Review: Elvis Presley – Young Man With the Big Beat (RCA/Legacy, 2011)
Eighteen months after bursting into the music world with “That’s All Right,” Elvis moved from the indie Sun label to the major leagues of RCA. A month-and-a-half later, in January 1956, he entered the a Nashville studio and began a year that included two chart-topping albums (Elvis Presley and Elvis), three chart-topping singles (five, if you include the Country chart), several more top-fives and fifteen total chart entries among two dozen singles. That’s in addition to live and television performances that made him the most famous person in the world. Five decades later, according to RCA, he remains the best-selling artist of all time, with over a billion records sold. He’s certainly among the most reissued, but with a catalog as lengthy and rich as Elvis Presley’s, it’s rewarding to view it from multiple angles.
RCA/Legacy’s 5-CD set focuses solely on the transformative year of 1956, collecting its the first two discs the thirty-nine master recordings Elvis issued that year. The original track lists of Elvis Presley (which combines seven sides cut expressly for RCA and five previously cut for Sun) and Elvis (cut in three September days in Hollywood) start discs one and two, respectively. Each of these discs is filled out with non-LP singles, B-sides and EP tracks. Elvis minted a lot of gold in ‘56, including the chart-topping hits “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Love Me Tender,” the iconic “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” and “Love Me,” lower-charting treats “Money Honey” and “Paralyzed,” and non-charting sides that include a stellar rockabilly cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and the gospel-styled “We’re Gonna Move.” The music just poured out of Elvis and his combo, their roots still intact and raw, and Elvis’ magic in full-bloom on the ballads.
The set’s third disc combines live material from the last night of Elvis’ two-week run at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, a May performance in Little Rock, Arkansas, and ten previously unreleased tracks from a December concert in Shreveport, Louisiana. Elvis gave it his best in Las Vegas, but by closing night his funny, witty, sarcastic and self-deprecating stage patter (“we got a few little songs we’d like to do for you, we have on record, in our style of singing, if you wanna call it singing”) reflected the lukewarm reception he’d received from the middle-aged audience. The May and December dates find Elvis greeted by screaming fans, and he returns the favor with fevered rock ‘n’ roll. The tapes are all quite listenable, though the Little Rock show is a bit rough in spots, and the Shreveport show a bit muffled. Shreveport had been instrumental in launching Elvis with his appearances on the Louisiana Hayride, and his bond with the city and its fans is evident.
Disc four opens with outtakes of “I Got a Woman,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I’m Counting on You” and “I Was the One,” from his first Nashville session. In addition to alternate versions of four great Elvis tracks, listeners get to hear how fresh Presley and his band remained from take to take. The remainder of the disc becomes the province of collectors and completists as it unspools the February 3rd sessions for “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” In addition to multiple takes of each tune, you get bits of studio chatter, moments of vocal rehearsal and instrumental noodling. The disc concludes with a half-hour interview conducted by Robert Brown at New York City’s Warwick Hotel. Brown introduces fans to Elvis by discussing his career, hobbies, favorite singers (Sonny James, Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza), current films (“Helen of Troy,” “The Man with the Golden Arm,” and “Picnic”), foods and clothes. Elvis comes across as thoughtful, humble and exceedingly thankful for his success.
The fifth disc closes the set with an additional hour of spoken material, including an interview session with TV Guide, an interview of Colonel Tom Parker, the spoken-word “The Truth About Me” (which was originally included in Teen Parade magazine, and appears to explain Elvis to both his growing teenage audience and their parents), an interview recorded on the film set of Love Me Tender, and a pair of ads for RCA record players. Elvis handles tough questions that recount critical press accounts of his talent and performances, politely showing confidence in himself and his fans. He doesn’t seek to explain or excuse his music or dancing, but notes that he and his audience share an understanding and appreciation of what’s passing between them.
The 12”-square box set includes an 80-page book stuffed with photos and ephemera (ticket stubs, record company memos, fan letters, record charts, magazine covers, etc.), a thorough discography and sessionography of 1956, and is highlighted by a day-by-day chronology of Elvis’ recording dates, concerts, television appearances and personal events throughout the year. The box also includes reproduction 8 x 10 photos, posters and a concert ticket stub. For those only interested in the core master recordings, the first two discs of this set (minus three tracks from the Love Me Tender EP: “Let Me,” “Poor Boy” and “We’re Gonna Move”) are being released separately as the Elvis Presley: The Legacy Edition. This two CD set includes Elvis’ first two albums, and nearly all of the non-LP A’s, B’s and EP tracks included here.