Sam Phillips hasn't been forthcoming about his exact reasons for selling the contract of one of America's hottest acts, but when RCA Records were finally persuaded to pay $35,000 for the services of Elvis Presley, the Memphis producer was both relieved and regretful in unequal measures. Sam had been sure ever since Presley and his backing band, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, had transformed the semi-obscure blues "That's All Right (Mama)" to an exciting country/blues hybrid (dropping the suffix in the process) that the boy would eventually outgrow his small self-promoted label, yet he was upset that Elvis' charismatic manager Col. Tom Parker had managed to impose his will on both he and the artist with such smooth ease.
Fortunately, his plans for the future looked considerably brighter; he planned to use the RCA money to ensure his own financial security before beginning a career in the propriety of radio stations, while in Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins he had two new talented singers with equally bright prospects. He was also convinced that Perkins' latest composition, a lyrically clever mid-tempo blues shuffle named "Blue Suede Shoes" had the potential to outstrip the success of anything Elvis had released for the company.
If Sam Phillips was feeling apprehensive about his decision to surrender Elvis' contract, Steve Sholes had far more to be worried about. In procuring Presley's signature, RCA's a&r director had put more than his sholes on the line, his livelihood depended upon the youngster's success. Early reports from the studio were less than heartening; the players (including new drummer DJ Fontana) were fitting in well with "producer" Chet Atkins, however the studio rejected the first batch of recordings to emerge from the sessions: a few r&b ballads and the one song they recorded that Elvis truly believed in, a morbid 12-bar named "Heartbreak Hotel" - hardly the exciting new rock n' roll sound the public was expecting. The situation became so desperate that Sholes pleaded with Sam Phillips to come produce a hit single, but he wisely rejected.
There was a short period in early 1955 where it seemed very likely that Sholes had backed the wrong horse; Carl Perkins was racing up the charts with his own composition "Blue Suede Shoes" while his prodigy was satisfied with a gratuitous writing credit on "Heartbreak Hotel"- and few expected that to rival the success of his most recent work. You can imagine their surprise when "Heartbreak Hotel" not only topped the charts, but became the label's first million-selling single. Yet, it's curious in its absence from Elvis Presley
, though the album was released fully four months after the single. Presley, Atkins and Sholes chose instead to release a number of staples from the group's live set- an intelligent move given the early difficulties with recording and the shortage of comparable original material- which included no less than five Sun recordings (with very little post-production), covers of Little Richard, Ray Charles and Carl Perkins, as well as the pick of the fresh compositions- chosen by Elvis himself, through whom all creative decisions flowed.
In keeping with the Sun releases from which his current success was derived (not to mention the five Sun recordings here present), Elvis Presley
is as, if not more, diverse stylistically than his previous work. The works range from contemporary rock covers ("Blue Suede Shoes", "Tutti Frutti") to country ballads ("Blue Moon", "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)") to r&b pop hits ("Money Honey" and "I Got a Woman"). The tracks are invariably very loose instrumentally, invariably recorded with very few takes and featuring many mistakes and minor imperfection, but Elvis' perfectionism was already beginning to show. It had become clear that all creative decisions were to stop with him- he chose the songs, he chose the arrangements, he could modify them as he pleased and he decided when they'd made the right take. Stories of the young singer spending entire five-hour sessions on the one vocal track began to spread almost instantly.
The album in fact begins with a version of "Blue Suede Shoes" that's no less personalised and authoritative than "That's All Right" or "Blue Moon of Kentucky", themselves still moderate chart hits in mid-1956. RCA waited until Perkins' version had dropped from the charts (and its composer was recovering from a near-fatal car accident) before releasing the song as a single in conjunction with the album- also a self-titled affair. The recording couldn't be more different aesthetically to the original version- the precise guitar-playing and spacious mix of Perkins' recording surrendering to a raucous rhythmic attack complete with hard drumming, vocal acrobatics and an sloppy, ill-timed guitar solo from Moore, who was already developing a style distinct from his hero at the desks, Chet Atkins. It also marks the first use of piano in a Presley arrangement which, together with the prominence of drums in the mix, marks the album out for its adherence to more mainstream rock principles- at Sun, they rarely had the luxury of a full band.
Unusually, given the massive sales of the record (it quickly became the first rock record to sell one million copies), "Blue Suede Shoes" was the only clear-cut hit single. "Money Honey" charted modestly later that year; a long-time staple of Presley's live set, it had been a minor hit in 1953 for the Drifters, from the pen of Jesse Stone ("Shake, Rattle and Roll"). The fact the melody bore remarkable resemblance to Gene Vincent's hit "Be-Bop-A-Lula" may have contributed to its lack of success (Vincent's vocal on the track bore such a resemblance to Elvis' that Moore and Black suspected the singer himself had recorded it in secret) though the looming presence of a number of superior earlier hits in the charts is a more likely explanation. It also bears a passing resemblance to 1957's "Jailhouse Rock", a standard blues with a creeping chromatic piano hook.
Fully five tracks were lifted directly from the Sun tapes, none of which had been released in any form, making up almost half of the total tracks. Despite never making it as singles, each track was in its own way remarkable, whether the stripped down doo-wop of country standard "Blue Moon" (now the unquestioned definitive arrangement) or the childish tones of "I Love You Because" and "Tryin' to Get to You". The recordings fit in neatly beside the straight-forward blues-heavy rock of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti", which receives a faithful, if rather too
polished treatment here. Elvis demonstrates a superior vocal ability to Richard, reaching the falsetto cries with ease but lacking the gruff delivery which makes the original so attractive- it wasn't until subsequent singles like "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog" that Elvis would develop a distinctive and convincing rasp.
The rest of the record is devoted to straight-forward pop tracks, including a cover of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry Over You", an r&b hit in 1954 for Roy Hamilton. These tracks were mainly a showcase for Presley's unique vocal talent, however, and the band only truly shined on the upbeat rockers, particularly the singles. The latter track in particular showcases his talent as he trades bass and tenor lines with the greatest of ease, once again transforming a simple blues track merely by playing with the vocal track. It's also indicative of the stylistic diversity on offer, as he inadvertently shows how fluid the boundaries between rock, r&b, blues and country really are.
What is more remarkable about the album is the fact it simultaneously established rock n' roll no longer as a teenage fad but as a genuine cultural movement, albeit firmly removed from its racial roots. Elvis Presley
proved that a rock album could not only sell, as teenagers generally only invested in '45s in those days, but it could outsell the singles from its own and any other genre. More importantly, though the correlation is hardly incidental, it established a degree of vocal primacy on a genre not yet blessed with a number of great singers. Chuck Berry's unique selling point was his ear-splitting guitar solos and strong backbeat; Elvis' main selling point was his beautiful voice, which was only increasing in confidence and stature as he released more and more new material. By the end of the year and the release of his second album Elvis
, the Memphis singer was America's most successful musician bar none.