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Blue suede never fades

Trends come and go, but the marketing of Elvis Presley is here to stay. Elvis continues to sell 4-million to 10-million albums per year _ stunning figures for an artist who died 24 years ago. And while the Beatles pop up every so often with a mega-reissue, Elvis never seems to take any time off.

"There are many differences in the way the Beatles and Elvis are handled," says Michael Omansky, senior vice president of strategic marketing for RCA Records, which controls Presley's catalog. "The Beatles have more peaks and valleys than we do, but we're an ongoing business. Where the Beatles do things occasionally and in a big way, we sell year in and year out. But both franchises are doing very well. You don't have to take a collection for either side."

That's for sure.

Elvis sales have gone up 94 percent in the past six years, since Omansky took over and realized that Elvis was "underutilized" by the previous regime. The latest release, out Tuesday, is the four-CD box set Elvis: Live in Las Vegas, featuring 53 previously unreleased performances. Another must for collectors, it combs 20 years of Elvis's shows in the desert city, where he began by opening as a nervous kid for Shecky Greene and the Freddy Martin Orchestra at the Frontier Hotel in 1956 before rising to headline the International and Hilton Hotels, where he played to 1.5-million people in the early '70s alone.

"Vegas was a comfortable environment for him and his manager (Colonel Tom Parker). It was a good showcase, it paid well, and he got a lot of notoriety from it," Omansky says.

The new box is a historian's delight. It starts with two CDs taken from complete performances at the International Hotel on Aug. 24, 1969, and Aug. 11, 1970. The first was Presley's return to the live stage after nine years (discounting his 1968 Comeback Special on TV), an absence caused by his making of mostly bad movies in Hollywood. He is clearly glad to be back in front of a live crowd but shows some rust by oversinging and by waffling through some strange, though friendly, banter.

"This is my first appearance in nine years live," Elvis says. "I appeared dead a few times, but this is my first live appearance. Before the evening is over, I will have made a total fool of myself. I hope you get a kick out of watching it."

But when he rocks, he rocks hard, as on Blue Suede Shoes, Jailhouse Rock and a cover of Ray Charles' What'd I Say. And he shows a sense of humor when he recalls his premusic days right out of high school: "I was driving a truck and was training to be an electrician. But I got wired the wrong way, baby. That's what happened to me."

Musically, the second CD is much better. Taken from a performance a year later, it shows how Elvis has readjusted to the stage with new confidence. He is more vital, not only on his early rockabilly nugget That's All Right, but on emotive covers of George Harrison's Something and Paul Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The third and fourth CDs are from a variety of shows, starting in 1956 (a scorching treatment of Little Richard's Long Tall Sally) and going on up to 1975, and the remastered sound quality is excellent. Elvis explodes on Chuck Berry's Promised Land, but also shows his spiritual side on Larry Gatlin's gospel tune Help Me.

As for the previously unreleased performances, Omansky says, "We actually reacquired some tapes that had wandered away from RCA in the last couple of years, from the Las Vegas sessions. Tapes had wandered everywhere." Part of this was because RCA moved and lost tapes in the transition, but also, as in the case of some Elvis studio efforts, tapes fell into outside hands.

"Even though we have the rights to put the product out, somebody else might have physical possession of the master (tape). So we're perpetually searching to get back masters," says Omansky, who even has a team of authenticators who weed out bogus tapes. "They're often somebody else singing on a tape, trying to sound like Elvis, but we can sniff out very quickly if it's real." For security reasons, he won't explain how the team does this, but he hints that it's a combination of scientific analysis and human legwork.

As for the recent surge in Elvis sales, the boost came in part from a Time-Life series sold by direct mail, as well as from offerings on QVC and in Christian bookstores, where compilations of Elvis's gospel songs have sold well. And look out next year for the 25th anniversary of his death. There will be a single album of Elvis hits (much like the Beatles 1 that sold so well), a four-CD box set of all previously unreleased performances and commercial tie-ins with a Disney animated movie, Lilo and Stitch, about a 4-year-old who loves Elvis music.

"I think next year you'll see an explosion as people take a moment to look back on Elvis, as they did four years ago (on the 20th anniversary of his death)," says Omansky. "And that's obviously an opportunity to get people indoctrinated into Elvis for the long term."