Elvis Presley, more than any other twentieth century recording artist, has been the subject of the type of intense scrutiny which borders on scientific study. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the much-laboured charge that Elvis’ success was gained at the expense of more deserving black artists. And certainly this is true, Elvis’ music was heavily steeped in rhythm and blues forms and before he achieved worldwide success in 1956 black artists stood very little chance of sustained success among the white record-buying public.
However, few people seem to be as aware of Chuck Berry’s story. At exactly the same time as Elvis was cutting his first records in Memphis, soon to be unleashed on a hungry white public, Berry was playing to black audiences across the American Midwest and experiencing a similar demand from his punters for white hillbilly music, the folk music of European-Americans. Exactly a year after Presley recorded his breakthrough blues cover ‘That’s All Right’, Berry unleashed his own piece of rock n’ roll history, the classic ‘Maybellene’- an inspired re-write of the old hillbilly fiddle tune ‘Ida Red’.
As ‘Maybellene’ in August 1955 became the first black rock n’ roll single to exhibit cross-cultural potential, in contrast to Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ which only charted in the form of tame cover by Pat Boone that same year, Presley quickly added it to his own set. By now Elvis was a star all across the American south and, following the release of his final single for Sun Records (‘I Forgot To Remember’ b/w ‘Mystery Train’), he was signed to the multi-national RCA Record label for a then record sum for an untried artist.
While the boy was almost immediately dismissed by black DJs as being ‘too country,’ his debut cut ‘That’s All Right’ seemed to prick ears wherever (label head) Sam Phillips took it and the singer was greeted with an already enthusiastic fanbase wherever he travelled. The single was backed with the country standard ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ written and popularised by the elected ‘father of bluegrass’ Bill Monroe. Presley’s radically re-configured version of the latter prompted its creator to re-record and release the song as a single in the new format within two weeks, but that was a light overhaul compared to the spin put by Elvis and co. on the relatively obscure bluesman Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’- the record that, while certainly not the beginning of rock n’ roll, was definitely the beginning of its most successful proponent.
Sam Phillips originally drafted Elvis Presley to replace an absent ballad singer, as was the young singer’s ambition all along, but after pairing him with ambitious guitarist Scotty Moore and his upright bass-playing friend Bill Black the music quickly veered in another direction entirely. ‘That’s All Right’ began as an impromptu jam, with Moore and Black falling in behind Presley’s much-quickened verse with a countrified alternating bass line and two-stringed chord stabs, inspired in Moore by Nashville picker Chet Atkins. The absence of drums was purely incidental, it was a small studio and they were supposed
to be demoing ballads, but the light echo the producer used to compensate inadvertently became the
signature rock n’ roll effect.
The harshly slapped bass line combined with the echo to create a percussive effect unique to the studio. Drums would be added for later sessions, but the effect it had on Presley’s own voice was far more interesting and the singer would rarely record dry again, a demand RCA made pains to accommodate at their Nashville studios. The singer himself was a raw talent but his ability was immediately apparent; he had a vocal range of roughly three octaves, but his perfect control and ability to jump between bass, baritone and tenor with the greatest of ease made it seem far wider. The range of material he was adept at performing was similarly impressive, exhibiting an aptitude for tongue-twisting raucous rockers, heavily-ornamented old-style and country ballads.
Musically, the trio were firmly rooted in the blues style. Most of the tracks were either blues covers in the 12-bar style (‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, ‘Mystery Train’) or country songs with the blues style imposed upon them (‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’) and adhered closely to the African-American call-and-response format, however the absence of a strong percussive element and Scotty Moore’s harmonic leads highlighted the uneasy clash of styles which fuelled the rock n’ roll explosion.
The featured version of ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ is loosely based on Wynonie Harris’ original, an 1948 R&B hit, but the gulf between the two is set by Elvis’ strongly decorated vocal which transforms a straightforward rhythmic blues track to a highly melodic pop song, much as he had done with ‘That’s All Right’ and would soon repeat on ‘Mystery Train’. ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, on the other hand, began life a slow, waltzy song arranged for a full bluegrass band, but is here scaled down to a three-piece, the fiddlin’ intro is replaced with a ‘new’ verse, the time signature standardised and the tempo increased markedly.
In these tracks it’s clearly visible just why certain white musicians and DJs considered his music ‘too black’ (too bluesy, in essence) while black DJs were often confused as to the appeal it held outside of mainstream country circles. It’s much clearer today, over fifty years after the fact, what exactly predominantly white teenagers saw in Elvis. First of all, unlike the likes of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley or even Little Richard, Elvis had a genuinely brilliant vocal ability that could just as easily convey a soft ballad as it could a wild rock song. Furthermore, the songs they recorded are today as ever genuinely edgy and exciting pieces of music, particularly the first single. It’s mind-boggling to this day how the trio of amateur musicians managed to produce a single as magical as ‘That’s All Right’ having met less than a week before.
It probably helped that he was white, and could shake his knees for days, but the Sun Sessions
as a whole were the clear beginnings of a musical legacy and exhibited a level of creativity and innovation in the studio that was to become a noted characteristic of the post-rock n’ roll era, where the artist was in control rather than the producer or the writer. As a rule, I deem ‘importance’ as an album completely separate from actual quality, but invariably albums this influential are influential because they’re genuinely great recordings, and The Sun Sessions
, though not formally compiled until 1976, were certainly great, great, classic