In 1992, American voters were asked to vote on not one, but two, matters of national importance: who should be the next President of the United States – and which image of Elvis Presley should grace a postage stamp. Bill Clinton won the former with roughly 43% of the popular vote, and as for the latter decision? It was “young Elvis” by a reported 75% landslide. The lithe, “Heartbreak Hotel”-era image of the pelvis-swiveling icon had triumphed over the jumpsuit-clad “old Elvis” – who, in fact, wasn’t that old. In 1969, when Elvis first set foot onstage at the International Hotel’s showroom, the biggest in Las Vegas, he was just 34 years old. He was dead a little over eight years later, at 42. But for those early days when Elvis ruled as the reigning King not just of Rock and Roll but of Sin City, too, there was likely no more electrifying performer. The proof is in the pudding – or more exactly, in the wealth of recordings left behind. If one were to leave a time capsule for future generations to discover the sound of American music – of rock and roll, pop and country melded into one blazing showbiz creation – it might look and sound a lot like RCA and Legacy Recordings’ massive new, 8-CD/2-DVD box set dedicated to Elvis’ That’s the Way It Is.
That’s the Way It Is was the title of both director Denis Saunders’ documentary/concert film chronicling the ascent of the “new Elvis” and RCA’s own hybrid LP consisting of eight recent studio recordings and four live tracks derived from the same 1970 Vegas “Summer Season” as the motion picture. (It was his third engagement at The International.) The matter-of-fact title might have disguised the fact that the contents of both projects were far from standard-issue. Admittedly, a better hint might have been the album’s cover artwork of Elvis in the kind of flamboyant white jumpsuit that defined his late period onstage attire (and was depicted in the rejected postage stamp). This wasn’t your mother’s – or at least, your older sister’s – Elvis. In 1970, Elvis’ past and present collided in exuberant fashion. The performer was capable of channeling the rock-and-roll fire that exuded such danger and sensuality roughly fifteen years earlier, but had moved into a new period in which he found the bigger the emotion, the better. “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” still played a part in this persona, but so did “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The role of big-voiced pop balladeer fit Elvis like a glove, and he filled much of his music in this era with equal parts heart, soul and sweat.
Legacy’s newest iteration of That’s the Way It Is continues the label’s series of Presley reissues that treat the artist’s catalogue with the respect it rarely received in his lifetime. His original album releases were often hastily-assembled collections of recordings drawn from various periods and sources and therefore lacking cohesion. Legacy’s reissues, often drawing on material excavated for the comprehensive, mail-order Follow That Dream program, have “cleaned up” the catalogue with such projects as Elvis at Stax and a number of expanded concert titles: Elvis in Person at the International Hotel and On Stage, Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden, Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, and Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis. That’s the Way It Is marks the most gargantuan undertaking in the series – even more packed than 2011’s remarkable Young Man with a Big Beat.
The album was last expanded by RCA in 2001 as a 3-CD set and then in 2008 by Follow That Dream. The 2001 set included the original album with additional studio performances, the complete August 12, 1970 midnight concert and rehearsals/unreleased tracks, while the 2008 FTD release concentrated on the Nashville studio sessions for the album, presenting more than a full disc’s worth of alternate takes, rehearsals, rough mixes and more (including a couple of live performances). The new box drops most of the studio extras (all available elsewhere; it would take a detailed diagram to outline all of the releases of material from the Nashville 1970 sessions – especially as they also were tapped for the Elvis Country and Love Letters from Elvis LPs) and presents, instead, a deep and vivid exploration of the live performing artist on eight discs:
- CD 1 – The Original Album plus a selection of alternate takes (outtakes) and single versions
- CD 2 – August 10, 1970 Opening Night concert at Las Vegas’ International Hotel (previously released on One Night in Vegas from Follow That Dream)
- CD 3 – August 11, 1970 Dinner Show (first release of full concert)
- CD 4 – August 11, 1970 Midnight Show (previously released on Live in Las Vegas from Follow That Dream)
- CD 5 – August 12, 1970 Dinner Show (first release of full concert)
- CD 6 – August 12, 1970 Midnight Show (previously released on That’s the Way It Is in 2001)
- CD 7 – August 13, 1970 Dinner Show (previously released on The Wonder of You from Follow That Dream)
- CD 8 – Rehearsal Highlights
In addition, this release is the first to include the MGM motion picture along with its music. The DVDs in the box set are identical to those released in 2007:
- DVD 1: 2001 Special Edition, Restoration Featurette, Elvis Career Highlights, Director/Restorer Filmographies, Theatrical Trailer
- DVD 2: 1970 Original Theatrical Version, Outtakes
For those unwilling or unable to drop high coin on the box, Legacy has also offered a spiffy alternative in the form of a 2-CD highlights set. This Legacy Edition release includes the box set’s complete, 21-track first disc with the 1970 LP, alternate takes and 45 RPM single versions, as well as a second disc with the complete August 12 Dinner Show (CD 5 of the box set).
We’ve got plenty more after the jump!
It’s easy for the original album to be overshadowed, both in the box set and in the 2-CD Legacy Edition. Like so many of Presley’s original 1970s releases, the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. But if it’s not a thrilling listen from start-to-finish, with live tracks sitting uneasily next to studio creations, there’s still plenty of dynamite in its grooves.
Five nights of recording in Nashville, Tennessee beginning the evening of June 4, 1970 yielded music for three future albums (including Elvis: That’s The Way It Is and the Elvis Country album, previously expanded by Legacy) and four singles. With producer Felton Jarvis and studio regulars like James Burton, Norbert Putnam, Jerry Carrigan, Charlie Hodge, Charlie McCoy and “Nashville” David Briggs, Elvis tackled a variety of material. Listening today, it’s no wonder why so many Elvis fans consider 1968-1971 to be such a prime period.
The brassy, invigorating rock-and-roll blaze of “Patch It Up” is among the most exciting of the four live tracks on That’s the Way It Is – the studio version is included in its single version here, too – while “I Just Can’t Help Believin’” from Brill Building legends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil is The King at his most relaxed. (Bizarrely, additional applause was overdubbed on this track on top of the actual cheers from the appreciative showroom audience.) Elvis never recorded the song in the studio, but his live version here is second only to B.J. Thomas’ original in interpretations of the sweetly optimistic tune. “I’ve Lost You” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” (the latter also from Mann and Weil) were more outsized; Presley wrung each and every drop of emotion out of them.
Of the studio tracks on the original LP, “The Next Step is Love” is among the best, with Elvis locked into a soulful R&B groove. His versatility is also in evidence on “Mary in the Morning,” its countrypolitan sound solidified with a string arrangement. On “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Elvis brought the intensity of his live performances to RCA’s Studio B. If Art Garfunkel’s original vocal on the Paul Simon composition evoked the gently reassuring voice of an angel, Elvis’ was the voice of a preacher by way of Las Vegas – thunderous, majestic, and unabashedly dramatic. The addition of single releases and an illuminating brace of fly-on-the-wall session outtakes – with a window onto Elvis as a pure musician, comfortable with colleagues and friends – make for a reasonably comprehensive single-disc expansion of the original album.
Though the format of Elvis’ six concerts presented in the box set was similar from night to night, the specifics of the set list varied. Each concert opened with “That’s All Right” and concluded with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” with “Love Me Tender,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” also mainstays. Elvis seemed to enjoy the freedom afforded by these loose set lists, with concerts ranging roughly from 15 songs (the August 11 dinner show) to 22 (the August 12 midnight show). The complete presentations also, naturally, offer Elvis’ amusing and relaxed patter.
At the August 12 dinner show – included in both the box set and Legacy Edition – Elvis started at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with “That’s All Right,” his very first single released and recorded in July 1954. He presented most of his early rock-and-roll material early in the set list each night, kicking off the concerts with high octane blasts of nostalgia like “Hound Dog” and “I Got a Woman.” Eddie Rabbitt and Rory Bourke’s “Patch It Up” was a modern equivalent to the early classics, percolating with urgency. Elvis brought the tempo down at that dinner show with “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” introducing the then-recent song with a mention of B.J. Thomas’ original record – and devilishly adding, “I don’t particularly like it!” before praising the “beautiful song.” Of “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights,” from Brit tunesmith Clive Westlake, Elvis deadpans, “It’s not a very good song and I don’t really particularly dig singing it…but it’s on the program and they’ve asked me to do it so…I hope you enjoy it.” Nonetheless, his performance of the ballad was credible. (It didn’t return to the set list.)
The shows would build to the powerful high point of “Lovin’ Feelin’” (and sometimes, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”) and later, the climactic, stirring “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but truth to tell, these compact shows (by today’s standards of two-to-three-hour concert extravaganzas) fusing rock, country, soul and showbiz hardly let up. Elvis’ penultimate “Suspicious Minds” (performed at each show except the early August 10 performance) was a crackling reminder of just how vital an artist he remained.
The introduction in the box by long-serving producers Ernst Mikael Jorgensen and Roger Semon indicate that “all the concerts have either been mixed or remixed and mastered to establish a uniform sound,” and indeed, the shows and/or tracks familiar from past editions may sound a bit different here with different elements emphasized and Elvis’ voice always out front. Steve Rosenthal and Kabir Hernon have handled the remixing, while Vic Anesini at Sony’s Battery Studios has remastered.
The box also features a disc of 20 previously-issued rehearsal takes recorded prior to the Vegas stand. These, as admitted in the liner notes, are of variable sound quality. Alas, all of the rehearsal tracks released on RCA’s 2001 edition are not retained here, so collectors will certainly want to hold onto that set. As for the DVDs which finally unite the documentary film with its tie-in release, these replicate the contents of Warner Home Video’s 2007 release. That’s the Way It Is, the movie, exists in two versions, both of which are included here – a 108-minute edit completed in 1970 and a 96-minute re-edit made in 2001 which cut the fan interviews that were an integral part of the original cut and added newly-discovered rehearsal and concert footage of Elvis. It’s wonderful to have these under one roof with the music, but fans lamenting the lack of a Blu-ray are advised that Warner is releasing the 2001 film next week (August 12) in that format – which should explain its absence from this collection. The upcoming BD edition will also include the 1970 edit, but in the same DVD presentation included here.
Both the sturdy, LP-sized box set and the Legacy Edition are impeccably packaged. A squarebound 80-page book accompanies the box, loaded with interviews, credits, essays and more. The CDs are housed in slots in a folder, and the DVDs on a separate slotted “sheet.” The Legacy Edition digipak includes a 24-page truncated booklet, using the same colorful, attractive design elements.
If, in the Elvis universe, it’s impossible to have a “last word” on any of The King’s recordings, the lavish box set presentation of That’s the Way It Is comes mighty close. Today, the International is known as Westgate Las Vegas, and the cabaret – rather than the showroom – is home to The King Starring Trent Carlini featuring an Elvis tribute artist. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis still hasn’t left the building. Here’s The Real Thing – that’s just the way it is.