Here's a question to ponder on this, the 10th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death: Do his fans really need another anthology of the King's hits, songs that have been repackaged so often by RCA it's enough to tax anyone's budget? Probably not. Of course, whether his fans want such an anthology is another matter entirely.
For the devoted Presley fan -- is there another kind? -- Time-Life has included a boxed set of his early Sun and RCA recordings in a new series of reissues called "The Rock 'N' Roll Era." Thanks to its packaging, programming and scope -- 27 albums are scheduled in all -- this is by far the most ambitious and impressive reissue series ever devoted to the subject.
Of course, the competition hasn't always been stiff. Once a staple of late-night television huckstering, rock 'n' roll collections have a well-earned reputation for being shabbily produced. Not only are the vinyl pressings usually substandard, but the songs are often hastily and arbitrarily assembled, culled mostly from one label or a few licensing agreements that severely limit the scope and value of the compilation.
Time-Life, on the other hand, has digitally remastered rock recordings from 1954 to 1964 on heavy vinyl, and also made them available on high quality cassettes and compact discs. But the real key to the success of this series is the cooperation the company received from a broad range of record labels. Being a mail-order merchandiser, Time-Life isn't in direct competition with most labels, which is presumably why so many felt free to lease material. Without their assistance, this series wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining or as representative as it is.
Elvis, the Everlys, et al.
Of the 14 collections released thus far, five are devoted to individual artists or groups -- Presley, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, the Supremes and the Four Seasons -- and it's here where the series falters. The choice of these artists, for one thing, seems more than a bit calculated to lure diverse segments of the public into subscribing to the series. While there's nothing wrong with that, anyone expecting more than a predictable overview of a celebrated career is likely to be sorely disappointed.
The Presley album, for example, traces the well-worn path from his electrifying days in Memphis to his stultifying tenure in Hollywood. Ranging from rockabilly ("That's All Right") to crooning ballads ("Can't Help Falling in Love"), the album contains 22 performances in all, and there's not a surprise among them. (In fairness, another set of Presley recordings gathered from roughly the same period, 1954 to 1961, will be included in the series later. But given the exhausted, picked-over condition of this catalogue, the results aren't likely to be much better.)
Likewise, apart from the crisp sound quality, there's nothing new or especially commendable about the collections devoted to the Beach Boys and the Supremes. The hits and near misses tell a familiar story, the songs charting the curve of their success and popularity. In fact, similar packages of their hits are widely available at lower prices at your local record store. On the other hand, the Everly Brothers is the only collection that includes both their Cadence and Warner Bros. hits, and there hasn't been any kind of Four Seasons hits package available for almost a decade.
Counting Down the Years
Not surprisingly, "The Rock 'N' Roll Era" derives its real strength not from a handful of artists but from a vast, colorful array of them -- the legends as well as the one-hit wonders. The bulk of the music is categorized by year, from 1954 to 1964, and each year is powerfully evocative in its own way.
If you share the view that the music grew increasingly tame after Presley went into the army in 1958, you'll find plenty of supporting evidence in the raucous, uninhibited performances of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Ray Charles, circa 1955. Played alongside each other on this collection, their recordings suggest a gathering storm of excitement, a mounting energy that would ultimately change popular music forever. But if you jump five years to the recordings of Hank Ballard, Sam Cooke and Jerry Butler in 1960, there's still a lot of magic in the air, much more than you probably expected.
As each year passes, the mood shifts. Girl groups, surf music, Memphis soul, the arrival of an occasional genius like Stevie Wonder -- all left an indelible mark on the music and the times. But not every development was so dramatic. One of the real joys of listening to this collection comes from hearing a well chosen assortment of lesser known tunes and musicians. For all their obscurity, acts like the Crows or Rosie and the Originals made music that, even decades later, vividly reminds us of just how remarkable the rock 'n' roll era really was.
So far, Time-Life has released 10 such anthologies ("1954/1955" is a combined volume), and will release second volumes for each year from 1956 to 1963. Each of these albums contains 22 performances and liner notes, which concisely and intelligently place the music in a cultural perspective. "The Rock 'N' Roll Era" can be purchased through the mail only by writing Time-Life Music, 541 North Fairbanks Court, Chicago, Ill., 60611 or by calling 1-800-445-TIME