Where will it all end? With 77 albums already in the Presley catalogue, RCA is celebrating his upcoming 50th anniversary with a six-album boxed set called "Elvis Presley -- A Golden Celebration" (RCA CPM6-5172). Like so many of RCA's Presley projects, there is filler here that is shamefacedly exploitative and a musical redundancy that is exasperating. Yet there is still enough of the historically and musically significant to justify the project, if not the nearly $50 price tag.
With each record sleeve nicely dressed in rare photos and detailed annotation, "Elvis Presley -- A Golden Celebration" attractively packages the 59 previously unreleased recordings that are its raison d'etre. Most significantly, these include all of Presley's TV appearances in 1956 and 1957 and outtakes from his 1968 television special. It is here that the set finds its best music, as well as some moments of amazing drama.
The boxed set begins with seven outtakes from Presley's earliest recording sessions at the Sun Studio in Memphis. While none of these performances comes close to those released on Sun, the tentative versions of "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and a slow version of "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" are fascinating. They confirm the highly informal and experimental approach developed by producer Sam Phillips, and clearly reveal the hillbilly and blues styles just beginning to percolate into a new sound called rockabilly.
After Presley signed with RCA in late 1955, he began an unprecedented string of record successes paralleled by a series of TV triumphs. In the space of 12 television appearances, he moved from regional rockabilly oddity to the most successful entertainer in American history. It was these television appearances that allowed Presley to cover the cultural distances to superstardom faster than any before him. Eight years later, the Beatles would do much the same.
When Presley debuted on the Dorsey Brothers' "Stage Show" in January 1956, nothing like this heavy-lidded, sneering, swivel-hipped and compulsively rhythmic youngster had been seen on national television before. On his first "Milton Berle Show" appearance, Presley engaged in a lascivious bump and grind at the end of "Hound Dog" that left the girls in the audience tittering and the guardians of morality outraged. On Presley's second Berle appearance and one on the "Steve Allen Show," the hosts attempted to defuse his impact with comic bits that made light of his music and image. That left his fans outraged.
It was really during his three Ed Sullivan appearances that Presley made the transition from exclusive property of teen-age culture to national icon. Presley was now singing his RCA hits, altogether smoother and more ballad-oriented rock 'n' roll.
Around the time of the Sullivan appearances, Presley returned to his home town of Tupelo, Miss., for two triumphant concerts. Taking up three sides of this collection (yet offering less than 40 minutes of music), these concerts show him treating his fans to two wild rock 'n' roll shows that turned into near riots. Unhampered by the national television spotlight, Presley is at play in the fields of the South, and his return to Sun rockabilly on "Baby Let's Play House" is fierce and precise.
Unfortunately, the decision to be historically all-inclusive means that there are now seven live renditions of "Hound Dog," six of "Heartbreak Hotel" and five each of "Blue Suede Shoes," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Love Me Tender." Further, two sides of the collection, home recordings of Presley in Germany and later in Graceland, are dreck. It's nice to know he relaxed by crooning listless ballads around the house, but listening to him go on with "Dark Moon" for more than six minutes is as riveting as watching Uncle Fred's slides of the family picnic.
The final side of this set, excerpted from a series of live performances taped for his 1968 TV special, presents Presley at his best. By 1968, he was a memory within rock culture, and the show was designed to dramatically return the king to his kingdom. One of the concepts for the show was to present Presley in an informal musical setting with old friends such as guitarist Scotty Moore and let the boys improvise some rock 'n' roll. The producers' wildest dreams were realized when Presley caught fire, driving himself and his band through inspired versions of "That's All Right," "One Night" and others. The svelte, leather-clad Presley could barely stay in his seat, his excitement and joy recalling the poor 19-year-old truck driver who first tackled "That's All Right" in 1954.