Most people who know anything about Elvis Presley know that his career ignited in 1954 with his recording of the old Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup blues song “That’s All Right.” It became a signature number in his live shows, and it was something fans always waited for in the last years of his life during his seemingly endless stream of concerts in Las Vegas.
Yet it was several years before anyone living outside the vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee, where he recorded that number at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, knew anything about “That’s All Right.”
“ ‘That’s All Right’ is widely acknowledged as the beginning of the explosion of his career,” said John Jackson, senior vice president of A&R (artist development) for Sony’s Legacy Recordings catalog division, which has just released “Elvis Presley — The Album Collection,” a monstrous 60-CD box set containing all 57 albums released by his label, RCA Records, during Presley’s lifetime. It also includes three CDs of rare tracks, alternate takes and other bonus material from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
“That’s All Right,” Jackson noted, “was released to the public originally as a single from the small Memphis label Sun Records. It sold about 20,000 copies. It didn’t come out to the public at large until 1959, on the ‘Something for Everybody’ album, a compilation the label put together because Elvis was in the Army and they thought, ‘Hey, let’s put something out.’
“It was on a compilation of singles that had already come out and sold millions, songs like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ I can’t imagine what impact it might have had as sort of a leftover dropped in among those huge hits.”
The new box set follows Sony Legacy’s release of every track Presley recorded officially — all 711 of them — on the 30-CD box set “The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” in 2010.
That project put his recording career into chronological order — a drastically different sequence compared to how those songs were originally released to the public. Several of the songs Presley recorded with Phillips at Sun in 1954 and 1955, for instance, were dribbled out on RCA albums for several years after the label bought his contract from Phillips — for the then astronomical price of $35,000 (plus a $5,000 signing bonus to Presley).
“We’re pretty much constantly working on the Elvis catalog,” said Jackson, who earned a college degree in rock music history and wrote his thesis on Presley’s career. He had joined Legacy in 1998, at which point the label had nothing to do with Presley’s music. But a corporate merger in 2004 brought the RCA catalog under the Sony umbrella, a serendipitous development that couldn’t have made Jackson happier.
“His masters are well-represented everywhere,” Jackson said, “but the idea here was to have all the original albums in tiptop shape for digital, for downloading and for CD, rather than just doing a few at a time. This is the first time all the album masters have been up to the same quality at one time. We’ve gone back and done them all over again, from scratch, for this package for the hi-res audio providers, for the Mastered for iTunes program, for Spotify and all the streaming services. This is not a piecemeal exercise.”
The CD set, which is selling for around $250 on Amazon — about $4 per CD — is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the original release of Presley’s first RCA album, “Elvis Presley.” It includes a 300-page small-format book with pages devoted to each release, including song titles, songwriter and musician credits and other relevant archival information.
“What really comes across, more than just the music,” Jackson said, “is the marketing and the promotion of Elvis as a famous person. You see how sometimes they would include a new poster: Here’s a picture of what he’s up to in Germany [during his two-year stint in the Army], here’s a fold-down calendar with the date circled of when he’s coming home from Germany, here’s a picture of him in concert for all the people around the world who couldn’t go see him perform live.
“Everything was one large idea to The Colonel [Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker] and RCA Records. Sometimes the music wound up suffering, but he continued to come back by recording great tracks along the way.”
One intriguing example: Ten songs into the soundtrack for Presley’s 1966 car-racing movie “Spinout,” lurking among pedestrian numbers such as “Adam and Evil,” “Beach Shack” and “Smorgasbord,” is his version of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”
Among the book’s 52 pages of session information detailing each of his stints in a recording studio, it shows that during three days in 1957, amid recording songs for “Elvis’ Christmas Album,” he also knocked out two soon-to-be hit singles, “Treat Me Nice” and “Don’t.”
“He was always looking to record songs he liked,” Jackson said, even though, especially early on, the fare offered to Presley was drastically limited by Parker’s insistence that songwriters share their publishing royalties with Presley and Parker’s music publishing firm.
In some cases, signature tracks that weren’t included on studio albums — a practice common in the 1950s and even through much of the ’60s — have been added to the appropriate records. The original studio recording of Presley’s 1969 hit “Suspicious Minds,” for instance, didn’t appear on an album until the “Elvis Gold Records, Volume 5” compilation in 1984, seven years after his death at age 42.
Jackson is part of a team that also includes producer-engineer Ernst Jorgensen, who has done much to restore order to the chaos RCA subjected Presley’s recorded legacy to in the years immediately after his death, and Roger Seamon.
During the ’70s, Jackson notes, “It must have been genuinely confusing for fans. There are more than a dozen albums where the cover shows him in a white jumpsuit against a black background. Is it new studio stuff, is it live stuff, is it a mixture — what is this stuff? At the time, I don’t think it bothered them, but I think it would have been very confusing to people.”