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Elvis Presley—Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight(RCA/Legacy)

Elvis Presley—From Elvis in Memphis(RCA/Legacy)

Elvis Presley—On Stage(RCA/Legacy)

When it comes to Elvis Presley, the operative word is duality. As in dual legacies: the young, rebellious, out-of-nowhere rock ’n’ roll fireball versus the genial, nothing-more-to-prove, middle-of-the-road supper club artiste. And subsequently today, depending on one’s age and/or level of cultural awareness, these two opposing personas determine where the listener stands on the man called King—for better or worse. People seem to either love their Elvis early, wild, and raw or in later, full-voiced “entertainer” mode; rarely does one meet a fan of both phases. While these plush multi-disc sets, released by RCA/Legacy in honor of what would’ve been the icon’s 75th year, probably won’t bridge the generation gap entirely, they do offer enough potential points of interest to prompt at least some reassessment from either end of the spectrum.

Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight breaks Presley’s two-sided career down further, into four epochs over as many CDs: 1953-1957 (his first demo acetate and initial rockabilly material for Sun Records and RCA), 1958-1962 (more early RCA cuts and selections from movie soundtracks), 1963-1969 (further soundtrack items and songs from his late-’60s “comeback” period), and 1970-1977 (Las Vegas years, adult contemporary fare, and 2002’s smash remix of ’68s “A Little Less Conversation”). In addition to the expected hits (all 30 chart-topping singles), the attractive box’s 100 remastered tracks include deep album cuts, lesser-known singles, and live performances that, while not giving fans anything previously unreleased, do add up to a striking overview of the rich breadth of Elvis’s oeuvre. Naturally there are some omissions due to space—“Trying to Get to You,” a personal favorite, isn’t here—but in the end Elvis 75 will sit proudly on your shelf as the last word on the King’s career. A gorgeous 80-page color booklet features unseen photos and a lengthy essay by Billy Altman.

If there’s one of these three sets that most ties into the re-evaluation angle alluded to above, it’s the deluxe two-disc edition of From Elvis in Memphis. Recorded and released the year after his celebrated ’68 “comeback” TV special, the original album is perhaps the most perfect balance between the old and the new Elvis. His first hometown studio date since leaving Sun in 1955, it contains not only the type of “mature” songs that would encompass his later work (the hit closer “In the Ghetto”), but also deep country-soul and gospel (“I’ll Hold You in My Heart [Till I Can Hold You in My Arms],” the chillingly prophetic “Long Black Limousine”), and bluesy rockers (the bludgeoning, underrated “Power of My Love”). A maudlin cover of “Hey Jude” among disc one’s bonus tracks foretells the oncoming schmaltz on disc two, which adds mono mixes of “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Rubberneckin’,” (a guilty pleasure) and other singles to 1970’s follow-up LP from the same date, Back in Memphis.

By the time of the live On Stage (this version adds an August 1969 concert to the original January 1970 performance), however, Presley was beginning the legendary pomp of his Las Vegas run, and as such it’s unlikely to sway many of those who prefer the stripped-down Elvis. In a bid to remain relevant in the face of a drastically and quickly changing rock and pop scene, it finds him reinterpreting hits by Neil Diamond, CCR, and the Beatles for sit-down crowds during his residence at Vegas’s International Hotel. But whatever his motivations, and despite the setting, Elvis’s majestic powers as a vocalist are undeniable; the way he caresses the lines and launches them soaring, heavenward, on a version of the Everly Brothers’ “Let it Be Me,” backed by an all-pro band led by guitar ace James Burton, is indeed staggering. And, belying his newfound “grown-up” mode, the younger Elvis does occasionally poke through: A rehearsal of “The Wonder of You,” in which he replaces the word “consolation” in the third line with “constipation,” is grin-worthy. Like they say: You can take the boy out of the country, but…—Peter Aaron

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