Every once in awhile you have to clear the musical palate and return to basics. Elvis Presley may not have invented rock ‘n’ roll but he helped to establish the form and his music is always a nice place to visit.
I can’t count the number of Presley compilations that the RCA Label has released since his death over thirty years ago. The Decade Sets remain the most comprehensive and best of those releases. I recently reviewed From Nashville To Memphis: The Essential 60’s Masters and Walk A Mile In My Shoes: The Essential 70’s Masters, which as representative of their respective decades have some ups and downs. Elvis: The King Of Rock 'N' Roll – The Complete 50’s Masters has no such problem as it presents the heart of the Elvis catalogue. It was this 1950s material that made him a household name and established rock as a commercial and cultural presence in The United States. The music contained in this box set was essential in steering rock ‘n’ roll from its country and rhythms and blues origins to the advent of The Beatles sound in 1963.
This massive 140 track, 5 CD set contains every original master released by Elvis Presley during the 1950s plus 14 unreleased performances. The huge booklet contains an excellent biography, notes from each session, and a number of pictures from the era. When you add it all up you have one of the better box sets in existence and certainly one of the most essential.
Disc one traces Elvis’ evolution from country rockabilly singer for the Sun label to his earliest releases for RCA. Songs such as “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone,” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” have a raw appeal as they present the pre-rock Elvis who is still in a developmental stage. By the Time “Heartbreak Hotel” and "Blue Suede Shoes” blast out of the speakers that development is complete.
Discs two through four are the heart of the release and of the early soul of rock ‘n’ roll. “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “All Shook Up,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” and others are still instantly recognizable a half century after their release. In addition his entire Christmas album is included plus his first gospel recordings also make an appearance. Through good times and bad Elvis would always be sincere when recording holiday and spiritual songs and contained here are some of his best which also provide a nice counterpoint to the rest of the material.
Disc five is the only one that I could have done without. I think RCA meant well but the fourteen unreleased songs are just different versions of his better known hits. I just don’t need a slow version and an up-tempo version of “Loving You.” After a listen for curiosity sake it is not a disc I return too.
Realistically five hours of music and a high price may be more time and money many people want to invest. There are certainly more modest ways to explore the Elvis legacy. However, if you want to celebrate some of the best music in history and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, this box set is the place to start.