The first sound you hear is a hiss. Next, the rasp of an ancient recording gives way to someone strumming a few rudimentary chords on a guitar. A voice quivers out of the murk. ”If you find someone new, who means more than me to you,” it declares, ”I’ll never stand in your way.”
Although it’s impossible to tell from the fuzzy acetate, the shy guy crooning this forgotten lovey-dovey dewdrop is a young Memphis hayseed named Elvis Presley. The date is early 1954, a few months before the King-to-be would sign with Sun Studios, fuse the thump of black R&B with the lilt of white country, and change the course of American pop music forever.
Until now, Presley folklore has maintained that Elvis cut only one demo tape — ”My Happiness,” a gift for his beloved mother — before embarking on a professional career. But last year, a Graceland archivist and a Presley researcher tracked down a locked file cabinet full of tapes. One of them was ”I’ll Never Stand in Your Way,” the equivalent of an extra Dead Sea scroll for your average rock historian.
What it means for your average listener — well, that’s another issue. ”I’ll Never Stand” is one of 77 previously unreleased songs to grace Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life in Music, a four-disc, 100-song behemoth from those not-at-all-exploitative folks at RCA. (Doesn’t it seem the red carpets roll out every few years to herald another ”new” configuration of Elvisania?) Meant to dovetail with the 20th anniversary of the King’s demise, Platinum is a crazy quilt of hits, alternate takes, excerpts from scorching stage shows and loopy rehearsals, and a stash of Presley’s home-taping experiments. It bounces back and forth between public and private moments, elegance and kitsch, high gloss and lo-fi; listening to it is a bit like rambling through a garage sale at Graceland.
This sort of tribute is all the rage these days. If the Beatles’ Anthology series is any clue, today’s nostalgia hunters would rush to the record store just to hear an infant rock hero sucking on a pacifier. But for the casual listener, buying one of these baby-boomer scrapbooks feels like coming home from the swap meet with a vintage Coca-Cola billboard: Yes, it’s fun to have, but what are you supposed to do with it?
Take, for example, Platinum’s stark home recording of ”Blowin’ in the Wind.” This, RCA assures us, is a sacred moment: Elvis does Dylan, backed up by little more than a six-string. Sure, it’s haunting and raw — Elvis mumbles most of the way, changes the melody, leans too close to the mike — but after a couple of spins, you develop an irresistible urge to hear ”Jailhouse Rock.”
Later, while rehearsing ”I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” and ”I Was the One,” Elvis forgets the words and fills in the empty spaces with weird kazoolike noises. It’s funny, but is it key to one’s understanding of a rock legend? An alternate take of ”Heartbreak Hotel” reveals Presley’s still toying with the lyrics — at one point he changes ”so lonely they could die” to ”so lonely they pray to die” — while the piano player’s still toying with his solo. In other words, the original version of ”Heartbreak Hotel” was better. The same goes for Platinum’s alternate takes of ”In the Ghetto” and ”Suspicious Minds,” which sound wan and thin without the usual chorus of barnstorming backup singers.
Even so, eavesdropping on Elvis does leave you with a vital lesson. Presley may have been doomed to die in jumpsuits and rhinestones, but he never strayed far from the grits-and-cornbread Southern music that fired his passion in the first place. Platinum is full of blues shouts, gospel meditations, rockabilly shuffles — all of which fry with a kind of fatback jubilation that Elvis never got to explore in his movie ditties.
In fact, Platinum reminds us that Elvis was the master of something pretty simple, something that most acts forget to deliver these days: fun. From the chortle of ”Mystery Train” to the cheese of ”An American Trilogy,” from Irish ballads to Broadway show tunes, through chestnuts by Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, James Taylor, and the Bee Gees, the King rarely fails to serve up a royal time. Hell, Platinum is almost worth its $69.98 list price for one rave-up alone: ”Baby What You Want Me to Do,” a chugalugging remake of a Jimmy Reed blues romp. Captured live in Las Vegas on July 31, 1969 — the King’s first gig in eight years — the song is shot through with enough pent-up roadhouse propulsion to light up the whole state of Nevada.
Platinum comes toward a close scarcely three months before Presley’s death, as he floats through the eerie lounge-lizard valedictory of ”My Way.” Prepare to hear plenty of solemn cliches when that August anniversary rolls around, but this eulogy says it all. Elvis did always strive to do it his way, even when some of his efforts fell through the cracks — or wound up in file cabinets. As such, Platinum is a must for any serious Elvis scholar. For everyone else, it’s a lot like that strange voice rising from the hiss — both baffling and thrilling, rapturous and ridiculous. B