"Elvis died the day he went into the army."
That was John Lennon's reaction to the news of Elvis Presley's death. But in a sense, it also encapsulated the way most rock and roll fans felt about Presley's work after 1958.
Until that point, Elvis clearly was king. From the time he first entered the national charts, in 1955 with "Baby Let's Play House," he made complete hash of the dividing lines built into the music marketplace. "Heartbreak Hotel," for instance, topped both the pop and country listings, and climbed to No. 5 on the R&B; charts. Never before or since has any singer so galvanized such a wide audience.
Consequently, the songs most people associate with Elvis Presley are his early hits: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog," "All Shook Up," "Jailhouse Rock."
After that, it was straight downhill. Sure, Elvis still had hits -- he even had hits when he was in the Army, thanks to Col. Parker's careful control of his pre-induction studio time -- but it was never quite the same. Because as everyone knows, while Elvis was the most daring performer in popular music in the '50s, by 1960 he seemed safe as milk, a purveyor of pallid ballads who was well on his way to the bloated self-parody of the '70s. Right?
Elvis' work in the '60s was by no means the dead loss listeners like John Lennon would have you believe. True, his singing scarcely seemed as revolutionary in 1964 as it did a decade earlier, but that doesn't mean it lacked the power and passion. If anything, Elvis' recordings in the '60s are, for the most part, better sung than the early hits he's best known for.
Or so it would seem from listening to "From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential '60s Masters 1" (RCA 66169, five CDs or cassettes, arriving in stores tomorrow). Even though the 130 tracks assembled here are hardly as essential as the 169 performances collected on last year's set, "The King of Rock 'N' Roll: The Complete '50s Masters," the truth is that it wasn't until the '60s that Presley really proved himself as a song stylist.
If that seems hard to believe, it's probably because you're used to thinking of Elvis strictly as a rock and roll singer -- and that's fine, as far as it goes.
But Elvis never defined himself so narrowly. One of his earliest idols was crooner Dean Martin, whose light, jazz-inflected phrasing seems worlds away from the rockabilly abandon of Elvis' first recordings. Yet if you listen closely to the likes of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" or "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear," it's not hard to hear Martin's influence on Presley's mellifluous phrasing.
So in that respect, "It's Now or Never" was a song Elvis seemed destined to sing. Granted, he wasn't the first pop star to update and Americanize the Neapolitan ballad "O Sole Mio" -- singer Tony Martin (no relation to Dean) climbed to No. 2 in 1949 with a version called "There's No Tomorrow" -- but he had no trouble making the song his own.
What Elvis understood best about "It's Now or Never" was that for all its dramatic power, this was not a song that repaid a grandstand performance. Quite the opposite, in fact. So the real power in Presley's performance comes not when he gives full voice to the melody, but when he holds back. Because that's when he cuts to the heart of the song, illuminating the lyrics' struggle against caution and doubt.
That's also why "It's Now or Never," for all its middle-of-the-road overtones, never really undercut Elvis' reputation as a rocker. It helped, of course, that he started the session with a version of "Fever" that made Peggy Lee's rendition seem almost tepid by comparison.
But if you really want to appreciate the scale of Presley's talent, consider the fact that this same session also produced one of his most enduring country hits, "Are You Lonesome To-night?" Clearly, Elvis' command of the pop vernacular hadn't diminished during his time in the service.
And yet, for every great track on "From Nashville to Memphis," there's another that's so ill-fitting and misguided that it's hard to imagine what Elvis and his minders were thinking at the time.
Disc three, for example, features a wonderful reading of "Memphis Tennessee" in which Elvis, taking the melody at the top of his register, conveys a sense of innocence and desperation that Chuck Berry's original barely hints at. It's a marvelous piece of work, and one that clearly underscores his strengths as a rock and roll singer. Immediately following "Memphis," however, is "Ask Me," a hideous concoction fitted NTC out with corny backing vocals and a roller-rink organ accompaniment that must have sounded hokey even in 1964. (Nonetheless, "Ask Me" made it as high as No. 12 on the Billboard pop charts, despite the then-raging Beatlemania.)
Still, as painful as it is to sit through schlock like "I'll Remember You," "I Met Her Today" or the unrelievedly atrocious "If Every Day Could Be Like Christmas," there's plenty of compensation to be had in the likes of "Witchcraft" or "Rubbernecking," with its surprisingly funky Stax-style groove. In fact, it could almost be argued that this set is worth buying if only to hear such revealing rarities as the alternate take of "Suspicious Minds," or the unedited version of "Guitar Man" that finds Elvis breaking into an impromptu rendition of the Ray Charles hit "What'd I Say."
At the very least, "From Nashville to Memphis" will make you reconsider the conventional wisdom about Elvis' career after he entered the army.
Who knows? You may walk away from the set convinced that reports of Presley's death were greatly exaggerated.