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'60s Presley Package Less Than Essential

September 24, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

When you think of Elvis Presley in the '50s, the likely image is that of the rebellious, hip-shaking young man whose music defined rock 'n' roll by expressing the sexual and social awakening of a postwar generation of teen-agers.

Sensational.

But mention the Presley of the '60s and the image shifts to all those dreadful movies he made.

Ugh .

In the second step in its landmark Presley reissue series, RCA Records encourages us to think of Elvis the '60s musician by bringing together in a five-disc box set all his non-movie and non-gospel studio recordings.

The conventional wisdom is that Presley's music of that decade generally reflected the same lack of passion and ambition found in such airheaded movies as "Clambake" and "Harum Scarum."

And dozens of the 100-plus recordings in the new box set, titled "From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential '60s Masters," do suffer from artistic indifference--marred by flimsy material, hokey arrangements or false melodrama in the vocals.

This makes "From Nashville to Memphis" a far less essential package than last year's commercially and artistically successful "The King of Rock 'n' Roll--The Complete '50s Masters" box set.

As history, however, the new set--which will be released Tuesday--offers a valuable look at the evolution of Presley's studio work, and it includes a score of obscure gems that even longtime Presley fans may have overlooked.

The handsome box set covers Presley's studio work from March, 1960, when he returned from the Army to resume a career that was in question at the time, to the series of 1969 Memphis sessions that produced some of his most distinguished recordings, including "Suspicious Minds."

Because the discs are sequenced chronologically, it's easy to trace Presley's creative ups and downs during the '60s.

* Disc 1: Twenty-seven recordings made between that first post-Army Nashville gathering and the March, 1961, sessions that produced the hit "I Feel So Bad."

It was an uneven period, characterized by random experimentation as Presley seemed torn between his early country-blues-gospel instincts (excellent remakes of the Drifters' hit "Such a Night" and bluesman Lowell Fulson's "Reconsider Baby") and a smoother, more mainstream and adult stance.

Some of the latter efforts--including the unlikely operatic sweep of "It's Now or Never" and the melodramatic force of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"--were offbeat triumphs, but many of the efforts were distressingly uninspired.

Among the obscure gems: "Thrill of Your Love," a gospel- and blues-shaded Stan Kesler song whose theme of searching for something or someone seemed to touch an emotional nerve in the singer, who supposedly had realized his every dream.

* Disc 2: Thirty-two songs, all recorded between early 1961 and May, 1963. Weak. Only half a dozen or so songs--including the hits "Little Sister" and "His Latest Flame"--have any vitality. Obscure gem: the wonderfully intimate ballad "Anything That's Part of You."

* Disc 3: Twenty-six tracks, from some additional 1963 recordings through an early 1968 session. Equally weak, except for some isolated moments, including the day in May, 1966, when Presley recorded stirring performances of Jesse Stone's raucous "Down in the Alley" and Bob Dylan's tender "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Obscure gem: a version of "Just Call Me Lonesome" that showcased Presley's outstanding feel for country music.

* Discs 4 and 5: Thirty-two songs recorded in Memphis that not only stand as Presley's most exciting music since the '50s, but in some cases are equal to those classic early efforts. In the liner notes, Peter Guralnick explains that many of Presley's problems in the '60s were due to his advisers trying to limit, for financial reasons, his choice of material to songs from certain publishers.

By the time of these Memphis sessions, however, Presley pretty much had his choice of songs--and he responded with some of the most compelling vocals of his career. Disc 5 also includes 19 previously unreleased or alternate selections, including Presley's appearance in 1960 on Frank Sinatra's TV show. Obscure gem: a thundering remake of the old Hank Snow hit "I'm Movin' On."

In his singing on such songs as "Suspicious Minds" and "Long Black Limousine" on Disc 4, you feel some of the same electricity of Presley's acclaimed pre-"Heartbreak Hotel" recordings in 1954 and 1955 for Memphis' Sun label. It was a liberating period--a time that signaled a break from the treadmill of all those movies and a return to live shows, where, for a while, he was able to demonstrate once again why he truly was the king of rock 'n' roll.

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