Cardboard tombstones

For a man who died 25 years ago, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington is one hell of a prolific man. This year alone, he has released some 10 albums--not to mention an eight-disc boxed set, and another mother containing 24 CDs with a list price of $407.97. The labels in charge of these Ellington releases--from the high-and-mighty likes of Columbia Records and RCA Victor to lesser-known companies such as Music & Arts and Century Vista--have their good reasons for cleaning out the vaults, of course: On April 29, Ellington would have turned 100 years old, and what better way to celebrate a birthday without the birthday boy than by emptying the coffin? Record companies are thoughtful that way. Even better, the Ellington releases give 32-year-old rock critics something to write about: Good to see Entertainment Weekly gave RCA's 1927-1973 two-dozen-disc set an "A."

But record labels are wising up: They've come to realize there's no reason to wait for round-numbered anniversaries to release cardboard tombstones dedicated to some of this century's most influential musicians. Does Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack or his concert from the 1956 Stratford Festival sound better when the corpse is 100 than it did when it was only 93? Of course not, silly! That's why, in recent weeks, we've begun collecting press releases from various labels announcing the mammoth boxed sets dedicated to the greatest and latest of the 20th century (and beyond). We've chosen the highlights, of course; no need to include that 18-disc Shannon Hoon/Blind Melon box, Bee Real. It's too small to worry about.

Jam Sandwich: The Mama Cass 58. On September 21, two days after what would have been Cass Elliot's 58th birthday, Rhino Records will release a 19-disc boxed set featuring everything Mama Cass ever recorded during her tenure in the Mamas and the Papas and, before that, the Big Three and the Mugwumps. In addition, there will be hours of unreleased material from the solo album she was working on at the time of her death. The album, titled Yo, Mama, is said to be a masterpiece: "It's a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman," reads the label's press release, "a woman who was phat long before it became trendy."

Puffy Combs will remix at least two tracks, says Allen Zmerdlick, head of Rhino's grief and suffering department: "California Dreamin" and "Monday, Monday," both of which will feature Carnie Wilson, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, and Rikki Lake. Rhino is making each disc look like a piece of ham and packaging them between two pieces of bread; the set will be sold in a giant lunch box, with the liner notes (penned by Rolling Stone's David Fricke) written out in the form of a menu. Zmerdlick vehemently insists the packaging will not be in bad taste: "The bread will be fresh," he says, "and there will be mustard."

Shalom from Minneapolis: The Bob Dylan Bar Mitzvah 45, Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On May 22, 1954, a 13-year-old by the name of Robert Zimmerman celebrated his journey into Jewish manhood. All he got that day were dozens of savings bonds and fountain pens, but 45 years later, fans of Zimmerman--better known as Bob Dylan--get the real present. Columbia Records commemorates the moment with this 21-CD box containing the entire Saturday-morning service, including a two-hour Torah reading followed by the 18-minute Haftorah portion. That's not static you hear on these archival masterpieces, which were recently discovered at his Aunt Mildred's house in Dalbo, Minnesota. That's actually a young Robert Zimmerman mumbling his way through ancient Hebrew--to the tune of what would eventually become "Masters of War," no less, hinting at what lay ahead for this brilliant young Hebrew.

"This archival release is perhaps the finest yet in the bootleg series," offers Lee Trumby, president of Columbia's accounting and catering division. "It's Dylan unplugged and kosher, the sound of a teenager becoming a man who still has the smell of gefilte fish on his breath." Each box, containing liner notes in English and Hebrew by Rolling Stone's David Fricke, will come with a commemorative reproduction of the silken yarmulkes handed out at the bar mitzvah.

Fuck Da Biz: Tupac's Last Stand. On September 7, 1996, Tupac Shakur was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip. He was leaving a Mike Tyson fight and on his way, with Death Row Records boss Marion "Suge" Knight, to a par-tay when still-unknown assassins fired four shots into his BMW 750, ending the life of one of hip-hop's most prescient and prolific figures. Shakur would have turned 30 next year, and to commemorate the event, Death Row Records is shipping out this 42-CD boxed set containing everything still left in the vaults. While that might seem excessive, Knight insists in a prison-cell press release that Shakur spent every day of the last year of his life recording at least 37 tracks, only scant few of which have been posthumously released.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky