Elvis Presley

2015 — The Complete 1954-62 U.S.A. Singles  (Valentine Records)

Elvis: The Complete 1954-62 U.S.A. Singles is a curious release, from Valentine Records (as far as I can tell, this is an independent label from the UK), issued in 2015. It's like a mini-boxed set, comprising 4 CDs. The 100 tracks — 25 on each disc — are, according to the sleeve notes, Elvis's "complete 1954-62 American singles, presented here in the order in which they were issued..., as well as all of his American EPs from the same period."

Not being an Elvis-recording expert nor an audiophile in general, I cannot tell you the relative audio-quality of these discs. I previously had many of these tracks in digital files, and some on CD. These discs do not sound noticeably better or worse to me, but then again some of the digital files I had were not the best quality.

What I can tell you is that this was a pretty good idea for a 4-disc Elvis set. In case you're just returning from 75 years on Mars, Elvis Presley is probably the most important performer in rock'n'roll history, and certainly one of the three or four most iconic voices/personalities in American music history (not to mention a major screen-star as well). It occurs to me that there are young'uns out there who might want to test the Elvis-waters, and old'uns who want to get some good Elvis on CD/download, but don't necessarily want the G.I. Blues soundtrack with its concomitant filler. For such people, this set is a really good buy. (I purchased it here in Tokyo for about $18 US, so not bad at all.)

What makes this set great is that it has most of the King's greatest tracks from his best years. What are his best years, musically speaking? Well, opinions vary on that. For my money, this set hits most of the heights. Elvis's first recordings were, of course, for Sun Records (at what was then the “Memphis Recording Service”, with the unique Sam Phillips), starting on July 5th, 1954 when he, Scotty (Moore), and Bill (Black) cut "That's All Right (Mama)". The very latest recordings on this set are from March, 1962, when Elvis was already immersed in disposable Hollywood films, and was just beginning to lose his drive and focus in the studio.

[As an aside, I know there is a lot to be said for that great session Elvis had in Memphis in 1969 — from which From Elvis in Memphis (1969) and Back in Memphis (1969) were derived. Maybe I'll get to reviewing the 1969 stuff later.]

In addition to simply spanning his best period of 1954-1962 — which takes Elvis from age 19 to 27 — this set also justifies itself by kicking off with all 10 Sun sides released in 1954-1955. I'm not going to discuss the Sun recordings here because they're too important. I'll be devoting a separate review to those, where I'll focus on one of the handful of Sun compilations. But if you've never heard them (and Elvis recorded only 5 singles for Sun, making 10 tracks released), they are by far the most essential releases of his career, and one of the handful of most important recordings in rock/pop history. These singles were mainly regional hits in Tennessee and the deep south/Texas, not bothering the screaming hordes in New York or Chicago or L.A. yet. What this means is that these tracks rarely appear on Elvis "hits" compilations, even though they're easily the greatest things he ever did. But the 10 official releases are here, rest assured — so, we're off to a killer start.

Because there are 100 tracks here, I'm not quite going to analyze every one. We'll just go disc by disc:

Disc 1 (Sun: 1954-55, and RCA: Jan./July 1956):

1. That's All Right Mama

2. Blue Moon Of Kentucky

3. Good Rockin' Tonight

4. I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine

5. Milkcow Blues Boogie

6. You're A Heartbreaker

7. Baby, Let's Play House

8. I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone

9. Mystery Train

10. I Forgot To Remember To Forget

11. Heartbreak Hotel

12. I Was The One

13. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You

14. My Baby Left Me

15. Hound Dog

16. Don't Be Cruel

17. Blue Suede Shoes

18. Tutti Frutti

19. I Got A Woman

20. I'm Counting On You

21. I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')

22. I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You)

23. Tryin' To Get To You

24. I Love You Because

25. Blue Moon

Do you spot a less-than-awesome track here? Well, actually there is one — I've never been a fan of "I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')", but chalk that one up to personal taste. That song was first released by singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely back in 1943, and actually his bouncy little cowpoke version is better than the Elvis cut. Weirdly, Jimmy's track is a bit fast, or at least mid-tempo, while Elvis's is slow like molasses. (It's like the reverse of what Elvis did to Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky".)

But never mind that one exception — for my money, there are 24 incredible tracks of the 25 on this disc. Again, the first 10 are all of the Sun-issued A- and B-sides. Also, tracks 21, 23, 24, and 25 are Sun recordings from 1954-55 that were later bought by RCA and issued as early Elvis single-sides. Unmissable.

In retrospect, "Heartbreak Hotel" remains a singularly odd track to have kicked-off a mini-cultural youth revolution. Chet Atkins was present at the session — Elvis's first for RCA — but I'm not clear if he or the great Scotty Moore plays the short but stinging guitar-solo (I assume it's Scotty's, as it's in his style). The song itself is an eight-bar blues, and the recording is vocal and piano-dominant, which barely qualifies it as rock'n'roll. It just doesn't sound, today, like a big hit. Nor was it well-recorded, sounding muffled and distant. (RCA and producer Steve Sholes were trying to copy the Sun Records' echo... and failed.) But I guess you can imagine 15-year-olds in 1956, raised on singing cowboys, show-tunes, Disney films, and Howdy Doody tuning into the raw sexual menace of young-Elvis's voice and getting very excited. I mean, I guess I can see that. Don't get me wrong, it's a pretty cool record. The B-side of this single, "I Was the One", is, however, much the better composition, and has a fabulous vocal. Elvis taught her to kiss, you see, and Elvis taught her to cry. Not you.

 

Stories of Elvis's perfectionism in the studio to master the vocal take for the likes of "Hound Dog" (the B-side, remember, of "Don't Be Cruel") are legendary. Whole books could be written about "Hound Dog" — its history, authorship, various cover-versions, Big Mama Thornton, appropriation by mainstream America, etc. But let's ignore all that. Does Elvis's reading hold up today? Yes, it does. Incidentally, where did Elvis learn the song? Nobody seems to know for certain. He is reported to have had a copy of Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" in his record collection; one of his school friends remembers him singing along to Tommy Duncan's version; yet it's quite clearly Freddie Bell and the Bellboys' 1955 rock'n'roll-ish recording and subsequent live performances (seen in person by Elvis) that influenced his own take on it. With all the socio-cultural discussion surrounding this great tune, what's often lost in the shuffle is that it was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller... two middle-class Jewish guys.

 

Speaking of "Don't Be Cruel", Elvis recorded a handful of Otis Blackwell songs, and I often wonder, in situations like this (or, say, The Beatles recording several Arthur Alexander tunes), how much of Otis's career income was resultant from those recordings? He must have celebrated every time he received one of those Elvis royalty checks....

 

I'm not over-the-moon about the King's takes on "Tutti Frutti" or "I Got a Woman", but listening to them again now, they're actually quite good. Just not as good as the originals, but that's no surprise. Nobody can out-Richard Little Richard.

 

Anyway, I'm discussing the Sun recordings elsewhere on my blog, but since 14 of the 25 tracks here are those, you can't go wrong, and the rest of a nice sample of Elvis in 1956. Disc 1 is basically all killer, no filler. Here's a convenient way to hear it.

Disc 2 (Sun: 1955 [track 1] and RCA: 1956-57 [the rest]):

1. Just Because

2. Money Honey

3. One-Sided Love Affair

4. Lawdy Miss Clawdy

5. Shake Rattle And Roll

6. Love Me Tender

7. Anyway You Want Me (That's How I Will Be)

8. Playing For Keeps

9. Too Much

10. All Shook Up

11. That's When Your Heartaches Begin

12. (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear

13. Loving You

14. Jailhouse Rock

15. Treat Me Nice

16. Don't

17. I Beg Of You

18. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck

19. Doncha' Think It's Time

20. Hard Headed Woman

21. Don't Ask Me Why

22. One Night

23. I Got Stung

24. I Need Your Love Tonight

25. (Now and Then There's) A Fool Such As I

(Why the disc-compilers decided to put a final Sun-track off the top of this disc, I have no idea.) Anyway, "Money Honey", a Clyde McPhatter/Drifters song, is surprisingly good, and I also enjoy E's cute take on "One-Sided Love Affair". The vocal is a bit cheeky, but it suits the song. These two cuts were on Elvis's first album, as was "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" in the LP's UK version.

 

Elvis's take on "Shake Rattle and Roll" I have mixed feelings about. We all want Elvis to reveal wild animal sexuality, right? But "Shake Rattle and Roll" was famously cut by blues-shouter Big Joe Turner in its definitive version, and Elvis's (though he actually kept most of the raunchy lyrics) sounds more like Bill Haley's watered-down-for-suburban-whites version. But it still swings, and it's not too bad. The vocal of "Love Me Tender" will never get old — just superb. And on the subject of vocals, Elvis's voice on "Anyway You Want Me (That's How I Will Be)" is just heavenly — the soft-to-strong range, the dramatic gospel-like sweeps, the youthful and egotistic sensitivity, the intensity. It's a master-class in pop singing. Except for the unnecessary (but lightly mixed) backing vocals, this track hearkens back to the Sun recordings, but if anything the big E's voice is just getting better and better.

 

The first slight let-down here is "Playing For Keeps" (the B-side of "Too Much", if you care). This tune was written by Elvis's Sun-alumni, Stan Kesler, who also wrote "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" and "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" (seems he liked long titles). But those songs are just way better than this one, which deservedly was shelved for half a year before being scraped onto record as a B-side. Not that the A-side was much better — "Too Much" may have hit the top of the pop charts, but it was also evidence that the Elvis hit-machine wasn't going to be flawless. (The low-point of this generic pop track is the lyric: "Every time I kiss your sweet lips / I can feel my heart go flip-flip". Ugh. That makes me cringe every time.) Even the guitar solo seems denuded of balls. Incidentally, "Too Much" and "Playing For Keeps" are two of the first tracks Elvis recorded in Hollywood... an emerging trend that would yield lesser results in years to come.

 

"All Shook Up" isn't exactly the manliest song you've ever heard, but we're in safer hands with an Otis Blackwell tune and its simply joyous Fats Domino-like piano runs. Elvis seems to enjoy the song, too, and sings it very well, with small inflections and vocal nuances that only he could really put across. It's cute, in the best possible way. "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", the B-side, is significant in Elvis-lore because it's one of the two songs he recorded in summer 1953, when he was 18, supposedly for his mother's birthday present (costing $3.98 plus tax — however, his mother's birthday was in April, so the King probably recorded this for his own amusement). The track on this disc, of course, is the RCA cut, from January 1957. It's significant for its rather lengthy spoken section, with ol' Elvis hamming it up to good effect with his breathiest, dramatic reading. Not the greatest song, I think, but certainly a worthy performance.

 

For me, however, the cuteness factor goes overboard with "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear". The tune is certainly catchy (based on the folk-blues song "Boll Weevil" — a crop Elvis would name-check memorably in "Little Sister"), but the lyrics are a little over-sappy:

I don't want to be a tiger / 'cause tigers play too rough

I don't want to be a lion / 'cause lions ain't the kind you love enough.

Uh-huh. What happened to the guy who sang "Tonight she'll see I'm a mighty, mighty man"? Elvis does his best, which is admirable, but we're into cheese-on-the-stick territory (rather more of which to follow on Disc 3). The B-side, "Loving You" — which is the title-tune of Elvis's second film — has never impressed me much, and revisiting it here hasn't changed my opinion. A bit of a snoozer.

 

Thank goodness for Leiber and Stoller, who supplied RCA with "Jailhouse Rock", a made-to-order song for the next movie. It's a cookin' little number, replete with homoerotic lyrical overtones and a thoroughly non-ironic vocal by Elvis that should be funny but is just fun. Can anyone hear this song without visualizing the film sequence? The B-side of this hit, “Treat Me Nice”, is rather pedestrian and dull by comparison — a fact probably noted by Elvis, who sings ironically and with tongue-in-cheek. He may have lost control of his career to The Colonel and Hollywood, but Elvis knew a turkey when he heard/sang one.

 

A day after recording the lame “Treat Me Nice”, Elvis was back in the studio, in Hollywood, to cut “Don't”, his next #1 hit. I'd forgotten this tune for several years, so it's a pleasant surprise to hear it again and to discover how good it is. It's another Leiber and Stoller song, and another good one. (Unfortunately, they'd soon be kicked off the Elvis train after refusing to give up their songwriting royalties. Thanks, Colonel Tom. “Baby, don't say don't” to Leiber & Stoller — that way leads to “Rock-A-Hula Baby”. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) “I Beg of You” is the rather forgettable B-side to this fine A-side.

 

Roll on to 1958. One of the first Elvis tunes I ever knew was “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”, as it was on an old compilation LP my older sister had (this was still back in the days of vinyl). It's a fabulous bouncy pop/R&B tune, with a wild and passionate vocal from the big E. You can really hear him getting into it. The Jordanaires are a little too high in the mix for my liking... but this was RCA, not Sam Phillips at Sun. “Doncha' Think It's Time” is dull B-side filler. “Hard Headed Woman” — another soundtrack single, this one from King Creole – is good, but cheesy. The arrangement includes tuba and saxophone as an evident attempt to give the so-so song more pizzazz... much ado about not much. The flip-side is another King Creole song, with another fairly overblown arrangement: “Don't Ask Me Why”. I prefer this one to the A-side, as it sounds a little more mature.

 

“One Night” is an interesting A-side for a few reasons. First, it was written with rather suggestive lyrics by New Orleans trumpeter / songwriter Dave Bartholomew (as I write this, he's 99 years old and still going), Pearl King, and Anita Steinman. Elvis recorded it in early 1957, but the lyrics were just too horny to be issued. Not giving up on the song, he continued to fiddle with new lyrics (dropping that “One night of sin” line) for over a month until this track was cut in February '57. And there the track sat, in the RCA can, until 20 months later when Elvis was on Army-duty in Germany and RCA needed something out. So, “One Night” became an A-side, doing rather well to reach #4 in the USA. It's a great track; I really like its raw vocal by Elvis. (B-side “I Got Stung” is completely forgettable. Remember those awesome B-sides on Disc 1? Those days are over.) Two of the last songs Elvis cut before heading off to Germany were “I Need Your Love Tonight”, a song with a winning melody and some swingin' rhythm, and “(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such As I”. (Colonel Tom would have known the latter from his client Hank Snow having sung it years earlier... Did the Colonel get royalties off this or something?) While passable, both tracks are pretty innocuous stuff from the one-time rebellious Hillbilly Cat. Elvis was shaping up to lose those sideburns.

Disc 3 (RCA: 1958 [two tracks], 1960-62 [twenty tracks], 1956 [three tracks]):

1. Big Hunk O' Love

2. My Wish Came True

3. Stuck On You

4. Fame And Fortune

5. It's Now Or Never

6. A Mess Of Blues

7. Are You Lonesome Tonight?

8. I Gotta Know

9. Surrender

10. Lonely Man

11. I Feel So Bad

12. Wild In The Country

13. (Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame

14. Little Sister

15. Can't Help Falling In Love

16. Rock-A-Hula Baby

17. Good Luck Charm

18. Anything That's Part Of You

19. She's Not You

20. Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello

21. Return To Sender

22. Where Do You Come From

23. Rip It Up

24. Love Me

25. When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again

The aforementioned recording session that gave us “I Need Your Love Tonight” also threw up “A Big Hunk O' Love”, another A-side issued while Elvis was running around doing maneuvers. There's some cheese on it, but holy milk-cow it's a catchy tune and the King's raucous vocal pulls it into awesome territory. And man, it's uptempo and just swings. (That final 1958 recording session before Elvis departed was indeed a remarkable one.) The flip-side of this single was another track long delayed in release, the dramatic ballad “My Wish Came True”. The backing vocals — highlighted by “The Nashville Soprano”, Millie Kirkham, who joins The Jordanaires — are overcooked and mixed too high again. But the song itself is pretty cool, if given to a kind of narrative/vocal drama that would make today's kids laugh.

 

So, now, finally, 1960. Elvis is out of the Army. There is a school of thought that Elvis completely lost it after entering the Army, and that he was never fully on form again. (The Beatles all subscribed to this theory, for example.) And there were some worrying signs on those last A- and B-sides recorded in 1958, but then again those were sort-of recorded in a hurry, under duress; filler for when the King was away. I'm happy to report that Elvis was still very much at the height of his powers in 1960-1961. In this brief period, he'd record maybe his greatest album (Elvis Is Back!), he'd record his greatest double-sided hit (“Marie's The Name” / “Little Sister”), and he'd conquer the previously frightened adult-market, with ballads like “It's Now Or Never”. He was in the best physical shape of his life, looking better than ever (despite having acquired an amphetamine habit in Germany). Hell, he even did some real acting in a couple of films, like Flaming Star (1960) and Wild in the Country (1961). But then it went downhill. Boy, did it ever go down...

 

But that's a little in the future. Things sound okay on his comeback hit, “Stuck On You”. It's still a bit potatoes-without-gravy and lacking in vitality, but it's a winning tune and was charming enough to top the charts yet again. Slow-burner B-side “Fame And Fortune” was another top-20 hit itself, and is quite a good track. The biggest of the immediate post-Army hits was “It's Now Or Never” (issued in July, 1960), which sold 20 million copies and topped charts all around the world. I used to quite dislike this song, but hearing it again now with fresh/older ears, I have to admire its tight arrangement and the King's heroic vocal in the choruses. Less auspicious is the trend this single started, which was: take an old Latin / Euro folk song or romantic ballad of yore, dress it up with English lyrics, speed up the tempo, give it to Elvis to croon and — voila!! — international hit. Damn, whatever happened to Beal Street rhythm and blues? Out the window, I guess, because four months later RCA issued “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” as the next single. Colonel Tom wanted him to record this one (Mrs. Parker liked it), which is reason enough to hate it, but again I have to admit it's an enjoyable cut. As with "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", this one has a famous spoken section of Elvis sounding very innocent, but also very sensual. (You gotta feel for Colonel Tom's wife... at least, with this track, she could fantasize about Elvis instead of that useless ball of lard, her husband.) Love Elvis's accent, by the way.

 

B-sides “A Mess of Blues” and “I Gotta Know” restore a little vitality to the King's court. The former is the better cut, and actually was a big hit in the UK (where, I think, there was initially some legal wrangling over issuing “It's Now Or Never”). But these are undercut by the next A-side, yet another Euro-adapted hit. “Surrender” somehow reached the top of the pops in 1961, which says more about how weak the pop-scene in the USA was getting by that point than it does the song's quality. The track is less than two minutes long but somehow wears out its welcome. Let's ignore it. The flipside, “Lonely Man” is much preferable.

 

Fortunately, two strong cuts from the Wild In The Country film restore some quality-control: “I Feel So Bad” and the film's title song. E's vocal on the former is pretty cool, pretty slinky, pretty raw... and then in the break, in the middle of a sax-solo, he lets loose with an “ooooh!” that seems to foreshadow The Beatles' liberating (for white kids, anyway) screams of two or three years later. More of this, please. I could listen to Elvis singing R&B all day. The movie's title tune, “Wild In The Country”, which plays over the film's opening credits, is soft and gentle, and features one of Elvis's most sensitive and prettiest vocals. The backing vocals aren't too overdone and the song has a very distinctive and interesting melody, with very simple guitar backing (sounds like a plugged-in acoustic, maybe?). The almost pantheistic lyrics would seem to be something Elvis, the simple boy from Tupelo, could relate to and believe in. If you can believe it, this song reminds me of The Byrds' “Ballad Of Easy-Rider”.

 

Now, could we get a rockin' A-side to salvage Elvis's reputation with the rockers and greasers? Yes, we can! In fact, two for the price of one: “(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame” and “Little Sister” make for one of the best two-sided singles ever. These two tracks cook with gas! Both were written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, a poor man's Leiber and Stoller, but they came up with the goods here. Elvis loved this single, and apparently listened to it over and over until 7:30 in the morning after he brought the disc home. I simply love this lyric from “Little Sister”:

Every time I see your sister / Well, she's got somebody new

She's mean and she's evil / like that little old boll weevil

Guess I'll try my luck with you

 

Man, Elvis, I feels ya. If a highly-promiscuous chick dumps you for other dudes, the smart thing to do is... hit on her younger sister! Okay, it's not going to win awards in gender-studies programs, but it makes me smile every time.

 

So, Elvis is back, yeah! Awesome single, a couple of decent dramatic movies (Flaming Star didn't even feature Elvis singing)... He's 25 or 26 years old and still the biggest star in the world. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Oh yeah, Blue Hawaii. As biographer Ray Connolly aptly put it: “The enormous success of Blue Hawaii... changed everything.” Yes, it did. The Colonel saw that the biggest money was to be made from low-budget romance-musicals. And who cared where those songs came from? Much of the Blue Hawaii soundtrack's success (and it was #1 on the album charts longer than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for perspective) was down to its single redeeming feature, “Can't Help Falling In Love”. That song deserves its status as a standard, but a special place in rock'n'roll hell is reserved for its flip-side, “Rock-A-Hula-Baby”. I don't even know where to start with this one... It's offensive on several levels. Pass.

 

Quality-control is found wanting again on the next A-side, “Good Luck Charm”. It's basically “Stuck On You” re-written, and it wasn't anything memorable the first time. Elvis's voice is still hard to resist, but resistance is getting easier. (Now was really the time for Elvis to assert himself and get some good songwriters back in the fold.) Don Robertson's “Anything That's Part Of You” is all right. It's a slow-moving ballad and a tearjerker in the Nashville tradition, but Elvis's sensitive-as-spring-dew treatment pushes it into winning territory. The next A-side “She's Not You” is another lukewarm-water track, average at best (Leiber and Stoller supposedly collaborated with Doc Pomus on this, yet I say it's a Pomus-tune). But the flip, “Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello”, a mid-tempo tearjerker (again) with a prominent keyboard part, is really enjoyable. What can I say? I guess I like the Nashville sappy stuff. Maybe he should have forsaken pop for country, even at this relatively early stage. Elvis country = win.

 

Back to pop. You know “Return To Sender”, which was, of course, a big hit in 1962, and features in that golden masterpiece of cinema, Girls! Girls! Girls! (not to be confused with Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia). It's cute and catchy as anything, and certainly works as pop kitsch today. But maybe, at age 27, Elvis should have been demanding more mature material. Just a thought there. Flip-side “Where Do You Come From” sounds like a same-key rewrite of “Can't Help Falling In Love”.

 

At this point, Disc 3 suddenly switches to three 1956 tracks that appeared on an EP (I don't know why these tracks don't appear in sequence, earlier). These three are “Rip It Up” (great juvenile rocker; popularized by Little Richard), “Love Me” (very nice slow-burn ballad by Leiber and Stoller — a big radio hit in '56), and “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” (old country-tune from 1940, given a jaunty if unremarkable turn here).

 

 

Disc 4 (RCA: 1957 [eight tracks], 1960 [two tracks], 1961 [ten tracks], 1956 [five tracks]):

1. (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)

2. It's No Secret (What God Can Do)

3. I Believe

4. Take My Hand, Precious Lord

5. I Need You So

6. Have I Told You Lately That I Love You

7. Blueberry Hill

8. Is It So Strange

9. Flaming Star

10. Summer Kisses, Winter Tears

11. Follow That Dream

12. Angel

13. What A Wonderful Life

14. I'm Not The Marrying Kind

15. King Of The Whole Wide World

16. This Is Living

17. Riding The Rainbow

18. Home Is Where the Heart Is

19. I Got Lucky

20. A Whistling Tune

21. Long Tall Sally

22. First In Line

23. Paralyzed

24. How's The World Treating You

25. How Do You Think I Feel

So yeah, Disc 4 is a hodge-podge. We kick off with the 4-track, pre-Army EP, Peace In The Valley (1957). “(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)” is a really good take on this black gospel tune. Would Elvis have heard this in the good ol' Southern Baptist church, or did he need to hear it on the “colored” radio shows? Great tune, anyway. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is the second of the four written (or at least adapted) by Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey. “I Believe” has the most impressive vocal, and is worth a listen.

 

Recorded around the same time as the above EP was another, Just For You (1957). These 4 songs are all of the love variety, and the first number, “I Need You So”, is surprisingly slow for a lead-off track, which makes me think this was a cheapo recording, hastily assembled (probably by some idiot like Colonel Tom) to take advantage of some leftover cuts from Elvis's second-album sessions. Nothing like milking a cash-cow dry. It's amusing, at least, to hear Elvis's take on “Blueberry Hill”. The arrangement and tempo are very similar to the more-familiar Fats Domino track, and Elvis does a pretty nice job of it. This is all pretty slow, second-rate stuff, though.

 

Next we get a run of movie-soundtrack songs. Some of these are actually not bad. As soon as “Flaming Star” strikes up, you can immediately hear the difference in Elvis's voice between early 1957 and late 1960. Post-Army, his voice is richer, deeper, more mature. And this song isn't lyrically sappy like “Stuck On You” either; it's quite interesting (sounds more like something Johnny Cash would sing, but this film was a western). Just turn down the Jordanaires, please. Originally from the same film — before they cut it from the final print —  is “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears”, another interesting, moody cut. This stands as a quite obscure Elvis track today, and it's worth a listen. Nice lyrics, too. I miss old songs like this.

 

Next are four songs from Follow That Dream (1961), a silly but charming film in which Elvis plays a Florida hillbilly whose dad and rag-tag adopted family move from place to place. (The courtroom scene at the end is actually one of Elvis's finer moments in the movies... but that's a relative statement.) “Follow That Dream” is a bouncy little tune that smells a bit like “Return To Sender” with less cheese. Pretty good song, though. The next, “Angel”, is even better. Some nice drama here, a clever rhythm, and for once some very effective backing vocals — I guess that's Millie Kirkham again, hitting the high notes that accompany the King's “a-a-angel” refrains. A dreamy and blissful track. Well done. “What A Wonderful Life” is uptempo pop, lyrically celebrating the life of the aimless vagabond (maybe this song would have belonged better to Roustabout? Anyway...). It's kind of disposable, but gets by on charm... which just about describes the last of this movie's tunes: “I'm Not The Marrying Kind”. Sample lyric:

So I say, "You know what?"
She says, "What?". I say, "What?”


Shakespeare it's not. The cheese-factor only gets smellier with the first half of the Kid Galahad (1962) songs, especially the first, “King Of The Whole Wide World”:

The man who can sing when he hasn't got a thing,
He's the king — of the whole wide world!

Charitably speaking, those lines actually sum up Elvis's life, I guess, and in more dangerous times (like, 1955), they might have been delivered under a cool R&B backing, with Elvis sneering menacingly. Here, however, we've fallen into the trap of early-'60s pop for squares. (There's even a scene in Kid Galahad where Elvis and his girl twist... the rage of the times.) Worse, “This Is Living” is just “What A Wonderful Life” part two. Hell, we hear The Jordanaires on lead as much as we hear Elvis. Bad. Just bad. And “Riding The Rainbow” is worse. Ugh. Kissin' Cousins, here we come.

 

But — surprise! (to me) — even Kid Galahad can't be totally useless, and it does throw up some really good songs: Sherman Edwards' and Hal Davis's “Home Is Where The Heart Is” actually sounds like something a singer who has graduated high-school might do, and it's very nice. The hit song from this film was the goofy but fun “I Got Lucky”, which has such a great melody and fine vocal that I can't resist it. "I Got Lucky" should appear on more Elvis “Hits” compilations. It's good stuff, and way better than some stuff that did top the charts in the early '60s (like “Good Luck Charm”). Last, “A Whistling Tune” lives up to its name with some whistling breaks, and a lovely little melody that carries you away. Whew! Kid Galahad made a recovery.

 

And, finally (as if to remember the real[er] Elvis), Disc 4 jumps back in time to September 1956, when Elvis cut “Long Tall Sally”, “First In Line”, “Paralyzed”, “How's The World Treating You”, and “How Do You Think I Feel”. The first of these you know better either via Little Richard's unsurpassable original, or The Beatles' 1964 recording (they'd also been doing it for many years prior), both of which are just way better than Elvis's rather tepid version. “First In Line” is only significant as the first song (co-)written by Ben Weisman, who went on to write or co-write many tunes for the big E, including several on this set. Otherwise, it's not very interesting. But “Paralyzed” — a classic!! Otis Blackwell really had a way with a tune, and this was one of his best. No wonder Elvis sings, “I'm gay every morning / At night, I'm still the same”... Err, okay that line hasn't aged too well. But anyway this is a beautiful song, just great (it had 45 status in the UK, where it duly reached the top 10).

 

Chet Atkins and Boudleaux Bryant are composers of the next-to-last track, which has the cheerful refrain:

All my dreams have been shattered.

How's the world treating you?

Yes, it's a Nashville-like lament to love lost. (No references to dead dogs or heads hanging on the bar, however.) Last of all is Webb Pierce's old-school “How Do You Think I Feel”, which ends this lengthy 4-disc release on an odd note. Think early 1950s and nudie suits. 

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So, there we have it. 100 tracks, and, for my money, this 4-disc set is about 75% of the "essential" recordings by the King. (It's certainly not everything — we've got no "Trying To Get You You", “Mean Woman Blues”, “G.I. Blues”, “Fever”, “Reconsider Baby”, etc., or the aforementioned 1969 tracks.) The inclusion of the original-release Sun Records' sides off the top is kind of special, as we often don't see those mixed-in with RCA comps.

 

Now, of course, any attentive reader still awake at this point will notice that I've implied a general decline in quality from Disc 1 (all essential) to Disc 2 (mostly essential) to Disc 3 (partly essential, with some embarrassing tracks), and that Disc 4 is more a grab-bag of curios. But I still think all of this is necessary to get a fuller picture of the younger-days Elvis, both pre-and post-Army, and just before he completely lost the plot (literally) and starting phoning in Hollywood performances and soundtrack recordings. From 1954 to 1962, Elvis was still dialed-in, still cared, still bothered if the song was great or was garbage.  Unfortunately, from late-1961 they were sometimes garbage. But at least Elvis hadn't yet bottomed out. The slippery-slope that led to Harum Scarum and Speedway accelerated after this 4-disc set's recording period.

 

Anyway, if you're looking for an affordable set to get your Elvis fix, and you don't want to purchase 15 LPs or whatnot, Elvis: The Complete 1954-62 U.S.A. Singles is a good option. Just remember to skip “Rock-A-Hula-Baby” and a few other movie balls-of-cheese.

As a final reflection on the influence of Colonel Tom Parker and crimes against rock'n'roll in general, take a moment to contrast the covers of Elvis's first album (a 1955 photo taken onstage in Florida) and his twelfth (a 1961 movie-still... or something):

Sigh....

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