Ultimate Elvis: The Complete And Definitive Recording Sessions
- Review by Neil Colombari -
Executive Editor and Photo Editor: Erik Lorentzen
Researched, compiled, written and edited by Keith Flynn,
Gordon Minto, and Piers Beagley
Layout and design by Neil Chris Middleton
Oslo native, Erik Lorentzen, has been an Elvis fan for almost 60 years. From first hearing Heartbreak Hotel as a 7 year old in 1956, to being co-founder of the Norwegian Elvis Presley Fan Club in 1964, to seeing Elvis in concert on many occasions between 1972-76 (and also meeting him), it seems only natural that Erik should have become one of the most prolific publishers of quality Elvis books and magazines over the past few years. Best known for The Elvis Files series of books and magazines, Erik’s latest offering, ‘Ultimate Elvis: The Complete And Definitive Recording Sessions’, takes a fresh approach to every single recording of Elvis’ – from his first 1953 acetate, My Happiness, to the Elvis in Concert recordings from June 1977.
Weighing in at 10.3 kg (22.7 lb), this set is massive in more ways than one, with the 1,712 pages of the 3 volumes being divided as follows:
- Volume One: 1953-1960 (pages 1-544)
- Volume Two: 1961-1969 (pages 545-1136)
- Volume Three: 1969-1977 (pages 1137-1712)
Besides the overall weight and size of the set, the first thing that strikes the reader is that there is so much information available regarding Elvis’ recordings. For the past 15 years, or so, the excellent ‘Elvis Presley: A Life In Music (The Complete Recording Sessions)’ by Ernst Jorgensen was ‘it’ when it came to Elvis’ recorded output. Admittedly, there were a few gaps in Jorgensen’s tome (especially in regards to the 1960s soundtrack sessions), but it was, and still is, a good, solid reference book. However, on a number of levels, Ultimate Elvis blows it out of the water!
So, what exactly does Ultimate Elvis contain? The General Introduction answers this question as follows: “Well, this three-volume, deluxe set includes comprehensive notes on each session, discographies, reviews of every single, EP and album release, release dates, facsimiles of RCA’s paperwork, session logs, listing notices, letters from Colonel Parker’s office and RCA’s archive, the reproduction of sheet music covers (courtesy of Chris Giles), a huge index, and a host of other things”.
Expanding on this, as well as some of the ‘other things’, Ultimate Elvis includes:
- Over 3,000 images - many of them rare – including shots taken from many of the individual recording dates (whether studio, at home, or in concert). The best available sources have been used, making Ultimate Elvis almost as much a high quality series of photo books chronicling Elvis’ life, as it does his recorded output!
- The cover art for each album, single, and EP, and in many cases, a full-page, alternative photo from the same session that the cover shot was taken from.
- A fascinating piece by Keith Flynn and Kurt Rokitta, ‘Matrix Numbers Uncovered – Unravelling the Mystery’. This is an invaluable resource for Elvis collectors who wish to “unravel the mystery and decipher RCA’s byzantine master serial number system”.
- A series of fantastic, brief articles by Gordon Minto that set the scene for the period about to be covered in each book.
- Brief histories of key recording locations, ‘Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records’, ‘RCA Victor Studio A in New York’, ‘RCA Victor – 1525 McGavock St. Nashville’, ‘Radio Recorders Inc.: 7000 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood, California’, and ‘RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville’ by James V. Roy (from www.scottymoore.net).
- Thorough, in-depth reviews of every single soundtrack session by EIN’s own Piers Beagley. Piers was assigned the somewhat thankless and “difficult task of listening to every soundtrack session in detail”. (N.B. Don’t despair, Piers also had the opportunity to write about some of Elvis’s more critically-acclaimed recordings too!). For me, although I’m the first to acknowledge the frequent poor quality and choice of material represented by Elvis’ soundtrack recordings – especially in the mid-1960s - I still have a soft spot for them. It should be remembered that around 250 of Elvis’ 630 or so studio recordings (that’s almost 40%!) were for his movies, which represents a significant portion of his total recorded output. However, this area is all too frequently overlooked. Thankfully, with the release of Ultimate Elvis, this has now been rectified. (N.B. On a personal note, it’s nice to see that the three main people behind EIN contributed to Ultimate Elvis. As well as Piers - who was one of the primary contributors to the set - Sanja Meegin and Nigel Patterson were also involved. Nice work guys!)
- Interviews, conducted by author Arjan Deelan, with musicians James Burton, D.J. Fontana, Glen D. Hardin, Charlie Hodge, Scotty Moore, The Sweet Inspirations (Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown), and Ronnie Tutt.
- A discography at the beginning of each year, which also includes planned issues that were ultimately not released at the time (e.g. did you know that Mahalo From Elvis was first slated for release by RCA in November 1973 (ACL1 0218), before being shelved and ultimately released by Pickwick in May 1978 (ACL 7064)?).
- A comprehensive, 44-page discography compiled by Keith Flynn, covering from July 1954 up to December 2014.
- An 18-page A-Z Song Index, again compiled by Keith Flynn.
As for the recording sessions themselves, they are all comprehensively covered, and include details of: who produced and engineered each session; musicians and backing vocalists (including later overdubs); what songs were recorded (including dates, times, matrix numbers); the first official release of each master take; comprehensive notes (sometimes multiple pages); released outtakes (including on which album(s)); discographies for each session; and - where there is a significant need to - a reference to ‘unofficial’ (i.e. bootleg / import) releases. In many cases, copies of session notes are also included, which along with the previously mentioned session photos, give the reader a feeling of being present as the recordings were made. Listening to the results of the particular session at the same time heightens the experience even more.
This level of detail continues for every significant album, single and EP release, and again, in many instances, run across several pages. It should be noted that Ultimate Elvis focuses primarily on US releases, however, in a few rare instances, references to non-US releases are made (e.g. the 1967 ‘See the USA the Elvis Way’ EP).
To give a sense of how extensive and comprehensive the recording sessions and subsequent releases are, check out the tracks recorded for Kid Galahad (one of the movies that first brought Elvis to my attention in 1982, and subsequently turned me into a fan). The session itself is covered over 8 pages (including copies of photos and session notes), with the EP release earning another 4 pages. Not bad for only “Six Great Songs” (as proclaimed on the EP cover!)
The articles and reviews in Ultimate Elvis were drawn from a wide range of sources, new and old, and include contributions from Piers Beagley, Keith Flynn, Alan Hanson (www.elvis-history-blog.com), Erik Lorentzen, Gordon Minto, Jake Otnes, Kurt Rokitta, and James V. Roy (www.scottymoore.net). Additionally, articles and reviews were sourced from the websites www.allmusic.com, www.elvisechoesofthepast.com, www.elvisinfonet.com; www.elvisnews.com, www.rateyourmusic.com, and the magazines CashBox; Disc Music Paper, Elvis Monthly, Elvis World-wide News Service Weekly, New Musical Express, Record Mirror, Rolling Stone, and Strictly Elvis. As much as I enjoy the newer reviews, I also love the old ones – such as those from Elvis Monthly - as they give a sense of the impact of each release at the time they first came out. This is impossible to achieve with the benefit of hindsight.
In addition, of the 40+ contributors acknowledged in the General Introduction, a number of well-known names who knew or worked with Elvis are mentioned, including James Burton, Larry Geller, Michael Hoey, Wayne Jackson, Marty Lacker, Myra Smith, John Wilkinson, and Bobby Wood.
As for the books themselves, the quality is magnificent, with solid, glossy covers and thick, semi-gloss pages. This, along with the overall size of each page (24cm x 29cm / 9.5” x 11.5”) makes the books easy to read (if a little heavy), and highlights the quality photographs used throughout.
The books themselves are purely chronological, which, as other reviewers have pointed out, can be a little awkward. However, once I got over the initial confusion of jumping between recording and release, I actually like the way that they blend together and give a perspective of what songs Elvis was working on, while earlier recordings were being issued.
As with any work of this size, there are sure to be some errors. There appear to be VERY few typographical, grammatical, and layout errors (e.g. the post-1967 RCA logo is randomly used when covering the July 2 1956 recording session on pages 141 and 143), and they really don’t detract at all. Also a few reviews don’t include a source (e.g. the I Got Lucky and A Legendary Performer Vol 2 albums; the He Touched Me / Bosom of Abraham and Burning Love / It’s A Matter Of Time singles, amongst others), and I personally would have liked to have seen some of the less-significant releases given a little more in-depth analysis (e.g. how the tracks for the Camden albums were chosen, and by whom), but again, these points are trivial when compared with the overall level of information provided.
The one ‘legitimate’ concern I have relates to the slipcase which, whist being made of fairly thick cardboard, is quite flimsy, and simply folded together and not sealed / glued. Additionally, due to the weight of each volume, when inserted the normal way (i.e. vertically), the leading bottom corner of each book has a tendency to gouge the cardboard inside the slipcase. The only way I have been able to work around this is to lay the slip case on its back and gently slide the books in.
If asked the question “Should I buy Ultimate Elvis?”, my answer would be a resounding “YES!”. Although I am certainly not someone who has to own every new Elvis release (I often go for a year or more without buying anything Elvis-related), Ultimate Elvis should be an essential part of the library of every Elvis fan. Having personally progressed from ‘All About Elvis’ (Worth & Tamerius, 1981) to ‘Elvis Presley – A Study In Music’ (Matthew-Walker, 1979) to Ernst’s 1998 work, ‘A Life In Music’, and now to Ultimate Elvis, I personally think that it will be the last word on Elvis’ recordings and releases. Whilst most books of this type would be out of date as soon as the next missing tape is located, or release issued, Ultimate Elvis shouldn’t, with Erik Lorentzen already promising that updates will be made available through www.elvisfiles.no. However, as for the books themselves, they are part of a (numbered) print run of 2,000 copies, so act now to avoid disappointment, as various sources are reporting that it is almost sold out.
In short, this is the most thorough analysis of Elvis’ recorded output ever undertaken, with the finished product being exceptional, or as James Burton stated, “these are the most beautiful books I have ever seen and the best researched”. Congratulations Erik, Keith, Gordon, Piers, Neil and everyone else involved with Ultimate Elvis!
Ultimate Elvis: The Soft Covers
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