"This music is full of humor, delight and blood -- with Elvis' buddies shouting for another chorus or Elvis forcing one. Compared to this -- very likely the greatest rock'n'roll ever recorded -- the Million Dollar Quartet is nothing."
American music critic/historian Greil Marcus is specifically referring to the magnificent "sit down" segments taped by Presley for inclusion in his first-ever TV special.
Elvis is alive and kicking in the summer of 1968 as he rehearses for and tapes his music for a Christmas broadcast. For many, the most glorious portions are the informal "sit down" jams. Derived from visionary director Steve Binder's idea to capture the informal rock and roll happening in Elvis' dressing room with original bandmates Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, two on June 24 and 25 are captured on tape with Elvis' own single mic cassette recorder. 'The Complete Dressing Room Session' is the first time both have appeared on a single disc.
What is patently obvious, hearing both the rehearsals and the two romps for the cameras, is that Presley has completely reconnected with his hard, rhythm and blues roots, from both his vital, other-worldly singing to his rudimentary but rough-as-sandpaper-against-skin electric guitar leads. In Scotty Moore's 1997 biography he relates how Elvis handed him a slew of 1950's blues 78s from his personal collection at Graceland and asked if Scotty would transfer them to reel-to-reel tape so he could listen again. How thrilling it might've been to find Elvis, Scotty and D.J. in a studio for a spell that summer, letting rip with blazing blues-rock.
Quiet conversations between tunes confirm the "informal" segment's goal of getting to know both the man and his music. "The idea of this segment to me is the songs and everything are secondary to the fact that we hear Elvis talking," relates producer Alan Blye. Binder chimes in his agreement, emphasizing it is a "really, really very important thing to the show." "I, I agree with you," replies Presley softly. It's significant that Elvis himself expresses concern as to how his songs should come off in front of an audience.
What about the music in the dressing room? Though not as intense as Presley would be a few days later, with the crowd, lights and cameras in his face, it's still a revelation. The desperate edge in his voice is there, but just a touch reserved. Beyond those selfsame numbers Elvis bangs out to perfection in two sets on June 27, these rehearsals include songs left off the final playlist like a version of "I Got A Woman" that critic Marcus compares to the sound of a jailbreak, instrumentals of "Danny Boy" and "Baby What You Want Me Do" (Scotty handling the electric lead on the latter). A dimwitted pal asks what the Jimmy Reed tune is and gets joke answers like "Raunchy" or "Walking The Dog." Elvis even breaks into the "Peter Gunn Theme" a few times! The June 25 version of "One Night" begins to loosen the walls, while two stabs at "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" sound nearly as dirty as the one on from June 27.
Two tracks deserve special mention. First, the 1968 rendition of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" is sloppy fun, with a hyper-driven arrangement Elvis would revisit on his 1970 studio performances of "A Hundred Years From Now." Presley feigns an inability to hit the higher notes of his first single B-side for Sun Records, while steadfastly playing it in the original key of A; if Elvis could cut a great "That's All Right, Mama" for NBC in the same key, and he did, this proves he could handle this Bill Monroe classic as well.
But the single, most amazing moment from the two days in the dressing room is when Tupelo's most famous citizen attacks Billy The Kid Emerson's "When It Rains, It Really Pours." It resembles neither Emerson's 1954 Sun single nor Elvis' unissued-at-the-time attempt in 1955 before leaving the Memphis studio for the splendor of RCA. His 1957 re-recording comes closer, but in Burbank he crafts the single most amazing, sustained burst of singing ever laid onto recording tape. His voice is huge, redefining life itself as he howls about his troubles, troubles, troubles. This finally saw official release in 1998, to little notice, on the 2xCD 'Memories' set.
The audio quality here is fine, especially given its source is a thirty year old, one-mic-input cassette player tape. In the case of this collection, the producers likely "borrowed" June 24 from a previous "import" CD and June 25 from the fan club only FTD disc 'Burbank 68.' Regrettably, they also chose to believe a "typo" on the FTD release, and moved the June 25 "Baby What You Want Me Do" to the end of the disc. Um, there never was a June 26 rehearsal, fellas.
There are also some editing errors on the back cover's song listing (songs don't line up with their track numbers) and the title of the CD really should be pluralized as 'The Dressing Room Sessions.' No, it's not complete, as the June 25 tape was edited by RCA/BMG before FTD pressed it up, excluding some dialogue and a stop in "Tiger Man." As for the three "bonus" tracks of "If I Can Dream," they're irrelevant despite being one of Elvis' most emotional ballads. One is the backing track (obviously taken from an LP source) and the other two are "live" vocals on top of the backing track (taped as he stood dressed in that cool white "preacher" suit), video takes 915 and 916, to be exact.
At his best, as Presley is in June, 1968, he is untouchable. If you've never heard the June 24 rehearsal and don't mind essentially re-buying about half of 'Burbank 68' in a slightly screwed-up configuration, then this is worth the trip! My boy, my boy.