EVERY FEW YEARS the folks in charge of Elvis Presley’s recordings either get it right or just get lucky with their handling of the archival material. The big one was 30 #1 HITS, which hit #1 on the Billboard LP chart in 2002. It sold over 5,000,000 units in the US and at least that many more worldwide, making it one of the best-selling Elvis Presley albums ever released!
It would be stretching things a bit to say that there is a resurgence of interest in Presley. Nonetheless, there have been five other compilation albums that have been released in the US in the 21st century that have been certified by the RIAA and received Gold Record Awards. 1
Our culture and music has changed so drastically, I think that we have to keep Elvis right in line and do whatever we can to keep him current.
Several others are reportedly on the cusp of “going gold.” And if the record companies ever woke up and were willing to shell out a few more dollars for audits, the RIAA could introduce a Silver Record Award for sales of 250,000 units in the US.
Should that happen, the Elvis Presley Estate could have another gala announcement like the one in 1992 and announce a hundred new Elvis certifications!
Other titles have been certified as silver, gold, or platinum in other countries—many of whom are keeping official track of these things for the first time. And the vast back catalog of hundreds of titles keeps selling incrementally wherever LPs and CDs are still available.
This is the poster for a private affair in which IF I CAN DREAM was auditioned for an invited audience at The O2 in London on August 12, 2015. Unless the folks at Sony had extra copies printed, this should be one of the few collectables to emerge from this release.
We have to keep Elvis current
The latest success story from the people in charge of Elvis’s catalog—here including Priscilla Presley—is IF I CAN DREAM. This album is subtitled “Elvis Presley With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” for obvious reasons.
Unless you’re a fan, few people in the United States even know of the album’s release. But in the United Kingdom, the presence of the royal orchestra resonates in a way that it does not in the States. But IF I CAN DREAM recently passed a million in sales in the UK, where the presence of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra resonates in a way that it does not in the States.
IF I CAN DREAM consists of fourteen previously released tracks (duh!) with Elvis’s vocals and most of the original instrumental tracks by his band. Each track has a new orchestral arrangement performed by England’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
If I Can Dream was the twelfth best-selling title of 2015, and helped drive a four-percent increase in UK music sales over those of 2014!
Executive producer Priscilla Presley stated, “Our culture and music has changed so drastically, I think that we have to keep [Elvis] right in line and do whatever we can to keep him current.
This would be a dream come true for Elvis—he would have loved to play with such a prestigious symphony orchestra. The force that you feel with his voice and the orchestra is exactly what he would have done.”
IF I CAN DREAM was released on October 30, 2015, by RCA-Legacy as part of Elvis’s 80th birthday celebration. It was an immediate success.
This is the cover art to the UK album on both the LP and the CD. British fans were also offered a deluxe boxed edition that includes the compact disc, a large booklet, a fold-open poster, plus a two-record vinyl album that features three additional tracks unavailable elsewhere.
On the British charts
After débuting at #1 in the UK (and an almost inconceivable occurrence in the US), IF I CAN DREAM tied Presley with Madonna for the most #1 albums by a solo artist on the British charts, with each having twelve. It was also Presley’s fiftieth album to reach the UK Top 10.
During its sixth week on the British charts, it surpassed 500,000 in sales—meaning that it would qualify for an official Gold Record Award in the US if those sales were in the States. It was one of the fastest-selling albums of 2015 in the UK.
By the end of its ninth week, IF I CAN DREAM had sold almost 900,000 units, making it the year’s top-selling album by a non-UK artist. During the first week of the New Year, it passed the million mark in sales—a feat that no Elvis album has done in America since 30 #1 HITS in 2009. 2
On January 5, 2016, The Independent reported that IF I CAN DREAM was the 12th best-selling ‘home entertainment title’ of 2015. Along with the success of albums by artists such as Adele and Ed Sheeran, this helped drive a 4% increase in UK music sales over those of 2014! This at a time when such sales are declining all over the planet!
This is the cover art to the US album on both the LP and the CD. And yes, there is a vinyl version for the American market! Alas, there is no boxed set for this market. Note that this is one of the few times where I think that the American decision-makers chose superior cover art over that of their British counterparts.
On the American charts
In the US, IF I CAN DREAM débuted at #17 on Billboard’s classical album chart. This was the first time an Elvis album had made that survey. In its second week, it jumped all the way to #1, stayed at the top for a second week, and then moved down that chart.
It appeared on Billboard’s Top 200 popular album survey at #21, which was also its peak position there. It then moved down that chart. Overall domestic sales have been modest.
Along with England’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, IF I CAN DREAM features some other international support. Canadian jazz-pop singer Michael Bublé ‘duets’ with Elvis on one track, while the Italian vocal group Il Volo back Elvis on another track. Arizona’s most famous guitar-player Duane Eddy adds his licks to two other tracks.
While the addition of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is a fine concept, this album also features one of those ill-conceived, usually dreadful electronically created duets, this time with Michael Bublé on Fever. This was one of Elvis’s tastiest vocals ever and a highlight of ELVIS IS BACK (1960), perhaps his best album. Elvis’s Fever is far more sensuous than Little Willie John’s original R&B hit from 1956 or Peggy Lee’s more famous pop hit of ’58.
Frankly, here Bublé is not up to keeping up with Presley on this recording. (Who would be? Who could be?) That said, his Johnny-Mathis-meets-hip-hop vocals are excellent, and Fever should be pulled from the album as a single as soon as possible!
The Italian operatic pop trio Il Volo (“The Flight”) consists of Gianluca Ginoble, Piero Barone, and Ignazio Boschetto. They add their voices to It’s Now Or Never. It’s a simple, clean arrangement performed in a pleasant Jordanairesian manner.
As a special blast-from-the-past, former RCA Victor label-mate Duane Eddy contributed his distinctive ‘twangy’ guitar to Bridge Over Troubled Water and An American Trilogy. Eddy placed sixteen instrumental sides in Billboard’s Top 40 between 1958 and 1963, which you would never know if you didn’t grow up then or collect old records now.
A one-hour radio special was pressed on compact disc and shipped to radio station for broadcast. Like the O2 poster above this may become an overnight collectable as press runs for promotional discs such as this are usually minuscule.
Grading the tracks
Since grading things like this is fun and can attract new readers, here are my responses to IF I CAN DREAM. Keep in mind that rock & roll is rock & roll because it ain’t easy-listening! Part of the charm of Elvis’s original reading of Love Me Tender is partially based on the barebones arrangement, which was basically a country & western arrangement because no one in their right mind in 1956 would have blasphemed by putting strings on Elvis the Pelvis. 3
In the orchestrated version of Love Me Tender on this album, much of that charm is lost in the sweep of the strings. Several other tracks sound like they would be at home on an Andy Williams record—and we didn’t buy Elvis because he sounded like Andy. 4
We didn’t buy Elvis Presley records because they sounded or felt like Andy Williams records—but that was then and this is now!
Felton Jarvis took over the duties of Elvis’s official producer in 1966 and introduced him to string arrangements. So many of the Presley tracks had strings overdubbed at the time of their release.
In almost every case, the original arrangements are preferable to the ones by Patrick and Reedman. To me.
That is no doubt due to the fact that the person responsible for the strings in the ’60s and ’70s, Felton Jarvis, brought a rock & roll-pop sensibility to the arrangements. The producers for IF I CAN DREAM do not—and that no doubt is why they were hired. So here are the grades:
♦♦♦ Three stars means the arrangement and recording is exceptional and different enough to make the track seem unique. 5
♦♦ Two stars means it’s good, if unexceptional.
♦ One star does not mean bad, just why waste time with this?
I am NOT grading the selection of material, or the strengths of the songs as songs, or the original Presley tracks. I am just assessing whether the orchestrated track works, and whether it was worth my time to listen. 6
Burning Love ♦♦♦
It’s Now Or Never ♦♦
Love Me Tender ♦
Bridge Over Troubled Water ♦♦
And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind ♦♦
You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling ♦♦
There’s Always Me ♦♦
Can’t Help Falling In Love ♦
In The Ghetto ♦♦♦
How Great Thou Art ♦♦
Steamroller Blues ♦♦♦
An American Trilogy ♦♦
If I Can Dream ♦♦
Anything That’s Part Of You —
What Now My Love ♦
Heartbreak Hotel —
I couldn’t find a link to either Anything That’s Part Of You or Heartbreak Hotel, hence no stars. Oddly, the three recordings that benefit the most from the orchestral arrangements are the three one would least expect: the two rockers and the social comment song.
In the end, though, if this album and these arrangements get new people to listen to and hopefully “discover” Elvis, then let’s make more of them!
The first single pulled from the album was If I Can Dream / Anything That’s Part Of You, the latter track not a part of the regular album. The single was issued as a 45 rpm vinyl record with a small LP-sized spindle hole and issued in an attractive sleeve.
Another voice with another perspective
If you want other reviews of IF I CAN DREAM, they are out there and readily found via your preferred search engine. Most of them are boring and offer little insight or even an entertaining read. Not so with Randy Lewis’s “Elvis Presley ‘If I Can Dream’ with orchestra misses the mark” for The Los Angeles Times (October 30, 2015). While I recommend reading his piece in its entirety, here is the section that I wish that I had written:
“The problem with [IF I CAN DREAM] is that the organizing principle equates bigger with better, assuming that a boatload of strings, wind, and percussion instruments automatically enhances Presley hits. By and large, they don’t.
Perhaps an orchestrator-arranger on the order of a Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, or David Campbell might have crafted arrangements that add a new level of intrigue and dimension to Presley’s old material, but that never materializes here.
On a technical level, the feat is impressive, the new orchestra and vocal parts blending seamlessly with the original recordings. But the whole project brings to mind a cornerstone exchange from the original Jurassic Park movie, in which the scientist behind the cloning of dinosaurs for a new generation theme park boasts, Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before.
That’s when Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, offers the reply that should be the operative thought concerning all things Elvis as well: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Bravo, Mr. Lewis!
This video features the title track from the album and sums up the album for me: the orchestra is lovely but undermines the fire of the original.
Where do we go from here
In terms of rock and related music, we may have lived through the “golden age” of that music. If so, then we are going to see more projects like this in the future to keep the greats in front of new audiences. We shouldn’t be too far from someone designing intelligent/intuitive software that will be capable of recording the complete Miles Davis Quintet sessions for Prestige in 1955–56 and ‘listening’ to them. 7
Then the software could ‘learn’ how the musicians played certain notes, certain rhythms, certain melodies, and ‘understand’ it and extrapolate from there. It would then be possible to have the software take any group of songs and have them arranged and ‘played’ exactly the way Miles’s group would have played them in the mid-’50s!
So we could have the albums like The Miles Davis Quintet Plays Pet Sounds or Miles Plays Jimi or have the 1956 Miles Davis Quintet back a 2026 jazz singer like, say, Michael Bublé!
And why not?
This track from IF I CAN DREAM is a lot more fun! The rockers on the album benefited the most from this project: both Burning Love and Steamroller Blues (along with In The Ghetto) are a very different and very worthwhile listening experience from the originals. They should cause to ask the producers to do a second album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with all rock & roll and rhythm & blues numbers!
No more duets!
I remain unimpressed with the decades-long efforts of people who just don’t seem to get it to make Elvis anew by f*cking—and that’s what they are doing!—with the original recordings. Nonetheless, ain’t nobody paying attention to my opinion and if they’re going to do it, at least keep it as tasteful as this one—and avoid any more of those dreadful, tacky “duets” …
1 The other certified albums are Second To None (2003), Ultimate Gospel (2004), Blue Christmas (2006), The Essential Elvis Presley (2006), and The Very Best Of Love (2007).
2 The top three best-sellers were Adele’s 25, Ed Sheeran’s x, and Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour, the latter two actually being 2014 releases and therefore having considerably more time to amass those sales.
3 Of course, the other side of grading these things is that I risk looking like a real oarswhole.
4 And this is not intended as a slight against Mr Williams, possessor of one of the most beautiful and versatile voices in all of pop music history. But that’s “pop” like in Tin Pan Alley pop, not like in Beatles and Beach Boys pop.
5 Okay, they’re diamonds, which are much easier to access on WordPress than stars.
6 Of course my opinion could change with repeated listenings, but the likelihood of me listening to these more than a few times is slight indeed.
7 The Miles Davis Quintet consisted of Miles on trumpet with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. A more awesome band has yet to be assembled in this Universe …