Archive for August 16th, 2007

Masterpiece: The Sun Sessions

16 August 2007

[Today: In honor of the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, let’s take a look back at the Big Bang of Rock & Roll…]

Elvis/Sun - album

In July of 1954, Elvis – along with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and producer Sam Phillips – fused Country, R&B, Gospel, and Swing, and split the atom on Rock & Roll. Fortunately, these recordings survived, and were released in 1976 as The Sun Sessions. To hear Elvis grappling with his art, before fame had jaded him to the possibilities of song, is as viscerally stimulating as watching a lion run free in the wild. If Elvis was the King (and he was) then he earned his crown right away.

Whether or not you believe that Elvis and company “invented” Rock & Roll (and Chuck Berry, among others, could give you plenty of reasons why they didn’t), there’s no denying that he was the first superstar of the genre. His frenzied ascent to the top of the entertainment pyramid changed the way records – and the personalities who made them – were bought and sold.

But before he was “Elvis” – and the spark that lit an entire industry – he was just a kid from Tupelo, MS whose only desire, according to Roy Carr’s original liner notes “was to own the snazziest car in town.” He got a lot more than he bargained for. But before he found the fame that eventually overtook him, he laid down a series of songs that helped form a new template for musical expression, and cemented his status as the once and future King.

Of course, he quickly became distracted from music, joined the army, and then embarked on a long series of second rate movie musicals that misused his talents and sapped his enjoyment for singing. By the time he took his music seriously again, his moment had effectively passed and he was merely an oldies act in waiting. From there it was a short stroll to Vegas, jumpsuits, karate, pills by the truckload, and an inglorious death while perched on his porcelein throne.

Elvis was a mass of contradictions that seem to sum up the problems of the music business as a whole: talented, humble, inspired, god-fearing, generous, handsome, and charismatic on one hand – cartoonish, egotistical, lazy, drug-abusing, gun-toting, bloated and loutish on the other. Elvis really was all things to all people, and this may be his single greatest accomplishment. It certainly explains his ever enduring popularity.

But the towering myth of Elvis subsumed his music long before he died. This is entirely understandable, given the character of his life, but it’s unfortunate. The tall tales and grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches make it easy to forget what a gifted singer Elvis once was. When he took his material seriously or had serious material to work with, his command of a song was second to none. And nowhere is that more apparent than deep in the grooves of The Sun Sessions.

10 Elvis Albums That Are Worth Owning

16 August 2007

A journey through Elvis Presley’s back catlogue is one long walk through a minefield of bad albums. In addition to his nearly unlistenable musical soundtracks from the 60’s and hit-or-mostly-miss string of 70’s albums, he is perhaps the most over-anthologized artist in the history of music. All of this makes selecting an Elvis record at best a crap shoot. Here are ten Elvis records that any fan of music can own and enjoy without shame:

Elvis - album
Elvis Presley (1956)

This is where the legend began. Elvis’ first album for RCA provided ample evidence of his greatness. ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Blue Moon’ are among his finest moments, and of course, the lettering on the front eventually inspired the cover of The Clash’s London Calling.

Elvis - album
Elvis (1956)

Every facet of Elvis’ influences are on display here – from Gospel to R&B to Pop to Country. But it’s all Elvis – confident, playful, but masterly. Tracks like ‘Rip It Up’, ‘Love Me’ and ‘Paralyzed’ are as good as his best work but much less well known.

From Elvis In Memphis - album
From Elvis In Memphis (1969)

A pure blue-eyed soul album before the phrase was coined, Elvis In Memphis has an authentic and heartfelt vibe that was sorely missing from much of his latter day work.

Elvis Country - album
Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old) (1971)

The King goes back to his country roots, with surpisingly pleasing results. As explains, “He was cutting songs that he was either very impressed with at the moment or had loved for a lot of years, but they were all songs he cared about, which gives him a commanding and charismatic vocal presence.”

Aloha - album
Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite (1972)

A strong representation of Elvis’ famous 70’s live show. A number of schmaltzy cover songs (‘Something’ ‘My Way’ ‘Steamroller Blues’) threaten to pull the proceedings down, but the opening sequence, including the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, ‘See See Rider’, and ‘Burning Love’ more than make up for it. As the cover art says in so many languages, “Nous aimons Elvis.”

Having Fun - album
Having Fun With Elvis On Stage (1974)

This album of nothing but stage banter is a collectors-only kind of item, but it’s a doozy. An impossibly great talisman of how far the Elvis marketing machine had spread by the early 70’s – Col. Parker and Co. were packaging and selling his lame jokes for crying out loud. This one’s valuable for obvious reasons (ie, none were actually sold).

Sun Sessions - album
The Sun Sessions (1976)

The Rosetta Stone of Rock & Roll, this album is more than just a historical exercise. Rocking his way through a number of tracks that touch on all manner of influences, Elvis’ energy and enthusiasm will astound those only familiar with his later work. Mesmerizingly good.

68 Comeback - album
Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special (1998)

Of this television special that virtually invented the concept of ‘comeback’, writer Jon Landau said “There is something magical in watching a man who had lost himself find his way home.” After eight years on the sidelines of serious music, Elvis showed that he still had it.

TT&F - box
Today, Tomorrow & Forever (2002)

This four disc box set collected 100 rare and previously unreleased tracks to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death. From his first studio recordings to his last sessions, this box has a little bit of everything and remains the definitive collection for the above-average fan.

30 #1 Hits - album
Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits (2002)

Finally collecting all of Elvis’ #1’s in one place, this welcome compilation had an added bonus: the JXL remix of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ went to #1 itself in 20 countries and proved that Elvis’ voice and energy remain utterly contemporary.

Buried Treasure: Elvis Country “I’m 10,000 Years Old”

16 August 2007

Elvis Country - album

Country music was always his most obvious influence, but Elvis made surprisingly few albums that were truly “country”. This 1971 gem fills that void, with Presley covering a wide range of country songs old and new, including Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and Willie Nelson. It’s a driving yet relaxed set that – in warmth and choice of material – feels like what you might imagine him playing at a back porch jamboree.

A taut group (including respected Nashville sidemen, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and legendary guitarist James Burton) cooks right along with an energized and upbeat Elvis, and he and his band spur each other on through a dozen winners. The title track is inexplicably chopped into little pieces and interspersed between the song breaks, but the rest of this fairly contemporary sounding Country album makes perfect sense.

It reached #12 on the U.S. charts, but Elvis Country is mostly forgotten today. A pity, because this is a map into prime uncharted territory where Elvis could have taken his career.

Elvis Poll: Favorite Song?

16 August 2007

QUESTION: What is your favorite song by Elvis Presley?

Elvis on stage - pic

Leave your pick in the ‘comments’ section of this post, and let the world know what you think. Also feel free to share any Elvis anecdotes, observations, or ephemera…

FYI, I personally enjoy ‘That’s All Right’ from The Sun Sessions, with a special shoutout to ‘Blue Christmas’ for being such a cool holiday song.