Prior to the 1992 release of the five-disc box set The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters, RCA's approach to reissuing Elvis Presley on CD -- or on LP, for that matter -- was rather scatter-shot, seeming to follow the dictates of the market more than the demands of history. There were some excellent releases of archival material and in 1987, on the tenth anniversary of the King's death, there was a stellar series of compilations, but most of what was released was a constant stream of recycled hits, which this box most certainly is not. This set is sharply and expertly assembled, presenting Elvis' peak as a creative and cultural force in staggering detail. Despite the subtitle of this box, this does not contain everything Presley recorded in the '50s; there are alternate takes not present on this set, including second takes for Sun that were included on the subsequent collection Sunrise, and after this release, more acetates recorded around the same time as his privately recorded "My Happiness" (unveiled here for the first time) were found and released. That said, those alternate takes are the province of collectors, particularly since the best of those are chronicled on the fifth and final disc of this set. That means, anything a real serious fan or listener needs is on this exhaustive set, since it chronicles the rise of the greatest figure of American music in the 20th century.
The first disc is largely devoted to the released Sun singles, both the As and Bs, and this remains the rawest, liveliest, nerviest music Presley ever cut, retaining its power over the years; decades later, it still sounds alive and unpredictable -- it still is possible to hear rock & roll being created in its very grooves and it's just as thrilling to hear the kinetic energy of this lean combo create an entirely new music; anybody who doubts Elvis as an innovator need only hear this to be proven wrong. Toward the end of the first disc, Elvis leaves Sun for RCA, and the production is a little cleaner and the material a little more streamlined, but that's just a relative judgment. This is still the birth of rock & roll, and when "I Got a Woman" and "Heartbreak Hotel" inaugurate the RCA years, that wild energy is still palpable, even now. As this set illustrates, partially through its sheer scope, that energy could be dissipated by an inclination to move toward the pop mainstream, which could result in beautiful, heartbreaking ballads, but also the safe pop crooning that debilitated his career in the '60s. Fortunately, at no time in the '50s did he sink into the murk that enveloped him for a period in the '60s. He may have recorded forgettable ballads and trifle (including, ironically, one of his few compositions, the corny "We're Gonna Move"), sometimes succumbing to either his trite side or the demands of the marketplace, but the remarkable thing about this box is how consistently compelling, even thrilling, this music is. The overly familiar hits, and they're all here, are given new life in this context, which has the feeling of history unraveling in front of your ears. That's what makes this box set transcendent -- the music and annotation alone would make it necessary for libraries, but this is better because it is thoroughly listenable, while presenting history in a compelling narrative context. Yes, some of these tunes sound like light pop tied to their time, but they make for very few cuts on this 140-track box. Most of this is dynamic, thrilling music that presents Elvis at his very best. Historically, this is surely essential, but what makes the box so great is that it's so entertaining, providing ample proof that Elvis' music is indeed every bit as influential and timeless as the history books state.