How much Elvis is too much Elvis?
For fans of the late Pelvis there's no such thing as too much. Elvis Presley truly is the King when it comes to posthumous releases, with several hundred more after-death albums than Jimi Hendrix and 2Pac put together.
Elvis releases don't just keep coming, they keep selling. Last year's ``Elvis: 30 #1 Hits,'' released a few weeks after the 25th anniversary of his death on Aug. 16, 1977, rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart and stayed there for three weeks. Still hanging on (at No. 175) after a 39-week chart run, it has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide.
The good news is that his record company now cares about the quality, not just the quantity, of its Presley releases. For too many years, RCA exploited the Presley catalog by putting out shoddy compilations with the implied assumption that Elvis fans were both rabid and stupid enough to buy anything with his name on it.
Elvis fans still seem prepared to buy any CD with his name on it, but RCA is now treating these consumers, as well as the Presley legacy, with respect. The sea change came in 1992 with the release of the carefully annotated and assembled boxed set ``The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete '50s Masters'' and, thanks in large part to Elvis-loving producers Roger Semon and Ernst Jorgensen, continued through last year's four-CD set, ``Today, Tomorrow, & Forever,'' a collection of 100 previously unreleased tracks.
Those tracks - various outtakes and live recordings - are essentially leftovers. Very valuable leftovers. ``Today, Tomorrow, & Yesterday'' lists for $69.90 and sells in stores and online for around $60. Jorgensen, interviewed by e-mail from his home in Denmark, says ``Today, Tomorrow, & Forever'' has sold more than 200,000 copies.
Do the math. You'll understand why a new four-CD boxed set, ``Elvis: Close Up,'' arrived in stores yesterday with 89 more previously unreleased tracks. It's a heaping helping of different, not better, versions of already-heard Presley songs.
``Unreleased Masters from the '50s'' is the slightly misleading title of Disc One. It contains 20 songs recorded by the young, white-hot Elvis in 1957 before he went into the Army. About half are previously unheard outtakes; the rest are the classic versions. The difference is that they're all in stereo, or at least primitive early ``binaural'' stereo, where Elvis' voice and another instrument are on one track, the rest of the band on the other. The sound has a startling immediacy that, for example, gives a new kick to the familiar ``Jailhouse Rock,'' one of the few hits on ``Close Up.''
``My personal favorites,'' Jorgensen says, ``are the two versions of `Treat Me Nice' - both radically different from the official version and demonstrating Elvis' ability to develop a song, acting as his own producer.''
Disc Two, ``Unreleased Movie Gems,'' includes outtakes from the first four films Elvis made after getting out of the Army. Disc Three, ``The Magic of Nashville,'' offers outtakes from '60s studio sessions. Tracks range from Elvis' first take of ``Night Rider'' to his 12th pass at ``(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame.''
No matter what he sang or how often he sang it, Elvis remained a charismatic vocalist. But what he sings here is often - far too often - second-rate fluff. It's more proof, unneeded by now, of how Elvis abandoned rock 'n' roll for banality.
Does Jorgensen ever feel frustrated listening to Elvis squander his talent singing junk?
``Certainly,'' he replies. ``I think we all do. . . . However, it's my job to preserve his musical legacy - without discrimination - and I can find something to enjoy in most of his work. I think a lot of us are addicted to his voice.''
Disc Four, ``Live in Texas 1972,'' may be the easiest to enjoy. After walking onstage to the pompous strains of ``Also Sprach Zarathustra,'' Elvis steamrolls through a typical set for an enthusiastic San Antonio throng. He's in fine form, but most Presleyites have heard similar recordings before.
Which leads to an inevitable question: Is it possible that eventually we'll see the release of every take of every song Elvis ever sang?
``That's probably a bit too much,'' Jorgensen says. ``On some songs there may be as many as 10-12 takes.''
But have no fear. More Elvis is in our future. Much more.
``We are still searching for more material,'' Jorgensen says. ``Occasionally we get lucky. There will be material for many years to come.''