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Opinion: Elvis box set expensive, but it’s worth it

August 4, 2011
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

This week I review the upcoming Elvis Presley retrospective box set "Young Man With the Big Beat," to be released by Sony/Legacy on Sept 27. The box set focuses on Elvis' breakthrough year, 1956.

Amazon.com has the set for sale for pre-order for $116, which is a little spendy for a five-CD box set until you realize all the goodies you get, which includes four CDs of music; one CD of interviews; an 80-page, color book with a 12-month, day-by-day chronology; rare photos; and memorabilia, including original RCA and Elvis Presley Enterprises artifacts and documents.

Also included is a unique memorabilia envelope containing original size replicas of RCA's first ever poster for Elvis; a Mosque Theater poster and Venus Room flyer for the New Frontier Hotel appearance in 1956; original RCA order form for "Heartbreak Hotel"; a unique Colonel Parker letter and Cotton Bowl ticket stub as well as five, 8-by-10-inch photos "suitable for framing," along with a lock of Elvis' hair. according to Amazon's description. Wow!

I'm only kidding about the lock of hair. There's also no car included, like maybe a pink Cadillac. What's up with that?

Needless to say, the set's focus is to appeal to hard-core Elvis aficionados, especially fans of his early years, which, in my opinion, were his best. Sony/Legacy was kind enough to send me a pre-release set without all the extras besides the music and interviews.

Elvis recorded much of the bulk of the material at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis, where producer/label owner Sam Phillips first saw the King's potential and recorded what are now referred to as the Sun Sessions at Phillips' studio from 1953-55. Phillips considered the recordings only half-successful, that is, until Elvis hit the country music circuit as a performer and started driving the kiddies wild with his - then-considered obscene - gyrations and sexually charged persona.

Phillips then made a deal with RCA Records in the mid-1950s. RCA then re-released the Sun Sessions before putting El in a superior recording studio with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black along with pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist/producer Chet Atkins and three background singers, including Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires quartet to create Presley's first RCA, self-titled record.

That recording was a smash, spawning the monster hit "Heartbreak Hotel," along with the ballad "Love Me Tender" and "Blue Suede Shoes." The rest, as they say, is history, and Elvis, accidentally or not, had almost singlehandedly changed popular music forever. Not bad for a 20-year-old truck driver who was told more than once he was a mediocre singer.

While the material here on the first two discs has been released in innumerable re-packagings - I have three versions of "The Complete Sun Sessions," each one a little more "complete" than the prior -this box set comes with even more alternate stuff of Elvis singing half-completed material before the songs come to an abrupt end. One entire CD is devoted to these incomplete songs, which is really only going to be of interest to the maniacally obsessed (and somewhat neurotic) Elvis completist.

But, believe me, they are out there.

The worth of the Sun Sessions is without doubt, and there is real soul happening here, especially in the rockin' "That's Alright Mama" and the ethereal "Blue Moon." I love these recordings, although the supposed and legendary vibe of Sun Studios really is a bunch of hype, as the sound is substandard compared to the RCA recordings. The Sun Sessions on the box set have been remastered yet once again, but you can only get so far with that, and the remastering actually brings the limitations of Sun Studios to light. Still, if you want to know where rock 'n' roll began as a popular art form, this is the place to start.

The real gold lies in the live recordings, taken from radio broadcasts and other forgotten sources. Although mostly of bootleg quality, it's amazing to me these recordings have survived at all. They show an extraordinary growth in El between 1954 to '56, as his voice matured, his confidence grew and he learned how to communicate with an audience while even developing a sense of humor. This is the kind of stuff I love to find - really great music hidden in the cracks.

All in all, the music on "Young Man With the Big Beat" is essential, while the extras aren't. Still, it looks like a magnificently put together package by really the only major record label that gives a damn about its fabulous back catalog and heritage.

But the box set really could have used a car. A pink car.

 
 

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