They say the Jungle Room was Elvis Presley's favorite room at Graceland. It's decorated with huge, fur-upholstered furniture, thick, dark curtains, a sickly-green carpet, pseudo-Polynesian idols and a waterfall that regularly flooded the room. If you've been drawn to Graceland because of your respect for the artistry of its owner, coming face to face with the Jungle Room (or any of several other rooms that are just as garish) is unsettling: the initial reaction is to laugh it off and to put as much distance as possible between the man who decorated that room and the man who sang "That's All Right" and "Don't Be Cruel" and "Suspicious Minds."
In a way, that's what RCA is doing with the four albums that make up its contribution to the Tenth Anniversary of Elvis's Death hoopla. The Complete Sun Sessions, The Number One Hits, The Top Ten Hits and The Memphis Record are divided between Elvis's most artistically productive recording sessions and his biggest commercial hits; the idea, which makes perfect sense for a company that followed Elvis's death with too many years of slipshod, uncaring reissues, is to showcase the vitality of the King of Rock & Roll and ignore the guy who decorated the Jungle Room and sang "(There's) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car."
But for all their impeccable intentions, the new albums are a mixture of the grand and the gruesome, the overwhelming and the overdone. The emphasis, fortunately, is on the grand and the overwhelming, but in the records you can hear everything from the youthful fury of the kid who started a cultural revolution to the bloated emptiness of the man who died alone.
For the past couple of years, RCA has been repackaging Elvis genre by genre, with results that have been swell (the gritty blues of Reconsider Baby), spotty (the bathetic Seventies ballads on Always on My Mind) or spirited but skimpy (the self-explanatory Rocker and the postarmy Return of the Rocker). Of the new releases, The Complete Sun Sessions is an exhaustive look at Elvis's epochal first recordings, The Number One Hits and The Top Ten Hits are overviews of his commercial heyday, and The Memphis Record is made up of most of the 1969 recordings that sealed his regrettably brief comeback.
The songs range from youthful frenzy to mature angst, but they're all the work of a man aiming to make it big, to stay big, to regain his stature — a man whose tools were a singular mixture of defiance and acquiescence and an ability to turn excess into revelation. Right from the start, Elvis Presley took the elements of his distinctive vocal style — hiccups, stutters, drawn-out syllables, sudden growls — and pushed them almost to the edge of parody; there's a clear line from the rampaging lasciviousness of "Baby, Let's Play House" to the bemused abandon of "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck" to the overwrought histrionics of "Rubberneckin'."
That style sounded downright revolutionary in 1954, when the nineteen-year-old Elvis spent months in the studio at Memphis's Sun Records, trying to find a voice and a sound. What emerged at the time were five singles — ten songs that are the core of the Complete Sun Sessions, and the core of rock & roll. Never again would Elvis Presley — or anybody else, for that matter — sound quite so free, unburdened and otherworldly: "That's All Right" and "Mystery Train" and the contrived but still astonishing "Milkcow Blues Boogie" were driven by a purity and a joy that still sound utterly fresh. And nothing recorded before or since has matched the sound of Elvis's eerie, echoey overhaul of the pop standard "Blue Moon."
It's tempting to attribute music that startling to instinctive genius or happy accident; the second disc of the two-record Complete Sun Sessions set argues for hard work and painstaking experimentation. The alternative takes and snippets of studio conversation make that point convincingly. The versions of "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" are similar to the singles but subtly less magical. So as interesting as these tracks may be, the second record is basically an obsessive's delight.
One traditional view of Elvis Presley says he went sharply downhill from Sun, succumbing to vocal mannerisms and pop formulas as his RCA singles became hits. But it's hard to be too harsh on what followed while listening to The Top Ten Hits or The Number One Hits. Certainly, the chart toppers that make up those albums aren't as groundbreaking as the Sun recordings (hell, the guy could only invent rock & roll once) or as serious as the Memphis tunes; they couldn't be, because the singer was shouldering the burden of being Elvis Presley and because he was learning he no longer had to sweat to be loved.
But if "Don't Be Cruel" and "Jailhouse Rock" and "Little Sister" and "Don't" are formulaic, Elvis wields his vocal mannerisms with offhand ease and complete control, simultaneously investing the songs with intense emotion and playfully mocking those emotions. He makes the top-rate songs transcendent and frequently turns the minor ones into unabashed delights — in other words, his music does precisely what rock & roll was supposed to do.
At least, that's what it was supposed to do in '56 and '59 and '63. By 1969 the rules had changed. Elvis was out of touch, and he knew it. So he returned to a Memphis studio for the first time since his Sun days and made music that was serious where the hits were playful, soulful where they were frantic. On The Memphis Record, more than even the Sun Sessions, Elvis lets you hear how much was at stake. He bears down, hard, on a collection of soul, country and pop songs, pushing his familiar vocal tricks until you think he'll crack. The blues song "Long Black Limousine" is downright scary; the country weeper "I'll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)" cuts hard; and nobody ever made Burt Bacharach sound as majestic as Elvis does in "Any Day Now."
The Memphis Record is by far the most serious of the new RCA albums, and just as The Complete Sun Sessions hints at the sillier material that followed, so do the worst of these songs point the way toward the overblown schmaltz and cluttered, by-the-numbers rock that would threaten to sink Elvis in a matter of years. The first disc of the two-record set (drawn mostly from the From Elvis in Memphis album, plus singles like "Suspicious Minds") contains the most passionate music of Elvis's career, but the second disc is mainly filler.
And that's a problem with not only The Memphis Record but all four of these releases: in many ways they're superfluous. Anybody who has From Elvis in Memphis and "Suspicious Minds" doesn't really need The Memphis Record; anybody who has the original one-record Sun Sessions LP shouldn't feel compelled to spring for The Complete Sun Sessions. And while The Top Ten Hits is probably the best existing collection of Elvis smashes (The Number One Hits is far too sketchy), these songs have been repackaged so many times already that it's hard to imagine even a casual fan who doesn't have lots of it.
But repackaging, after all, is the name of the game here. Elvis sang at more than six dozen recording sessions during his lifetime, and for much of his career he released three haphazard albums a year; in the decade since his death his music has been reissued, overdubbed, rearranged and otherwise jumbled in seemingly endless permutations, most of the time without casting significant new light on the guy.
So now we have four more Elvis albums, four attractive and relatively intelligent LPs with loads of terrific music and a few significant drawbacks. They don't hide the questionable taste of the guy who decorated the Jungle Room, and neither do they give a full overview of the King. But then that's probably too much to ask — since, like every other tag, the King of Rock & Roll is a label that diminishes Elvis. He didn't dominate the field so much as he embodied and captured its origins, its potential and its shortcomings in one glorious, perplexing package. Listening to these records, you don't hear the King of Rock & Roll; you hear the whole damn Kingdom.