In June, 1977, just a couple of months before his death at the age of 42, Elvis Presley released his last non-posthumous album. Moody Blue was a strange mish-mash of songs that had been recorded in various locations over the last three and a quarter years. The six studio cuts had been recorded at Graceland in February and October 1976 and, with it proving impossible to get Presley back into the studio to complete the album, producer Felton Jarvis took a four-track recorder on tour, hoping to capture on tape decent performances of songs that Elvis had not recorded before. He knew this was unlikely to happen (Presley’s live performances had become erratic and often lifeless by this stage) and Jarvis would “discard virtually every recording he had out of fear that releasing performances this poor could only be detrimental to Elvis’s career” (Jorgensen, 1998: 407-8), but still managed to record three “new” Elvis songs. The album was completed by transposing a recording already issued in 1974 onto the new record. Moody Blue was ultimately a strangely compelling record and while Presley is clearly heard to be an artist in decline, he comes across over the ten tracks as a man who was down but not yet out. Two months after the release of Moody Blue, Presley was dead and, later that year, the seemingly never-ending stream of posthumous records would begin. However, if Felton Jarvis, his record producer, had struggled to release material of good enough quality during Presley’s lifetime, how would the world’s view of the artist be changed in the decades to come as literally hundreds of hours of unreleased outtakes, private recordings and live concerts made their way into the market place, and would Presley’s name and legacy be damaged or changed as a result?
The first posthumous album was also, arguably, the most damaging. During Presley’s last tour in June 1977, he was filmed for a CBS TV Special. That special, Elvis in Concert (Dwight Hemion), would air in America in October 1977 and was accompanied by a double album of material from the two shows that were edited together to make up the TV special, including material which was deemed unfit for broadcast. Presley’s biographer, Peter Guralnick, describes the footage from the first of the two recorded shows as “almost unbearable to listen to or watch, the obliteration not just of beauty but of the memory of beauty, and in its place sheer, stark terror” (Guralnick, 1999: 638). The album itself is poor, with Presley clearly struggling both for breath and for vocal tone, but it is the television special that has lived long in public memory, showing as it does an overweight, struggling, often seemingly-disoriented Elvis. It’s worth noting that the album release (pictured at the top of this post) used no pictures from the special, but images of a healthy looking Elvis from a few years before. The special has never been repeated or issued officially on home video, although small sections have found their way into documentaries. Even so, those images have never been forgotten. Photographs from it have appeared in books to represent Elvis in his last years, the show has been bootlegged many times, and it is available in complete form on Youtube.
Other posthumous releases of “new” material followed over the next two decades, all of them more flattering than Elvis In Concert and mostly made up of live material, alternate takes, private recordings (often in poor sound), rehearsals and, occasionally, forgotten master takes of songs that had never been released before. In the late 1990s, a new label was set up specifically for collectors. It was called Follow That Dream (FTD), named after a Presley film of 1962. Since its inception, the label has issued over a hundred releases (some of them double CDs) and nearly all containing a large percentage of officially unreleased material.
Many of these releases have been in the “Classic Album” series. These are double disc sets, featuring the original album in its original running order, followed by bonus material, mostly made up of alternate takes. To class many of the albums released in this series as “classic” seems something of a misnomer. For example, Love Letters From Elvis, released in 1971, was arguably his weakest non-soundtrack album to date, is made-up of leftovers from a mammoth recording session the year before which had already yielded two albums, and is memorable less for Presley’s singing than for the peculiar overdubs which makes the album sound as much like elevator music as an album by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Despite these shortcomings, the album has been treated to the “classic album” format in which a number of the songs are heard in five or six different alternate takes each. A minor album in Presley’s legacy is therefore being elevated to “classic” status within this series – but does this in turn skew our view of Presley’s really classic work? While a reissue such as this is clearly intended for fans and only sold through selected outlets, these CDs still make their way into the mainstream through second-hand items being sold on websites such as Ebay or Amazon Marketplace or even through illegal downloads such as torrents. What is intended solely for the fan domain does not necessarily stay there.
If the treatment of the studio albums complicates our view of Presley’s legacy, then FTD’s endless stream of live recordings from the 1970s does so even more. Ernst Jorgensen, the man primarily responsible for the label’s releases has stated: “We will eventually release a show from every Vegas or Tahoe season, and most tours – of course limited by the fact that there’s a lot that we don’t have”. This has resulted in a number of concerts being released that find Elvis in less than stellar form. An example of this was the 2003 release of Dragonheart, a soundboard recording of a concert from October 1, 1974. One fan wrote of the release: “one of the weakest concerts of 1974… I was surprised how flat his singing was, listen to Bridge over troubled water, he heardly [sic] can hold a note, it seems he is running out of air”. Another fan writes that “the songs on this CD show Elvis’ erratic behaviour he’s trying too hard a lot of the time and it’s not working, his voice is all over the place [sic].” This is not to say that all fans felt the same way, and a number were quite defensive, with one writing: “I love the new Dragonheart release, and if you don’t… fair enough, but keep your crappy comments to yourself.”
But Dragonheart was the tip of the iceberg. Since then a number of other concerts showing Elvis in even worse form have seen the light of day officially. New Haven ’76 comes from what one reviewer calls a “dreadful” tour and features a moment where “Assesing [sic] his own poor state Elvis says he’ll do a medley of his records next, but whether he can or not is a different matter” (McDonnell, 2009). Similarly, a fan says of the 2011 release of Amarillo ’77 that “Elvis should have been in a hospital … In other words: Elvis should not have stepped on stage in 1977. Then we would not have had this album and, that to say it mildly, that would not be such a great loss”.
FTD is in a no-win situation. The vast majority of the concerts that it has access to were recorded during Presley’s final few years and so those years are going to be over-represented. On one hand, many fans will continue to lap up every second of new Elvis material but, on the other, how are these releases affecting the way we and future generations will view Elvis and his recorded legacy? While the FTD releases are aimed solely at the collector and even the poor performances can be seen as filling in part of the Presley story, with today’s technology these recordings are not staying solely within the fan domain. Many have found their way onto Youtube, for example, and remain there in complete form. Just because fans are clamouring for every second of Elvis that survives on tape (and the record company in turn is clamouring for their money), does that mean that his every utterance, every flat note and every dreadful on stage performance should be at their disposal? The effects that these releases will have on how Presley will be viewed in the future is something we are unable to gauge at this stage, but we can start debating the rights and wrongs of them. The Elvis Presley story is a tragedy, but are these releases slowly but surely robbing him of his dignity?
Guralnick P (1999) Careless Love. The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. London: Abacus.
Jorgensen E (1998) Elvis Presley: A Life in Music. The Complete Recording Sessions. New York: St Martin’s Press.
McDonnell G (2009) Review – Elvis: New Haven ’76 FTD CD. In: Elvis Australia. Available at: http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/reviews/review_elvis_new_haven_1976.shtml
 These comments come from the very active For Elvis CD Collectors forums: http://www.elvis-collectors.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2135&hilit=dragonheart