Monday 14 October 2013

Elvis Presley - The Sun Years 1954/5

At 706 UNION Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, stands Sun Studios — the birthplace of the most important collection of rock’n’roll tracks ever recorded. Between 1954 and 1960, Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips, produced pioneering rockabilly, blues, country and pop sides by artists such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich — and Elvis Presley.

Before Elvis was signed to Sun, in the summer of 1954, Phillips’ label was renowned as a centre of excellence for the blues. Like scores of independents in the Southern states, Sun scuffled to survive from one release to the next. Phillips financed the label’s early years by freelance production work, handling sessions with artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King for larger companies. He supervised the making of what’s generally regarded as the first rock’n’roll record, Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket 88’. He proved to be an equally sympathetic producer of hillbilly country music. And in 1954, the future King of Rock’n’Roll fell into his lap.

Elvis Presley had been born on January 8, 1935, in a tiny shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was raised in Memphis, and working as a truck driver for the local firm of Crown Electric when he made his first amateur recordings — at the Memphis Recording Service, part of the small Sun empire. Presley had been performing blues, country, gospel and pop songs in public for a year or two by then, and had attracted the attention of some of the hottest gospel quartets in the State. But he needed the reassurance of hearing his voice on a record before he felt confident enough to make his music into a career.

Under the guise of cutting a record for his mother’s birthday — already several months past — Elvis approached Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ right-hand-woman, in the late summer of 1953. She captured him singing two songs, ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’, to his own simple guitar accompaniment. The following January, he was back, cutting another pair of songs: ‘Casual Love Affair’ and ‘I’ll Never Stand In Your Way’. Impressed by the haunting melodicism of his voice, which was pitched intriguingly between a crooner’s smooth slide and the low moan of the blues, Keisker kept Elvis’s details on file, and reported his existence to her boss.

When Phillips needed a singer to cut a demo a few months later, he invited Presley into the studio. Their initial sessions were unproductive, but when Phillips teamed Elvis with two of the label’s regular sessionmen, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, sparks rapidly grew into an inferno. After cutting restrained renditions of two ballads, ‘Harbor Lights’ and ‘I Love You Because’, Presley, Moore and Black jammed around the changes of a blues song, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’, while Phillips was away from the studio board. When the producer returned, he asked them what on earth they were doing — and whether they could do it again. After a handful of takes, Elvis Presley’s first single was on tape, and the world of popular music was changed for ever.

Elvis issued five singles on Sun, scoring regional hits and making brief inroads into the national country charts. He also taped around a dozen other songs during his sessions with Sam Phillips — a dozen that have survived, that is, as rumours persist of a treasure trove of missing Sun sides.

Each of his Sun singles was carefully programmed to couple a blues tune with a country song, thereby maximising the potential for sales and airplay. Before his name and face became known, no one was sure whether Elvis was black or white — which was precisely the sound that Phillips had been looking for. Elvis’s voice was part Hank Williams, part Bobby Bland, part Dean Martin, part Johnnie Ray, and part the kind of divine accident that only happens once in a century. Whether or not Sam Phillips ever voiced his much-quoted aim of finding a white man who had a “Negro sound and feel”, Presley fitted the bill. Equally at home in the black or white musical traditions, he effectively moulded them into one. And his appreciation for mainstream pop music, and the tight harmonies of the top gospel quartets, enabled him to branch out way beyond the strict ghetto boundaries of blues and country. Outside, the world was waiting.


That’s All Right (Mama)/Blue Moon Of Kentucky (1954)
Blues purists trace a path of exploitation, of white musicians ripping off blacks, from the release of this record — which mixed a taste of hillbilly country with a Delta blues tune and produced the concoction known as rock’n’roll. Play Crudup’s original alongside Presley’s cover, however, and their theory implodes. Fine though Crudup’s record is, it lends nothing but its basic lyrical framework to Presley’s interpretation. In the hands of Elvis, Scotty and Bill, as the trio were credited on the Sun singles, ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ was transformed from a laboured complaint into a celebratory jubilee. Set Crudup’s lugubrious vocal alongside the effortless verve of Presley’s singing, and all comparisons disappear.

Presley worked similar magic on the flipside, a bluegrass tune by the father of the genre, Bill Monroe. His original had the “high lonesome” sound of Forties bluegrass, with keening vocals and a tight, restrained rhythm. Elvis started out singing the song that way, then cut loose the chains and played it like an uptempo blues tune. By the time the record was finished, it was hard to tell which side was country and which was blues.

Good Rockin’ Tonight/I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine (1954)
The same formula was repeated on the second Sun single. ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ came from a blues single by Roy Brown — an uptown, citified blues this time, rather than the rural model Presley souped up on his début. Stopping the world in its tracks with the arrogance of his opening vocal wail, Presley set off on a roller-coaster ride across musical boundaries, calling out for everyone to recognise his power. “Tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty mighty man”, Presley swaggered on the middle verse, and every second of his performance matched his boast.

‘I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine’ sounded like another hillbilly song waiting for a fresh tank of gas. But it actually belonged to Tin Pan Alley, having been recorded by such sophisticates as Patti Page and Elvis’s idol, Dean Martin. Elvis, Scotty and Bill turned up the tempo and played it hard and furious, and the result was every bit as dynamic as ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’.

Milkcow Blues Boogie/You’re A Heartbreaker (1955)
The lyrical imagery of ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’ had appeared in dozens of blues (and hillbilly) songs in the decades before Elvis solidified the song for all time. It’s not certain where he learned the lines — whether they came from a bluesman like Kokomo Arnold, or from the Western swing rendition of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Nor is it certain whether the memorable opening seconds of his recording were contrived or improvised on the spot. Elvis, Scotty and Bill begin the song at a dirge-like tempo, before Elvis calls the band to a halt. “Hold it, fellas. That don’t move me,” he complains. “Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” And they do, the musicians struggling to keep pace as Elvis drives them forward with a vocal that hiccups and swoops up and down the octaves with barely contained delirium at its heart.

By complete contrast, ‘You’re A Heartbreaker’ — actually a pop song, originally recorded by one Jimmy Heap — was presented as Presley’s most sedate country performance to date. Elvis abandoned the vocal pyrotechnics of the A-side, and swung through the melody as confidently as another of his early role models, Lefty Frizzell.

I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone/Baby Let’s Play House (1955)
1Pitched midway between full-bore rockabilly and uptempo hillbilly, ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’ was the first original song that Presley ever recorded. Written by Sun Records insider Stan Kesler, it started out as a slow blues, under the title ‘My Baby’s Gone’ (as first heard on a legal release via The Complete Sun Sessions CD).

That track was completely overshadowed by its coupling, an R&B tune based on a country hit by Eddy Arnold, and fuelled by imagery that had passed down the blues tradition for generations. Elvis launched the track with an almost inhuman series of whoops and hollers, before slicing through the lyrics with a confidence that defined the concept of “machismo”. Mean, threatening, half sung and half sneered, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ encapsulated everything that was dark and enticing about the young Elvis Presley.

Mystery Train/I Forgot To Remember To Forget (1955)
Stan Kesler and self-styled rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers concocted the pun-filled honky-tonk ballad, ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’ — a stone country tune that Elvis sang with the flair of a Lefty Frizzell or a George Jones. Once again, though, it was the blues coupling that set the world on fire. Sam Phillips had produced Junior Parker’s original version of ‘Mystery Train’, an eerie harbinger of doom based around the lyrical theme of a Thirties country song. For Presley’s version, fellow blues fan Scotty Moore set the rhythm with a clipped, insistent guitar riff, while Elvis opened his throat and wailed, like an engineer powerless to control a ghost train heading full-tilt for a fallen bridge.

In commercial terms, this was probably the strongest of the five Sun singles; and it was certainly the most successful, topping the Billboard Country and Western charts towards the end of 1955. Its chart showing ensured that a major label like RCA couldn’t help but be aware of Presley’s potential — both as an artist and a profit-making machine.


When RCA purchased Elvis’s contract in November 1955, they secured a case full of Elvis session tapes, which was raided to make up the numbers on RCA’s studio albums and singles between 1956 and 1959. Another Sun recording surfaced in 1965; after that, there were merely persistent rumours, until bootleg collections began appearing in the early Seventies, presenting a batch of alternate takes (including the near-legendary ‘My Baby’s Gone’, the bluesier role model for ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’).

For anyone who didn’t have access to the original, mono singles, the Sun recordings were available only in ludicrous fake stereo from the early Sixties through to 1975, when RCA finally released their first Sun-centred Presley album. There have been several subsequent attempts at the same operation, but still hard-core Presley-philes maintain that there is a secret vault filled with previously unheard Sun masters. That there may be; but it’s near certain RCA doesn’t have access to it, or else those tracks would surely have been released by now.

The late Seventies and Eighties also saw the legal (or semilegal, in some cases) release of other material long rumoured to have survived — live recordings of Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black taped during the Sun era, plus the fabled ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ tape, recorded at Sun a year after Elvis left for RCA.

The Elvis Presley Sun Collection (1975)
It took British Presley fans — notably the NME journalist Roy Carr — to force RCA into compiling a long-overdue album of what seemed, at the time, like the complete Sun recordings. With the exception of an alternate take of ‘I Love You Because’, issued on 1974’s A Legendary Performer LP, everything on the original pressing of this album had been issued in the Fifties. But here it was on sale in one budget-priced package, and without the distorted, artificial remixing of previous reissues. It was also the first Presley LP to include lengthy, informative, factual sleeve notes.

A few months after this LP appeared, RCA “discovered” a previously unknown Sun out-take: a cover of the crooner’s favourite, ‘Harbor Lights’. This was added to the subsequent pressings of the Sun Collection, only for the process to be repeated. This time the addition to the canon was ‘When It Rains, It Really Pours’, a 1955 prototype for the recording included on 1965’s Elvis Eor Everyone LP. That surfaced on A Legendary Performer Vol. 4 in 1983. Next to be uncovered was the undubbed recording of ‘Tomorrow Night’, which had first surfaced with additional instrumentation on that same 1965 LP. Stripped of its later ornamentation, it appeared on the 1985 collection, Reconsider Baby.

A few months earlier, the boxed album set A Golden Celebration had offered an entire suite of Sun out-takes. Among them was the legendary ‘My Baby’s Gone’, so titled by bootleggers in the early Seventies, but actually an early, bluesy arrangement of ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’; a pure country fragment of ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’; an equally brief ‘I’ll Never Let You Go’; alternate versions of ‘Harbor Lights’, ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine’; and that magical ‘When It Rains, It Really Pours’.
When RCA announced it now had access to more than a dozen alternate takes from the Sun years, it was obviously time for a complete revamp.

The Complete Sun Sessions (1987)

To a chorus of praise from most sides, blurred only slightly by howls of disgust by perfectionists, The Complete Sun Sessions gave these seminal recordings their most prestigious setting to date. The lengthy notes by Presley biographer Peter Guralnick set the scene and cast aside some myths, while the two-LP set itself gathered up every Sun track released to date and added2 nine further out-takes.

These weren’t quite as thrilling as they might have been, as they comprised three additional takes of ‘I Love You Because’ and six of ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’. Confirmation of their existence suggested to the detractors that RCA must be sitting on similar treasure troves for other songs in its archive — a theory for which the release of The Complete Fifties Masters in 1992 added more evidence.

Sadly, this was one release where the vinyl edition outstripped the CD. Two full LPs contained too much music for one 5” disc, so six tracks were dropped to prevent the need for a two-CD set: takes one and four of ‘I Love You Because’ and takes eight, 10, 11 and 12 of ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’. At least RCA had the honesty to drop the “Complete” from the title of the CD.

Author: Peter Doggett

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