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Dig Dug

RCA unearths 100 "lost" Elvis recordings, just in time to celebrate his death day


Dead 25 years come August 16, Elvis Presley is, once more, the hottest corpse in the ground. Recently, he topped the pops in the United Kingdom for the first time since he died on the dumper -- with a song, no less, that was relatively unknown to all but the hardcore till its use in Ocean's Eleven last year and a new Nike ad tied to the World Cup. Now, the Mac Davis/Billy Strange-penned "A Little Less Conversation" is about to become the ubiquitous single of the summer of 2002, thanks to a groovy redo by Junkie XL that polishes an already sparkling song, the funkiest thing the fat man cut in the 1960s. Released first as a single in 1968, when the song appeared in Live a Little, Love a Little, the remix hit U.S. outlets last month, only days after Presley bumped the Beatles from the history books. Where both were tied at the top, with seventeen U.K. number-ones, now Elvis walks alone. Amazing what a dead guy can do when grave robbers toss his fat ass onto a dance floor.

The Elvis-JXL single, which marks the first time Elvis Presley Enterprises has allowed such a remix, was but the beginning of an Elvis onslaught. In subsequent weeks, majors and minors revved up the money machine to capitalize on -- pardon, celebrate -- the anniversary of the King's dethroning. Tomato Records, which has been plundering Townes Van Zandt's tomb in recent weeks, has slated for release Elvis' recordings from the Louisiana Hayride in the mid-'50s, which have been circulating in legit and illegit forms for years. And RCA's got two monster releases forthcoming, chief among them September 24's Elvis 30 #1 Hits, which parent company BMG insists is the "first ever collection of 30 Presley number-one singles on one CD." (If nothing else, the enormous success of Beatles 1 proves people are more than willing to buy one CD that collects the most famous songs on a dozen discs already in their possession; this disproves labels' fears that the CD burner will render all best-ofs and greatest-hits a moot point.)

But the most significant release tied to the anniversary of Presley's death -- and, really, is there anything as morbid as celebrating an expiration date? -- is Today, Tomorrow & Forever, a four-disc boxed set containing 100 previously unreleased Elvis tracks, a fairly astonishing claim given that Elvis allowed the release of alternate tracks during the '70s, when he needed to fill space on albums to which he'd committed. (At one point, he was under contract to RCA for three albums a year, a burden he'd become too weary to bear.) And only five years ago, RCA released Platinum: A Life in Music, which proffered Presley's chronological history in the studio using 77 outtakes among its 100 tracks. Besides, it's not as though even the casual fan is unfamiliar with the bulk of what appears in this collection; here, for the 432nd time, are "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog" and "In the Ghetto" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and on and on. There's even some real crap here, an admission made plain in Colin Escott's track-by-track liner notes: "Elvis had good reason to sleepwalk through 'The Love Machine.' It was, by any yardstick, a ghastly song."

Yet Today, Tomorrow & Yesterday is one of those compelling listens, a best-of-and-rest-of that offers an alternate history, a what-if? timeline. It begins with a July 1954 recording of "Harbor Lights" (a hit for Bing Crosby only four years earlier), cut during Elvis' very first days in the Sun studios, and it ends with a February 1976 rendition of "Hurt," which had been a concert staple and, Elvis used to insist, one of his favorite songs. In between are legendary live recordings from shows seen on old footage but never heard (specifically the May 16, 1956, performance at the Robinson Memorial Auditorium in Little Rock), outtakes from movie soundtracks (including the collection's title song, a long-lost duet with Ann-Margret originally recorded for Viva Las Vegas) and copious alternate takes from sessions made at home and in the studio. Throughout, Elvis can be heard cracking jokes (including one about the Vietcong at the height of the Vietnam War), making small talk with the band and trying to figure out just how the hell to give depth to the fluff he was stuck with throughout the latter part of his career.

"This is an intimate way of getting to know Elvis," says Ernst Jorgensen, calling from his garden in Denmark. Jorgensen has been handling RCA's Elvis reissues for years, and the Great Dane has become a beloved figure amongst Elvis devotees, second only to biographer Peter Guralnick. "I am a foreigner, so I look at Elvis with an element of surprise. In America, Elvis was ridiculed, a victim of the way he died and looked, the abuse of medicine, all that. In a small country like this, we would have been much kinder to him. When we started, in the early '90s, it was like nothing of Elvis' music was left. I was trying to get people back to where he came from. The music is where the real greatness is, and we wanted to tell that story."

Alex Miller, head of BMG's reissue department, says the 100 tracks were collected from myriad disparate sources -- from collectors (the label gets at least one call a day from someone claiming to have a long-lost tape), from the label's estimable vaults, from engineers who worked on sessions, from radio stations that broadcast Elvis concerts in the '50s. Jorgensen and Roger Semon began compiling the box five years ago -- around the time the 300,000-selling Platinum was released -- in preparation for the 25th anniversary of Presley's death. Theirs would be a revisionist history of sorts: They wanted the world to hear "In the Ghetto," for instance, stripped of its garish ornamentation; they wanted to show the playful Elvis, the thoughtful Elvis, the goofy Elvis, the uninterested Elvis.

It would be a chronological story, much like Platinum, but without the reverence that collection showed. Today, Tomorrow & Yesterday is almost a blasphemous box; it's like a fête at which the guest of honor shows up a little out of it and makes one hell of a mess. But because Elvis often had little regard for his own legacy -- some 12 years after Elvis stepped into Sun, he wound up recording "Yoga Is as Yoga Does" -- why shouldn't the men charged with maintaining it muck with the myth? The icon is resilient enough to withstand re-evaluation, indestructible enough to stand up to the skeletons falling out of the closet. So, yeah, here's "The Love Machine," indefensible crap. But here, too, is Elvis ripping the guts out of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." And, yeah, here's another version of that lousy "Snowbird" (already a hit for Anne Murray when Elvis got to it); but here, too, is a "Pieces of My Heart" done in 1975 that may be the most revelatory and heartbreaking thing the man ever recorded ("Now I'm holding on to nothing/Trying to forget the rest").

"He's not here to protest what we're doing," Jorgensen says. "But since outtakes and even the songs Elvis hated were released when he was alive, I don't think we overstepped any borders. And being such a major influence on the past century -- and this one as well -- I think you get to the point where you're writing history. You wouldn't discard early sketches of Picasso's or early letters of Hitler's because you think that's not what they should be known for. At some point, history takes over. We always keep Elvis' official masters available so people can hear the real thing. It's not that we force them to listen to these 'sloppy' things....There are just conflicts that you have to explain. His was a career of contradictions. He was a contradiction."