On November 21, 1955, RCA Victor made the sweetest deal in the history of the recording industry. For the grand sum of $35,000 plus outstanding royalties, which amounted to another $5000 or so, RCA purchased from Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records the recording contract of Elvis Presley, an oddball country-and-western singer who had been making a stir in the trade magazines since his first release on Sun 16 months earlier. His fifth and ultimately last 45-rpm record on Sun, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" -- featuring a keening, wild version of Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" on the flip side -- had recently peaked at the top of the national C&W charts. By then everyone with a stake in the recording industry was aware that Presley was a hot property. Accordingly his services were actively being sought by a number of major labels. In November 1955, though, only RCA was willing to lay out the kind of major cash that Phillips was requesting for Presley's contract. "Nobody's worth that much," Mitch Miller, head of Columbia Records, reportedly said a few months earlier when told that Presley's contract was on the block for roughly half of what RCA eventually paid.
Nearly 44 years later, it's safe to assume that RCA's bold investment in Presley has reaped substantial dividends. To date more than one billion Presley singles, EPs, LPs, and compact discs have been sold worldwide, each bearing the imprimatur of RCA Records. It appears to make no difference at all to RCA that its most consistently bankable artist has been dead for half of those 44 years or that all but a minuscule fraction of Presley's noteworthy recordings were readily available to the public 20 years ago. At a steady clip of four or five full-length releases per year since Presley's death, RCA has kept the Elvis albums and CDs coming. It's been one relentless onslaught, and the end appears to be nowhere in sight.
"There's actually been an increase in product sales over the past five years," says Michael O'Mansky, the man at RCA in charge of selling and reselling Presley's music to the world. "There's a reliable core audience for this stuff." He explains that RCA can usually rely on worldwide sales of at least 200,000 units for each new Presley release in its first year of availability. After the first year, sales taper off, but Presley records and discs, he says, "have a long shelf life" and continue to sell in significant numbers for years. Lately, O'Mansky adds, "we've been marketing him better, spending more money on promotion, upgrading the product. Our real opportunity right now is on the fringes, and that's the people we're trying to appeal to."
While it's difficult to tell what O'Mansky means by "the fringes" or how he hopes to appeal to them, he's right about one thing: RCA has undeniably been upgrading its product. Already this year the company has released six new tastefully packaged Presley compilations. Nearly all of them come with comprehensive liner notes that place Presley and the music in question into some kind of historical and musical perspective. Most of them also include previously unreleased recordings that are usually well short of stellar yet nonetheless interesting, if only for curiosity's sake. Out of this plethora of well-intended releases, however, only one aspires to supreme, enduring grandeur.
Released last month, Elvis Presley/Artist of the Century is RCA's latest bid to render Presley and his remarkable body of work immortal. The sordid business of beatifying Presley has reeked of unbridled profiteering for some time, but lately the whole enterprise has simply grown tiresome. Even a moderate cynic should be excused for suspecting RCA of trying yet again to cash in on another slickly packaged greatest-hits collection. Without benefit of a single unreleased song, Artist of the Century is loaded with the same old Presley standards RCA has been reissuing on album after album for roughly 40 years. The best that can probably be said of this chronologically arranged three-CD set -- and it's saying a lot -- is that, in the span of 68 songs and 18 pages of laudatory and occasionally illuminating quotes from Elvis' legions of admirers, the package nearly manages to put Presley's entire recording career in its proper, awe-inspiring perspective. (Had RCA included a sampling of Presley's movie soundtrack clinkers like "There's No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" and "Dominic the Impotent Bull" and merely the cream of Presley's gospel output, the job would have been complete.)
It's true that Presley's substantial influence on late-20th-century world culture has largely been lost on contemporary American society. He is still with us, of course, as he likely always will be, but somehow the very culture that he was instrumental in transforming has in turn transformed him into nothing more than an inconsequential buffoon who pissed away whatever talent he had on drugs, teenage beauty queens, fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, horrendous movies, and glitzy, unappreciative hordes of rich Vegas tourists. But such an easy summation of Presley falls well short of telling the whole story. "Hearing him for the first time," Bob Dylan once said, "was like busting out of jail." "Before Elvis," John Lennon intoned sometime later, "there was nothing." "If any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world," Greil Marcus wrote, "Elvis Presley is the one." Those memorable and oft-repeated one-liners tell quite a bit more of the story.
Artist of the Century fills in many of the remaining details: Presley's Southern-fried fusion of blues, R&B, country, pop, and uninhibited Pentecostal shouting at Sun in 1954 to 1955; his slightly less inspired but vastly more influential early rock and ballad sides at RCA; the occasional gems, such as "Little Sister" and "Down in the Alley," recorded against an overall backdrop of mediocrity in the early and mid-'60s; his recommitment to his talent and subsequent re-emergence as a relevant contemporary pop and R&B singer in the late '60s; his embrace of big, juicy slabs of pop melodrama like "An American Trilogy" in the '70s.
As the new set amply demonstrates, Presley at his best was certainly among the most riveting, inventive entertainers of this or any other century. His first record for Sun, a cover of bluesman Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," still sounds as thrilling and otherworldly as it did when Presley recorded it 45 years ago. The Otis Blackwell-penned "Don't Be Cruel" remains the epitome of the perfect pop sensibility, and 1969's "Suspicious Minds" continues to stand as one of the most infectious, indelible pieces of soul ever caught on tape. There is also just enough transcendent blues-singing on Artist of the Century to erase any doubt as to whether Elvis was a master of the idiom.
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Sadly Artist of the Century also unfailingly demonstrates how maddeningly dull and disappointing Presley could be at less than his best. Most funeral dirges have more spunk than "Love Me Tender," and there are polkas that rock harder and with more spirit than "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck." The presence of the caterwauling Jordanaires on most of his '50s and '60s work is ceaselessly annoying. "Don't Cry Daddy," cut in Memphis a week after "Suspicious Minds," is hypersentimentalized pap tailor-made for elevators and suburban supermarkets.
Artist of the Century does well to disguise the fact that Presley went through protracted periods of recording nothing but pointless tripe and, toward the end of his life, simply nothing. Anyone who cared at all about Presley as a viable artist would be infuriated during his insouciant periods, if only because it was so obvious that he could make great music anytime he pleased. Only Presley, his lackeys, and his die-hard, most uncritical fans seemed oblivious to his erosion as a creative talent.
Naturally Artist of the Century sticks predominantly with Presley's better material. In doing so it strengthens RCA's claim on Presley's behalf that he, in fact, is the artist of the century (as opposed to, say, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, or Miles Davis, none of whom recorded for RCA). Whatever the merits of the claim, no one can say RCA didn't come up with a crackerjack of a sales concept, particularly for a collection of songs that amounts to only a slight variation of the many "Greatest Hits," "Gold Records," "Legendary Performer," and "Essential" compilations RCA has released over the past four decades.
According to O'Mansky, Artist of the Century has already sold the requisite 200,000 copies worldwide. A week after being released in July, it debuted at No. 168 on the Billboard pop chart only to disappear, presumably forever, the following week. But lest anyone think the Presley magic is fading, realize this: Artist of the Century debuted at No. 8 last week on the pop chart in Holland. Not only does that kind of international success give RCA reason to celebrate, it also virtually ensures that Elvis Presley: King of the Millennium will be in stores in time for Christmas.