When I think of Elvis Presley these days, a single image crowds out everything else.
It's the opening sequence of his 1962 film, ""Girls! Girls! Girls!"" — readily available on YouTube. The King sits glumly on the edge of a small fishing boat. As the title song — as bland and chewy as a slice of Wonder Bread — revs up on the soundtrack, Elvis starts half-heartedly snapping his fingers, looking as if he'd rather be anywhere else. Poor guy, you can't help but think.
That Elvis is mostly missing from ""Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight,"" a four-disc box set collecting a hundred tracks spanning the King's entire career, due out Dec. 8. Despite a few nods to the soundtrack years, you'd never guess from this set that the most important musical artist of the last 60 years spent the greater part of his recording career turning out songs like "" ""Clambake"" and ""Old MacDonald Had a Farm.""
The set's first disc — its best — kicks off with the ethereal ""My Happiness,"" the very first song Presley ever recorded at age 19 as a present for his mother. It's an astonishing performance from a teenager with no prior musical experience: sweet, dreamy and utterly confident. It points the way toward the best music Presley would make in the future.
Unforgivably, the set only includes six of the tracks Elvis recorded at the small independent Memphis label Sun Records, easily the best music he ever made in the studio. We do get Elvis's first single, his spirited take on ""That's All Right"" and his crazed assault on the country standard ""Blue Moon of Kentucky"" — the musical equivalent of the hydrogen bomb. But ""Milkcow Blues Boogie,"" the hardest rock Elvis ever recorded, is absent, and so is his best country recording, ""You're a Heartbreaker.""
We get a decent roundup of Elvis' famous ‘50s singles for RCA — ""Hound Dog,"" ""All Shook Up"" and the like. They're still great, but the older collection Elvis' Golden Records will probably suffice for anyone who only wants to remember the King during his glory days.
Contrary to popular belief, Elvis did record a lot of great music after the ‘50s, but it can be difficult to sort it out from the chaff. We get his scathing, bluesy take on ""Reconsider Baby,"" a track so convincingly menacing that it breaks your heart to imagine the great Elvis blues album that never was.
Disgracefully, we only get two tracks from the great 1968 ""comeback"" television special, the ballads ""If I Can Dream"" and ""Memories."" Elvis's searing take on ""One Night"" from that night may well be his greatest single performance; the rest of the show, with blistering takes on ""Trying to Get to You"" and ""Tiger Man"" and even ""Blue Christmas,"" is wild and wonderful. We get none of that here.
The best tracks Elvis recorded after the comeback special — especially the anguished ""Suspicious Minds"" and the magnificent ""Burning Love"" — are the equal of anything he ever did. But the ‘70s brought worse problems for Elvis than bad soundtracks, and the last disc of the set makes for painful listening — not because the music is bad, but because it's impossible to hear without thinking of its creator tumbling into an abyss of self-inflicted misery. By the time we reach the end of the set, with his gut-twisting version of ""Unchained Melody,"" it's almost unbearable.
Some great artists, like The Beatles, have discographies with nary a notable blotch; others, like Bob Dylan, have sprawling discographies characterized by wild shifts in tone. Elvis's body of work is the most frustrating of any great popular artist because he only seems in control of about a third of it. It's a shame the well-meaning executors of this box set didn't exercise a little more quality control. Yet the truly brilliant work — the Sun sessions, ""Suspicious Minds,"" the comeback special — will endure as long as humans exist, and any reminder of Elvis at his best is welcome.