Because singles were the primary medium by which RCA and Col. Tom Parker charted Elvis Presley's musical path, his albumns were often an afterthough, merely a response to the bottomless demand for his music.
But despite being ill-conceived and often uninspired, the more than 80 Elvis Presley albums provide a fuller and more revealing musical legacy than the singles. Listening to the array of studio albums, movie sound tracks, religious music, live concert recordings and compilations provokes a complex critical response, ranging from dismay and boredom to contagious emotional involvement and even awe.
Those in search of the emotional involvement and awe should begin with "Elvis' Golden Records" (RCA AFM1-5196), just rereleased in digitally remastered monaural sound as part of RCA's 50th Anniversary Project. Containing Presley's earliest hits from 1956-57, including "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up," this record is simply one of the most essential albums in rock history.
Its natural companion and an equally important record is "The Sun Sessions" (APM1-1675), which collects Presley's legendary Sun rockabilly recordings from 1954-55. While "The Sun Sessions" is full of the blues and hillbilly roots that fed rock 'n' roll, "Elvis' Golden Hits" is nothing but rock 'n' roll, classic and inviolate.
RCA has also rereleased three other early Presley albums in original monaural. First released in 1956, both "Elvis Presley" (AFL1-1254E) and "Elvis" (AFL1-1382E) offer delightful introductions to the young Presley, revealing both his eclectic taste and instinctive vocal grace and spontaneity. Presley sings rockabilly versions of R&B hits, pop ballads, and folk and country songs like a man playing with the musical riches of his culture.
As early as late 1957 and 1958, Presley's recording approach had become much more calculated and self-parodying. This is evident in his second greatest-hits collection, "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong" (AFL1-2075E), in which hits like "I Got Stung" and "I Beg of You" seem uninspired caricatures of earlier hits.
Two of Presley's greatest albums were hastily thrown together collections of older material, both released in 1959 while Elvis was in the army and RCA was desperate for product. "For LP Fans Only" (LSP-1990E) combines four of Elvis' best Sun recordings with a number of covers of R & B hits including "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Presley's version of Arthur Crudup's "My Baby Left Me" is one of his most tension-packed vocal efforts ever. "A Date With Elvis" (LSP 2011E) offers five more of the Sun recordings along with three great Leiber and Stoller songs from the movie "Jailhouse Rock."
Throughout the '60s, Presley mostly cranked out one bad sound-track album after another, only occasionally finding any meaning in his recording activities. One inspirational moment did come with Presley's release from the Army in 1960 and the record "Elvis Is Back" (LPM-2331). With a studio band led by the fiery guitar of Hank Garland and Boots Randolph's buzzing saxophone, Presley laid into some dirty blues with joy and conviction.
For much of the '60s, it seemed gospel music became Presley's emotional refuge and this clearly shows in 1960's "His Hand in Mine" (AYL1-3935) and 1967's "How Great Thou Art" (AQL1-3758), both religious albums that reveal the majesty and drama of Presley's voice when inspired.
In 1968, Presley's career and image were revived by his return to the live stage for a national TV special whose best musical moments, some absolutely stirring in their spontaneous emotional force, are captured on "Elvis -- NBC TV Special" (AYM1-3894). Rejuvenated, Presley returned to Memphis in 1969 to record at the American Studio and there he had his last truly creative studio sessions. The superb hits from these sessions, like "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto," have just been collected on "Elvis' Gold Records: Volume 5" (AFL1-4941). The modern country, soul and rock songs Elvis so emotionally sang at the American Studio are best heard on 1969's "From Elvis in Memphis" (AFL1-4155).
Since his death, RCA has released numerous compilations of previously released and unreleased material. Perhaps the best introduction to the whole length and breadth of Presley's career is the double album "This Is Elvis" (CPL2-4031), which moves from his first rockabilly recordings to his last live performances in a musically and historically perceptive fashion. The record contains a fascinating interview from 1956 in which Hy Gardner asked Elvis, "Do you think you've learned anything from all the criticism leveled at you?"
"No, I haven't," Elvis answered.