There is a brief but remarkable moment near the end of this five-CD set that speaks volumes not only about the essence of Elvis Presley but also about our insatiable fascination with him. In 1967 guitarist Jerry Reed—who, according to Peter Guralnick’s liner notes, had never met Presley before, let alone worked with him—was literally pulled from a fishing trip and brought to an all-night recording session because—well, because the King wanted him, that’s why.
With the tapes rolling between takes of “Big Boss Man,” Reed called across the room, “Elvis, when you do that thing on the stop sound…you did it like you were mad, like you’re mean. That’s a gas!” Reed was referring, of course, to the trademark snarling lip curl, and when it breaks through here, on tracks like 1961’s “Little Sister” or 1969’s “From a Jack to a King,” everything we ever saw or heard in Elvis comes rushing back, across time, across space, across—well, everything.
Unfortunately, such moments don’t come often enough. Unlike its predecessor, The Essential ’50s Masters, this collection is badly hampered by a fragmented approach: For whatever reason, the movie soundtracks, the gospel material and the music from both Elvis’s ’68 TV special and his ’69 Vegas shows are all being split up for upcoming compilations. What’s left—this set is being touted as “Elvis the recording artist”—often feels both unessential and incomplete.
It’s asking a lot of listeners to accept the absence of, say, 1962’s “Return to Sender” just because it was recorded for a movie or jumping from “Guitar Man” to “In the Ghetto” without feeling the ’68 TV special’s jolt of artistic renewal. Still, to the King’s legions of fans all over the world, a lot of Elvis goes a long way. If nothing else, the sheer volume—there are 130 tracks in this collection—should suffice, at least until the next boxed set. (RCA)