The title of Elvis Presley's 1969 double album said it all: From Memphis to Vegas, or if you turned the jacket over, From Vegas to Memphis. Both sides of the singer were on display both on the album and in its title: the superstar showman who had triumphed at Las Vegas' International Hotel and the onetime Sun Records prodigy who'd periodically returned to his R&B roots. Though no studio album was released in 1970, the singer returned in January 1971 with Elvis Country: I'm 10,000 Years Old, and again the artist was addressing his roots, though with some decidedly contemporary flourishes. Nicely coinciding with the album's 41st anniversary, RCA and Legacy Recordings have paired Elvis Country with its follow-up, Love Letters from Elvis. Love Letters was drawn from the same four days of Nashville sessions as Elvis Country, making for a particularly effective entry in the current series of Legacy Editions for the Presley catalogue. (Still more tracks from this studio marathon were utilized for the soundtrack of Elvis: That's The Way It Is, which itself could be a contender for another upgrade down the road.)
The concept behind the Legacy Editions is a simple one: pair two related albums in one package, adding related singles, outtakes and ephemera, but largely avoiding the alternate takes that are the bread and butter of Follow That Dream, the Internet/mail-order Elvis-only collectors' label. The Legacy Editions have been remarkably effective in streamlining the often-confusing state of Presley's basic compact disc catalogue, and Elvis Country: Legacy Edition (88697 90439-2, 2012) is no exception.
Considering the furor which greeted Presley's rise to national prominence, it's remarkable from a contemporary vantage point that many of the singer's earliest, most muscular recordings could today be considered as much country as rock and roll. The future King always paid respect to his Southern heritage in song, and so Elvis Country would be marked with deep soul and gospel intensity, even if filtered through the outsized presence commanded the stage at the International nightly in glittery jumpsuits. Befitting the famous "Nashville sound" pioneered at RCA, Presley's band (James Burton, Chip Young and Charlie Hodge on guitar, Norbert Putnam on bass, Jerry Carrigan on drums, David Briggs on piano, Charlie McCoy on organ and harmonica) was supplemented with overdubbed musicians, with Burton, Carrigan, McCoy and Briggs all returning to participate in the overdubs themselves. (Burton, Young and McCoy were all familiar to Elvis, and Putnam, Briggs and Carrigan arrived via Muscle Shoals!) When Elvis joined these musicians for four days of recording in June 1970, he hadn't set foot in a recording studio there since March 1969 when he recorded tracks for Change of Habit, the film in which he starred opposite a post-Dick Van Dyke Show Mary Tyler Moore as a nun. Not surprisingly, though, Elvis returned to Nashville like a fish getting back to water. The resulting album would be derived from the June sessions and one night in September which yielded four tracks: "Snowbird" and "Whole Lot-ta [sic] Shakin' Goin' On," and "Where Did They Go Lord" and "Rags to Riches," two single sides also included on the Legacy Edition.
The modern touches applied by nominal producer Felton Jarvis are apparent from the start of Elvis Country and suit the naturally deeper voice Presley had acquired by this point. An electric sitar figures prominently on the opening cover of Anne Murray's "Snowbird," written by Gene McLellan. It's the same instrument familiar from B.J. Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling" or many of Thom Bell's best Philadelphia soul productions. "Snowbird" segues rather jarringly into the first of many snippets of the old traditional tune "I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago." This song, with its raucous and rollicking beat, is woven between the album's tracks to create one of the most pronounced "conceptual" touches on any Presley album. Was the singer commenting on how integral these songs are to the musical firmament? The complete "10,000 Years Ago" recording was originally released on 1972's Elvis Now and is included here as a bonus track. (The "clean" fades of the album tracks, minus the "10,000 Years Ago" segments, can be heard on various compilations and "complete" sets.)
The bolero rhythm of "Tomorrow Never Comes" isn't typical country-and-western, though it was adopted from Glen Campbell's recording of the Ernest Tubb composition. Elvis brings the song home with a booming gospel choir, big notes and even bigger passion a bit redolent of his 1968 rouser "If I Can Dream," which also managed to be both singularly heartfelt and bombastic. Freewheeling, up-tempo tracks make the strongest impression, such as a tough, reworked "Whole Lot-ta Shakin' Goin' On," which replaces Jerry Lee Lewis' famous piano licks with furious guitar interplay and a vocal that finds Elvis shedding a few years in the process! He's carried away as he admonishes drummer Jerry Carrigan to "take it out, Jerry! Take it out!" as the track draws to a close. Joe Babcock's "I Washed My hands in Muddy Water" becomes another brisk, lean rocker in Elvis' hands. On the bluesy take of Lee Hazlewood's "The Fool" (credited to Hazlewood's then-wife, Naomi Ford), you might have to turn your stereo up to hear Elvis' conspiratorially whispered vocal!
The singer was equally comfortable with the ballads, however. Hank Cochran's "Make the World Go Away" is a big AM-ready production drenched in strings, though Elvis' strong vocal is still out front. It's a mystery as to why this track wasn't selected as a single. (Dallas Frazier's "There Goes My Everything" and the Barnes/Robertson "I Really Don't Want to Know" were the choices instead.) A sweet, tender and affecting one-take reading of Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" is accented by Briggs' lilting piano fills and Burton's guitar. It's said that the idea of a country album germinated when Elvis and his team realized the kind of groove the band had been creating in the studio, and there are many vivid instrumental contributions. The virtuoso Burton brings his distinct dobro to Shirl Milete's "It's Your Baby, You Rock It," and Buddy Spicher's overdubbed fiddle graces the sensitive "Little Cabin on the Hill."
In addition to the full "10,000 Years Ago," Elvis Country is expanded with a brief, frenetic studio jam of Flatt and Scruggs' "A Hundred Years From Now" first issued on The Essential '70s Masters box set, and another Dallas Frazier song, "Where Did They Go, Lord," the non-LP single. Hit the jump to receive some Love Letters from Elvis!
Love Letters from Elvis was built largely around the unused material from Elvis Country and lacks the consistency of the prior release. While it's without a question the lesser album, it's a solid companion, emphasizing (out of necessity) the singer's softer side, though far from exclusively. The title song, a 1945 movie song by Victor Young and Edward Heyman, was already a hit for Elvis in a 1966 version; though the voice was rather more burnished by this point, he managed to sing it in 1970 in the same key and with a very similar arrangement. He's likewise gentle on Fred Karger, Sid Wayne and Ben Weisman's "I'll Never Know."
British songwriter Geoff Stephens ("Winchester Cathedral," "A Kind of Hush") contributed two songs. The brassy, Tom Jones-flavored "Heart of Rome" features Elvis belting out its big melody, replete with La-la-la-la-las, while "This is Our Dance" is a thinly-veiled rewrite of Engelbert Humperdinck's "The Last Waltz" which was written in part by Stephens' co-writer Les Reed. "This is Our Dance" hardly matched the success of that song, and is devoid of even a snatch of Southern soul. But it makes for an enjoyable MOR diversion. (Stephens' "Sylvia," also co-written with Reed, appears here as a bonus track, having first premiered on Elvis Now.) A diversion of another sort came from "Got My Mojo Working" (incorporating a bit of "Keep Your Hands Off Of It") on which Elvis certainly does, as well as from "Cindy, Cindy," an incendiary rockabilly number given a makeover with an unstoppable drum beat, harmonica, horns and of course, James Burton's typically smoking guitar.
Shirl Milete, whose "It's Your Baby, Rock It" appeared on Elvis Country, further benefited from The King's patronage with two more tracks on Love Letters including the twangy "When I'm Over You" and the grandiose and unusual single "Life." The spacey, quasi-spiritual anthem ("Somewhere out in empty space, long before the human race/Something stirred, a vast and timeless source began/Intelligence was born and then, there was the world...") was hardly standard fare for Elvis. The experiment doesn't exactly work, and sits uncomfortably next to the stronger titles, concerned with either love or lust. But nobody could accuse Elvis of not throwing himself into the song, and his vocal is far from a detached one.
In addition to "Sylvia," two more 1971 single sides have been added to the Love Letters line-up: Elvis' full-voiced take on the Tony Bennett favorite "Rags to Riches," composed by Richard Adler of Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game fame, and The Sound of Your Cry" by the Brill Building team of Bill Giant, Bernie Baum and Florence Kaye. The Giant/Baum/Kaye team was one of the most frequent suppliers of songs for Elvis, and also penned songs for artists ranging from Lou Johnson to The Everly Brothers.
As with all of the Presley Legacy Editions, the albums are presented in their best sound yet of the CD era. Vic Anesini has remastered beautifully, bringing out the nuances in each track. It's too bad that room couldn't be found for the dedicated mono single mixes of these albums' related singles, but the package is otherwise a solid accounting of this period. Stuart Colman contributes a strong essay about each of the two included albums, discussing each song and performance in detail. The familiar orange RCA labels grace each CD, and you'll find the front and back covers of each album reproduced. The original poster enclosed with Elvis Country is also reprinted under the trays of the digipak, and there are full color photographs a-plenty. Unfortunately, in keeping with recent custom, this Legacy Edition isn't slipcased.
It's always tempting to wonder what might have emerged had Elvis Presley teamed with a visionary producer of the LP era, free from Colonel Parker's influence. Ah, the might-have-beens! But with so many of Presley's albums simply collections of disparate songs, however great, Elvis Country is a welcome change of pace. Emotions run high and the strains of Tennessee and Mississippi flow in the veins of these recordings. Elvis Presley may have affirmed "I'm 10,000 Years Old" on the original LP, and in fact, he only lived to 42. But a fitting epigram might be a toast borrowed from Frank Sinatra: "May you live to be 100, and may the last voice you hear be mine." With the sweet sounds of Elvis Country still resonating, that might not be such a bad way to go.