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Opinion: Reissues that profile artists at their best

November 23, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

This week I review two items recently released by Sony/Legacy, including one featuring the king of rock and roll and the other a blues'empress.

"Elvis Presley: Prince From Another Planet - Elvis Presley live at Madison Square Garden"

Once upon a time there was this guy named Elvis Presley who adopted black music, swiveled his hips, drove millions of teenage girls and boys into a frenzy and helped create an entire new musical genre.

I've always thought of Elvis' career split into two segments - the young, "thin" Elvis, and the Vegas "fat" Elvis.

The debate whether Elvis invented rock and roll is kind of moot, as there were many others in the 1950s fusing elements of country, swing, R&B and pop music into a new category - Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and hundreds of others also were there shaping the genre. But there really was only one "King of Rock" during the decade, and no popularized rock and brought it into the mainstream like "Elvis the Pelvis."

The fact that Elvis was condemned by the establishment at the time for his wild gyrations and crazy singing style only made his appeal to rebellious youth all that more attractive. But the other side of Elvis showed a shy, church-going young man who really didn't quite know what to make of all the fame that came his way so quickly. Elvis would grow into his role as time progressed, but the young Elvis was exciting, hungry and naive. After Elvis returned to civilian life after serving a stint in the Army - and releasing the best album of his career and one of the best albums in all rock and roll with "Elvis is Back!" - the King wasted his time and talents in the 1960s putting out one lame record after another and starring in a series of crappy movies that even he hated.

Part of this was due to his carny-barker manager, Col. Tom Parker, who always seemed to chase the cheap buck instead of putting Elvis on the "A" circuit as an actor and performer. But part of that also was due to Elvis' deference to Parker and his jaded and somewhat lazy nature in the '60s. When you already are the King, where else is there to go?

By the late '60s and early '70s Elvis made a comeback of sorts with fresh material and a new hunger for the stage. The King saw all these new performers stealing his mojo - he actually considered Welsh performer Tom Jones to be his biggest competition, of all people -and Elvis actually was much more conservative musically than people realized.

While he paid lip service to his early hits, Elvis, with his big band of studio pros backing him, started playing Vegas-style shows with a middle-of-the-road act that included a lot of flashy, somewhat tacky costumes and a set list that included as many country classics and easy listening material that was more akin to someone like Dean Martin - not a big surprise, as Martin was Elvis' singing idol. Thus began the Elvis' "fat" period, where he gained weight, succumbed to drug abuse and finally ended up as a caricature of himself.

Elvis in the early '70s still was a legend, and the teenagers he thrilled in the 1950s were now adults and parents themselves. They remembered the King, never forgot how he made them feel and rewarded his second coming with enthusiasm and sold-out shows.

"Prince From Another Planet," which includes two shows at New York's Madison Square Garden in June of 1972 on two CDs and one DVD, chronicles the King's last gasp as an intriguing, committed entertainer in front of an adoring audience.

Beginning with the bombastic "Theme From 2001: A Space Odyssey," the show then turns to Elvis singing other performer's hits, including "Proud Mary," "Never Been to Spain," "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" and "The Impossible Dream."

Elvis LOOKS great, as he donned an all-white wardrobe complete with "heavyweight championship" belt and Batman-style cape. El also knew how to work the audience into a frenzy, but it's clear his voice isn't the instrument it used to be. He's also evidently bored with his old hits "All Shook Up," "Love Me Tender" "Hound Dog" and others he probably performed thousands of times before. He brings back a little of the Elvis charm with "Suspicious Minds," one of his last hits. Here he sings with verve and sounds engaged, as well as on Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away." Elvis was clearly tired of rock and roll and went back to what was his first true love - the songs of a crooner rather than a rebel.

That doesn't mean it's all a disappointment, and there are several highlights on "Prince From Another Planet." But a lot of it makes one painfully aware Elvis' best years were behind him and he'd grown lazy about his voice and his art. Recommended for diehard Elvis fans.

"Bessie Smith - the Complete Columbia Recordings"

Bessie Smith isn't remembered like some female blues' divas are today, mainly because her work was recorded in the early days of the 1920s through the early 1930s.

A big woman who also possessed a huge voice, Bessie Smith was extremely popular during her heyday, billing herself as "The Empress of the Blues."

Almost all her work was recorded onto 78 RPM records, and these weren't meant to be saved for posterity's sake - much of the material on this 10-CD box set was taken from the Columbia masters, which at the time were basically metal parts. Others were taken from 78s owned by collectors, so high fidelity isn't really to be expected from these early recording.

What we do have here is an impressive collection of the first woman to really sell tons of records by herself singing almost strictly blues material with a kind of raunchy edge. She wasn't afraid to put her sexuality into her art, perhaps making her one of the first divas in a long series leading all the way to modern-day artists such as Madonna. She also was the first female recording artist to call her own shots in the business - a rarity in the male-dominated era of early blues recordings. But Smith also was a huge influence on jazz singers as well, and it would be difficult to imagine a Billie Holiday or a Nina Simone without her template. This box set is highly recommended for those interested in early recorded blues history.

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