From a jack to The King: Andy Gill looks back at the Elvis Presley of the 1950s - Records reviewed

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The Independent Culture
WHO INVENTED rock'n'roll? The claimants for this title are many and various, but most rock'n'roll fans would claim the form never truly existed until Elvis Presley walked into Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service in July of 1954 and laid down versions of Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's 'That's All Right, Mama' and Bill Monroe's 'Blue Moon of Kentucky'.

Thereafter, so the legend goes, Sam dashed the demo over to Dewey Phillips (no relation), the fast-talking DJ who hosted a race-records (black music) show on WHBQ in Memphis. Dewey liked the record so much that, despite his no-white policy, he played the record, first one side, then the other, for the rest of the night. The response was immediate and overwhelming, and Elvis's parents had to go and hunt him down in a local movie-house and bring him over to the radio station so Dewey could interview him on the air. The first question he asked concerned Presley's old high school, Humes - mentioned purely so the listeners would understand Elvis was a white boy rather than black as many thought.

This was the first of many myths that grew up around Elvis. Psychobilly band The Cramps are fond of telling an apocryphal story of Elvis's first associations with Sam Phillips, which has Elvis as a speed- dealer who would hang around the studio selling amphetamines to the musicians - an alternative history that seems almost more perfect than the truth, which was that in the summer of 1953, a shy, polite lad, aged 18, walked in off the street to make a record for his mother, a service Phillips provided for four dollars. Seeing him waiting, Phillips' office manager, Marion Keisker, asked the exotically- coiffed and heavily-sideburned youth whom he sounded like. 'I don't sound like nobody,' Elvis replied. After he'd cut his two songs, she noted down his name and a contact number, and wrote beside it: 'Good ballad singer. Hold.'

Long thought lost or destroyed, the disc he made that day turned up a few years ago when an old school friend of Presley's was cleaning out some cupboards. For the first time, both sides can be heard on the new definitive box set of Elvis's Complete 1950s Masters (RCA PL 90689), a six-album retrospective that gathers everything he recorded up until his entry into the army - indeed, the final session included here was recorded on a furlough from boot camp, with Presley still in uniform. (But then Elvis always loved uniforms.)

Listening to it today, you can't help but wonder: would I have spotted it, that bizarre something which would come spinning out of Elvis like a dervish and overturn the comfortably-held cultural assumptions of an entire country, and ultimately the world? Come to that, would most A & R men have spotted it? But so deep and all-enveloping has Presley's influence been that it's quite impossible to imagine a world in which his style hasn't become the everyday lingua franca. What you actually hear on 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin' is a cringeworthy croon, a young kid aping The Inkspots so closely that on the latter song he copies both Bill Kenney's exaggerated tenor for the chorus and Hoppy Jones' bass for the spoken bridge. No more, no less. 'Good ballad singer. Hold.'

Legend has it that it was RCA, or the army, or Colonel Tom, that emasculated the naturally rockin' Elvis and set him to recording the slew of sickly ballads - 'It's Now Or Never', 'Wooden Heart', 'Can't Help Falling In Love', 'Are You Lonesome Tonight', etc - with which he continued his career on his release from the army; as this box shows, the scissor-wielder was none other than Elvis himself. He wanted nothing more than to sound like Dean Martin, and to that end the epochal sessions which first teamed Presley with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black (and which ultimately resulted in the sides that so impressed Dewey Phillips) began with limp attempts at ballads such as 'I Love You Because' and 'Harbor Lights'. It was only in a coffee-break that Elvis started horsing around with 'That's All Right, Mama', and only when the astute Sam Phillips took an interest that Presley started to rock'n'roll seriously.

Compare, too, the final version of 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' with the earlier out-take from the same session: there's a huge gulf of form and meaning, as a simple slice of country hokum is transformed into an upbeat song with a style all its own. The same happens, albeit in pantomimed fashion, with Kokomo Arnold's 'Milkcow Blues Boogie', which features a false start in polite country style, before Elvis says, 'Hold it fellas - that don't move me; let's get real, real gone for a change]', after which the trio rocks it up a treat. It's so corny-hip, it could be the would-be film-star Elvis rewriting his own history to fit a more satisfying dramatic shape.

Jerry Leiber, the lyricist half of Leiber & Stoller, with whom Elvis worked on the soundtracks to both Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, recognised that Presley's strength as a balladeer was in his almost hyperbolic sincerity, the way he cut right through their ironically-angled songs with his delivery. In fact, as this set shows, while his superabundant sincerity buoyed many a lyric, it also inflated some small songs beyond their natural size - as in the almost comic camp of the Christmas song he recorded with the duo.

Nevertheless, there's plenty of evidence here to show that Elvis was on fairly intimate terms with the black R & B upon which Sam Phillips had cut his teeth as a recording engineer: the sluggish tread of 'I Forgot To Remember To Forget' mimics the soused blues style of Rosco Gordon, while Presley's reading of Junior Parker's 'Mystery Train' replaces the original's chill mystery with a heightened sense of expectation. The country/R & B crossover noted above, meanwhile, continues with Elvis slotting a hillbilly twang into the bluesy swagger of Jesse Stone's 'Money Honey'. Later, after Sam Phillips sold Elvis's contract to RCA, he would continue to cover whatever rock songs were current, with varying results: his 'Tutti Frutti' is fairly comprehensively shamed by Little Richard's original, but his 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' is, if anything, better than Lloyd Price's.

RCA was also relatively blameless in the matter of Elvis's film career, a distraction that eventually sank the star, in artistic terms at least. From day one, Presley wanted to be in films, though one doubts whether he acquiesced happily to things like the use of accordions on the Love Me Tender soundtrack. Likewise, it was Elvis the gospel fan that requested The Jordanaires as back-up singers for the sessions that resulted in 'Don't Be Cruel'. They would serve through his career as the background sense of order against which he promised such youthful potency and sexual abandon; they would also ruin some of his best work with their staid, conservative sound.

In terminating the Elvis story at the start of the Sixties, this compilation conveniently ignores the more tawdry aspects of his later life. But without the Vegas era, the Memphis mafia, the drugs and the ignominious death, it's like listening to an opera with the second and third acts missing, leaving just the adolescent fantasy of limitless energy and expectation, a comet that's all thrust and no burn-out. Perhaps this is the best way to remember him.

(Photograph omitted)