One for the money: Elvis’s Christmas duets

Christmas Duets by Elvis PresleyI must say, I’m feeling very festive. On the same day that Harrods opened its Christmas department, I learnt that Sony BMG is planning a Yuletide, er, treat for Elvis Presley fans: an album called Christmas Duets. The record features Presley ‘duetting’ with modern female country stars such as Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride and LeAnn Rimes. Priscilla Presley explains in the press release that “the most advanced and sophisticated audio technology available” has been used to create “exciting new versions of his Christmas songs”.

The image that popped immediately into my head was a smug record-label ‘ideas’ man leaning back in his brown-leather recliner and singing a little jingle: “I’m so good at music.”

Sony BMG has a goldmine of Elvis releases that it has sidelined to a collectors’ label, Follow That Dream: original, remastered albums stuffed with bonus outtakes and packaged with glossy booklets in gatefold 7″-sized sleeves. Yet you won’t find them in stores; they’re a mail-order product priced at a premium. While these discs are hidden away like some guilty secret, the main label pushes themed compilations and novelty items to the general public. The result is a depressingly ragged major-label catalogue that does Presley’s recorded legacy and public image few favours.

The new Christmas record is reportedly a precursor to a non-festive duets album. I’m concerned by these efforts to recreate Presley as a contemporary artist by farming him out to ‘collaborate’ with people that he never met. In 2007, he appeared on American Idol to sing If I Can Dream with Celine Dion – a skin-crawling three minutes whichever angle you view it from. Having shuffled off this mortal coil 31 years ago, not only did Elvis have no say in the decision to perform a) on this show, and b) alongside Dion, but he couldn’t even squirm for the cameras as his expressions were fixed firmly in 1968.

“We are so pleased that these accomplished artists are collaborating with Elvis in this unique way,” says Priscilla Presley of the new duets album. “I am sure Elvis would be proud to have worked with them.”

Well, there’s the rub. She can be sure of no such thing, but dead men tell no tales. Of course musicians lose control of their recorded output when they die (heck, a fair few don’t even have it when they’re alive), and I doubt that many would be happy about the release of rehearsal tapes and the suchlike. But it’s one thing to release outtakes and live performances, which are arguably biographical and aid understanding of a deceased artist’s work, and another thing entirely to splice somebody else’s vocals on to a record decades after it was recorded and call it a “unique collaboration”.

What it is is another novelty designed to buy Elvis some headlines (the story has already been picked up by BBC News) and some Christmas shelf space that would be better served by some decent Presley product, such as the lavish FTD releases that the label would, seemingly, rather you didn’t know about.

The last word is another dead guy’s, Waylon Jennings’. When a similar album of fake Elvis duets was mooted in the early ‘80s (a project which thankfully never came to be), Jennings was asked whether he’d add his vocals to You Asked Me To, a song of his that Presley had recorded at Stax studios in 1973.

“Call Elvis,” he replied. “If it’s okay with Elvis, it’s okay with me.”

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