Elvis on FTD helps cure the “No More Boxed Sets Blues”

For the last couple of years, around this time, ShopElvis.com has been kind enough to send me a 20% off coupon for use on CDs from Follow That Dream Records. FTD is Sony’s Elvis collectors label, aimed mostly at fanatics like me.

FTD releases are essentially official bootlegs. The Elvis bootleg industry is huge, but FTD provides a legal alternative with releases focusing on alternate takes and live performances. While the mainstream listens to yet another greatest hits compilation, the hardcore Elvis fans listen to FTD releases. Yes, there is still “new” Elvis material released all the time. Though the pace seems to have slowed in the last few months, at one time FTD was averaging about twelve releases a year.

I cannot afford to buy every FTD CD that comes along, so the 20% off allows me to splurge every now and then. Last night, I ordered three two-CD sets: Elvis Is Back!, Elvis Country, and New Year’s Eve.

Elvis Is Back! and Elvis Country are expanded editions of two of the best albums released in his lifetime. In addition to the original songs, multiple alternate takes and bonus songs from the same sessions are included.

Elvis recorded the Elvis Is Back! album in 1960, soon after returning from his two years of service in the US Army. It features a supreme mix of rock ‘n’ roll and blues. The highlight for me is “Reconsider, Baby” – a Lowell Fulson blues number with not only a fantastic performance from Elvis, but also one by Boots Randolph on sax.

During the same 1970 session that produced his masterpiece That’s The Way It Is album, Elvis also recorded the bulk of the songs on Elvis Country. Among the many highlights are “Tomorrow Never Comes” and “I Really Don’t Want To Know.”

New Year’s Eve captures Elvis’ December 31, 1976, concert in Pittsburgh. It was one of the longest concerts he ever gave, requiring two CDs. Unfortunately, the only available source is an audience recording. Since so many high quality concert recordings are out there, I have been wary of trying this one. Mostly positive reviews I have read over the years, not to mention 20% off, finally helped me take the leap, though. I am looking forward to finally hearing this show. Sadly, it was to be Elvis’ last New Year’s Eve.

That is a total of six discs of Elvis material on the way to me right now. Actually, seven if you count The Wonder of You, a newly released FTD CD that I pre-ordered some time ago and that shipped tonight. I will be reviewing that one soon for Elvis Australia.

My anticipation of multiple Elvis discs brings me back to what became another seemingly annual ritual for me in the 1990s: Counting down for and purchasing Elvis boxed sets.

This was back when they still put cool Elvis music on store shelves and you did not have to order them on the FTD label. We fans really were spoiled back in those days (as we are now). Here is a brief look back at some of the key Elvis boxed sets from the 1990s:

1991: Collectors Gold (3 discs): This collection focused on the 1960s, with one disc of alternates from various Nashville sessions, one disc of alternates from various Hollywood sessions, and one disc of live material from his 1969 Vegas shows. I bought this almost exclusively for the live disc, particularly to finally own a copy of the laughing version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

1992: The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Complete 50s Masters (5 discs): This is the definitive look at Elvis’ music in the 1950s, often considered his most historic. It contains master takes of every song he recorded in the studio during that time, and several alternate and live tracks. I graduated from high school about a year after this was released. I spent the bulk of the gift money I received from various people on this boxed set. I am sure they intended their money to be used for educational purposes, which is why I point out that this is a slice of American history.

1993: From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60s Masters I (5 discs): Since it was the only decade during which he recorded every year, the bulk of Elvis’ recordings are from the 1960s. Many of these are unfortunately bland movie tunes. Since it was not feasible to include a complete set of masters like the 1950s, this set instead wisely focuses on Elvis’ non-movie recordings. His live and gospel recordings from this decade are also left out, due to space considerations. What is left behind, though, is a surprising, strong collection of songs that were far too often previously hidden as bonus cuts on otherwise poor soundtrack albums. This set dramatically changed my opinion about Elvis’ work in the 1960s. Incidentally, a two-disc “Best of” collection of 1960s movie tunes, Command Performances: The Essential 60s Masters II, was released shortly after this set as a companion piece. His complete 1960s gospel recordings have also subsequently been released on two or three different multi-disc sets. A recent boxed set for his 1968 Comeback Special is also required listening, as well as the various 1969 Vegas live recordings.

1995: Walk A Mile In My Shoes: The Essential 70s Masters (5 discs): I remember being upset when this 1970s boxed set finally saw the light of day after various delays. From the cover art to the content, it lacked the care of the 1950s and 1960s sets. The 1970s are probably my favorite Elvis decade, so I was expecting a lot from this one. Like the 1960s set, they simply had too much material to fit onto five discs. Instead, they focused on the single releases on the first two discs, used a “best of the rest” approach on the next two discs, and concluded with a disappointing hodgepodge of live songs and rehearsals on the final disc. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s sets, this meant that the master takes were often presented out of sequence. The sound quality was the best yet for all of the songs, but their approach on this one was just a mess. As with a lot of releases of Elvis’ 1970s material, they seem to say, “It’s only the 1970s. Who cares? We can’t let it seem better than his 1950s work.” I used to believe there was actually a “conspiracy” of that nature at the record label starting in the early 1990s. Maybe I still believe this. Anyway, as with most poorly executed Elvis releases, the power of Elvis and his music saves this one, for there are a number of gems on here – including a previously unreleased studio version of “My Way.” I love this music, and I would not trade this set for anything, but it could have been so much more.

1997: A Life In Music (4 discs): I have come to appreciate this set of mostly alternate takes and live performances more over the years. It pales in comparison to the decade sets, though, which is probably why it seemed less than satisfying in their shadows at the time. Highlights here include alternate takes of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “If I Can Dream.”

Boxed set releases continued into the 2000s, but that annual tradition is mostly gone now. FTD helps fill the void. Here I am, counting down again. New-to-me Elvis music is on the way.