Burbank '68

"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, taken from his seminal "Mystery Train" (1975, fourth revised edition 1997), is referring to the famous "sit down" shows given by Elvis for inclusion in his 1968 TV special. 'Burbank 68,' the first-ever offering from an officially sanctioned RCA "collector's" label, holds the seeds of this music.

Elvis is alive and kicking these weeks in June, 1968 when he rehearses and tapes his TV show. And for many the most glorious portions are the informal "sit down" shows derived from visionary director Steve Binder's idea to capture the informal jamming in Elvis' dressing room with original bandmates Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. Two of these jams (from June 24 and 25) are captured on tape with Elvis' own single mic cassette recorder, the first of which saw "private" release back in 1985 on the fabulous 'Play It Hot' LP. Thanks to Ernst Jorgensen and Roger Semon, producers of this CD, one can enjoy the second tape from June 25 along with some unissued stand up material and studio alternates.

What is patently obvious from hearing both of these rehearsals (and the two gigs given for the cameras) is that Elvis is greatly reconnected to his blues roots, from both the 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 his blues 78s from the 1950's and asked if Scotty would transfer them to reel-to-reel tape so he could listen again. How thrilling it might've been to put Elvis, Scotty and D.J. in a studio for a spell that summer and let rip with blazing blues-rock. It might've been a classic session.

Dressing room conversations in 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. Director Binder chimes in his agreement emphasizing this is a "really, really very important thing to the show." "I, I agree with you," replies Presley softly. Elvis is heard to be thoughtful about the special as well as how the songs should come off in front of an audience.

What about the music? It's not nearly as intense as Presley would be a few days later, with the crowd, lights and cameras in his face, but it's still a revelation. The desperate edge to the voice is there but more reserved. Beyond those selfsame numbers Elvis banged out to perfection on June 27, this rehearsal tape graces one with instrumentals of "Danny Boy," "Baby What You Want Me Do" featuring some classic Scotty Moore lead (some poor soul asks what the tune is, he gets joke answers "Raunchy" and "Walking The Dog") and even an uncredited bit of Elvis doing the "Peter Gunn Theme."

At long last here's the much talked-about 1968 rendition of "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and it's sloppy fun. The hyper-driven arrangement would be recalled on his 1970 studio performance 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" in '68 he could certainly handle this Bill Monroe tune if he desired. This June 25th version of "One Night" does begin to loosen the walls, while an unlisted little stab at "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" sounds nearly as dirty as the one on the 27th.

Eight "stand up" cuts are here, all but one from the 8pm set, half being officially unissued versions. For whatever reason, guilt, anger or fear, Elvis Presley sings these songs with an absolute fury; his voice hits the listener with such force it's akin to defining the difference being dead and being alive. The overblown arrangements seem to screw up the talented musicians in the house band, most notably on the 6pm "Blue Suede Shoes," where they completely miss their end cue. Elvis, amiable as always, improvises right through it. "Trouble/Guitar Man" is an alternate vocal performance, live to backing tracks, done at the tail of the 6pm stand up set with audience in tow. It includes the "I've come a long way from the car wash" verse not originally issued on the "Guitar Man" single.

The penultimate cut on 'Burbank 68' is an unissued live vocal take of "If I Can Dream, one of four straight attempts Elvis cut in a white preacher's suit for the video cameras. His voice cracks a bit, but he's so passionate it only improves the experience. On video tape it's stunning to see Presley run the song down, at one point asking Steve Binder for another take with "I can do it better," until one gets the keeper that aired December 3, 1968. The James Bond-ish instrumental of "Let Yourself Go," fierce guitar leads from Tommy Tedesco to the fore, closes out this album as it did the original show (recall Presley up in the huge red "Elvis" lights playing his red electric as the credits roll), a delightful touch.

The sound on the entire disc is quite agreeable, especially given that the source for half of it is a thirty year old, one mic input cassette, while the digi-pak design sports only black and white images. There's a weird anomaly as well: on track 9, "Baby What You Want Me To Do," the date given is June 26, which makes one wonder if this is a typo, there's a third rehearsal tape in the vault or if the June 25 rehearsal heard here is complete. If there's more, let's hear it!

At his best, as Presley is in June, 1968, he is untouchable. On this first fan club CD from RCA, as good as many of the finest "import" titles, one gets Elvis at his greatest. Don't miss it.

Reviewed by Johnny Savage, USA