Even at this late date, Elvis Presley remains one of popular culture's biggest mysteries. And, as any trip to a bookstore will tell you, mysteries are profitable: Whole forests have been felled in attempts to explain Elvis', well, Elvis-ness. Go ahead, pile on the evidence -- the records, the books, the photos, the videos -- but he becomes no less inscrutable, no less a protean character. He was a rocker, sure, but no rocker had Presley's penchant for syrupy, schmaltz-laden balladry. He was a captivating performer, but also the star of dozens of godawful, cheaply made films where he'd gurgle up tripe like "Queenie Wahini's Papaya." He was utterly charismatic, but also a man who succumbed to bloat and kitsch in his later years. It's easy to say that you like Elvis, but really, which Elvis is it that you like?
The two lovingly compiled discs that make up "The King's Record Collection" -- comprising 28 songs Presley would cover throughout his career -- don't make the Elvis Legacy any more straightforward; indeed, it just adds to the confusion. But in attempting to tease out some of Elvis' musical heroes, it provides a solid ground to start unknotting that bundle of contradictions. For anyone willing to start working those threads, Volume I is crucial listening, for it displays what Elvis was eager to change in his favorite music -- and, more interestingly, what he was afraid to tinker with. Compare Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right, Mama" to Elvis' cataclysmic 1954 Sun Records version, and you hear the sound of a man who's impatient with the politeness of pure country; Crudup sounds earnest, while Presley oozes a sort of predatory sexuality, along with a deeper sense of swing. His tactic was much the same with his takes on bluegrass titan Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" and the Shelton Brothers' "Just Because," pouncing on them with youthful fervor. And then, as solid proof of Elvis' talents as an arranger, there's his artful transformation of "Mystery Train," where he takes Little Junior Parker's simple blues ditty and turns it into a more mournful and ethereal creature.
While Presley seemed comfortable playing fast and loose with country, blues and early R&B, doo-wop apparently made him nervous; possibly figuring that there was little point in trying to outdo Clyde McPhatter, his takes on the Drifters' "Money Honey" and the Ink Spots' "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" aren't very different from the originals, more homages than interpretations. It's Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," however, that stymies Presley. Elvis tried more than 30 takes of his own "Hound Dog" to get it right, and hearing Thornton's original, it's easy to understand why; it's an overwhelming, deep and ragged blues, supremely soulful, and even Presley's masterful pop take can't quite compete.
Volume I functions a both a solid compilation of postwar pop, blues, country and R&B and as a sort of skeleton key that allows you to approach Presley's sensibilities as a singer and musician. The more disappointing Volume II, with songs that Elvis would record after his stint in the Army, is a more schizophrenic creature. Part of the problem is that it's made up of songs Presley was fed by producers, as opposed to stuff he genuinely loved. Eddy Arnold's "You Don't Know Me," Roy Peterson's "The Wonder of You" and Chuck Willis' "I Feel So Bad" have the same hitbound pop sheen to them that Elvis' takes do. Still, revelations do crop up: Presley's sultry "Fever" is almost the precise opposite of the sophisticated cool of Little Willie John's original, and you can hear him strive for the beauty of the Orioles' gospel classic "Crying in the Chapel."
Still, no clear Elvis emerges from these songs (which, incidentally, are well annotated and remastered brilliantly). But at the very least, the first disc helps to clue the listener in to how much Elvis changed pop music, how he began to make it "rock." It doesn't clear up the rest of the enigmas that surrounded Presley's life, but it does uncover a small bit of what the young Elvis wanted to accomplish as a musician. The Jungle Room notwithstanding, Elvis Presley was a man of impeccable taste.