Someone once remarked to Phil Spector that they could scarcely believe how good Elvis was, to which the producer replied, in effect, that as good as you think Elvis is, he’s even better.
That’s the best anecdotal encapsulation that we have of Elvis’s talents. Of course, there is also bad Elvis: he of the verbal bloat and thralldom to asininity that dominates the soundtrack-album years. And we’re talking about a lot of years — the bulk of the 1960s.
But come 1970, it was time for a soundtrack of a different stripe. Quash the hula girls, the automobile chases, the roustabouting, and the shrimping, and let’s get back to rocking, documentary style, with “That’s the Way It Is,” a concert film that didn’t need to be very great to be a significant improvement over standard cinematic Elvis.
It’s fun to argue about the greats’ best years. Was Babe Ruth better in 1921 or 1927? You want 1963 or 1967 Beatles? Likewise, Elvis was the original rock stud in 1956, had a bluesy whale of a revival in 1960, and recorded what I’d call the finest music of his career in 1968, sitting in the round for “Elvis,” his justly revered comeback special.
But 1970 is special in its own right. Granted, “That’s the Way It Is” presents Elvis in Vegas, playing to supper crowds on Aug. 10-13; this isn’t the raw, gritty, “I-can-smell-the-loam-in-the-air” pungent ferocity of the 1955 Hayride recordings. But on a CD/DVD box set as big as the one that RCA/Legacy has just assembled, you can focus on a lot of crystals, and kick the ballast to the side.
The eight CDs in the “Deluxe Edition” of “That’s the Way It Is” comprise the originally released LP — a mix of Nashville studio cuts and Vegas live material, expanded here with single edits and outtakes — plus six complete shows and rehearsal excerpts. Two DVDs offer the 1970 documentary film “That’s the Way It Is” in both its original theatrical cut and a 2000 extended version. (A two-CD version of the set pairs the expanded original LP with the Aug. 12 dinner show, issued complete for the first time.)
You get full shows with Elvis helming his TCB band — as in “taking care of business” — with James Burton classing matters up on guitar. An economical player on the shortlist of great guitarists people ought to know better, Burton was kind of like Elvis’s version of what Dylan had going on with Robbie Robertson on his 1966 and 1974 tours: a foil and abettor both, preferring choice licks over formal solos.
Frank Sinatra had said that were Elvis to apply himself, he could have been a good singer, which is condescending bosh. Still, I think what Sinatra might have been talking about was something more formal than is normally associated with being a rock ’n’ roll singer. No rock vocalist better worked the line between Richard Tauber, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Paul McCartney than Elvis, who could swing from operatic to hillbilly to all manner of vocal gymnastics, sometimes in a single song.
That Aug. 12 dinner show, for example, is so effortlessly vocally virtuosic that you almost don’t mind its low rock quotient. “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” one of Elvis’s great covers, beats the version you always hear on the radio. “Suspicious Minds” feels so lived in as to be a torch-ballad roman à clef.
But you always know where Elvis’s heart is when it comes to medium. He boasted that he knew just about every gospel song there ever was — remember, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true — and he certainly knew his country material. But give him the blues, and it’s like corking the Babe’s bat. Sandwiched between the relative tripe of “Polk Salad Annie” and a slack “Don’t Be Cruel” in the Aug. 11 midnight show is a version of “One Night” on which Elvis brings the raunch. My goodness, how he cuts loose vocally here. Some songs leave a froth; this is one of them, and a rapscallion like Elvis would dig extending that metaphor.
But nothing in this package beats the rehearsals collected on the final CD. This is for Elvis and the band, their pleasure, and it’s blues-saturated: “Such a Night,” “Money Honey,” “What I’d Say,” even an R&B-ed up jaunt through “Get Back.” You need to hear “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water,” a cut even most Elvis people don’t know.
Should you require a victory song, something to dance to after a windfall comes your way, or something to get you going at 6 in the morning, trot out “Muddy Water” some time. Elvis gets so worked up that he sings his own backing lines; no way anyone is going to poach any portion of the allotted vocal. Own it? Dude bought the whole store.
Colin Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.