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April 20, 2017

“Good Rockin’ Tonight” Reintroduces Legend to New Generation

On Aug. 17, 1977, a very sad and confused southern boy was found dead in his hotel room. Whether believed to be the result of too many prescription pills, or simply the stresses related to touring, it was a loss that had a powerful cultural impact worldwide.

It was at this point when the myth of Elvis became completely cut-off from his actual music, as well as when his then-kitschy image prevented his music from having seemingly any relevance at all. Elvis is currently associated with screechy blue-haired queens in Memphis, placing wreaths on his grave while talking about how they saw him last night in their hotel rooms. Hopefully, with today’s release of “Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight” – celebrating what would be Elvis’s 75th birthday – all this will change.

What is being sold is the entire basis for the Elvis legend, which may be viewed for the first time for the majority of this generation. We’ve seen the idea behind Elvis deconstructed, discussed and evaluated in film, literature and even the plethora of impersonators he has inspired. However, many people of a younger age spectrum have up until recently viewed him, and consequently his music, as dated relics of yesteryear. The release of this box set may transform all that.

For most, the music contained on “Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight” needs no introduction. The early years are always going to be remembered as the peak, and the later over-orchestrated pop covers are probably going to be dismissed. The key is to listen for the never-changing persona. The king of rock ‘n’ roll never stopped being the nice southern kid who played “Love Me Tender” on an acoustic guitar. He didn’t know anything of social change, yet when the record producers put him in the studio to sing “In the Ghetto,” he put his heart and soul into it. While that song certainly isn’t ever going to be remembered as a high point in the career of Elvis, it carries its own kind of desperate charm.

For that matter, so does much of the later material contained in this box set. Listeners can hear him lost in a studio filled with female backup singers and endless orchestras, unsure of where exactly he fits in. This is especially noticeable on his late-in-life rendition of “Unchained Melody.” The cascading pianos and angelic choirs threaten to overwhelm, but through it all we can hear the last gasps of life from the last days of a legend.

We can hear the promise in the early recordings, and see it fade as time goes by. The box set follows a coherent chronological progression, and, along with the accompanying essay by Grammy-winning music writer Billy Altman, we are given the full tale of Elvis’ personal life and musical career. The essay reads as a breathless account from a fan that knows every Elvis tale, and has read every biography. It is a valuable part of this wonderful set.

Certainly, the voice comes across as maudlin today, but at no point does it feel that it could be portrayed any other way. Every song was Elvis being Elvis; he knew no other existence. Sometimes he was jubilant, sometimes he was melancholy and sometimes he was lustful.

But at all times, he was Elvis.

Mark Schiffer can be reached at mschiffe@student.umass.edu.

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