A new compilation will attempt to prove that Elvis Presley was more than just the King of Rock & Roll. The album, If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (out this fall), pairs one of the most recognizable voices of the past half-century with classical arrangements that don’t so much overtake the original versions that fans hold near and dear as sweeten them.
The record’s first single, exclusively streaming here, is “If I Can Dream,” the plea for a better world that Presley sang as the closing number of his legendary ’68 Comeback Special. In the context of that performance, the song came off as a dramatic showstopper. The updated track, which adds some tasteful strings and a smart horn arrangement that beefs up the one on the original, isn’t a different so much as a fuller version of the song.
“This is the album I think he always would have wanted to do,” Priscilla Presley, the singer’s former wife, caretaker of Presley’s estate and an executive producer on If I Can Dream, tells Rolling Stone. “The label would have never allowed him to have an orchestra. And if it was up to [manager] Colonel Parker, he would have had Elvis just singing — no background, no nothing. I think we have given him the freedom here to experiment with all the orchestras he would have loved in the pieces.”
Priscilla, who is seated in the Manhattan conference room of Sony, the label putting out the album, asserts that Elvis was actually a big classical music and opera fan. “When he’d see a band on television, he’d get up and imitate the maestro and get serious,” she says. Elvis, she says, greatly admired opera singers like Mario Lanza and Caruso. “He loved their drama, their voices, their power,” she says. “When you hear ‘It’s Now or Never,’ that’s Mario Lanza.” He was also especially fond of the 1924 operetta The Student Prince, a work over which Elvis and Priscilla bonded. “That’s how we got together, basically,” she says. “He couldn’t believe a 14-year-old kid had seen The Student Prince and loved Mario Lanza. He was fascinated by that.”
When it came to picking the songs for If I Can Dream, Priscilla purposely chose tunes that weren’t “the obvious songs,” even if it’s hard to avoid some of his biggest hits. So alongside “Love Me Tender” and “Burning Love,” the new collection features the Aloha From Hawaii standout “Steamroller Blues,” the 1962 single “Anything That’s Part of You” and the Neil Diamond–penned “And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind.” It also features a new guitar line by Duane Eddy on “An American Trilogy,” operatic vocals by Il Volo on “It’s Now or Never” and Michael Bublé singing half of a feisty duet on “Fever.” “One of the main concerns was not having an artist that would compete with Elvis,” Priscilla says. “This was thought out. This was not putting his name on something. Michael was so professional and such a perfectionist. Elvis loved great talent and talented people, and I know Michael would have been one of them.”
The album also features some of the Elvis songs that mean the most to Priscilla. The gospel song “How Great Thou Art” is a reminder to her of how he would warm up before concerts with gospel songs and end the evening in his suite singing gospel. She also remembers nights where he would walk around the piano room at 4 a.m. and sing gospel. “A lot of the gospel songs are very, very special to me because they were songs that were so close to him,” she says. “And of course, ‘How Great Thou Art’ was the finest gospel song that there is.”
If I Can Dream also features “An American Trilogy,” which Priscilla brought to Elvis. “I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and I heard Mickey Newbury singing it, and I went ‘Oh, my God’ and made a U-turn and went back to the house,” she says. “No one usually ever brought songs to him. Elvis picked out all of his songs, with the exception of movie songs which matched the scenes. No one ever said, ‘Hey El, you got to do this song.’ So I said, ‘There’s a song I think you really should listen to.’ And he said, ‘Well, put it on.’ So I did, and he just sat there at the desk. He put his head down and kind of nodded to it. He closed his eyes and said, ‘Damn, damn good song.’ And the next thing I know, we’re back in Vegas, and he ate it up and spit it out.”
The release of the orchestral album — and Priscilla says she’s already imagining what she would like to put on a second volume — marks a move by the Presley Estate to keep Elvis relevant. “I’m confused about where the music industry is,” Priscilla says. “We are losing our labels. Social media has come in, YouTube, iTunes; it’s all very confusing. Years ago, you didn’t mess with an artist’s music. You didn’t touch it. You left it alone. But now DJs are blending music, blending artists, blending songs. We have to keep Elvis current.”
“We’re just carrying out, really, the DNA of Elvis Presley and keeping him authentic.” — Priscilla Presley
Priscilla says she has a few ideas of what she wants to do next and that she’s looking at If I Can Dream as a tester of sorts. “Our culture and music has changed so drastically, I think that we have to keep [Elvis] right in line and do whatever we can to keep him current,” she says. “I’m not saying we’d change his voice. It will always be him singing. But it will be a new take on it. He would have been the first to jump in. We’re just carrying out, really, the DNA of Elvis Presley and keeping him authentic.”
That authenticity is still what affects Priscilla most when listening to If I Can Dream. “His voice is crystal clear,” she says. “I mean it’s so today and current that you would never know it was from the Sixties and Seventies. He was a risk taker, and this is a risk he would have taken. I feel it’s the right thing to keep his legacy alive and current.”
Elvis Presley’s If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will come out on October 30th. For more information, visit Presley’s website.