Elvis Aron Presley’s early musical inspiration was the Pentecostal church, the sound of gospel and the hillbilly music that percolated through Tupelo, Mississippi. When the Presley family moved to Memphis, the teenager hung out on Beale Street and absorbed the rhythm’n’blues, the African-American artists Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and the country jukebox stars of the time, as well as the black gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (aka The Original Soul Sister). It was that blend of influences that he took into the studio for his debut at Sun Records in 1953, telling the receptionist, “I sing all kinds… I don’t sound like nobody.”
Sun founder Sam Phillips was both impressed but unconvinced until Presley ripped into Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’, which was quickly committed to acetate along with bluegrass hit ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’. The King Of Rock’n’Roll had, in a sense, arrived.
His eponymous debut (known in the UK as Elvis Presley Rock’n’Roll) combined Sun and RCA sessions with backing from Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Bill Black, Shorty Long, DJ Kramer and three auxiliary singers. The material may have been old but it was dynamite: ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘I Got A Woman, ‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Blue Moon’ and Jesse Stone’s seminal ‘Money Honey’.
With The Jordainaires on board, Elvis (1956) hit the top slot and gave us ‘Love Me’, ‘When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold’, ‘Paralyzed’ and ‘Old Shep’, a maudlin ballad the ten-year-old Elvis sang at his first public performance, in 1945, at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair And Dairy Show.
1957’s Loving You was more mainstream, and since Presley was now a household name, the inevitable Elvis’ Christmas Album followed; his first Diamond-selling album, and the best-selling festive album of all time, fans queued overnight to buy it in October 1957.
While it was certain that Presley’s fans already owned all his records, that didn’t stop the Elvis’ Golden Records compilation from storming the charts in 1958. Then the bombshell: Elvis was drafted into the army. Before he left he starred in King Creole, his fourth (and best) movie, and released the soundtrack, which included the outstanding ‘Hard Headed Woman’.
While their precious treasure was stationed abroad, RCA kept Presley’s name current with a sequence of dusted-off material culminating in the stylishly packaged Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2 (aka the fiendishly ad-friendly 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong).
Once discharged from service, Presley released the more experimental Elvis Is Back!, on which the stand-out cuts are ‘Fever’ and ‘Dirty, Dirty Feeling’. This marked the start of second-phase Presley, with the clean-cut ‘GI Blues’ and the devotional ‘His Hand In Mine’ fixing the King on a mainstream course. But if the initial excitement had died down, the trajectory of Presley’s fame continued upwards. Something For Everybody and the Blue Hawaii soundtrack were massive sellers, and his light entertainment years beckoned thanks to soundtrack sales outstripping his standard studio work – though Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 3 was a reminder that he hadn’t lost it: ‘(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame’, ‘Surrender’ and ‘Little Sister’ were fabulous and smooth, though the singer was starting to tire of his public image and would later spend time during shows sending up the sentimental banality of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ – though without missing a beat.
The 1963 soundtrack Fun In Acapulco is worth hearing for ‘Bossa Nova Baby’, but fans were growing more selective, preferring EPs such as Kid Galahad to the diluted stuff on Roustabout or Girl Happy. Elvis For Everyone! was far better, with versions of ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Memphis Tennessee’ to remind us where he’d come in. But by 1966, the increasing dominance of Bob Dylan had usurped The King. Recognising a change in mood, Presley took control of the Clambake soundtrack by adding covers of Jerry Reed’s ‘Guitar Man’ and Luther Dixon’s stomping ‘Big Boss Man’.
More forgettable movies followed before Elvis (aka the ’68 Comeback) landed with a thud in Christmas 1968, signalling Presley’s “comeback” period. The following year’s From Elvis In Memphis was another strong release with a genuine hit, ‘In The Ghetto’, and more contemporary hippie-era Nashville backing. Elvis’ crack team of TCB (Taking Care Of Business) cats arrived swinging through Elvis In Person At The International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, with The King back in black leather and owning ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘Johnny B Goode’ and ‘Mystery Train’.
The follow-up, On Stage, was another knowing spin on songs that carried weight: ‘Polk Salad Annie’, ‘Walk A Mile In My Shoes’ and ‘Proud Mary’. It paved the way for his last really big hit, a cover of Dennis Linde’s ‘Burning Love’: a bona fide modern rock’n’roll classic that sits next to Presley’s fantastic version of Mickey Newbury’s ‘An American Trilogy’, and offers a tantalising glimpse of the cosmic country he should have explored further.
Ever prolific and constantly available on compilation, Presley had another upturn with 1972’s Elvis Now, where Felton Jarvis brought in excellent material for the singer, including Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’, Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’.
Elvis: As Recorded At Madison Square Garden (a June 1972 concert attended by David Bowie, John Lennon, Led Zeppelin and Andy Warhol) is a great document of his live 70s shows, but even that is surpassed by 1973’s Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, an over-the-top extravaganza including ‘My Way’ and ‘Steamroller Blues’.
The MOR styling of Good Times and the gems on Promised Land (including a great take on the Waylon Jennings/Billy Joe Shaver-penned ‘You Asked Me To’) showed that Presley could still deliver if the songs were right. On Today he got his groove on with Billy Swan’s ‘I Can Help’ (gifting the songwriter a pair of white socks for his trouble), but the fans probably found more pleasure to be had in the retro compilation The Sun Sessions. Even so, the patchy From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee had at least one great song, Fred Rose’s ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’, but the end was in sight, and Moody Blue, Presley’s final studio album, was mostly notable for a great cover of George Jones’ ‘She Thinks I Still Care’. His last live shows were captured on Elvis In Concert, recorded two months before his death from cardiovascular disease, in August 1977, aged just 42. Found at his home in Graceland, Memphis, Presley’s condition had been exacerbated by an addiction to prescription painkillers, but the worldwide outpouring of grief that followed confirmed that the boy from Tupelo had truly become a global icon.
Today it all seems so easy -- RCA signs up the kid from Memphis, television gets interested at around the same time, and the rest is history. The circumstances surrounding this album were neither simple nor promising, however, nor was there anything in the history of popular music up to that time to hint that Elvis Presley was going to be anything other than "Steve Sholes' folly," which was what rival executives were already whispering. So a lot was unsettled and untried at the first of two groups of sessions that produced the Elvis Presley album -- it wasn't even certain that there was any reason for a rock & roll artist to cut an album, because teenagers bought 45s, not LPs. The first of Elvis' RCA sides yielded one song, "Heartbreak Hotel," that seemed a potential single, but which no one thought would sell, and a few tracks that would be good enough for an album, if there were one. But no one involved knew anything for sure about this music. Seventeen days later, "Heartbreak Hotel" was released, and for about a month it did nothing -- then it began to move, and then Elvis appeared on television, and had a number one pop single. The album Sholes wanted out of Elvis came from two groups of sessions in January and February, augmented by five previously unissued songs from the Sun library. This was as startling a debut record as any ever made, representing every side of Elvis' musical influences except gospel -- rockabilly, blues, R&B, country, and pop were all here in an explosive and seductive combination. Elvis Presley became the first rock & roll album to reach the number one spot on the national charts, and RCA's first million dollar-earning pop album. Words: Bruce Eder
If Elvis isn't quite as important historically as the Elvis Presley album that preceded it, that's only because it came second -- musically, it's a more confident and bolder work than his debut, and in any other artist's output it would have been considered a crowning achievement. At the sessions for his first album, the singer and all concerned were treading into unmapped territory and not sure what they were doing or if they were ready for it -- by September of 1956, when the three days of sessions behind the Elvis album took place, he was on top, a national phenomenon of a kind that hadn't been seen in music since Frank Sinatra a dozen years earlier, and he had some more experience recording. And with that confidence came better singing. The songs here were, for the most part, material that he knew well, with one new submission by Otis Blackwell. He slides through them seemingly effortlessly, transforming the 1940s country number "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" into a smooth rocker; roaring through the Little Richard numbers "Long Tall Sally," "Ready Teddy," and "Rip It Up"; returns to his blues roots with a killer rendition of Arthur Crudup's "I'm So Glad You're Mine" (a leftover, amazingly enough, from his first RCA session); and shows how refined his voice was becoming on the ballad "First in Line" and the sentimental favorite "Old Shep." The Elvis album was reissued in 1999 with vastly improved sound and eight bonus tracks from the same and chronologically adjoining recording sessions, including the singles "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," and "Anyway You Want Me," and that is the version to own on CD. Words: Bruce Eder
Elvis' 1957 original Christmas album is one of his most inspired early outings and the first time he tackled anything resembling a thematic concept. Split evenly between rockers and bluesy numbers like "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," "Blue Christmas," and "Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me," perennials like "White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," and "Silent Night," and straight-ahead gospel favorites like "I Believe," "Peace in the Valley" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," the disc revealed a different side of the rocker for the first time on a public instead conditioned to expect something outrageous. One of the King's shining moments, this is quite simply still one of the best holiday albums available. Words: Cub Koda
For LP Fans Only marks the first time RCA dipped into the Sun vaults to fill out an Elvis Presley LP. To a certain extent, their hand was forced. By January 1959, when For LP Fans Only hit the stores, Elvis was eight months into his Army stint with no end in sight, so RCA was stuck for new product and the easiest solution was to dig up Sun sessions and pair them with early RCA cuts initially released on singles or EPs. Just under half of this is devoted to Sun sides, and not only are "That's All Right," "Mystery Train," "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" and "You're a Heartbreaker" some of the best music Presley ever made but they're paired with early RCA sessions that complement them perfectly: in fact, the hopping "My Baby Left Me" feels as if it could've been recorded by Sam Phillips. Apart from the cute, charming enough "Poor Boy" -- a rare Presley co-write taken from the Love Me Tender EP that could qualify as the record's only stumble -- this LP rocks hard with a serious bluesy bent: there's a carnality to his growl on "Lawdy, Miss Clawdy" rivaled by his smoldering "I Was the One," then he tears it up on "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Whether RCA truly intended For LP Fans Only to be a tight, exciting record is questionable -- it was product, pure and simple; there was no way for the label to realize the blessing they were giving to Presley fans by getting the Sun sessions into circulation (this would be the only place they could be found on LP until 1976) -- but they stumbled upon one of the finest full-length rock & roll records of the '50s. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
G.I. Blues marks the point when Elvis Presley's '60s begin. It's the first film he made after leaving the Army -- parts of the production were shot in Germany just prior to his release -- and it's also the first of his many movie soundtracks, a form that did Elvis few favors. G.I. Blues is nowhere near as tacky as some of the soundtracks that arrived later, but it nevertheless makes clear Col. Tom Parker's desire to move Presley from rock & roll and into the show biz middle of the road. Only a bold, rollicking run-through of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" could be called rock & roll, although "Shoppin' Around" also swings to a bluesy backbeat and there's a bit of a spark to the title track, a song that's cleverly perched between rock and show tunes without explicitly reworking previous Elvis recordings the way that "Tonight Is So Right for Love" or "Frankfort Special" do (the former kicks off with a rhythm out of "Such a Night," the latter "Mystery Train"). Most of G.I. Blues belongs firmly to the song-and-dance camp and for good reason: the film is a musical comedy, so the songs should be effervescent trifles, which they are. Elvis handles them admirably, never sounding embarrassed and often lending them a considerable amount of charm, a quality that when combined with a crackerjack band makes G.I. Blues an amiable lark. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
From rock & roll firebrand to pop crooner to gospel believer, Elvis' career went in many directions that his earliest critics could hardly have believed. Was it heresy or conversion or commercialism that had caused Elvis the Pelvis to record a gospel EP in 1957, and then a full LP in 1960, just months after he returned from his Army stint? The answer was, of course, none of the above. What the critics didn't understand was that Elvis wasn't just a cultural phenomenon but a cultural chameleon, a vocalist who took in a range of influences -- from Big Mama Thornton to Dean Martin to the Statesmen -- without ever considering the possibility of a contradiction. The same teenager who couldn't stop listening to black R&B was also in attendance at each one of the monthly gospel singing meetings held in Memphis during the early '50s -- and the teenage Presley was well-known to Jake Hess and the Statesmen for his exuberance and innumerable questions about the technical side of gospel quartet singing. Several years after his first rock success, during a single late-night-and-early-morning session in October, 1960, Presley recorded the material for his first full gospel LP, His Hand in Mine. Combining the spiritual force and the physical release he'd experienced from the best gospel singing, Elvis revealed himself as an all-time-great gospel singer, someone who had energy to spare (hardly a surprise) but also immense reserves of control and precision (a rarer commodity among rock & roll singers). Most of the songs were standards from the Statesmen, Blackwood Brothers, and other classic quartets Elvis loved, and represent some of the best ballad singing of his career -- after all, it was recorded at the peak of his balladic powers, a time when "It's Now or Never" and "Fame and Fortune" had not yet given way to "Can't Help Falling in Love." He's fantastic serving as the lead voice in a group vocal -- years of advice from the best had paid off -- and he shows off his excellent high-tenor singing in a range of situations (tender on "Known Only to Him," playful on "I Believe in the Man in the Sky"). His Hand in Mine isn't just one of Elvis' best LPs, it's one of the best (and best-recorded) gospel sessions of all time. Words: John Bush
Blue Hawaii was such a big hit that it only made sense to bring Elvis back to the islands for 1962's Girls! Girls! Girls! Thankfully, everybody involved with the production of the film decided that its soundtrack didn't need to be loaded up with Hawaiian-themed exotica -- they couldn't, however, resist the nautical-themed "Thanks to the Rolling Sea" and "Song of the Shrimp" -- but that is also an indication of how Col. Tom Parker and RCA chose to channel all their recording energy into soundtracks and singles. Blue Hawaii sold considerably more than Pot Luck, the Presley album from the summer of 1962, so everybody chose to pour all their efforts into the soundtracks, a move that made Girls! Girls! Girls! slightly more musically diverse than either G.I. Blues or Blue Hawaii, but the album still found plenty of space for trifle -- not just the aforementioned songs of the sea but the Eastern-tinged "Earth Boy" and flamenco-flavored "Walls Have Ears." That said, there was also room for two Otis Blackwell numbers -- the standard "Return to Sender" overshadowing the quite excellent "We're Coming In Loaded" -- and there are other inspired bits of pizzazz, ranging from Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller's rampaging title track to the swinging defiance of "I Don't Wanna Be Tied," numbers that lack the rawness of rock & roll but play off Presley's swagger. He also gets plenty of space to indulge in his softer side: "Where Do You Come From" attempts to rewrite "Can't Help Falling in Love" to no avail, but "I Don't Want To" isn't a bad slow dance number and "Because of Love" floats on an appealing shuffle. It all adds up to a pretty enjoyable record, one that perhaps doesn't capture Presley at his best but nevertheless finds an effective way to package and polish his charm for the silver screen. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
After a 14-year absence from Memphis, Elvis Presley returned to cut what was certainly his greatest album (or, at least, a tie effort with his RCA debut LP from early 1956). The fact that From Elvis in Memphis came out as well as it did is something of a surprise, in retrospect -- Presley had a backlog of songs he genuinely liked that he wanted to record and had heard some newer soul material that also attracted him, and none of it resembled the material that he'd been cutting since his last non-soundtrack album, six years earlier. And he'd just come off of the NBC television special which, although a lot of work, had led him to the realization that he could be as exciting and vital a performer in 1969 as he'd been a dozen years before. And for what was practically the last time, the singer cut his manager, Tom Parker, out of the equation, turning himself over to producer Chips Moman. The result was one of the greatest white soul albums (and one of the greatest soul albums) ever cut, with brief but considerable forays into country, pop, and blues as well. Presley sounds rejuvenated artistically throughout the dozen cuts off the original album, and he's supported by the best playing and backup singing of his entire recording history. Words: Bruce Eder
That's the Way It Is is arguably where Elvis Presley's discography gets very confusing. Sharing a title with Denis Sanders' 1970 documentary of Elvis' return to the stage, That's the Way It Is in its original 1970 LP incarnation isn't precisely a soundtrack to the film. In fact, only a third of the album captures Presley live on-stage in Vegas, with the remainder of the record derived from sessions he recorded in Nashville just a few months prior to launching his long-standing gig at the International Hotel. Vegas looms large over Elvis' legend in the '70s and many of the clichés -- the jumpsuits, the splashy arrangements of contemporary standards, the snazzy melodies of his old hits -- were born on That's the Way It Is, either on film or on the record. In its original LP incarnation, this wasn't especially apparent due to the record's reliance on the Nashville sessions, where Elvis recorded a fair share of perfectly pleasant middle-of-the-road material pitched halfway between Hollywood and Music City. These tunes -- "Twenty Days and Twenty Nights," "How the Web Was Woven," "Just Pretend," and "Stranger in the Crowd" -- are easy to spot because they're by songwriters without marquee names (Colonel Tom Parker insisted Elvis take a larger percentage of publishing, which kept away many writers) and, more tellingly, on the 2014 expansions of the album -- available in a double-disc set, which presents a remastered version of the original album supplemented by single versions of four tracks ("I've Lost You," "The Next Step Is Love," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," "Patch It Up"), five outtakes of alternate tracks, then a full set from August 12; there is also a gigantic eight-CD/two-DVD box that replicates that expanded first disc and six full sets recorded during the filming of the documentary, plus a disc of rehearsals -- these are the songs that don't appear in the live set. They may not have been part of Presley's repertoire but they do indicate how he was shifting away from the soulful, funky sound inspired by his 1968 comeback into something that felt showbiz. The live recordings, though, show that he was still performing with passion, figuring out what worked on-stage and what didn't after his long hiatus from performing. Again, this isn't so apparent on the 1970 LP, which was basically a good studio album that essayed Elvis' new persona for the coming decade, but all the various expanded editions (which include a 2000 special edition that adds a hefty dose of live material) capture the King starting to relax and enjoy his reign yet again. Certainly, the eight-disc set illustrates this in spades, and while it's undoubtedly one for the devoted, it nevertheless isn't overkill because it captures a peerless performer putting his amazing band through the paces. It's wonderful music that actually is more valuable now than it was at the time: Elvis would record more great music in the next few years, but this record -- especially in its 2014 expansion -- captures him at a pivotal moment, when he retained the power of his 1968 comeback and had yet to succumb to all the glitz of Vegas. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine