I know that most people think of Elvis as a drug-fueled bloated has-been dressed in some ridiculously tight jumpsuit with 7 inch collars and a huge belt buckle…”
by john pinamonti
I can hear the groans and gasps already. “Elvis? How can you write about him and expect us to read about him?”
Well listen and listen close, my friends – they didn’t call him The King for nothin’! I know that most people think of Elvis as a drug-fueled bloated has-been dressed in some ridiculously tight jumpsuit with 7 inch collars and a huge belt buckle (mind you – he still made some great music in that get-up), but this month I am speaking to you of the pre-Superstar, pre-Hollywood Elvis – the young, newly-confident and boundlessly energetic Elvis that miraculously melded with Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and Country, Gospel, Blues and Pop to produce the Sun Sessions. These historic recordings have recently been re-packaged as a 2 CD set called Sunrise (RCA).
Many years ago, I chastised myself for not owning the Sun Sessions. There have always been several versions/compilations of them available, and many respectable rockers such as Lou Reed and Graham Parker have long touted their value. I finally bought the vinyl double record set, and I was of course impressed with what I heard. I must admit, though, that it was a little strange to listen to all the tracks in their recorded sequence (master and alternate takes back to back, some songs with false starts, and some chatter between the participants). I mean, it was cool in the sense that I got the feeling that I was in the studio as the music was falling into place – literally, as rock and roll was being created. However, all the songs that people heard on the radio and the records that they bought were the master tracks. Those influenced by Elvis such as the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t grow up hearing any of the alternates or goof-ups. It was only later when people started to study the phenomenon of the sessions that they appreciated and learned from the entire unedited session tapes, and then it seemed that all you could get was the complete unedited versions. Until now, there hasn’t been a compilation of this stuff where all the masters are presented together and the alternates separately. I know – this is getting a little confusing, so I’ll just let Stephen Thomas Erlewine from the All Music Guide describe it for you:
“The compilers (of Sunrise) wisely decided to devote the first disc to the original takes, dedicating the second to alternate takes: six live cuts from 1955 and four private demos from 1953 and 1954. This sequencing emphasizes the brilliance of this music. Not only is listening to all 19 masters in a row quite breathtaking, but the second disc winds up as a revelatory experience, since it offers a kind of alternate history by following Elvis’ pre-professional recordings from his Sun sessions to early live performances.”
Believe me, this makes a huge difference if you haven’t really heard all these songs before. Even those of us who have are still blown away by hearing the 19 masters consecutively. There are of course stand-outs – That’s All Right, Mystery Train, Baby Let’s Play House, Good Rockin’ Tonight, Blue Moon of Kentucky – but you will find a few of the lesser known ones sticking in your head, too. My personal favs are I Forgot to Remember to Forget and I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone. And when you couple the first disc with listening to the second, you come away with a profound appreciation of what Elvis and his crew accomplished. If there ever was a case of a few guys being in the right place at the right time, this is it. It somehow all converged perfectly, and hearing some of the “imperfections (the alternate takes and live tracks) after listening to the masters just leads you right back to the masters to listen yet some more, all the while saying to yourself “How the hell did they do it ?!?”. Bear in mind that Elvis first met his band mates on a Sunday, after Sam Phillips suggested to Scotty Moore that they all get together. They jammed to no real avail, but still went in to record at Sun Studios on Monday night, just to see what might happen. Nothing much happened until they stumbled into their first great take – a revved up version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” It amazed all of them, and Sam Phillips pressed an acetate (master copy) of it on Tuesday and gave it to popular DJ Dewey Phillips. Dewey played it repeatedly on his nighttime show the rest of the week, and by the following week they had over 6,000 orders for it. Imagine that – in a week’s time they: 1) assembled a band, 2) forged a new style, 3) recorded a hit song and 4) started a revolution! It’s even more amazing when you realize that Elvis was still a nervous inexperienced kid who had yet to play a full professional gig, that Bill Black wasn’t a particularly great bassist (but he sure knew how to swack that thang!), that Scotty Moore, the best musician of the bunch, wasn’t sure of what to play or not play (Sam Phillips had to repeatedly remind him to simplify his playing), and that Sam himself was really the only true professional present. Indeed, without his studio experience and abilities as a producer to make musicians comfortable and play beyond what they thought they could do, these sessions and indeed the foundation of rock and roll as we know it would not exist. I could at this point delve into the wonderful world of Sam and Dewey Phillips (no relation – just great friends!), Sun Records and Memphis in the ‘50s, and how the groundwork was laid out for such an incredible burst of creativity, but since I don’t have the space or time, I’ll just tell you that if you want to know more, you should check out any and all Sun recordings (early Howlin’ Wolf , Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash are some biggies, and there are numerous compilations of Sun artists on a variety of labels), or writings by Pete Guralnick (The first volume of his definitive Elvis bio Last Train to Memphis or the exceptional essay compilation Feel Like Goin’ Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll ). For the immediate future, get yourself a copy of Sunrise and hear where it all began.
Final Note: For those of you who have a hankering for more Elvis, there are several other single or double CDs out there if you don’t want to take the plunge and buy the big box sets. My personal favorite is Suspicious Minds (RCA), a collection of stuff from the late ‘60s. Proof positive that the King deserved and maintained his title.
Next Month: Unsung Blues Greats
John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.