FOR THE RECORD

Elaborate feasts for music lovers

The best new box sets span a century of American song

NICHOLAS JENNINGS December 27 1993
FOR THE RECORD

Elaborate feasts for music lovers

The best new box sets span a century of American song

NICHOLAS JENNINGS December 27 1993

Elaborate feasts for music lovers

The best new box sets span a century of American song

FOR THE RECORD

Diana Ross and The Beach Boys have just been boxed. Led Zeppelin has had the treatment twice. Even The Monkees have been put in a

box. Most major recording artists, and a growing number of minor ones, have had their work assembled in CD box sets. Like sumptuous coffee-table books, the often-lavish packages, which include several discs and substantial accompanying notes, make ideal—if sometimes pricey—holiday gifts. And this season, five of the best span a cen-

tury of American music, from slave

songs to Elvis Presley.

Sounds of the South (Atlantic/

Warner) digs deep into the black and white roots of blues, country and gospel. First released in 1959 by .pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax, the collection contains the debut recordings of such talents as bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and Virginia bluegrass quintet The Mountain Ramblers.

But the most fascinating tracks in the four-disc set, which includes a handsome book of Lomax’s photographs and extensive notes, are those that reflect the African traditions that survived slavery: field hollers, prison chants and rare fifeand-drum numbers. Those rugged, sometimes sad, sometimes jubilant songs are the antecedents of soul music and riotous rock ’n’ roll.

Presley abandoned the riotous rock of songs like All Shook Up and Hound Dog in 1958, when he enlisted for a two-year stint in the U.S. army. As the five-CD set From

Nashville to Memphis (RCA/BMG) proves, Elvis spent the 1960s meandering through a variety of styles, attempting to extend his range from hillbilly rock to mainstream pop as he travelled between recording studios in those two cities.

The once-great King floundered with pompous ballads, melodramatic Latin tunes and even a Bob Dylan song. Still, for Elvis lovers the collection is an essential companion to the box set devoted to his work in the ’50s. And it does feature some winners, including Are You Lonesome Tonight and Suspicious Minds.

The new Elvis collection demonstrates that by 1969, Presley had largely lost it, his attention diverted to Hollywood and his popchart supremacy usurped by The Beatles

and others. One of those interlopers was soul singer Otis Redding, whose melancholic (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay was a posthumous No. 1 hit in 1968. The four-CD set Otis! The Definitive Otis Redding (Rhino/Warner) makes clear that, had he not died in a plane crash at 26, Redding would have become a major pop star. As it was, during his five-year recording career “The Big 0” became a giant of rhythm and blues, writing and recording achingly beautiful ballads like I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.

But Otis could also rock. And such explosive songs as Hard to Handle and the classic Respect, which Aretha Franklin made a charttopper a few months before his death, put Redding on an equal footing with fellow Macon, Ga., talents James Brown and Little Richard. A number of Redding’s most incendiary numbers are featured on the fourth disc, which blends some of his best live performances into one seamless, exhilarating concert.

Redding recorded with the Stax/Volt company in Memphis, where he and soul duo Sam & Dave reigned during its heyday in

the early 1960s. But the nine-CD set The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 2

(Stax/Volt Fantasy/A&M) contains none of their hits, covering as it does the years from 1968 to 1971, after Redding had died and Sam & Dave had left the groundbreaking label. Instead, the exhaustive—and exhausting—collection of 216 singles features lesserknown but still-promising artists including Booker T. & the MGs, The Staple Singers and Rufus Thomas.

Despite great songs like the edgy instru-

mental Time is Tight, the gospel-in-

flected Respect Yourself and the hysterical Funky Chicken, the set suffers from the record company’s inclusion of just about everything, regardless of quality. This massive collection is for diehard, deep-pocketed soul fans only.

Despite its comprehensiveness, a

new box set featuring America’s First Lady of Song is superb throughout. The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books (Verve/PolyGram) is worth every penny of its hefty (at least $260) price. The 16 CDs represent all of Fitzgerald’s songbook albums, reproduced with original artwork and liner notes and packaged in a clothbound box also containing a 120-page hard-cover book. With the incomparable Ella singing 245 compositions by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and 5 others, the set amounts to the ultiz mate showcase of American song.

With her keen interpretive skills, impeccable phrasing and what jazz

critic Leonard Feather called her “bell-like clarity of tone,” Fitzgerald adapted readily to the styles of various composers. Then there’s Ella singing Duke—and jazz may not get much better than that. Backed by Ellington’s exceptional orchestra, Fitzgerald bops, scats and swings right along with the brilliantly inventive soloists. Other highlights include her duet with Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson on the melancholy Lush Life.

Exquisitely produced by Verve founder Norman Granz between 1956 and 1964, the eight albums that make up The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books stand the test of time. In a season of several box-set delights, it is the most stunning CD gift of all.

NICHOLAS JENNINGS