How do you put together a four-disc introduction to Elvis Presley? Ask my advice, and I'd tell you to seek out four separate but almost equally essential discs: The Sun Sessions, the self-descriptive 30 #1 Hits, and the 1987 homecoming comp The Memphis Record, along with either the post-army studio album Elvis Is Back! or Tiger Man, which captures one of the casual live performances he taped for his 1968 "comeback" television special.
Not bad, but not without problems. The biggest one is that The Sun Sessions and The Memphis Record are long out of print, replaced in the catalog by double-disc sets (Sunrise and last year's From Elvis in Memphis reissue) packed with alternate versions and lesser songs — nice for completists but unnecessary for everyday listening.
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 this month.
Given the constant repackaging of the King's catalog, I'm happy to report that Elvis 75 is not consumer fraud. If you're starting from scratch or if you're a novice wanting to dig beyond 30 #1 Hits but don't want to struggle 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 — 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 to wade through, but in this case it's not overkill. Elvis' career arc, 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), then New York, and finally Hollywood.
The disc contains only six recordings from the Sun sessions, which is skimpy considering it's 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 be here.
The second disc starts with some stray pre-army singles that couldn't fit on the first disc but focuses on his post-army reentry in the early '60s, 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 '60s with six selections from those "Memphis" sessions. As with Sun, six is 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; and 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. — Chris Herrington