvis ever got (after Sun, at least) and it is joyful to watch. The on-stage banter is even better than the music on some occasions. This, not the EPE-endorsed image is the real Elvis.
4. Elvis Presley (1956)
The first album released on RCA (and really, his first album since all releases on Sun were singles) and the one that introduced him to the general public. This is what people think about when they think about ’50s rock singers: hopped-up R&B with good-time lyrics and ballads that are sincere, yet rough around the edges.
5. Promised Land (1975)
This proves that Elvis did not lose it in the ’70s. Maybe the most straight-forward country album of his career (he covers Waylon and the song “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel Who’ll Take Me Back In” is a hidden classic), yet he still manages to put Chuck Berry rockabilly, the southern gospel standard “Help Me”, his signature form of ballads, and he even tries his hand at mid-’70s funk on “If You Talk in Your Sleep”
6. Elvis is Back (1960)
Presley’s first post-Army album and it is a masterpiece. A good mix of smooth uptempo pop (when pop was still good) and dirty blues. “Like a Baby” is one of his best blues tracks.
7. How Great Thou Art (1967)
This must be put in the context of its time. It came out in 1967, the same year of Sgt. Pepper and the Summer of Love. And the King of rock and roll was recording a Grammy-winning gospel album. Some of the most passionate gospel recordings I’ve heard outside of Rev. Gary Davis, yet the style is very different with a horn section, world-class musicians, and three gospel quartets.
8. Elvis Country (1971)
This album is simply Elvis doing old and new country standards along with a bit of rockabilly. Yet he does them in a very soulful way and occasionally even turns one into a classic rocker. The version of “I Really Don’t Want to Know” is maybe the best version of this song I’ve heard. This was his way of paying tribute to the music he loved, while continuing to expand as an artist.
9. Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Elvis movies are often lampooned and for good reason. Yet this is not because of Presley’s acting which is actually quite good. With that said, this is the only film that I would consider essential (although I would definitely recommend the Don Siegel-directed Flaming Star to western fans. The following dialogue sums up ’50s badass much better than anything James Dean or Marlon Brando starred in. They are sitting at a fancy dinner party and a jazz record is playing. Elvis, as Vince Everett, seems disconnected from the other guests as they begin to discuss such things as tone and chords and trends in jazz. An old lady says, “What does Mr. Everett think of the record. After all music is his profession.” Elvis replies, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you talkin’ about” and walks out the door.
10. From Elvis Presley Boulevard (1976)
Elvis’s last true studio album was recorded in the Jungle Room at Graceland and it was absolutely heartbreaking. “Hurt” begins the album. Not the Johnny Cash/Nine Inch Nails song, but one that in Presley’s hand becomes just as emotional and just as personal as he pours out his heart through near-operatic vocals. The rest of the album is just as depressing as he covers “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire”, and the English folk song “The Last Farewell”. One of the highlights of the album is when he sings of “A man so busy going up in the world that he couldn’t see love coming down” and it is quite obvious who he is talking about. Not an easy listen, but an essential one.
11. Tomorrow is a Long Time
One of the few things the people in charge of his posthumous catalog have gotten right, this is obviously not a real album, but it should have been. Instead, these songs were released as “bonus tracks” on various Elvis soundtracks between 1965-1968 when they were superior to the movie songs in every way. Bob Dylan called the title track the best cover of one of his songs by anybody and Jerry Reed tags along to provide guitar on Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and his own compositions “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male”. Other highlights include the blues and R&B trakcs like “Big Boss Man”, “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and “Down in the Alley”, classic country weepers like “You Don’t Know Me” and “Just Call Me Lonesome” and pop ballads like “Love Letters” and “I’ll Remember You”. This is the album that should have been released, but if it had been we would have had no Comeback Special or 1969 Memphis sessions.
12. Elvis (1956)
Be sure to get this one as the creative title was reused on at least two other Presley albums (one of which includes another good Dylan cover). This was his second album and has much more variety than the first and an increased emphasis on country material and ballads.
13. In Person (1969)
The first of many live albums, this one was recorded in Las Vegas in 1969 during his return to live performing. He sounds refreshed to be out of Hollywood and he had not yet gotten bored with Vegas. He rips through his classics like a freight train and includes a special emphasis on newer material like “In the Ghetto” and an 8-minute version of “Suspicious Minds”
14. The Complete Million Dollar Quartet
Before you run out and buy this, please know that despite the title and the cover, this is only a trio. Johnny Cash was there, but it was sometime either before or after the tape was rolling. Still, you can’t complain about a free-spirited run-through jam of country and gospel classics by Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
15. Elvis in Concert (DVD)
This one is not available from EPE. However, while I am not advocating any illegal activity, I will say that it is available if you really want it. The unavailability of this proves my point about EPE and their censored version of Elvis’s life. This is not the best concert Elvis ever did, but it is essential viewing for anybody who wants to really understand Elvis. He looks horrible, he runs through “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” gasping for breath, but on other songs he gives the performance of a lifetime, as if he knew it would be his last. This is the Elvis that the “fans” don’t want to see it either because it makes them uncomfortable and they can tell even through their rose-colored glasses that he was not perfect, that he was not Superman, that he was dying. He was looking to real fans and real friends but instead the audience at the show was applauding like mad even at the worst moments and his friends continued to give in to his craving for more pills to ease the pain he was clearly in, both physically and emotionally. Watch the following performance and you will see the most heartfelt, most heartbreaking, and most beautiful performance of his career. It is just him at a piano on a stage surrounded by musicians . He knew he was dying and that by this time there was nothing that could be done about it, so instead he sings his heart out for the TV cameras for the last time:
THAT is the Elvis they do not want you to see, but that is the Elvis that MUST be seen in order to be respected by music fans who know nothing of Elvis except the official image.