Elvis never had a boxed CD set before, so it’s easy to assume that Elvis: The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll — The Complete ’50s Masters — four discs containing all of Elvis’ records from that decade, plus a fifth CD of outtakes, rare live performances, and unreleased tracks — isn’t needed, because nearly everything has been collected somewhere before.
Not so. There are, first of all, the oddball delights you’d find in any well-produced box, chief among them the first-ever release of Elvis’ naive and trusting 1953 version of ”That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” one of two demos he recorded 10 months before he signed his first record contract. He sounds so adorable — half raw country boy, half suave-pop-crooner wannabe who hasn’t got the suave part quite right — that fans will want the set for this track alone.
But the rest of the stuff — ”Hound Dog” and every other ’50s hit, the early Sun Records singles (predating Presley’s national fame), soundtrack items from films like Jailhouse Rock, the contents of Elvis’ first Christmas LP, half-forgotten album tracks, and much more — turns out to be essential too, and not just for those who have to have every Elvis scrap. This is the first collection that gives us every side of early Presley. And because it presents the songs in near-perfect chronological order, it gives us, also for the first time, Elvis without editing, exactly as he would have struck anyone who attended his recording sessions.
That’s a revelation. Did rockin’ Elvis, as one theory has it, ”sell out to girls” when he recorded hit ballads? No way. Play his first tracks and you drown in ballads; he loved them right from his manly start. Soon (and often at the same recording dates) the ballads were joined by raucous blues, murmured gospel hymns, bouncy teenybop rock, and even more bouncy contrived movie soundtrack trash. Elvis lofted through almost all of it with irrepressible, slithery ease, suggesting (if the box supports any theory at all) that he mirrored all sides of our musical culture — and became an American icon because he gave all kinds of Americans exactly what they most wanted to hear. A+