Elvis set offers five CDs of 1950s historyWritten by Nate Pentecost | | firstname.lastname@example.org
From “Blue Suede Shoes” to “The Truth About Me” and everything in between, “Young Man with the Big Beat” takes listeners through the year that turned a Southern boy into the King of rock ’n’ roll.
The first two discs of the Sony Legacy collection are the 39 studio recordings that were completed and released in the seminal year of Presley’s RCA career. The first disc begins with the 12 songs from his debut LP, “Elvis Presley,” then follows with a handful of non-LP A- and B- sides.
The second disc starts with the 12 tracks from “Elvis,” his second album from 1956, which includes 10 non-LP A- and B- sides.
Both albums draw upon Presley’s knowledge of American music, primarily fusing country, rhythm and blues and pop. However, Elvis was not chiefly a songwriter. As a result, his work relies on contributions from now-legendary writers such as Little Richard, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Jesse Stone and Carl Perkins.
This is evident from the beginning of “Elvis Presley,” which kicks off the box set with the blistering pace of Presley’s rendition of the rockabilly classic “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Backed by a more polished ensemble of musicians, Presley joins the twangy vibe of Perkins’ original with his own bellowing vocals to create a sound and feel which are the very essence of early American rock ’n’ roll.
Presley’s take on “I Got A Woman” leaves behind a good portion of the jazz-inspired rhythm and blues of Ray Charles’ version. But at 21, Presley was still able to grasp the soulfulness of the music with his voice, and in the process, deliver the message to a different audience.
Even The King had to have understood the improbability of matching the intense, piano-driven style of “Tutti Frutti,” let alone the erratic, gospel-based howling distinct to Little Richard. Instead, Presley offers a more composed approach to the vocals, while a heavy dose of guitar works to maintain the track’s frantic pace.
“Elvis Presley” concludes with “Money Honey,” a song written by Stone for Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, which McPhatter carries with strikingly shrill vocals.
Presley sings with conviction the same angsty tale of a man who has gone to his woman for financial help only to find she has taken up with another man who already has money.
As the story unfolds, Presley reaches a near-falsetto pitch as well, but only while repeating the song’s title, subtly reminding the listener of the childish nature of the man’s cry for help.
The singles that round out the first disc are as enthralling as Presley’s debut album.
The tracks begin with “Heartbreak Hotel,” Presley’s interpretation of the song based on a newspaper article about the suicide of a lonely man who jumped from a hotel window.
Presley’s voice is augmented by the use of reverberation, which, when melded with his powerful delivery creates a sound as eerie and gripping as the story itself.
Without a saxophone or trumpet, Presley’s “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” lacks the lively, New Orleans jazz influence found in Lloyd Price’s original version. Nevertheless, he offers a bluesy, carefree take that, combined with a boisterous piano backup, makes the track one of the most enjoyable on the disc.
On Disc Two, the second song on “Elvis,” “Love Me,” marks Leiber and Stoller’s first collaboration with The King. The track combines simplistic but meaningful lyrics with a melancholy tune, complemented by Elvis’ smooth, elongated delivery. The Jordanaires’ deep, soulful backing vocals top off an outstanding doo-wop ballad.
The Jordanaires, who joined Presley shortly after he signed with RCA, backed The King on countless tracks from 1956 to 1972, in addition to numerous other popular acts.
Nowhere is their presence felt on “Elvis” more than in “Old Shep,” the country-based song which weaves the story of a young man whose dog has died. On a track largely void of instrumental backing, the gospel quartet is essential in creating the woesome flow of the song, providing gentle backing vocals that guide the tale from beginning to end.
Presley takes another crack at a Little Richard classic with a rendition of “Long Tall Sally.” This time he is spot-on, delivering a raspy, energetic take which leaves the listener wondering if they are still hearing the same artist.
Elvis brings the heat again with “Ready Teddy,” another ditty made popular by Little Richard. This up-tempo track is driven by the piano and guitar. Harsh, throaty vocals leave no doubt that Presley means it when he says he is, “Gonna rock ’n’ roll, till the early, early night.”
The third disc boasts 21 rare live renditions of some of Presley’s most notable hits from three different performances. The first is a four-song set from a show at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
Though he is now part of the very fabric of the city, Vegas’ predominately middle-aged crowd of 1956 hardly responds to rousing performances of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Money Honey.”
Elvis even makes a “heartburn motel” quip mid-song which fails to soften the crowd enough to even elicit a polite chuckle.
The audience might be dull, but that means that unlike the other pair of shows, the Frontier Hotel gig offers a near-studio quality live performance by Presley and his band.
The Little Rock, Ark., performance begins with the announcer of the broadcast reducing the title of Presley’s opening song to “Heartbreak Motel.”
The broadcaster’s erroneous introduction prevents us from hearing the beginning of the song, but even he fails to drown out the deafening screams of the female audience members.
The fourth disc provides a wealth of outtakes from Elvis’ early RCA sesssions with a total of 27 unused tracks. It features takes of songs from the first RCA session, including alternate versions of “I Got a Woman,” “Heartrbreak Hotel,” “I’m Counting on You” and “I Was the One,” as well as the complete session of Feb. 3, 1956.
The February session offers eight takes on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” in which Presley mainly just tinkers with pitch and inflection.
The next four tracks include 12 takes of Presley experimenting with alternative lyrics to “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” with intermittent fits of laughter from the band.
The sound quality is superb, but the alternative versions and session takes are not so significantly different as to warrant more than a listen or two for anyone who is not a diehard fan. Regardless, the disc gives an insightful look at the beginning of a legendary career.
The spoken audio begins on disc four with an interview at the Warwick Hotel.
The spoken material reveals Presley to be a polite and respectful young man and “The Complete TV Guide Presents Elvis Interview” on Disc Five is no exception.
Presley gracefully and humbly takes inquiries by TV Guide’s Paul Wilder on topics ranging from religion, to acting, to how Elvis feels about his fans and critics.
The box set concludes with a pair of ads Presley recorded for the RCA Victrola phonograph. The ads are a unique bit of nostalgia but a rather monotone delivery reminds us that the Elvis of 1956 was still developing the persona of The King.
“Young Man with the Big Beat” is an exceptional release, rich in its musical and spoken content. This box set is well worth a listen for long-time fans seeking to revisit the breakout year of Presley’s career, as well as for those of a new generation, discovering his incredibly influential music for the first time.
Elvis set explores country roots
Rebirthed in a grandiose new image, and reinvigorated after a studio hiatus which lasted longer than a year, “Elvis Country: Legacy Edition” captures Presley’s return to his southern roots through his now historic June 1970 studio session in Nashville.
The first disc of the two-disc set includes the 12 cuts from Presley’s January 1971 release “Elvis Country,” as well as a trio of bonus tracks. Disc Two contains the 11 songs released in June of the same year in the album “Love Letters From Elvis,” grouped with another three bonus tracks.
Presley brings the listener into “Elvis Country” with a trio of stringed instruments which begin his take on Anne Murray’s debut hit “Snowbird.” The guitar and banjo come as no surprise, but use of the newly westernized sitar works to create a fresh and adventurous backing sound for the country-based track.
An excerpt from “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” serves as jolting conclusion to the opening number, but as Disc One rolls on, portions of the song reveal themselves to be a unique bridge between each track.
Elvis is phenomenal on the second cut, another country number entitled “Tomorrow Never Comes.” Presley brings a timeworn quality to deep, soulful vocals, to match lyrics which convey the tale of a beleaguered man whose love interest is unwilling to commit to the future he envisions for them. Guitar provides the track’s country flow, but Presley is joined by a host of instruments, most prominently a horn section, which create the buildup leading to the man’s revelation that indeed, “tomorrow will never, never come.”
The country-feel of the album’s early songs is set aside on the fourth track in which Elvis makes Jerry Lee Lewis blush with a more up-tempo rendition of “Whole Lot-ta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Presley’s rowdy version of the rockabilly classic leaves clear that he “ain’t fakin’.”
Elvis picks up the pace again with “I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water,” leaving behind the twangy vibe of Stonewall Jackson’s version, and igniting the track with a saloon-style piano, joined by the horns and saxophone which give the track its jazz feel.
An Elvis album simply would not be complete without at least a few more powerful ballads, and of course, The King obliges with offerings including Presley’s take on “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
Elvis captures the lonesomeness of Woody Nelson’s original, and a gospel chord progression provides a unique southern-feel, but no one can wallow in anguish quite like the Redheaded Stranger.
Booming vocals mark Presley’s take on an Eddy Arnold ballad. Issued as a single along with “There Goes My Everything,” Presley revisits his gospel origins again in “I Really Don’t Want To Know,” with the help of the Jordanaires and a bluesy piano backup.
In addition to being woven into the end of every track, “I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago” is one of the three songs from the original recording session which are featured on Disc One as bonus tracks. However, the raw, gripping vocals of “Where Did They Go, Lord” are the highlight of the songs which round out the disc.
Ballads predominate throughout Disc Two, “Love Letters From Elvis,” starting with the first track. The bittersweet tones of the violin in “Love Letters” (featured without lyrics in a movie of the same name) usher the listener into the woeful story of a man clinging to the written words which bring him a semblance of the love from which he is separated.
Keeping with the trend, Presley follows with Shirl Milete’s country ballad, “When I’m Over You.” Elvis’ vocals stay true to the song’s country roots while the smooth echo of a choir during the chorus brings a southern gospel flavor to the track. Chip Young adds a rock ‘n’ roll twist with skillful fretboard fills.
The King returns to rock with the fourth track on “Love Letters From Elvis,” melding cuts from Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee Lewis in “Got My Mojo Working/Keep Your Hand Off Of It.”
Presley nearly matches the blistering intensity of Muddy Waters’ vocals, but his band is unable to replicate Waters’ raucous instrumental backing. Even still, a pairing with “Keep Your Hands Off Of It” makes this roller coaster of a song the most exhilarating on either disc.
Elvis’ guitar-driven rendition of the folk classic “Cindy, Cindy” is electrifying in its own right. A spirited horn section creates a Big Band era flavor, while backup singers provide the swing-style chant of “Cindy, Cindy.” A bluesy harmonica also contributes to the vibe, while roughly maintaining the song’s folk origin.
High-octane cuts such as these do well to break up the album’s numerous ballads, including its three singles. “Only Believe” stands as an uplifting gospel-based track, and use of the flute gives mystique to the country song “Life”, but it is the bonus track “Rags To Riches” which stands above the others.
Indeed Tony Bennett took the song to the top of the Billboard chart in 1953, but make no mistake, Elvis’ version holds its own. Presley delivers a bellowing take, exuding the genuine emotion of a man who has lived the song’s lyrics, making “Rags to Riches” a truly breathtaking ending to the two-disc set.
Drawing influence primarily from the country genre, this pair of albums is largely void of the hard-hitting rock tracks that are among Presley’s most endearing works. Nevertheless, “Elvis Country: Legacy Edition” is an enjoyable listen throughout, bringing together some of the most inspired music of Elvis’ career.