From the Vaults
Two new albums showcase the early days of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Released a week apart this spring, two new double-disc packages from Memphis’ two most legendary artists — Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash — provide a deeper look into specific moments in their careers.
From Memphis to Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. II is a follow-up to 2006’s Personal File (Bootleg Vol. I), and similarly digs into Cash’s
personal archives for (mostly) previously unreleased material. Meanwhile, Elvis is Back! re-packages a bundle of previously released Presley albums and singles of varying degrees of familiarity.
As the title suggests, the first Memphis to Hollywood disc will likely be the one of more interest to local audiences since it clearly builds upon Cash’s early career in Memphis.
The collection opens with a clip of announcements and advertisements from West Memphis’ KWEM, the host discussing the films opening at a West Memphis theater. (“The other picture on this big double-feature program is the spine-tingling The Man in Hiding. It’ll make goose pimples on goose pimples. That’s what it’ll do!”)
This segues into a series of on-air performances from “Johnny Cash & His Tennessee Two,” with Luther Perkins “hitting all those hard notes on the guitar” and Marshall Grant “hitting all the low notes on this bass-fiddle right here” as Cash says by way of introduction. In between songs, Cash figuratively sings the praises of his performance sponsor, Home Equipment Company, on Summer Avenue.
Dated May 21, 1955, these on-air performances include little-known songs such as “Wide Open Road” and the Biblical “Belshazzar.” (“We always like to include a good sacred song in our show,” Cash explains.) The radio selection ends with an advertisement, taken from a couple of months later, for a “Country Music Jamboree” at the Overton Park Shell, featuring Cash, Presley, and Wanda Jackson, among other rockabilly and country artists.
As interesting as this radio material is, the collection shifts into a different gear when it moves into a series of early demos introduced by the deliberate opening notes of “I Walk the Line.” The 21 early demos and Sun rarities all date from Cash’s period in Memphis, from 1955 through his signing to Columbia Records in 1958. The second disc is culled from the Columbia Records vaults and compiles various non-album singles, B-sides, and outtakes from 1958 to 1969.
Ultimately, as a new addition to the vast world of Cash material, From Memphis to Hollywood is probably more interesting as an archival document than something for repeated or casual listening.
By contrast, Elvis is Back! is a great listen — most of it, anyway. Similar to 2009’s two-disc From Elvis in Memphis reissue, the new release actually pairs two studio albums with related extras but uses only the title of the more heralded album.
The first of these two, 1960’s Elvis is Back!, may well top his 1956 RCA debut Elvis Presley and 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis as Presley’s finest studio album. The rockabilly sound of Presley’s early Sun recordings, which went truly national via Elvis Presley, and the blue-eyed soul and swamp rock of his late-’60s homecoming sessions at American Sound Studio are held in higher regard by most aesthetes. But Presley, at heart, was always as much of a pop singer as a rock-and-roller, and Elvis is Back! is the King at his very pop apex.
Elvis is Back! captures the coolest, most musical version of the Elvis the public adores and puritans resist, mixing great schlock and great art until you can’t tell the difference, his commitment to nailing a song and pleasing an audience never wavering.
It was Presley’s first album after returning from the Army and it re-introduces him as less a rock-and-roller than a soulful crooner. This confident and mature vocal performance genre-hops with a subtlety and command that rivals his Sun sessions, applying a similarly light touch to cocktail jazz (“Fever”), rockers (“Dirty, Dirty Feeling”), blues (“Reconsider Baby”), gospel-tinged pop (“The Thrill of Your Love”) doo-wop-style soul (“Soldier Boy”), and lilting pop (“The Girl of My Best Friend”).
If most of those titles are unfamiliar to casual Presley fans, it’s because, at the time, singles were generally released separate from albums rather than as promotional items taken from them. And one of the good things about this package is that, rather than cram the extras with alternate takes and other completist detritus, it instead merely adds Presley’s concurrent singles to the end of each album. With Elvis is Back!, this means the megahit “It’s Now or Never” and schlock classic “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” as well as more swinging highlights such as “Stuck on You” and “I Gotta Know.”
The 1961 album included on disc two of this package, Something for Everybody, illustrates how short-lived this peak of pop artistry was. The stylistic terrain is similar, and though the title literalizes the strategy of Elvis is Back!, it can’t quite live up to the promise. Presley’s vocals are still gorgeous, but the album shifts even harder into crooner territory, with schlock that can’t match the grandeur of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and blues and rockers that don’t swing quite as freely. Even the best singles here — “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame,” “Little Sister,” and “Good Luck Charm” — signal a then-gradual slide that would only accelerate for the next half-decade.