This BMG's official collection for the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death, and whilst I have seen mixed reviews in both music magazines and on the Internet, in my opinion it's a good set. This compilation spans Elvis recording career from 1954 - 1976 and the majority of it consists of previously unreleased material. There are a couple of acetates and home recordings included, but for the most part the sound quality is excellent.
The 1956 Little Rock recordings have been issued before on both bootleg and budget releases, but I think the sound quality on the new set is slightly better, and would guess that BMG have used a different source tape. The 50's out takes are for the most part good in terms of both performance and sound quality. Some of these are quite close to the masters, but this is probably an indication of the young Elvis striving for perfection in the studio, and they are no less interesting to listen to because of this.
The farm version of "Loving You" features a different arrangement to the master take, and I particularly like the alternate version of "Is It So Strange". Take 2 of "Shake Rattle And Roll" would probably have been my own personal favourite on this disc, had I not already heard a similar arrangement on take 8, (from the '50's box) but I still love that extra verse and piano solo. Disc two is split between Nashville out takes and songs from the soundtrack sessions, and whilst the quality of these songs is a little more varied than the material Elvis cut in the '50's, there are certainly some gems amongst them.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight" is a great performance, particularly when you consider this version consists of takes 1 & 2, and the likes of "Follow That Dream", "King Of The Whole Wide World", and "They Remind Me Too Much Of You" are a timely reminder that some of the songs recorded for Elvis' 1960's movies were equally as good as the material he was cutting in Nashville.
The duet with Ann Margaret is an obvious highlight, as is the under rated "Ask Me" from 1964. This track was cut at the last non soundtrack session until May, 1966, but the home recording of "Hide Though Me" featured at the end of this disc does give the listener an insight into Elvis' intentions for his next studio album.
On to disc three and we hear Elvis during a transitional period. His movie career is coming to an end and the first seeds of his comeback are being sown. Many would cite the Burbank recordings as the turning point in Elvis' career, but I think Elvis' 1967 versions of "Big Boss Man" and "We Call On Him", which are both represented by good alternate versions on this set, prove that he had already renewed his interest in recording quality material again, some months before work actually started on the Special. "US Male" from early 1968 is further proof of Elvis' artistic intentions, and at the risk of contradicting myself, if you listen to 1966's "Indescribably Blue" you will find yourself wondering whether Elvis ever actually went away.
The special is also represented by a couple of out takes and the stereo master of "Memories", and after a couple of out takes from the legendary Memphis sessions, and a couple from Elvis' final movies this disc ends with five excellent performances from Elvis' opening Las Vegas season in 1969. I particularly like Elvis' introduction before his performance of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" which he describes as "the world's oldest blues man".
Disc four starts with three excellent performances from Elvis' February 1970 Las Vegas season, and these are so close to the masters that I couldn't really say which versions are better. "Walk A Mile in My Shoes" is my own personal favourite. We then get three out takes from the productive June 1970 Nashville sessions, and this theme continues with further out takes from the same studios recorded in 1971. I particularly liked the folk tinged "For Lovin' Me" and the studio rehearsal of "A Thing Called Love". Both Elvis' 1972 Hollywood session and the Aloha broadcast are represented, and then we are given a number of out takes from the July & December Stax sessions.
Whilst in some cases the vocals on these out takes are not quite as polished as the released master takes, hearing Elvis' and the band as they were in the studio without the overdubs makes them worthy inclusions on the set. James Burton is excellent on "Promised Land", and Elvis' vocal on "You're Loves Been A Long Time Coming" is awesome. A strong "Pieces Of My Life" follows, and the disc closes with three tracks from the 1976 Graceland sessions. My own personal favourite being "For The Heart".
In summing up a fitting tribute to Elvis on the 25th anniversary of his death. Personally, I would have saved the acetates and home recordings for the collectors FTD label in order to present the songs in the best possible sound, but this is only a minor point, and it only applies to a handful of tracks. As the set includes live performances from both 1969 and 1970, I think it would have been nice to end the set with one of the better live performances from 1977, to show that Elvis was still capable of great performances right up until the end, but again this is only a minor point.