Review: Elvis Presley, “I Am An Elvis Fan”
RCA Victor famously trumpeted back in 1959 that 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong in compiling the singer’s hit singles from 1958-1959. Well, can 250,000 Elvis fans be wrong? Earlier this year, Elvis Presley Enterprises and Legacy Recordings gave today’s crop of fans a chance to vote on their favorites from the King’s rich catalogue. Over a quarter million votes were tabulated; do you agree with the final picks? The results are now on display via I Am an Elvis Fan (RCA/Legacy 88725 42334 2). It includes 21 selections in seven categories: 1950s, 1960s, Country, Movies, Love Songs, Gospel and In Concert. As such, it offers a look at many facets of the great man’s all-too-short but infinitely influential career, but it’s also neither fish nor fowl in the crowded landscape of Presley anthologies.
It would be impossible for one disc to encapsulate all of Presley’s hits, though 2002’s 30 # 1 Hits is darn close to one-stop shopping, with the following year’s 2nd to None a most suitable companion. (Consider: iconic tracks like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “If I Can Dream” and “Kentucky Rain” are all on the second album.) Hits are plentiful on I Am an Elvis Fan, but it’s certainly not comprehensive in that regard. Few collections, though, could boast the nonstop power of the compilation’s first four tracks, segueing from the ‘50s category into Movies: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock.” These are among the songs that catapulted Presley into the American consciousness, to a position which he still hasn’t vacated to this day.
None of the tracks on I Am an Elvis Fan are particularly rare, and it’s hard to believe that a serious Elvis fan wouldn’t already have all of them on one CD or another. But to the casual fan (for whom this set has been tailor-made) it’s an introduction to, or reminder of, the qualities that made Presley such a startling innovator. Contrary to popular belief, his era-defining approach to rock-and-roll didn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, Presley’s earliest sides synthesized “black” rhythm and blues with “white” melodic American pop, with healthy dollops of country, bluegrass and perhaps most significantly, gospel. Every one of those strains can be found on this compilation. It’s no wonder that some of the categories used to select the songs here overlap!
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Elvis’ vocal approach owed significantly to Dean Martin and even Bing Crosby, though he infused the sound of those classic crooners with a raw, sexual charge. Even when Elvis abandoned “rock and roll” for what might be deemed the “middle of the road” (a particularly loathsome expression applied to much of the great American pop of the late 1960s and early 1970s), he drew from the same well of sensuality and emotion. Presley didn’t record many standards in the traditional sense, though his dark reading of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” remains a haunting classic, but he introduced a great many. Here, you’ll hear Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Wayne Carson Thompson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James’ “Always on My Mind” and W. Earl Brown’s “If I Can Dream.”
There’s an emphasis on the Vegas showman days, with the majority of the tracks coming from the late 1960s and into the 1970s. (The final tally is five tracks from the 1950s, nine from the 1960s and seven from the 1970s.) The single most-represented album is 1973’s Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, perhaps the apotheosis of Elvis as jumpsuit-clad entertainer. But these tracks never fail to show off Elvis’ gifts as an interpreter. He followed Martin, Crosby and even Frank Sinatra in an esteemed line of interpretive artists who didn’t need to write songs to make a colossal impact with their art. Martin and Presley even share a late-career standard with “Welcome to My World,” one of the Aloha cuts heard here. Given a top-notch song, Presley as a vocalist – divorced from the stage gyrations or outlandish attire – was nearly peerless. His throat-shredding vocal on “If I Can Dream” came from deep within, and the song qualifies here in the Gospel category if only for its fervor. (It’s joined by “How Great Thou Art” and “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me).”) He pulls off the same feat with the bombast of Mickey Newbury’s “An American Trilogy.” He’s equally passionate, but far more subtle with the wistful tenderness of “Always on My Mind.” Those gospel performances, though, may be the biggest revelation for fans only familiar with Presley’s secular work; he took sacred music very seriously, and brings a true, unlabored intensity and unmatched beauty to those songs. Elvis’ movie career may be one of the most controversial areas of his career, but one can’t argue with the three title songs selected here: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Jailhouse Rock,” Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “Viva Las Vegas” and Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger’s “Blue Hawaii.”
Following the “movie years” that dominated the 1960s, Elvis’ recording career was back in full swing by 1968. His affinity with country songwriter Mac Davis led to that year’s “Memories,” and the even bigger hit “In the Ghetto,” from 1969. He helped put Eddie Rabbitt on the map with the dramatic “Kentucky Rain,” from 1970. Only one song is repeated here, Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds.” It’s presented in both the chart-topping 1969 single version and the live version from the (also chart-topping!) 1973 Aloha LP. Good as the more frenetic concert rendition is, though, it can’t compare to the perfect production on the single from American Studios’ Chips Moman.
The cover of I Am an Elvis Fan is a photo mosaic created from nearly 8,000 photos submitted by fans; though individual images are needless to say impossible to spot, it might prove a nice souvenir for those who participated. The booklet features a short introductory essay explaining the concept of the album, and full discography for all of the songs. In a welcome touch, there are 22 photos in the booklet, and all are annotated as to their origins. All of the tracks have been derived from Vic Anesini’s recent remasters, and all sound expectedly wonderful.
All told, I Am an Elvis Fan may best be enjoyed as a sampler of more comprehensive, past releases, as well as an appetizer for those releases still to come. RCA, Legacy and Elvis Presley Enterprises are continuing to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the legend’s passing with projects geared more towards the collectors’ audience. An insert in the new CD reveals two projects coming this fall. First up is a 3-CD Deluxe Edition entitled Prince from Another Planet, so named after a quote from a review of Presley’s 1972 Elvis As Recorded Live in Madison Square Garden, containing “brand new mixes of both exciting shows” from the Garden, plus a DVD containing the “historic MSG press conference” and “live performances.” It will be joined by a 2-CD Legacy Edition of the remastered original MSG album plus the June afternoon show. In addition, the Follow That Dream specialty label has a set of original Sun recordings and more on the way. 2012 hasn’t been a bad year to be an Elvis Presley fan. If one thing is clear, it’s that Elvis has never really left the building. He likely never will.
You can order I Am An Elvis Fan here! Full details on Prince From Another Planet are coming up!