Thursday, August 15, 2013

New Elvis Presley box set review

RCA/Sony Legacy
Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition
(RCA/Sony Legacy)
Grade: A  
For Elvis Presley fans, the week surrounding Aug. 16 is always a time to celebrate his career and way-too-short life (the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll passed away at age 42 on that date in 1977). Multiple events take place in and around Graceland and you’re sure to find a cable TV station running an Elvis movie marathon this weekend.

RCA/Sony Legacy has just released Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition, another stellar archival package from the vaults to coincide with that milestone. The Memphis sessions were recorded in 1973, so the 3CD box set also serves as a 40th anniversary collection.

The Stax Recording Studios and label helped launch the careers of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and more. The main reason Elvis wanted to work there in short bursts during the summer and Christmas seasons of ’73 (12 days total) was so that he could visit his young daughter, Lisa Marie, close to home.

As Roger Semon writes in the 43-page Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition booklet, RCA’s marketing of Elvis music in the ‘70s – largely dictated by his inept, Svengali-like manager Col. Tom Parker – was confusing to the public.

The singer was always seen in live shots, wearing a jumpsuit, making it hard to tell if the albums were from the studio or concerts. He didn’t do any photo shoots for new releases. Combined with a glut of product, this led to erratic sales. Most of the Stax sessions were spread out over three different releases.

With Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition, the 28 masters and 27 outtakes are now together in one place. Co-produced by Ernst Mikael Jorgensen and Rob Santos, the sound quality is superb.

A three-panel cardboard foldout with photos of the original master tapes and Presley hold the three CDs. The fascinating liner notes by Robert Gordon (a respected music author of books on Elvis, Memphis and Stax) detail the sessions. I was particularly struck by the fact that “My Boy,” an emotional tale of how divorce affects children, moved Presley so much that he had to be convinced in doing additional takes.

There are rare photos of Presley practicing karate, his fleet of cars, various LP and 45 sleeves, record company contracts and memos (some of the demands are laughable).

While half a dozen of the Stax singles charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 and country tallies (they were more successful on the latter), most of these songs will be unfamiliar to all but the diehard enthusiasts.

Available in a single CD compendium and on 180-gram double vinyl LP, the box set CDs are divided into The R&B and Country Sessions Outtakes, The Pop Sessions Outtakes, The July and December 1973 Masters.

Disc 1 and half of Disc 2 feature various takes of songs. Utilizing many players from the usual touring ensemble like guitarists James Burton and Charlie Hodge, drummer Ronnie Tutt, vocalists Kathy Westmoreland, plus JD Sumner & The Stamps, among others, there’s plenty of studio banter and joking around.

Presley and the band are heard warming up, then finding their way around the music and lyrics amid the late night/early morning sessions. At one point, Presley does an impression of an Italian opera tenor and tells the musicians, “I had to get that outta my system. I didn’t tell you – I go crazy at 4 o’clock. You people never seen me. Put me in a straightjacket.”

Among the Disc 2 standouts: the driving, sinister Mark James-penned “Raised on Rock,” where Presley sings “the younger generation knew it would last”; Tony Joe White’s sprightly, snappy and gospel-tinged “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby,” Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller’s slinky, funkified “If You Don’t Come Back” (this reminds me of current act Fitz & the Tantrums) and attitude-heavy funk of “Just a Little Bit,” with prominent female backing vocals.

Disc 3 highlights include: Chuck Berry’s upbeat Southern funk/rocker “Promised Land,” with sexy male/female vocals and plenty of city and state references; the liquid bass groove of the spiritual “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body,” where Presley does stentorian vocals and everyone works themselves into quite a frenzy; angelic ballad “Loving Arms”; the galloping Waylon Jennings/Billy Joe Shaver-written “You Asked Me To” (shades of Glen Campbell); country waltz “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel”; Boudleaux & Felice Bryant’s Spanish influenced ballad “She Wears My Ring” and another ballad that could’ve come from Madrid – the Bert Kaempfert co-write “Spanish Eyes.”

All told, Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition is a must for all fans. And priced around $30, relatively inexpensive too.

No comments: