Elvis Presley’s new album, If I Can Dream, released on October 30 offers something new and unique for music fans uniting The King of Rock and Roll with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This may seem like an oxymoron, but in fact, this style of music couldn’t be better-suited for Elvis.
As discussed in the new book, Elvis: Behind The Legend, Presley had a diverse range of musical tastes, which contributed to his ability to masterfully combine different genres and, as a result, be hailed as The King of Rock and Roll. However, Presley did not grow up wanting to be a rock and roller, but rather a crooner in the vein of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and even Bing Crosby.
Presley’s unique rock and roll sound was something he admittedly “stumbled upon” along with the help of Sun Studio founder and music producer Sam Phillips. It was only after Elvis became successful did his true musical passions start emerging.
While many rock and roll loyalists like John Lennon blamed Presley’s abandonment of his rebellious musical image on his two-year stint in the army, this period seemed to offer Elvis a welcomed opportunity to shift his style. A few months after his return from Germany in 1960, Elvis told a reporter: “In the two years I was in the army, I think the music got better. There wasn’t so much of the wild stuff.”
Moving away from the “wild stuff,” Elvis turned to an old Italian song recorded by opera star, Mario Lanza, for his next big hit. “It’s Now or Never,” based on the song “O Sole Mio,” came out in the summer of 1960 and became Presley’s biggest single with more than 20 million records sold worldwide. This song is included on If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and features a more Italian sound with the help of the trio Il Volo as backup singers.
As Elvis matured, he would record many slower ballad-type songs that any crooner like Sinatra or Martin would have sang. In the 1970s, Presley’s live shows featured a variety of songs ranging from gospel to R&B to pop ballads.
“He was an artist in the truest sense,” Priscilla Presley, who served as executive producer on the project, says. “He’d have loved to have more of an orchestra on his original records, but they – his management, his label – put constraints on him.”
The idea for the project was brought to her by producer Don Reedman, famous for the Hooked on Classics series of orchestral rock music. The album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, the legendary place where The Beatles recorded the majority of their songs.
The first track, “Burning Love,” is the only rock song included on If I Can Dream, and may seem out of place to some fans. It starts off with an unrelated classical intro and then cleverly merges the rock and roll beat with strings in the background. While some purists may have trouble accepting the enhanced version of this song, repeated listening on full surround sound should quickly change their minds.
This reviewer can’t stress enough the importance of listening to the CD on either a car stereo or home stereo system to hear the brilliant sound of Presley’s voice, accompanied by the fullness of the orchestra. If a listener makes the mistake of listening to the album through flat speakers, like those of a computer, they will not fully appreciate the instrumentation of the songs. In addition, flat speakers may give the illusion that Elvis’ voice is being overpowered by the orchestra, but as evident on the full stereo sound, that is not the case.
Fans that are familiar with the original versions of the songs included on If I Can Dream will not find a drastic change to the overall sound of some of the recordings like the title track “If I Can Dream” and “In The Ghetto”. The truth is Presley’s arrangements for many of these songs already had some orchestration since Elvis had incorporated a small orchestra into his ’70s live performances to accompany the TCB rock band and his multitude of backup R&B and gospel singers. But what the Royal Philharmonic does is add an overall polished orchestral sound to the songs.
Where the collaboration works best is in songs that originally had empty spots in their instrumentation. For example, The Royal Philharmonic fits in perfectly with songs like “Love Me Tender,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. In “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the combination of Presley’s voice and the orchestra mesh together perfectly. Priscilla has a soft spot for this song since Elvis dedicated this song to her during a concert in Las Vegas after they had just learned that one of their beloved horses had died back at Graceland.
“This would be a dream come true for Elvis,” Priscilla Presley said about the album. “He would have loved to play with such a prestigious symphony orchestra. The music…the force that you feel with his voice and the orchestra is exactly what he would have done.”
Another highlight is the glorious “American Trilogy.” The original version is bigger than life, but the additional orchestration from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really adds something to the enormity of the song. Other highlights include Michael Bublé’s wonderful jazzy duet with Elvis on “Fever” and a surprisingly funkier version of the R&B song “Steamroller Blues.” Interestingly, the cover photo of Elvis on the album was taken in 1968 at the recording session for the song “If I Can Dream” in Los Angeles.
Another one of the best recordings of Elvis’ voice coupled with the orchestra is surprisingly not even on the If I Can Dream album. “What Now My Love,” which was also recorded with the Royal Philharmonic, was only released on the recent Elvis Forever CD from the US Postal Service. The omission of this song is a shame because “What Now My Love” is such a great fit to the overall theme of the album.
As a whole, the album is a great representation of how Elvis could match up to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin any day and will hopefully bring a new appreciation for Presley as the diverse, multi-talented artist he was: The King of Rock and Roll and so much more.