Editor of Spinditty & Reel Rundown. Author of Don't Call It Nothing: The Lost History of '90s Roots, Rap & Rock 'n' Roll.
The Elvis 15
Greetings, as the relatively new music editor of Spinditty, I figured I'd start writing articles on a semi-regular basis. Since Baz Luhrmann conveniently made a movie about the most popular rock 'n' roll singer ever, what better way to start this exercise that talking Elvis.
Producer Sam Phillips is credited with saying, "If I could find a White man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars." Enter: Elvis Presley. The kid was a natural. He effortlessly combined rhythm and blues, hillbilly music (country before country), gospel, and pop and became a global phenomenon.
With the release of Baz Luhrmann's Elvis biopic, it's the perfect time to reacquaint yourself with early Elvis. His first two years in the music business—first with indie Sun Records, then with major label RCA—is like watching an apex predator learning (and perfecting) the art of the hunt. This golden age lasted only two years (1954–56), but it captures Elvis before Colonel Tom Parker, Hollywood, the Army, drugs, fame, and isolation turned Presley into a self-parody.
The following 15 songs showcase Elvis as a primal force of rock 'n' roll. He was a fantastic ballad singer, and I have a couple of examples to showcase that side of his talent, but I want to focus on the rockers. That's where he was the most incomparable.
1. "That's All Right (Mama)"
Recorded: July 5, 1954
There were rock 'n' roll songs before "That's All Right (Mama)," but it's the first time rock 'n' roll sounded like this. And the crazy part is it almost didn't happen. Sam Phillips gets way too much credit for the realization of Elvis. He was a talented engineer who invented a badass slapback production aesthetic for Sun Recods, but he was no genius.
If Phillips was an actual visionary, it wouldn't have taken him FIVE recording sessions to get to "That's All Right." The problem obviously wasn't Presley. The problem was Phillips was having Elvis sing torch songs that were in his wheelhouse ("Harbor Lights," "I Love You Because," "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"), but like the third or fourth best thing he did. It's like having Little Richard cover Pat Boone and expecting positive results.
It wasn't until Elvis started banging around on his acoustic guitar between takes that magic happened. As the session was winding down, Elvis started playing Arthur Crudup's 1946 jump blues, "That's All Right," almost as a goof. Standup bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore fell into the pocket, and the results were so astoundingly good that Phillips told the trio to stop playing, so he could get back in the studio and start recording. Once Sam got the tape rolling, history was set in motion.
2. "Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Recorded: July 5, 1954
While there is debate about the first rock 'n' roll song, there's no debate about the first rock 'n' roll single. Elvis' first record (Sun 209), with Arthur Crudup's upbeat blues on the A-side and this Bill Monroe bluegrass classic on the B-side, is the first meta-rock 'n' roll statement. Completely unconsciously, Elvis' debut synthesized blues and R&B on one side and hillbilly music, folk music, and bluegrass on the other. Black forms and white forms integrating in 1954, the same year as Brown vs Board of Education. Revolutionary stuff.
3. "Blue Moon"
Recorded: August 19, 1954
Here's one of those swoony torch songs that Elvis did so well. When he hits that falsetto, it's panty-dropping time. "Blue Moon" has been done by a million people, but the Presley version has been particularly influential. It basically invented the Cowboy Junkies. It's also a critical narrative component of Jim Jarmusch's 1989 drama, Mystery Train, which was set in Memphis and named after one of Elvis' great early singles (see below).
4. "Good Rockin' Tonight"
Recorded: September 10, 1954
Roy Brown had a massive hit with this in 1947 and the arrangement here is pretty faithful to that. Presley's vocal channels Wynonie Harris, but with way more snarl. It's only been two months as a "professional singer," but it's striking to hear Elvis' vocal control and power. He may as well be a different singer.
Props to Bill Black for a chugging upright bass line that gives this song its forward momentum. Scotty Moore's behind the beat guitar picking and econo solo lets you know why Elvis was marketed early on as "The King of Western Bop."
5. "Just Because"
Recorded: September 10, 1954
I love this track because Elvis' vocal is bananas. The hiccuping thing that became his trademark—influencing a million future rockabilly singers—is on full display for the first time. In that sense, it's kind of a dry run for "Baby Let's Play House."
The Shelton Brothers' 1933 original is old-time stringband music with close harmony vocals. This is not that. In fact, it's unique in the early Elvis catalog for having two electric guitarists. As Black thumps bass and Elvis drives the rhythm on acoustic guitar, Scotty Moore and Doug Poindexter from the Starlight Wranglers trade behind the beat guitar licks.
6. "Milkcow Blues Boogie"
Recorded: November-December 1954
My favorite Elvis record starts out like a slow blues and then Elvis cuts it short. He tells the band, "That don't move me. Let's get real, real gone for a change." Elvis screams, "Wellllll," and when the music kicks in it's like the original band was replaced by futuristic rockabilly aliens inventing rockabillly. The rhythmic drive, syncopation, and uncoiled guitar fury characterstic of the genre, all here. Keep in mind that Presley has been singing professionally for about four or five months. Can you imagine having to follow him on stage???
7. "Baby Let's Play House"
Recorded: February–March 1955
On paper, this doesn't sound revolutionary.
"Oh, baby, baby, baby, baby baby
Baby, baby baby, be-be-be-be-be-be baby baby, baby
Baby baby baby
Come back, baby, I want to play house with you"
Paper doesn't convey how otherworldly this must've sounded in 1955, because it still sounds weird. Elvis' hiccups, Bill Black's echoing slap bass way up in the mix, Moore's spidery guitar, this is music for dancing, drinking, fighting, and f*^*ing.
8. "Mystery Train"
Recorded: July 21, 1955
It's wild to think that this song, so critical to the Elvis iconography, was the B-side of "I Forgot to Remember Forget." A cover of Memphis R&B singer Junior Parker, this was the first Elvis song to hit the Top 10 charts and did so in country & western. (He'd eventually chart on pop and rhythm and blues.)
"Mystery Train" is a perfect example of Elvis' music working with both Sam Phillips' production aesthetic and the actual, physical dimensions of Sun Studios to create songs in which all of the instruments (including Elvis' voice) were pulling against the beat, creating the tornadic syncopation central to rockabilly.
9. "Trying to Get to You"
Recorded: July 21, 1955
One of Elvis' last official Sun recordings is a cover of The Eagles—no, not those Eagles!—a Washington D.C. R&B vocal group who cut the song in 1954. A showcase for Presley's vocal control and Moore's spidery guitar picking, it also features Johnny Bernero on drums.
Fun fact: "Trying to Get to You" was the song that a 15-year-old Paul McCartney rewrote as "In Spite of All the Danger," the very first song recorded by the Beatles, back in 1958 when they were still The Quarrymen.
10. "Money Honey"
Recorded: January 10, 1956
The final track on Elvis' legendary debut LP (Elvis Presley, released March 1956), "Money Honey" is also from his first session as an RCA employee. A cover of The Drifters' 1953 hit, Elvis is no Clyde McPhatter, but he sings his ass off. I love how pianist Floyd Cramer trills up high in the verses as drummer DJ Fontana (his first recording with Presley) sets the beat.
11. "My Baby Left Me"
Recorded: January 30, 1956
The second Arthur Crudup cover on this list opens with a sweet Fontana drum lick, as Bill Black slaps up the neck on his upright, and Scotty Moore plays muted chords on his hollowbody guitar. But, "Baby" is all about Elvis' vocal power and control. If you think he's the greatest rock 'n' roll singer ever, this track is your evidence.
While early Elvis is rightfully associated with rockabilly, his influence on John Fogerty was huge. "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" is probably the first Creedence template, but this is another. So much so that CCR covered "My Baby Left Me" on 1970's Cosmo's Factory.
It's hard to imagine that Elvis could be underrated at ANYTHING, but like Tom Fogerty, he was a deceptively brilliant acoustic rhythm guitarist. He strummed so hard in early performances that he could syncopate his playing against the sound of his own guitar bouncing off the back wall of auditoriums. During Moore's restrained guitar solo on "My Baby," you hear Elvis playing his acoustic guitar like a drum and it sounds awesome.
12. "So Glad You're Mine"
Recorded: January 30, 1956
Recorded at the same session as "My Baby Left Me," "So Glad You're Mine" is the third Arthur Crudup cover on this list. It appeared on Elvis, Presley's second studio album, released in October 1956, only seven months after his debut. Elvis has totally found his voice as a singer, but the star of this song is pianist Shorty Long.
13. "Lawdy Miss Clawdy"
Recorded: February 3, 1956
Like "Money Honey," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" was a massive R&B hit in the early '50s and Elvis holds his own against Lloyd Price's original. Shorty Long capably handles the Fats Domino piano part as Moore provides a restrained eight-bar guitar solo.
14. "Don’t Be Cruel"
Recorded: July 2, 1956
Almost two years to the day after cutting "That's All Right (Mama)," Elvis cut the biggest hit of his career. "Don't Be Cruel" looms so large in the Presley narrative, it's easy to forget how restrained it is, not only relative to its flipside, "Hound Dog," but the Elvis narrative to this point in his career. He was Elvis the Pelvis, the Hillbilly Cat, and the Memphis Flash.
"Cruel" is a marvel of acoustic syncopation. Elvis sings inside a fat pocket as Shorty Long's piano, Bill Black's upright bass, Scotty Moore's acoustic guitar, DJ Fontana's lightly swinging drums, the Jordanaires' voices, and even Elvis himself thumping his acoustic guitar all expertly dance around each other and the beat. I've heard hundreds of covers of this song and the mistake every one of them makes is going too big. The genius of "Don't Be Cruel" is its restraint.
Presley cut "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog," and "Anyway You Want Me" on July 2, 1956. Talk about a good day at work. It's a flawless session, and Elvis would never be the same. He became a movie star and all that energy that went into being a king of rock 'n' roll was going into makeup, reshoots, and vocal overdubs. Not that he wasn't still capable of greatness, it's that the greatness got busy doing other things, many of them less than productive.
15. "Down By The Riverside"
Recorded: December 4, 1956
That said, on December 4, 1956, Elvis and Johnny Cash separately came to Sun Studios to hear Carl Perkins record his next single, "Matchbox." What neither man realized as they walked into the studio was that Sam Phillips had hired a local piano player to punch up Carl's session. Jerry Lee Lewis was unknown outside of Memphis, but he was a few days away from releasing his debut single on Sun, a cover of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms."
You get four musicians of this caliber in the studio, music happening is inevitable. It might be surprising that gospel music (and a smattering of Bill Monroe) was their lingua franca, but these were southern boys in the mid-'50s. Not only were they brought up God-fearing fundamentalist Christians, Jerry Lee's mom enrolled him in Bible school hoping he'd become a singing preacher. (Spoiler alert: It didn't work.)
Presley is at the piano and the other three guys are gathered around him and a single mic. You can't hear Cash, but he's there, singing higher than usual to stay in key with Elvis. But, the story of the Million Dollar Quartet is Jerry Lee. He's in total barnstormer mode and completely upstages Elvis, symbolically snatching the King of Rock 'n' Roll crown off of Presley's head.
It's easy to mock Elvis' turn into self-parody, but when you look at his career arc it's painfully unremarkable. It's only because it's Elvis that we apply significance to every move, but he was a pioneer, then he was just really good, then he wasn't as good, then he was occasionally good, then he was unhealthy, then he was dead. That describes nearly every talented person ever.
I get no joy out of mocking the jumpsuits, but I also don't want to elevate it to Greek tragedy. Instead, I want to remember Elvis before show business machinery changed him, when his music was the result of pure, hotfire expression.