I was just outside the gilded gates of Graceland, sucking in fumes from the appropriately clogged artery of Elvis Presley Boulevard, talking to a fan whose teeth had been rotted brown by a meth habit, when I had a realization: I was standing in the heart of America. And I loved it.
It was 2007, and I had been sent to Memphis to cover the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death. (He was born in the rags of Tupelo, Miss.; he died amid the riches of what is now the second-most-visited house in America, behind the White House.) I was never a huge fan, but I became fascinated at how rhythm and blues lived in his hips — and how those hips were colorblind, recasting the issue of race in the 1950s with swivel and thrust. At the same time, Elvis, once so youthful, so virile, aged into someone no different from that meth addict I met at Graceland. I kind of liked that, too.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the birth of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and the focus this time is on what he gave us rather than what he squandered. In memoriam, RCA/Legacy this week released Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight, a 100-song retrospective complete with 80 pages of liner notes and a rich essay by critic Billy Altman, who recaptures the first time an unknown Presley met Sun Studio's Sam Phillips, the man who helped get history rolling. "I don't sound like nobody," the kid told the producer. Indeed.
The collection plays like a blazing fastball down the middle, nothing but hits and high notes, from the birth of rock to the ugly death of dreams. It commences with a 1953 pre-Sun Studio acetate of My Happiness; it ends with JXL's 2002 remix of A Little Less Conversation. Thanks to digital restoration, that yodely blue-collar holler has never sounded more robust. It remains all things to all people: a siren call, a panty remover, a Lord's Prayer, a wasted life.
Purists will gripe that there's nothing new here, that there are head-scratching omissions. And they'll have a point. But for anyone wondering "Why Elvis?" (why he conquered, why we're obsessed) this release is essential, a burnin' hunk of history that ranges from ecstatic to pathetic.
For three of the four discs, it's also good fun. If you've never spazzed out to Jailhouse Rock or Paralyzed or Mean Woman Blues (Scotty Moore's roughhouse guitar work was a secret weapon in the early going), you're living wrong. To freak out to Elvis is all part of the point. When the hiccupy riff of One-Sided Love Affair invades your groove thing, it's almost patriotic: the soundtrack of America rocks!
Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis was an interpreter of song; if he picked up a pen, it was probably to write down a girl's phone number (or a drug dealer's). But the guy was a high-haired sorcerer when it came to blowing big bad magic into R&B. Snobs will say they only like Elvis before 1958 — that is, before he joined the Army, before he gobbled uppers to keep the pace, before his manipulative manager, Col. Tom Parker, got carried away. But even as the drugs and operators took hold, he could still put snarled swagger into those midcareer novelties (Bossa Nova Baby, Viva Las Vegas) and solemn songs (How Great Thou Art, If I Can Dream).
The collection unveils chronologically, which makes Disc 4 a rather squirmy affair. I have an especially hard time listening to 1972's An American Trilogy, which is basically the ultimate in Fat Elvis showboating, a pained, ripe, vaguely offensive salute to the country that birthed him and killed him. But it's impossible to look away, to turn it off; not because it's uncomfortable, but because it's Elvis, and there's always a chance of spark, of that otherworldly magnetic something. After all, he was a superhero, even in his bloated finale, and he had the cape to prove it.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.
By Joshua Gillin, email@example.com
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