Elvis Presley

In the summer of 1953 a shy 18-year-old walked into the Memphis studios of Sun Records and paid $4 to cut an acetate demo, telling the office manager it was a birthday present for his mom. The manager then asked him a couple questions:

"What kind of singer are you?"

"I sing all kinds."

"Who do you sound like?"

"I don't sound like nobody."

Elvis Presley, as this superb five-disc boxed set proves, was just telling the truth. Not only did he sing all kinds, he brought as much conviction and quivering tenderness to weepy yarns ("Old Shep") and holiday chestnuts ("Silent Night") as he did to "Heartbreak Motel" and "Love Me Tender," his most defining ballads. From the desperate desire and ecstatic, jolting energy he brought to cranked-up country tunes ("Blue Moon of Kentucky"), hot blues ("That's All Right") and retooled R&B ("Hound Dog"), the magma of rock and roll flowed. Like the young Billie Holiday, he transcended often mediocre material. And from the outset he sounded only like himself.

By presenting all of Elvis's Sun and RCA recordings of the '50s in chronological order—going beyond the scope of previous multi-CD sets—the first four discs show how wide a range of styles he always embraced and suggest win. decades later, people of such diverse taste and background still consider him the King. The fifth disc, Rare and Rockin', opens grippingly with the never-before-issued I! side of the demo that the unknown, unsigned high school graduate cut that summer day in 1953—an intimate, haunting "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." It continues with a lashing, previously unreleased "Fool, Fool, Fool," a demo Elvis cut for a doubting Texas promoter in 1955 and never recorded again, and 24 more alternate takes and rare live performances.

Though much of the material is familiar, this set (at $79.98, list) promises to be definitive. Strikingly designed, it boasts scores of marvelous photographs, an extensive essay by Presley biographer Peter Guralnick and, most importantly, extraordinary sound. Producers Ernst Mikael Jorgensen and Roger Semon scoured vaults from Nashville to Indianapolis (the RCA archives) to Hollywood for the best versions of each song, sometimes sleuthing out lost masters. The result is clearer versions, for instance, of "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel."

The producers are already at work on The Complete '60s Masters, which Jorgenson, perhaps anticipating skepticism, calls "one of the most underestimated periods in Elvis's career, both for the singing and the quality of the music." They plan to have it out late next year, with The Complete '70s Masters snaring Santa's sleigh in 1996. (RCA)

Ann Peebles

Otis Clay

Raised singing gospel, both Peebles and Clay in the early '70s became part of the Memphis soul scene with fellow gospel crooner Al Green. Peebles went on to cowrite the haunting, Grammy-nominated 1973 hit "I Can't Stand the Rain," then left Memphis's Hi Records in the late '70s to write and record on her own and to start a day-care center. Clay had his biggest hit in '72, "Trying to Live My Life Without You," and later recorded on his own label.

Peebles and Clay are crossing paths again with simultaneous releases on Rounder's Bullseye Blues label. On Full Time Love, Peebles swoops and purrs her way through 11 tunes, five of which she cowrote with husband and pianist Donald Bryant and guitarist Thomas Bingham. On the best of these she displays the signature combination of grit and gossamer that made her such a formidable singer in the '70s.

The Memphis Horns and the original Hi Rhythm Section ably assist Peebles as well as bluesy labelmate Clay, giving his expansive, gospel-flavored vocals a lush, horn-driven background.

Judging by these latest releases, both singers still are capable of enriching the gospel and soul traditions of which they are undeniable treasures."

Lee Greenwood

He has never been one to suppress his flag-waving impulses, but Old Lee really outjingoes even himself on this album. It includes not only "The Pledge of Allegiance," set to music by Greenwood's producer, Jerry Crutchfield, "The Star-Spangled Banner," "America," "God Bless America," "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "This Land Is Your Land" but also Greenwood originals "God Bless the U.S.A." and "The Great Defenders," a tribute to the U.S. armed forces. One assumes he passed on "American Patrol" and "Stars and Stripes Forever" because they are traditionally instrumental.

Greenwood sings these songs fluidly—an achievement with some of them—and if his "God Bless America" won't make anyone forget Kate Smith, he invests it with considerable feeling. Oilier than as background for a Fourth of July celebration, though, it's hard to see where such a unidimensional album would fit into anyone's listening schedule. (Liberty)

Sonny Landreth

Louisiana native Landreth is known primarily as a slide guitar—playing sideman for John Hiatt, John Mayall and others. His solo debut confirms his six-string proficiency—listen to the head-spinning instrumental "Yokamoma." It also indicates that Landreth is a lot more than just another Gregg Allman wannabe.

First there's the surprise of his voice: a winning wiry tenor. And Landreth knows how to mix the electric with the acoustic, as he does on "Soldier of Fortune," which opens with an amplified section that shimmers like heat rising off asphalt before giving way to an intricate finger-picked melody that recalls Mississippi John Hurt.

Landreth's regional roots show on the zydeco stomp of "Common Law Love" and the bandy-legged boogie of "Back to Bayou Têche." The guitarist is also adept at more universal pop idioms. His balladeering can be spirited ("When You're Away"), dreamy ("Sacred Ground") or wistful ("Planet Cannonball"). But it's when Landreth sprinkles some indigenous Louisiana spice over his songs that this record really sizzles. (Zoo/Praxis)

  • Contributors:
  • Eric Levin,
  • Lisa Shea,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • David Hiltbrand.