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Jeff Simon: Maybe the greatest Elvis work has finally been released

"If  you're looking for trouble, you came to the right place. If you're looking for trouble, look right here in my face."

Those were the first words Elvis Presley sang in what was, arguably, the most triumphant professional moment of his life -- his "Comeback Special" on NBC Dec. 3, 1968. It was the moment when Elvis -- after 29 films of ever-increasing mediocrity -- seemed to have become hopelessly mired in his career and desperately needed something to pull him out.

He got it from a producer named Steve Binder, who performed a career miracle. He didn't just make Elvis "relevant" again, he made him a genuine "King" again in his own musical world. He was a money-making vassal no more.

"If you're looking for trouble, you came to the right place" might have been Elvis singing to "Col." Tom Parker, the Dutch-born schlockmeister, parasite, exploitationist and toxic manager who, at every turn, seemed ready to transform Elvis into what the "Colonel" understood best -- a carnival side-show act, a swivel-hipped, greased-up, pretty-boy bumpkin that all the young girls screamed at but whose music wasn't worth a tinker's dam.

On that 1968 TV special , Elvis had finally found a couple of crucial allies to counteract the "Colonel's" unerring ability to transform everything Elvis did into soulless schlock and garbage -- NBC executive Bob Finkel and Binder, the special's producer/director who, at long last, understood Elvis and what his audience wanted from him. Elvis didn't want to do television -- especially not the "Christmas special the 'Colonel' wanted him to do. Binder asked him why he didn't want to do television. "He said, 'Because it's not my turf.'  I said, 'What's your turf?' 'I guess making records.' I told him, 'Then you make a record and I'll put pictures to it."

The result, in one of its sections is the finest Elvis anywhere on record. Ever. It is now being released in a spectacular five-disc and two-Blu-Ray set that is one of the truly precious Elvis collections anywhere. Much of it was uncollected before. That greatest of all Elvis, I'd submit, is what is now called "The Sit-Down Sessions" where Elvis, in black leather jumpsuit, reunited with a few of his "boys" from the very beginning of his career and professional life: guitarists Scotty Moore and Charlie Hodge and drummer D. J. Fontana using Elvis' empty guitar case as drums.

Elvis did two sets of those "sitdown sessions" for the special and they are as spectacular as Elvis ever was, no matter how raw or repetitive or full of human fallibility they are when heard complete, as they are here.. This, I think, is as close to the "real" Elvis as we were ever permitted to glimpse during his lifetime--a funny, self-deprecatory star who loved to hack around with his guys but who had no trouble reeling them back in when they started having a little too much fun.

We watched at home and understood how lovable so many people thought he was. Says Binder now in the irreplaceable book accompanying the music "I found him to be very funny, humble, you know? He was famous for being the politest person you could ever be around."

Those loose, improvisational "sitdown sessions" all stemmed from a moment when Binder saw Elvis, in his dressing room, just messing around with his musicians. He knew it was something he needed to get on TV. The complete musical record of both "sit down" shows gives you Elvis making exquisite fun of himself and his image until the time comes for him to play his guitar and sing.

And then, when it came time to do "One Night," for instance, the primal sexual howl of his music was never heard in purer or more powerful form.

The young women allowed to be the audience for the "sitdown sessions" went predictably nuts.

Years later, those "sitdown sessions" would be transformed by MTV into presentations of musical stars "unplugged."

The show, when it aired, became one of the top-rated shows of its year. Most of the TV critics of the time didn't get it -- certainly not the way the show's producer and audience did, but most of America's TV critics in the press in 1968 were, frankly, rather bad -- stuck-in-the-mud old fogies and tired, bitter conscripts from elsewhere in the newsroom who were about to be superceded in the early '70's by a new generation of TV critics who had not only grown up with Elvis but with TV itself.

A whole generation was hungry for every bit of trouble Elvis Presley could make for Col. Tom Parker and his show business allies minimizing everything Elvis did when they weren't trashing it outright. (There is, by the way, an underground of movie critics in the 21st century which is finding warm things to say about Elvis' largely-lambasted movie career. But an "underground" they'll definitely remain when we're not talking about the handful of Elvis movies that weren't patently ridiculous: "King Creole," "Love Me Tender," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Wild in the Country.")

And we got it. We finally got back Elvis, the over-merchandised joke. He was wrestled out of the despoiling hands that had held him back, right from the beginning.

Finally, in the 21st century, the pivotal event in the history of Elvis Presley's performing life and music is being released on record in full in a near-perfect box set.

What is so tragic to realize now is that after the performing he did here, he only had nine more years to live. Though some of his shows in Vegas make for decent recordings and some of his subsequent singles were pretty good ("Suspicious Minds," Mac Davis' "A Little Less Conversation") he had become a bloated caricature before his death.

He was ultimately, I think, the greatest victim of toxic fame in the history of American entertainment.

What happened to Elvis Presley, I think, is that fate never allowed him to grow up. He was frozen in place from the time of those first hits --"Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel.."

Just listen to Elvis in the "sitdown sessions" playing the music he took from gospel and R&B and country music.

Just listen to him on this terrific box of records and watch the Blu-Rays. He's still "trouble" for anyone who wants money and schlock to triumph over musical integrity.

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