Marketing the return of the King

As the anniversary of Elvis' death nears, hype and hope keep him rocking on

July 02, 2002|By Steve Morse | Steve Morse,BOSTON GLOBE

You're not entering the Twilight Zone yet, but you may be soon. This is the summer of Elvis hype - the 25th anniversary of Presley's death is Aug. 16 - and waves of Elvis goodies have arrived or are on their way, as marketing departments work overtime to satiate the anticipated demand.

The first wave is a four-CD box set, Today, Tomorrow & Forever, which RCA released last week. It's a sometimes transfixing but wildly inconsistent set of previously unreleased music that spans the King's career. More on that in a moment.

That box is just the teaser. A separate compilation, Elvis 30 #1 Hits, patterned after the best-selling Beatles release of hits two years ago, is due later this summer. And because RCA's parent company, Bertelsmann, also owns Random House, there are three Elvis-related Random House books in the pipeline: The Elvis Treasures (a coffee-table biography); The Girls' Guide to Elvis (a look at his romantic life); and Lilo & Stitch, a children's book companion to the new Disney film with an Elvis connection.

The film features six Elvis songs and is targeting the pre-pubescent generation. An older, teen-plus generation is the target of a newly remixed single of a 1968 Elvis tune, "A Little Less Conversation." It was remixed by Dutch DJ JXL (better known as Junkie XL, he modified his name because Presley's estate didn't appreciate the drug reference).

The song is due out in another week in the United States but has already gone to No. 1 in England, where it made history because it broke Elvis' tie with the Beatles for most No. 1 hits in the U.K. (If you're keeping score, Elvis now has 18 to the Beatles' 17.) And in a further marketing stroke, the song has been used in a Nike ad for the World Cup.

New finds

The older generation - the people generally thought to have a few more dollars to spend - represent the target audience of Today, Tomorrow & Forever, especially if they are collectors. And of course, some Elvis collectors have to scoop up everything in sight.

The marketing gurus are getting clever in coming up with Elvis boxes. Last year's entry was the four-CD Elvis: Live in Las Vegas, which collected 20 years of performances in the neon city. And it has been 10 years since the release of the impressive five-CD box Elvis: The King of Rock 'n' Roll - The Complete '50s Masters, which tracked his rockabilly hiccup and hip-shaking days.

The new box is a chronological look at his entire career, from the mightiest of highs to the schlockiest of lows.

Too bad RCA didn't just release the first of its four CDs, because that's the keeper. It features seven newly discovered live tracks (from a private collector) of a 1956 concert at Robinson Memorial Auditorium in Little Rock, Ark. It's like listening to an early Beatlemania set. A local DJ, Ray Green, sounds as nervous as Elvis as he introduces something he calls "Heartbreak Motel." The DJ also gives a fractured, running commentary: "Presley just walked out on stage ... he's fumbling with his microphone now ... he's giving his cues to the boys and he's winding up his legs right now, and here he goes!"

The Little Rock set speeds from "Heartbreak Hotel" to "Long Tall Sally" ("recorded by a friend of mine, Little Richard," says Elvis), "I Was the One," "Money Honey," Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman," Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" (about which Elvis jokes, "We've been doing this song for 25 to 30 years across the country") and "Hound Dog."

Too much syrup

The exhilaration of this live performance should keep collectors happy, but far less successful are the alternate studio takes that fill much of the box. Even though some of these come from newly discovered tapes, many are just a mess. And do we really need to hear Take 48 of "Doncha' Think It's Time" and Take 26 of "Can't Help Falling in Love"?

OK, in some cases, yes.

"It might seem like we have all the other takes, but we don't. Many were taped over in those days," says Alex Miller, vice president of BMG Heritage and a prime compiler of the new box. Miller also notes that "Almost every day we get a phone call from someone saying, `I have a tape, and I'm certain it's Elvis.' " Miller often sends such tapes to Elvis expert Ernst Jorgenson in Denmark, who "can tell from the opening two notes," he says. "He knows Elvis' phrasing that well."

The new box, however, has too many syrupy outtakes of ballads that Elvis sang for B movies such as Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Fun in Acapulco. They're just going to remind you of how his autocratic manager, Col. Tom Parker, made some terrible decisions in taking the young, raw Elvis and steering him into Hollywood snooze land.

But if you can procure the Arkansas live tracks on the first of the four CDs, you'll realize, even after all these years, that there are still some new Elvis gems that shine no matter how deep the marketing is piled on top.

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