The Once and Future King

In the summer of 1953, a shy Memphis teenager steals up enough courage to go into a local recording studio, pays eight dollars and twenty-five cents, and, accompanied only by his rudimentary guitar playing, cuts two ballads: the pop standard "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," a silken hit for the Ink Spots in 1951.

The results, captured on a thick, wax acetate, must have bolstered the confidence of the young singer, for he returned to the studio (known at the time as the Memphis Recording Service) in January of the next year to record two more ballads: Joni James's "I'll Never Stand in Your Way," and Jimmy Wakely's country hit "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You." Later that summer the studio's owner, Sam Phillips, paired the singer with a guitarist and bass player who had worked at Memphis Recording with various combos. After a bit of rehearsing, a bit of tinkering around, they stumbled on a style that combined the singer's eclectic tastes in music, which ranged from the smooth pop of Dean Martin to the hardscrabble country of honky-tonk hell raisers; from the black and white gospel of the South to the ragged blues that Phillips had been recording at his tiny studio and leasing to labels across the nation. The singles issued by the trio over the next year and a half on Phillips's Sun label were described in the press first as hillbilly bop, then rockabilly. What it was, though, was rock and roll.

In the winter of 1969, that same singer returned to a Memphis studio (Chips Moman's American Studios) for the first time since his last session at Sun in 1955. By then he was a superstar, a man who over the past decade had perfected the art of rock and roll, spent a couple of years in the army, developed a taste for all sorts of pills, recorded some fine sides in the early Sixties, made some of the worst films in cinema history, and some of the worst music in the genre he helped create. Flush with the success of a 1968 television special that showed the world that he had regained his focus, his confidence, his brilliance, the singer made some of the greatest music of his career, music that rivaled his first recordings. Which is to say, work that rivaled the greatest music of the century.

These anecdotal fragments make up just part of the long tale that is the life of Elvis Presley. If the story has been told to death, it's because it remains fascinating nearly a half-century after the first chapters were written at Sun Records, and more than two decades after its awful conclusion in 1977, when Elvis overdosed in the bathroom of his Memphis mansion, Graceland. The details have been chronicled in countless essays and books, both brilliantly (Dave Marsh's Elvis, Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, and Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis), and abysmally (most notably Albert Goldman's execrable Elvis and Elvis: What Happened?, a bitter tell-all written by two ousted members of Elvis's Memphis Mafia). The music has been packaged and repackaged by RCA, the label to which Elvis signed after leaving Sun in 1955. It's been hastily assembled on scattershot longplayers, spread out over innumerable singles, with the rarest of rarities doled out over the years on otherwise useless compilations designed to make fans buy the same stuff again and again, just to hear that one piece of previously unreleased history. And we buy them, because, again, the story is fascinating, filled with drama and pathos, myth and melancholia, unfathomable success, enviable triumph, and bottomless tragedy.

RCA (now owned by BMG) did pretty well at times: The 1985 box set A Golden Celebration offers a treasure-trove of Fifties-vintage TV appearances and valuable concert material; Reconsider Baby, released the same year, rounded up some of Presley's finest blues sides; and the Essential Elvis series initiated in 1988 has unearthed some marvelous alternate takes. More typical, though, were slapdash affairs such as Our Memories of Elvis, Return of the Rocker, Always on My Mind, plus too many others to list, none of which did a damn thing to honor or shine new light on the man's legacy.

Things got better after the dawn of the digital era in the late Eighties. There were decent, which is not to say perfect, collections of the early years (The Sun Sessions CD); the triumphant late-Sixties period (Elvis's NBC TV Special, The Memphis Record); and The Million Dollar Quartet, which captured an informal gospel-steeped jam session at Sun in 1956 featuring Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. (Sun alumnus Johnny Cash, the fourth member of that quartet, was on hand only for the photo, hence the misnomer.)

Following the 1992 release of the box set The King of Rock n' Roll, however, BMG has finally gotten it right, thanks in no small part to Danish author, producer, and Elvis archivist Ernst Jorgensen. He's been presenting the massive body of Elvis's work in the manner it deserves: with definitive collections of Presley's gospel work (Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Performances); his Sixties sides (From Nashville to Memphis); the severely underrated Seventies recordings (Walk a Mile in My Shoes); and the cream of Presley's soundtrack recordings from the Sixties (Command Performances: The Essential Sixties Masters II). More recently Jorgensen has been at the helm of Tiger Man and Memories, which pull together everything cut for the famed '68 TV broadcast, a spectacular assemblage of alternate takes from a pair of 1971 Memphis sessions cut at Stax (Rhythm and Country), and A Hundred Years from Now, which includes often brilliant alternate takes from the terrific 1971 albums Elvis Country and Love Letters from Elvis.

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