Elvis was a rock star, though he never set out to be a rock star. He couldn’t have, because before Elvis, there was no such thing as rock stars. In 1953 when an 18-year-old Elvis Presley dropped into Sun Studios in his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., his intention was to record a few songs for his beloved momma as a birthday present. But his talent was recognized by the studio’s owner, and rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural phenomenon was born.
“ELV1S,” the new album released by RCA records in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death, contains 30 of the King’s number-one hits. Hoping to imitate the success of last year’s The Beatles #1 collection, RCA is releasing “ELV1S” as part of a $10 million campaign to help young people appreciate Elvis’ message of freedom, compassion and loving sensuality.
The songs are arranged chronologically, starting with 1956’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and ending with “Way Down,” released two months before his death in 1977. The 31st track, a so-called “bonus track,” is a remix of a little-known song originally released in 1968 called “A Little Less Conversation.” When I first heard Elvis singing what had been made into a 21st-century pop song, I was overcome by a wave of nausea. Nonetheless, it has begun to grow on me as “DJ JXL’s” tomfoolery was not able to overshadow the King’s magnificent voice.
This collection is a must-have for any American who considers him or herself a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, pop or even modern country music. There’s a saying at Graceland that “before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything.” And from the early rock beats of “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” to the soulful lullabies “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to the insightful and powerful “Suspicious Minds” and the unpretentious but socially conscious lament of “In the Ghetto” — this album proves that saying right.
Of course, some of my favorites, such as “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Wearing That Loved On Look” couldn’t be found. But no single CD collection of Elvis’ hits could ever completely satisfy all his fans. As an organizing principle, selecting only No. 1 hits for a “best of” album works particularly well for someone like Elvis Presley, whose importance has as much to do with his influence on culture as it does with his influence on music.
Elvis struggled valiantly, Elvis gave generously, Elvis made the world more beautiful, more exciting and much more interesting. Elvis was a humanitarian who was destroyed by a world to which he gave so much. He died tragically at an all too young age. Elvis was not a buffoon, and he never intended to be a hero. Despite the legend, despite the hype, despite the marketing — Elvis Aaron Presley was nothing more and nothing less than a humble, kind and rather eccentric human being, who always had the courage to be himself. And by being himself, he changed the world.