Elvis 75: Good Rockin' TonightElvis Presley died in 1977, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed him down very much. In fact, to celebrate what would have been his 75th birthday on January 8, 2010, on December 8 RCA will release Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight, a compilation of 100 Elvis songs that charts his career path from his earliest recordings, to his final days. Why wait for his actual birthday when you can take advantage of the marketing magnet that is the holiday season?

I’ve long since lost track of how many times RCA has collected Elvis, but hey, it’s going to be his birthday, right? They’re not only releasing this box set, they’re going to make it a yearlong celebration by releasing a full slate of Elvis catalog reissues and compilations throughout 2010. The first of these will be an edited version of this box set on a 26-track single CD titled Elvis 75, which will be released on January 5, 2010.

I am not going to criticize the music contained in this set — it’s so far above reproach that to do so would be an active of extreme immodesty. All 30 of Elvis’ #1 hits are here, and producer Mikael Jorgensen has sprinkled them among very well-chosen deep album tracks, live performances, and rarities. He has placed the whole set in strict chronological order based on recording date. Being kind of anal about organizing my music, I like that. All of the tracks are “digitally restored masters.” I’ve inquired of some experts exactly what this means, and no one is really sure. It could mean a few different things. Though the tracks do seems to have been freshened up a bit, there is nothing as revelatory as what we heard on the recent Beatles remasters. Based on that I’m guessing that “digitally restored masters” is more of a marketing term than a technical process.

It all begins, as it should, with “My Happiness,” the demo acetate that Elvis made at Memphis Recording Service of Sun Records in 1953 as a gift for his mother, and continues with a selection of the classic Sam Phillips-produced tracks from 1953 and 1954. The titles of the songs, particularly on Disc One, are emblazoned on rock and roll’s collective consciousness. In 1956, “Paralyzed” only made it to #59 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but it’s a rockabilly classic, and one of my favorites.

At the end of 1957, Elvis received his draft notice, but he was given a deferment to finish the movie he was working on, King Creole, and he was finally inducted into the Army on March 24, 1958. Naturally that didn’t stop the records from coming, and Disc Two covers the Army years (he served until March 2, 1960), and the two years following his release. Elvis had 13 top five hits during this period, and they’re all here. Again, the titles are familiar in rock lore, and they include “It’s Now Or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” and “Good Luck Charm.” It’s an album cut from the 1960 album G.I. Blues that really appealed to me. I’d never heard “Pocketful of Rainbows” before, and I think it really does a great job of showing off Elvis’ exceptional vocal chops.

Disc Three covers the years 1963 to 1969. The hits slowed down during this period as Elvis was shunted aside by the arrival of the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion bands, followed by the advent of the psychedelic era. He continued to make bad movies during this period, and most of the tracks on this disc come from one movie or another, but it’s the devastating “How Great Thou Art”, from a 1966 album of the same name that demonstrates his ongoing commitment to the gospel form that he was raised on. “Suspicious Minds” marked the beginning of the Elvis comeback, and for me it will always be the greatest Elvis song. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been known to start singing along at the top of my lungs when it comes on in a bar, adding a few discrete Elvis moves to go with my rendition. Oh hell, I wasn’t going to include this, but I’m in a generous mood. I don’t know if it can be called underrated, but I’ve always felt that “Kentucky Rain”, produced by Chips Moman, is a song that is not mentioned often enough when the discussion turns to Elvis’ best work.

The final disc takes us from 1970 until the year of that Elvis died, and features several live tracks, including his majestic (or bombastic, depending on your point of view) reading of Mickey Newbury’s “American Trilogy” from the Elvis Aron Presley album in 1972. Only “Burning Love” in 1972, and “Way Down” in 1976 managed to make the top 20 on the Billboard chart, but the 100th and final track of this set is the hugely popular 2002 JXL remix of Elvis’ 1968 recording of “A Little Less Conversation.” The 80-page booklet that accompanies the four discs features an extensive essay by the noted journalist Billy Altman.

Your music collection should already be full of Elvis Presley recordings. If it’s not, this is as good a place as any to start. If you’re not quite ready to make this much of a commitment, don’t forget that 26-track CD that’s coming out in January. As an Elvis fan, I am troubled by the ongoing marketing of his legacy. It’s already apparent that we can expect the same thing when it comes to Michael Jackson, who, like Elvis, died too young, a victim of his own fame. As a music fan, I am appreciative of the way that Mikael Jorgensen has assembled this set, from the care taken with the chronology to the inclusion of so many unfamiliar album cuts. Best of all, listening to this collection I got a chance to renew my love affair with the music of Elvis Presley, and I am always grateful for that opportunity.

As a side note, if you have an interest in reading about Elvis Presley, and his story is perhaps the most profound American story, I would highly recommend Peter Guralnick’s towering two-volume biography. Volume one is Last Train To Memphis, followed by Careless Love. Guralnick is one of our greatest biographers, and this is certainly the best music biography I’ve ever read, and one of the best books of any kind.