[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…]
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.