From the man who would be King
There’s something quite wonderful about listening to “lost works” by great artists because they carry the promise of hidden truths. So it’s surprising that RCA Records didn’t slap a “long lost” sticker on the cover of Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album to exploit the discovery aspect of its recent re-release.
Even though the album, titled simply “Elvis Presley,” was the first rock album to go to No. 1, it is largely forgotten today because there are more obvious options for Presley fans, including “Sunrise,” which contains Presley’s classic pre-RCA recordings, and the scores of greatest-hits collections.
With more than 100 Presley albums on the shelves, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to go back to the debut package. Still, it was shocking to see it sell fewer than 500 copies across the country during its first week in stores last month. You’d think you could move that many CDs on Wal-Mart tables in Louisiana alone.
For those who do take the bait, “Elvis Presley” will be a revelation -- and must listening for record executives in a cautious pop era.
Intriguingly, the debut album demonstrates that RCA had no idea what to do with Presley, even though it had paid what was then a king’s ransom to buy his contract from Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis.
In the album’s 12 tracks, you’ll find leftover selections from the Sun era, R&B; hits of the day that Presley had been doing in his live show, a pop standard by Rodgers & Hart, a ditty (“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)”) he apparently heard in a Martin & Lewis comedy and a couple of tunes the label apparently found for him.
Phillips, the visionary producer who discovered Presley and helped shape his dynamic style at Sun, told a story that illustrates RCA executive Steve Sholes’ buyer’s remorse after going into the studio with Presley in January 1956.
Unlike Phillips, Sholes wasn’t sure just how to blend the singer’s various country, blues, gospel and pop interests into a dynamic whole. To compound things, Sholes’ choice for a first Presley single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was met with indifference by radio programmers, while Sun’s latest record, Carl Perkins’ rockabilly exercise “Blue Suede Shoes,” was racing up the pop, country and R&B; charts.
Torn by doubt, Sholes phoned Phillips late one night and asked nervously, “Be honest with me, Sam. Did we sign the wrong man?”
Phillips assured the RCA executive that Presley indeed was the one he should have signed, and with label promotion and some heavy television exposure, “Heartbreak Hotel” eventually caught fire, rewarding Sholes’ faith in the young singer. The single not only went to No. 1 but set off such a demand for anything Elvis that the sideburned singer’s debut album, despite its shortcomings, was also a smash.
‘Now go, cat, go’
“Elvis PRESLEY” opens with a reworking of “Blue Suede Shoes,” the rockabilly anthem that was so influential that it alone was largely responsible for Perkins being voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Like so much early rock, its lyrics were relatively plain, but the aggression in the vocal and instrumentation turned it into an anthem for teenagers in the ‘50s who were rebelling against adult authority.
Well, it’s one for the money
Two for the show, three to get ready
Now go, cat, go, but don’t you
Step on my blue suede shoes.
Presley’s version is an improvement over Perkins’ in almost every way -- especially in the sensual command of Presley’s singing. The musical energy, including an especially seductive guitar break by Scotty Moore and drumming by D.J. Fontana, complements perfectly the sexy authority of Presley’s voice.
In the early weeks of 1956, this opening knockout punch carried such thrilling promise of everything this 21-year-old singer could be that it helped fans look past some of the otherwise puzzling sidesteps on the rest of the album.
“I’m Counting on You,” which came next, is one of two tunes believed to have been brought to the session by Sholes, apparently hoping to strengthen Presley’s presence in country music.
This country emphasis made sense because RCA’s backup plan for Presley, in case the rock revolution was short-lived, was to make him a country music star. The label bought his contract only after his fifth Sun single, the country-accented ballad “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” went to No. 1 on the country charts in the summer of 1955.
Presley’s relatively straightforward treatment of Don Robertson’s tune is interesting only for the mix of country twang in Presley’s vocal and R&B; echo in Floyd Cramer’s piano lines. It has been suggested that he merely recorded it out of politeness to Sholes.
Yet he was clearly engaged by Bill Campbell’s “One-Sided Love Affair,” the other song suggested by Sholes.
Against a good-natured honky-tonk piano backdrop, Presley is so playful that he sounds downright mischievous, mocking the romantic tension in the lyrics with dramatic shifts in tempo and vocal inflection.
It’s hard to tell what Sholes or country music DJs must have thought about the sense of the absurd that Presley brings to the tune, but hearing it today is delicious fun.
The album has three other country songs, including an upbeat novelty, “Just Because,” which has a joyous hillbilly tinge, and ballads -- “I Love You Because” and “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)” -- that do little other than showcase the purity and caress of Presley’s voice.
Another ballad, the pop standard “Blue Moon,” is heavily reworked as Presley drops the final verse (with its happy-ever-after asides) and slows the tempo. The result is an eerie, lonesome exercise, not unlike the pop melodrama Roy Orbison would reach for in ‘60s hits such as “Only the Lonely.”
To round out the album, Presley did versions of three songs that had long been part of his live act: Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” and the Drifters’ “Money Honey.”
In some ways, these songs were the most revealing of all.
Unlike many white artists, such as Pat Boone and the Crew Cuts, who watered down the gritty edges of the original R&B; versions of songs in the ‘50s, Presley reshaped them.
He not only injected the tunes with his own vocal character but also made guitar, not piano, the lead instrument in all three cases. It was one of his biggest contributions to the defining of modern rock ‘n’ roll.
Despite the different styles, the one thing Sholes and the engineers did was keep Presley’s voice way out in front in the musical mix. They may not have known Presley’s exact musical direction, but they knew the value of that voice.
Sholes was lucky to have inherited one other song from Phillips: “Trying to Get to You,” perhaps the album’s most electrifying moment. Written by Charles Singleton and Rose Marie McCoy, the R&B; song is a tale of romantic obsession that Phillips liked so much that he recorded it twice with Presley at Sun.
The first session was in February 1955, the same day Presley recorded the landmark “Baby, Let’s Play House,” and maybe Phillips was so focused on the excitement of that track that he gave up on “Get to You” after the early stab at it didn’t seem to work. On that track, he had used only guitar and bass.
Five months later, Phillips tried the song again, this time adding a drum, and Presley sang the tune with such chilling intensity that Phillips had planned to release “Get to You” as the follow-up to “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” which spent 10 months on the country charts. But RCA bought the rights to all of Presley’s Sun recordings before he got the chance.
So teens heard it for the first time on “Elvis Presley,” and it is a moment of genuine triumph.
The lesson in all of this is that Sholes may have been nervous about Presley’s experimentation, but he had the good sense to allow him to proceed, even as he tested pop extremes while defining his own sound. That record-executive approach is another reason to call this a “lost” album. There isn’t much evidence of that risk-taking any more at major labels. The tendency is too often to head for the safe, middle ground.
Almost 50 years later, you still marvel at Presley’s bold approach -- and the youthful assurance of that stirring voice, which mixes pop crooning with renegade country and R&B; spirit. Despite the hundreds of thousands of records that have been made since 1956, this young singer still sounds blessedly unique.
On the Web
To hear samples from “Elvis Presley,” visit calendarlive.com/presley.
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org