By TIM CAIN - H&R Entertainment Editor
Here's the popular version of Elvis Presley's career:
He breaks through to popularity, then goes into the Army, effectively killing the musical and societal revolution he sparked. He left the Army, started making mediocre movies, and despite a handful of returns to form, he doesn't matter again until his American Sound Studios recordings (including "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto") and television comeback special. Then he goes to Las Vegas, sinking all credibility with youth, and dies long before his time
The only problem is, every once in a while, evidence comes up that discredits the popular version.
One of those pieces of evidence is a new three-disc set, "Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition." The set collects in one location a number of previous releases, and features 28 songs and 27 outtakes/alternate versions.
Here's the thing. These sessions took place 40 years ago at the legendary soul and R&B studio in Memphis where some of pop music's greatest hits were recorded. Presley went in as a 38-year-old man - ancient by the pop music standard of the day - and recorded material that could have produced the greatest album of his career, and what certainly would have been in the conversation for best album of the year.
Of course, the same could have been said about what happened four years earlier, with the American Sound Studios sessions. And it can reasonably be argued that those stunning recordings are the greatest of Presley's career. I love the Sun sessions collections from the very start of his career, but the Presley album I return to most is "The Memphis Record," a collection of those 1969 sessions.
The dichotomy of Presley's career and life was the split between the R&B-loving revolutionary and the Southern gentleman who sang gospel, between the hip-swiveling rocker and the charming ballad singer. There was no interest by anyone - not his people, not his record company - of building a career for Elvis Presley. So there was never a concern about helping him release and market a fantastic album. RCA would sell its Elvis singles, and they could probably predict within 1,000 how many copies each album would sell, such would be the consistency of Presley's audience.
So Presley was never really an album artist in his lifetime. It was the concert recordings - especially from the 1970s - that exploded on the charts.
But of 28 songs recorded at Stax in 1973, six made the Billboard singles charts. Maybe a couple of them shouldn't have, but the majority were great songs that hold up today. Just, for whatever reason, they didn't resound with the public the way "Suspicious Minds" or "Burnin' Love" did.
But if those six songs had come out as part of one album, and Presley/RCA kept out some of Presley's tendency toward treacle, that Stax album might have battled Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Pronounced," Wings' "Band on the Run," Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy" and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" for the spot of most legendary album of 1973.
(And the comment about Presley's treacle is an observation, not a complaint. Treacle was always a huge part of Presley's repertoire. Complaining about it would be like complaining about British hard rock and metal bands doing sub-standard 12-bar blues - it happened all the time, and you had to just accept it as part of the package.)
Exhibit one: "Promised Land." This song alone gives a person enough evidence that Presley was the greatest Chuck Berry cover artist ever. If you've heard "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" or (especially) "Too Much Monkey Business," you've heard Presley doing Berry great. But to hear "Promised Land" is to hear transcendence.
Extension of the point as found in film: The submission of the best 90 seconds from the first "Men In Black" film, in a scene that also includes the film's best line.
Exhibit two: "Raised on Rock." Written by Mark James, who also wrote "Suspicious Minds," Presley/RCA thought highly enough of the song to make it the title cut of a batch of the songs released on album. Interestingly, it was the only song of our three examples released on the album. "Promised Land" was eventually released in 1975, as the title track to its own album. Also on that album ...
Exhibit three: "If You Talk In Your Sleep." This is the revelation of the Stax set. Presley's final released was drenched in horns and strings, and made the Billboard top 20. But another version included on the new set is "take 5" of the song. It's filthy in a brilliant way. The band is slinky as it works around its arrangement, and Presley smolders in a way that's almost embarrassing in its intensity and intimacy. It's fantastic, at once reminding the listener what Presley was, and what he could almost be seemingly at will later in his life. If only he'd wanted to more often.
One final personal note:
No one can ever convince me that Peter Frampton didn't listen to "Thinking About You" dozens of times before writing "Baby, I Love Your Way."