It’s been 34 years since Elvis Presley died, but he’s never really left. Presley is part of a small fraternity of 20th-century pop stars—with Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, James Brown, and Michael Jackson—whose presence in pop culture is all but fixed to the ground with iron bolts. As with those other artists, everybody knows at least one Elvis song, and if your life depended on it, you could probably drop into a halfway-decent Presley croon and sing a few bars. By the end of this decade, Elvis Presley will have been dead for as long as he was alive, and yet it seems a safe bet that people not yet born will hear the name Elvis and think of a lonely truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, who a long, long time ago became the most famous man on the planet.
While Presley’s fame continues unabated, his musical legacy is a different story. Presley’s many hits still get played on the radio every single day, but actually hearing those songs for what they are requires unpacking a lot of baggage and addressing many of the same prejudices that haunted Elvis’ career back when he was alive. Presley’s designation as the “King Of Rock ’N’ Roll” has been both a blessing and a curse; it speaks to his vaunted place in pop history and the unprecedented adulation his music inspired, but it has also created resentment among detractors who think Presley is an overrated appropriator of other peoples’ music.
Incredibly, Presley’s early image as a greasy, oversexed, and not terribly bright redneck who got over because he could “sing black” is still fixed in the minds of many who aren’t acquainted with his music beyond the smattering of radio hits. In some ways, Presley suffers the same fate as many popular artists who rose to fame on a wave of bubbling activity in the musical underground. Just as Nirvana was dismissed by some for simply “rehashing” the music of Pixies, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, and other ’80s indie bands, Presley is derided for taking songs written and performed by other people, and incorporating them into his own music.
The truth is this: No one person can claim to be the “king” of rock music; it has many fathers (and mothers). But Presley did connect with tens of millions of people in a way that few artists of any genre can claim, and that fact can’t be explained away by merely blaming hype or his music’s similarity to other, less-heralded artists. It’s true that Presley wasn’t a songwriter, but at his best, he took charge of how his music sounded and the broad scope it covered. A voracious fan of all genres, Presley listened to anything and everything, and brought what he liked to his own records. A credible case can be made that other artists made better rock, pop, folk, blues, R&B, soul, country, and gospel records, but nobody incorporated all those influences together as prodigiously or ambitiously as Elvis Presley. No matter what kind of music he was singing, it always sounded like an Elvis Presley record, and that indelible stamp—which even casual listeners instantly recognize to this day—is the result of a unique artistic vision that’s often overlooked because it’s become so ingrained in our basic knowledge of popular music.
In his famous essay “Presliad” from the book Mystery Train, rock critic Greil Marcus called Presley “a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.” The last part is perhaps most important of all, as Marcus treats Presley’s life as a metaphor for America itself, with all of its contradictions and outsized triumphs and failures. Like America, Presley’s career was so vast that focusing on only one part of it—like, say, his early Sun Records sides, or his misunderstood “Vegas” period from the ’70s—can give the wrong (or least not wholly accurate) impression. Presley wasn’t just a rockabilly singer, or the original rock ’n’ roll star, or an R&B trailblazer for white America, or a wannabe movie star, or a country crooner, or an aspiring lounge lizard, or an unabashed belter of Christian hymns—he was all of those things, and more. It’s only when you pull back and take in the whole picture that the true richness of Elvis Presley’s music becomes apparent.
Because more than Presley’s colorful life story or his larger-than-life (and ultimately dehumanizing) status as an icon cast in gaudy gold plating and crushed velvet, it’s the music that’s worth exploring. Presley’s discography is riddled with loads of dreck that came out of periods when he wasn’t as engaged with guiding his artistry as he should have been. But there’s also a wealth of great music covering the whole spectrum of sounds, moods, emotions, and sensations. With a little guidance, digging in can be extremely rewarding.
A stumbling block for some Elvis neophytes is that many of his records—from the ritzy “Viva La Vegas” to the self-consciously “serious” message song “In The Ghetto” to the jumpsuit-ready “Burning Love”—are very much products of their time, and don’t sound contemporary in the way that Beatles or James Brown songs from the same period do. Ironically, the freshest-sounding Elvis tracks happen to be his earliest, oldest recordings made with Sam Phillips for Sun Records in the mid-’50s. Presley came to Sun originally in 1953, walking in from the street in order to record the sentimental ballad “My Happiness” for his mother. (When receptionist Marion Keisker asked Presley what kind of music he sang, his answer was prescient: “I sing all kinds.”) At Keisker’s urging, Phillips tried out Presley as a recording artist for his label—which at the time specialized in blues, country, and rockabilly records—and eventually invited guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to accompany him. But Presley’s penchant for ballads didn’t result in anything Phillips could work with.
It wasn’t until Presley whipped up an impromptu rendition of Arthur Crudup’s 1946 hit “That’s All Right” during a recording session in July 1954 that Elvis’ distinctive Sun Records sound started to fall together. Presley took what had been a sultry blues shuffle and gave it a driving, straightforward rhythm, with his soaring, confident vocal playing off Moore’s stinging guitar lines. Nearly 60 years later, “That’s All Right” still sounds raw and completely spontaneous—it’s amazing how Presley’s best music, even when it strayed from the basics of rock ’n’ roll, typically captures an exciting moment in time. Up until the end of his life, Presley preferred to record live with his band, frequently and extemporaneously changing the arrangements in order to keep the feeling real and alive.
The songs that followed on Sun—“Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” “Mystery Train,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” among others—similarly sound like archetypical “rock music” as it’s been defined from the very beginning, carrying through to the music of Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Clash, The White Stripes, and countless other roots-conscious artists inspired by the wild and carefree sound of Presley’s Sun records. The best and fullest snapshot of this era is the two-disc compilation Sunrise, which includes all the surviving master recordings from the era. Even the alternate takes offer a fascinating glimpse of a young man in the process of discovering his own voice, and getting “real, real gone.”
What might have happened had Elvis stayed at Sun remains one of rock’s great-unanswered “What if?” mysteries. In some respects, it’s a silly question: The rare combination of elements that made Elvis Elvis ensured that he couldn’t remain a regional star forever. The world at large beckoned, and in 1955, Sun’s Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $35,000, a great price for anyone unable to foresee he’d soon become a superstar. There was no looking back, but Presley would spend the most inspired moments of his subsequent career trying to recapture the purity of his Sun work. At first he didn’t have to try that hard. Elvis’ first recordings for RCA feature Moore and Black and add drummer D.J. Fontana, with results that sound like a more sharply focused version of the Sun work. At his first session, Presley cut his version of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The latter, released in January 1956, became Presley’s first hit for his new label and made him a star on a previously unfathomable scale. Not wanting to waste any time, RCA rushed to release an album to keep the momentum going. That album, Elvis Presley, features one of the most famous album covers of all time and remains one of the best efforts of his early career. Combining seven new recordings with five leftover Sun tracks, it captures an artist who sounds like he’s having fun proving himself. It’s a fantastic album, but if you’ve already heard the Sun recordings, you’ve heard half of it. The 1996 collection Elvis 56 provides a better introduction to this phase of his career, bringing together tracks from Elvis Presley, its follow-up (simply called Elvis), and the singles recorded around the same time. Much lay ahead, great recordings and dreck alike, but Presley’s 1956 recordings capture a sound that had yet to compromise for anyone.
It’s wrong to write off the years between this first burst of activity and Presley’s comeback in the late ’60s, ushered in by the 1968 TV special Elvis that would later become known as the “’68 Comeback Special.” But for sheer density of great recordings, only Elvis’ Sun work rivals the period that followed in the TV special’s wake. Determined to make the comeback stick, Presley recorded with a force and a conviction fans hadn’t heard in years, choosing his material carefully and giving it all he had. Working in Memphis with producer Chips Moman at Moman’s American Sound Studios, Presley leaned on American’s excellent house band for a string of recordings that fit perfectly into a musical landscape that had started to look back to rock’s roots for inspiration. Presley’s American recordings smoothly incorporate gospel, soul, and country sounds, but it’s the singer’s interpretive powers that bring them across. Whether attempting social relevance with “In The Ghetto” or detailing a crumbling relationship with “Suspicious Minds,” Elvis uses rock ’n’ roll to capture adult concerns and sings with a voice of weary authority. It’s unapologetically grown-up rock music, burdened but unbowed by the weight of years and experience. The albums From Elvis In Memphis and Back In Memphis house the bulk of those recordings, but the double-disc 1999 collection Suspicious Minds: The Memphis 1969 Anthology is even better, collecting that material plus others from a remarkable, and too-short, period of intense focus.
Presley released a large number of albums in his lifetime (and many more after his death) but he was never really an album-oriented artist. He constantly recorded new songs, and batches of those songs were packaged (often haphazardly) into albums. The closest he came to conceiving an album as a cohesive statement was 1971’s Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old). As the title suggests, it’s a full-on country record, but even when working in a single genre, Presley has a wide reach, pulling songs from traditional sources like Ernest Tubb (“Tomorrow Never Comes”) and Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt (“Little Cabin On The Hill”) along with young turks like Willie Nelson (“Funny How Time Slips Away”) and Lee Hazelwood (“The Fool”). A prime example of how Presley’s skill as an interpreter was based in his ability to express his personal feelings via canny song selection, Elvis Country reflects on the aging process and its inevitable sense of loss with wisdom and good humor.
RCA issued singles throughout Presley’s two-year army stint in 1958 and 1959, but his service kept him from remaining at the forefront of music. Tastes change, and nothing guaranteed Elvis would be a star again as the ’50s rolled into the ’60s. It didn’t take long for him to prove otherwise. Lousy movies, lousier soundtracks, the British Invasion, and a lack of drive would soon make for a rough decade, but at the outset of the ’60s, Elvis still had the ability to command the charts. In 1960 alone he enjoyed three No. 1 hits—“Stuck On You,” “It’s Now Or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”—and one of his finest albums: Elvis Is Back! All suggested Presley wouldn’t be beholden to old formulas: “It’s Now Or Never” adapted the Italian song “O Sole Mio,” “Lonesome” found him unafraid to go softer and more emotional than he’d ever gone before, and a cover of Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” found him digging even deeper into the blues. The message: Elvis wasn’t just back; he was looser, less predictable performer than ever before. (The 1999 reissue contains both the album and the hit singles, but it’s worth springing for the two-disc Legacy edition, which offers an even fuller look at the period.)
By 1967, Presley had settled into a predictable-but-profitable routine, making movies that fewer and fewer were turning up to see and releasing singles that never climbed too high on the charts. But signs of life started to appear in the fall of that year with the release of the lively single “Big Boss Man” and carried on through ’68 with follow-up releases like “Guitar Man,” “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and “U.S. Male.” A December television special, called simply Elvis, confirmed that Elvis had excised himself from the doldrums. Originally intended as a Christmas special, the ’68 comeback special evolved into a showcase for the singer that took the form of high-concept production numbers and relaxed but raw live performances with a band that included both Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. It’s the latter segments, Elvis’ first live performance since 1961, that reminded audiences why they fell for him in the first place. Elvis is charming, effortlessly charismatic, and clearly enjoying himself as he works through his first hits and the special closes with the stirring (if vague) topical protest song “If I Can Dream,” suggesting that a mature Elvis Presley might have a place in the tumultuous world of the late ’60s. Reissued in multiple audio and video formats over the years, it still sounds and looks remarkable, pointing a way forward that Elvis would follow as both a performing and recording artist, if never carefully enough, for the rest of his career.
Presley released scores of live albums in the twilight of his career, as engagements on the road and in Las Vegas kept him increasingly busy throughout the ’70s. While many of these releases have their moments, they’re mostly redundant and skippable for all but the most devoted Elvis fans. An exception is 2000’s That’s The Way It Is: Special Edition, a three-disc collection that expands on the fine 1970 album with a full concert recording from the period, as well as a rehearsal. The original That’s The Way It Is featured a black-and-white photo of Presley in his white jumpsuit, but the excess and bloat associated with that suit had not yet set in at the time of this album. Instead, That’s The Way It Is captures Presley as he was developing his adult balladeer style. While the arrangements are often big (sometimes verging on overblown), Presley’s vocals are always controlled, building from tender whispers to roaring crescendos on songs like the sultry “Just Pretend.”
Presley adored all kinds of music, but if any genre can be said to be his closest to his heart, it would be gospel. It’s what he played at the piano at home for his own entertainment—it’s been said that the last song he ever sang was a gospel number—and it’s on his gospel records where Presley gives some of his most heartfelt and overwhelming vocal performances. Even when he appeared to be phoning it on his other albums, Presley never gave anything less than his full soul to his gospel numbers. The compilation Elvis Ultimate Gospel collects 25 of his best spiritual recordings, including the spine-tingling “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Elvis’ music has been issued and reissued so many times over the years it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. In some respects, you’re best off just diving into the deep end with a trilogy of box sets covering each of his three decades of recordings. The King Of Rock ’N’ Roll: The Complete ’50s Masters delivers just what its subtitle promises: Everything Elvis cut and deemed worthy of release in the ’50s (and a bit more). It’s an extraordinary body of work with many highs and not too many lows (with exceptions like the maudlin dead-dog tribute “Old Shep”) that includes his work for Sun, the RCA hits, his best soundtrack efforts (for Jailhouse Rock and King Creole), the terrific Elvis’ Christmas Album, and more. It’s as essential as essential recordings get.
Less consistent, but almost as rewarding, From Nashville To Memphis: The Essential ’60s Masters collects Presley’s most notable studio recordings of the ’60s, excepting most soundtrack and gospel recordings (which have sets of their own). Captured on its five discs is the story of an artist who began the decade with high spirits, settled into a flabby mid-decade lull, then came back fighting, having learned from his mistakes. An over-emphasis on ballads even in the early years makes it a collection best culled into a shorter playlist. But as a portrait of the artist trying to figure out how he fits into changing times and only getting it right at the end, it’s fascinating.
At first, Walk A Mile In My Shoes: The Essential ’70s Masters seems like the least essential of the big three Elvis Presley box sets. The strength of his ’50s material is self-evident, and the ’60s includes many of his biggest hits and some of his most critically respected music. But many Elvis observers see the ’70s as an embarrassing wasteland of weak live albums and studio releases loaded with filler. There’s some truth in that, but that only makes Walk A Mile In My Shoes that much more of a revelation. Stripping the clutter down to 120 songs—including all of his singles, the best album tracks, and live cuts—Walk A Mile In My Shoes is an eloquent expression of a sad, spiritual, defeated man charting the downward slope of his life. The cheesy “Fat Elvis” image is merely tonic for the frequently bleak content of operatic songs like “Hurt,” where laughing is the only escape from the unsettling pain (both emotional and physical) in Presley’s voice and the demise it portends.
If Elvis Presley’s music finds its way into your heart, you’ll want to get the necessary background from Peter Guralnick’s brilliant two-volume biography, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley. Before Guralnick came along, most of the books on Presley were sleazy tell-alls like the infamous Elvis: What Happened? by former “Memphis Mafia” members Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler (with Steve Dunleavy). But Guralnick’s combination of faithful scholarship and committed fandom (along with an appropriate amount of empathy) results in the definitive personal history that a figure as important as Presley demands. For a movie version of Presley’s story, John Carpenter’s 1979’s biopic Elvis has its flaws—mostly derived from the film’s TV origins—and it doesn’t tell the whole story, stopping around the time of Presley’s ’68 comeback. But star Kurt Russell is one of the only actors capable of approximating Presley’s considerable charisma, and Carpenter does a good job of depicting Presley’s rise while subtly foreshadowing the darkness on the horizon.
Elvis’ film career is too wide and weird to cover in full here. Going to Hollywood proved a fascinating detour that turned into a great mistake. Elvis has undeniable screen presence, particularly in his younger years, but to watch any of his later movies is to see a man bored and out of his depth. The lively Viva Las Vegas provides a rare exception, but more typical is Roustabout, a 1964 effort in which Elvis plays a rebellious cat—you can tell because he rides a Japanese motorcycle—who takes up with a down-on-its-luck carnival. The songs are mostly beneath him (the Jerry Leiber- and Mike Stoller-penned “Little Egypt” excepted) and his scenes opposite a matriarchal Barbara Stanwyck find him not even bothering to try to hold his own.
The legend of the day Elvis joined Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash at Sun Studios to jam outstrips the recordings of the event, later released as the sole effort of The Million Dollar Quartet. Working through gospel, country, and R&B favorites, the Million Dollar Quartet session captures the giants enjoying their favorite music in a relaxed setting. Often extremely relaxed. It’s a fun, informal session highlighted by the moments when singers’ famous voices weave around, and compete with, each other. It’s worth hearing, but more as a fascinating footnote than an accomplishment in itself.
It’s not an overstatement to call Presley’s Sun recordings one of the key artifacts of 20th-century music. So much of what came before flowed into them; so much of what came after is unthinkable without them. What’s even more remarkable is that, so many years and spins later, they’ve lost none of their freshness. Here is a group of earnest young men naively shaping the music they love into new sounds that would soon change music all over the world.
2. Suspicious Minds: The Memphis 1969 Anthology
If Presley’s Sun Records sides mark the explosion of his early talent, Suspicious Minds represents the culmination of that talent. This is Elvis as a grown man—his voice is towering and full, and the songs are about adult relationships, full of regret, longing, and more than a little sex appeal. That Presley wasn’t able to keep this comeback going longer is a shame, but that he got around at all to songs like “Suspicious Minds” and “Long Black Limousine” should be treasured.
3. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old)
The only problem with this 1971 country music concept album in which Elvis interprets country favorites to reflect his own turbulent mood is that he didn’t cut more albums like it. To hear it is to wish that someone had the vision and authority to steer Presley toward more such albums, or to wish that Elvis had the discipline to record more on his own.
4. Elvis 56
The music Presley recorded right after he left Sun for RCA Records remains the most famous and popular of his career. At this point, it’s hard to conceive of a world where “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” haven’t been around forever and passed down from generation to generation.
5. Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special
There’s a good amount of over-orchestrated cheese on this definitive collection of recordings from Presley’s legendary “’68 Comeback” TV special, but it’s all worth it just to get to the part where Presley rocks out with his old band. Greil Marcus once called Presley’s ecstatic performance of “One Night” from this special some of the best rock music ever made. It’s hard to disagree.