Elvis Presley sounds bigger than life on his "new" CD. If I Can Dream: Elvis With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra symphonically supersizes some of the mightiest vocal performances by the King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Produced with the blessing of ex-wife Priscilla Presley, If I Can Dream surrounds his original vocals from the 1960s-70s with the luscious arrangements of a modern 65-piece orchestra. The results are downright operatic.
In a wide-ranging interview in a record-company conference room in New York, Priscilla claimed that her husband's rock and pop recordings had barely scratched the surface of his musical aspirations. Elvis never evolved into the artist he longed to be, she said, because his closest associates — notably his controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker — "didn't really get him."
"This is an album that Elvis would have loved to have made," said Priscilla, 70, about the Oct. 30 release of If I Can Dream. Producer Don Reedman pitched her the idea a few years ago when she was appearing as the Wicked Queen in a stage production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Just 14 years old when she first met Elvis — in Bad Nauheim, Germany, where he was serving in the U.S. Army — Priscilla recalled, "He was so impressed I knew who [opera star] Mario Lanza was." After moving into Graceland in 1963, Priscilla enjoyed watching Elvis respond to symphonies on TV: "He'd stand up and conduct," she said. "He'd put on a show for us. He loved drama, bigness and the power of an operatic voice."
With one exception ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), all of Presley's vocals heard on If I Can Dream come from his original recordings. These range from songs on which he's accompanied only by his guitar, as on "Love Me Tender," to tracks that he sang with his regular stage band and a small orchestra led by Joe Guercio.
Arranger Nick Patrick was determined to preserve the essence of the Elvis sound. The title track, for example, began life as the grand finale of 'Elvis,' the acclaimed 1968 comeback special that marked the singer's first live performance in seven years. Patrick added thick strings and brass, but Elvis' voice cuts right through. "It's not changed in any way by the size of the orchestra," Patrick said. "That's a real testament to the energy and incredible emotional weight of that performance."
If I Can Dream's other highlights include an explosive "Burning Love," a wonderfully intimate version of Neil Diamond's "The Grass Won't Pay No Mind" and a call-and-response chorus for "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." Elvis' love of spirituals infuses "How Great Thou Art," while "Steamroller Blues" shows his passion for funk.
Priscilla and producer Reedman decided to concentrate on some of the King's lesser-known material, lending the record an unexpectedly contemporary vibe. They also picked songs that Presley himself chose to sing, rather than material imposed on him by his manager or record company.
Elvis' relationship with Parker was "the perfect scenario of a manager not really knowing who he had as an artist," Priscilla said. "He knew who he had as a commodity, but that's different." Parker forced Elvis into a sort of artistic purgatory in the 1960s, Priscilla claimed, a decade he mostly spent acting in critically-scorned films that generated mediocre soundtrack albums.
Worst of all, she continued, Parker and RCA Records amplified Elvis' voice on those records to an absurd level. "He couldn't understand why his voice was always out in front," she said. "Why could you barely hear the background singers? Elvis never heard the bigness he wanted to hear."
If I Can Dream redresses that imbalance, throwing in some grace notes that Elvis might well have appreciated: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Duane Eddy adds his signature guitar twang to "Bridge Over Troubled Water," for example, while Michael Bublé "duets" with the King on the Peggy Lee hit "Fever."
Priscilla's favorite track on If I Can Dream is Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which uses the Royal Philharmonic to its fullest. She said it reminds her of an evening in Las Vegas when Vernon Presley, Elvis' father, told the couple minutes before curtain time that Domino, the beautiful quarter horse Elvis had given his wife, had died unexpectedly. In the middle of the ensuing show, an emotional Elvis locked eyes with Priscilla in her booth, announced "This is for you," and sang "Bridge."
Like a James Bond novel written after Ian Fleming's death, If I Can Dream is not the real thing, but it extends the franchise in intriguing ways while retaining its core appeal. And it's very likely something Elvis would have enjoyed.
"We thought, 'Let's show how beautiful his voice is matched with an orchestra,' " Priscilla said. " 'And let's make it full and big — just like he'd always dreamed.'"
Richard Gehr is a Brooklyn-based music journalist who also writes for Rolling Stone, Spin and the Village Voice.