Return of the King: A New Box Set Uncovers Elvis' '70s Stax Sesssion

Elvis Presley, the 1970s. Just wait for the punchline.

Except things didn't end for the King with From Elvis in Memphis, the excellent album of black-leather hard rock he released in 1969, in the wake of his supernova NBC television comeback show in December of 1968. It wasn't a steep slide straight from there to the overweight, overwrought, drugged-up, karate-chopping self-parody that Elvis impersonators latched onto. Between '68 and '74, in fact, Elvis was probably as good as he had ever been, at least since joining the Army in 1958.

Those years included the comeback special, From Elvis in Memphis, the singles "Suspicious Minds" and "Kentucky Rain," Elvis Country, and a sometimes-scintillating trio of live albums recorded in New York, Hawaii, and Memphis. There were also the three albums he recorded in two different sessions at the Stax studios in Memphis in July and December 1973: Raised on Rock, Good Times, and Promised Land.

Overlooked at the time and mostly forgotten since, despite deluxe reissues a few years ago, those three albums are a significant part of what should be remembered as Elvis' prime years. It was the longest and most consistent stretch of high-quality music-making that Elvis ever had. If the best moments from that period don't match "That's All Right," "Mystery Train," or "Heartbreak Hotel"—and I'm not entirely convinced they don't—then the late '60s and early '70s are at least free of the assembly-line soundtrack crap of the Hollywood years and the schlock Americana of his last years.

A new three-disc box set, released by Sony just in time for the 36th anniversary of Elvis' death, collects the best tracks from those overlooked Memphis albums, as well as a handful of revealing outtakes and alternate versions. (There's also a single-disc budget set.) The title, Elvis at Stax, is a little misleading—aside from a few contributions from Stax regulars Donald "Duck" Dunn, Al Jackson Jr., and Bobby Manuel, it's Elvis and his own regular backing band here. They just happen to be at Stax; Elvis reportedly even brought in a recording console from RCA. (The location's proximity to Graceland seems to have mattered more than its own storied legacy.)

Still, his band—primarily guitarist James Burton, bassist Tommy Cogbill, drummer Jerry Carrigan, and pianist Bobby Wood—was first-class, probably as good as any other rock band of the era. Here they smoke through a selection of music that blurs the line between country, rock 'n' roll, and R&B. It also showcases Elvis' taste as much as his talent.

Elvis at Stax highlights a singer who wasn't quite as out of it as conventional history suggests. The tragedy of the Hollywood years was that Elvis, who had such a great ear as both a fan and interpreter, was handed material so unsuited for him by studio executives and Col. Tom Parker. When Elvis was making the picks, as he did with the Sun singles in the '50s and as he did here, Elvis showed just how little genre boundaries mattered to him. On his late-'60s and early-'70s albums, Elvis was essentially, in his own way, waging the same war over creative control that Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were fighting in Nashville around the same time.

So it seems fitting that he sings the Jennings/Billy Joe Shaver tune "You Asked Me To" in these sessions. Elsewhere, he chooses tracks by Tony Joe White, Chuck Berry, Larry Gatlin, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and even old Elvis favorites Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. The best song here is the funky, grooving "I've Got a Feelin' in My Body," written by Dennis Linde, who also wrote "Burning Love."

Overall, it's a fine choice of songs, from rippers like "I've Got a Feelin'" and "Raised on Rock" to the more reflective, decidedly grown-up ballads like "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" and "There's a Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me Back In)" that suggest the emotional turmoil left over from his divorce from Priscilla Presley. (There are hints of his late-period grandiosity, too, in "Spanish Eyes" and "My Boy.")

Elvis' fall from critical favor and his slide into kitsch makes sense, even if it's not fair. The '60s did him in—not just his own half-assed output from the decade but the idea of the '60s. Elvis didn't write his own songs. He didn't really think about albums the way the Beatles and Bob Dylan did. He favored old-fashioned show-biz polish and professionalism over personal expression. In short, he didn't do any of the things that rock fans and critics, after Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper, used to identify rock music as art.

By the time Elvis got to Stax, it was too late for him to regain the kind of cultural relevance he deserved. In hindsight, though, the best of these recordings are better than much of what has overshadowed them.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified Dennis Linde as the writer of "Suspicious Minds." That song was written by Mark James.