With such words was a revolution born! Those simple lyrics were the first sung by Elvis Presley on his 1956 RCA Victor debut, accompanied by the blasts of Scotty Moore’s guitar, then the frantic beats of D.J. Fontana’s drums. It’s unlikely that Presley ever anticipated that his recording of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” would provide the soundtrack to a country’s coming of age, or for that matter, lead off a massive 6-disc box set suitable for prominent placement on your coffee table or bookshelf.
Young Man with the Big Beat (RCA/Legacy 88697 93534-2, 2011) is LP-sized, probably the only proportion large enough to hold the big beat contained within. This weighty, ambitious collection – five audio CDs, an 80-page book, and an envelope filled with replica swag – is part box set and part cultural artifact, but most importantly, it’s a fully immersive entrée into The Complete ’56 Elvis Presley Masters, as it’s subtitled. Elvis Presley turned 21 in the buttoned-up, repressive climate of the American south circa 1956. Soon his music, synthesizing African-American R&B, pop, soul, country and gospel into something wholly new, hit a raw nerve. Presley’s debut recordings crystallized the power of the American teenager on both culture and the music business, selling the album format (previously the territory of adults) to youth, and influencing clothes, hairstyles and attitudes.
Yet trawling through Presley’s catalogue on CD has long been an amazingly daunting task, with compilations more readily available than actual albums, and numerous issues of the same material. Since acquiring the Presley catalogue, Legacy has been mercifully streamlining it. Two-disc Legacy Editions of On Stage/In Person, From Elvis in Memphis/Back in Memphis, and Elvis is Back!/Something for Everybody have combined two essential albums with associated singles. The first two discs of Young Man with the Big Beat contain Elvis’ debut studio set and its successor, plus related single and EP tracks, or the entirety of Presley’s complete studio recordings dating from 1956. (These two CDs are also available as Elvis Presley: Legacy Edition, minus three tracks.) A 1996 RCA package entitled Elvis ’56 had a similar concept, but this package exceeds that one in every way possible, from sonics to presentation. Unreleased material isn’t the main attraction here, though you’ll find a good amount of it via a live concert and numerous interviews. Rather, Young Man puts a period of our music history in better perspective than any release that has come before.
After the jump, join us at the RCA Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, circa 1956!
Elvis in the Studio
It’s difficult to find an aspect of Presley’s self-titled debut album that wasn’t a sensation. It became the first-ever rock-and-roll album to hit pole position on the Billboard chart, and even its cover spawned scores of imitators! What’s radical about Elvis Presley, though, isn’t that it contained 12 nuggets of potent power to scare your parents. Far from it! RCA Victor keenly realized that their young singer could have cross-generational appeal, and his first LP is actually a fine collection of songs rendered in varying tempi and styles. As Elvis was not first and foremost a songwriter, he had to draw on the likes of Perkins, Don Robertson, Ray Charles, Leon Payne and Jesse Stone for material; the high quality of these gentlemen’s songs no doubt contributed to how fresh Elvis Presley still sounds today.
Presley’s take on Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” could be the antidote to the usual “whitebread” covers of R&B that were prevalent at the time. Elvis, like Pat Boone, took a crack at Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” which was part of his stage repertoire. So was Roy Hamilton’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You),” with its familiar rockabilly shuffle, and “Money Honey,” known to Elvis from Clyde McPhatter’s recording. On the more sophisticated side, Elvis offered a hauntingly fresh take on Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Blue Moon,” dating from 1934. Rodgers had little tolerance for those who dramatically altered his music, famously detesting The Marcels’ hit 1961 doo-wop rendition, and denouncing the great liberties Frank Sinatra often took with his melodies. Elvis’ take on “Blue Moon” is fairly faithful if more than a bit haunting. Languidly paced, with a painful, wordless cry, it’s the most dreamlike track on the set, and actually was an unreleased track left over from Sun Records. (Director Jim Jarmusch deployed Presley’s version of the song to beautiful effect in his 1989 film Mystery Train.) Menacing though he may have seemed to many adults, Presley even whistled the intro to the charming “I Love You Because,” written by Leon Payne, and took on an exaggerated delivery for Bill Campbell’s “One Sided Love Affair.”
Ironically, the appearance of the most famous song on Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” was motivated by commercial concerns when the RCA brass felt that the dramatic “Heartbreak Hotel,” recorded on January 10, 1956 at Presley’s very first session for the label, didn’t sound enough like Presley’s Sun sides! (When “Heartbreak Hotel” b/w “I Was the One” arrived on January 27, any qualms quickly evaporated. Elvis Presley followed on March 23.)
Reflecting a breakneck pace that is nearly unheard-of today, Elvis followed Elvis Presley in October. It followed the formula of its predecessor, again mixing rockers (the frantic “Ready Teddy”) and sweet, tender ballads (the maudlin “Old Shep”). Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first appear in the Presley story with “Love Me,” which marries a soulful Stoller melody to a straightforward Leiber lyric. Webb Pierce’s “How Do You Think I Feel” gets a hot, almost Latin treatment that Elvis sings to the hilt. “Paralyzed,” written by Otis Blackwell, is a close relative of “Don’t Be Cruel,” which appears as a bonus track for Elvis. Little Richard’s staple “Long Tall Sally” finds the singer turning in his most throaty, vocal-shredding performance at RCA yet. When he sings, “I’m gonna have some fun tonight,” it’s all too evident that he’s not kidding around. As gutsy as that vocal is, though, “First in Line” is ethereal, with echo lending it a spectral quality.
The singles appended as bonus tracks are as exciting as the album itself. Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” far removed from Big Mama Thornton’s original (“You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine” long stuck in Jerry Leiber’s craw), but the high-octane attack on the song was galvanizing. Elvis’ swaggering, plain-spoken, staccato approach (“You ain’t-a-nothin’-but-a-hound dog”) to the lyric was stunning, sung over smoking guitar. Other musicians had been present on both albums augmenting the core of Scotty Moore (guitar), D.J. Fontana (drums), and Bill Black (bass), including Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer and Shorty Long. But The Jordanaires, on backing vocals, were becoming most integral to the Presley sound. The group’s “Aaaah”s and “Bop bop”s on “Don’t Be Cruel” are now part of the fabric of the song.
Elvis effortlessly shows off his vocal versatility with the melodramatic “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” marked by its “doo-wop” backing vocals, Marvin Hughes’ light piano flourishes, and Chet Atkins’ twangy guitar. There’s more overt C&W with “Any Way You Want Me” with that deep voice reassuring listeners, “I’ll be strong as a mountain, or weak as a willow tree.” The most unusual bonus tracks are the songs written and performed for Presley’s film debut, Love Me Tender. Built around the melody of a Civil War ballad with new lyrics by Vera Matson, wife of the movie’s musical director Ken Darby, the title song has a very different sonic signature than the RCA tracks. The same goes for three more jaunty if minor tracks from the film which round out Disc 2, with their prominent use of accordion and few concessions to a contemporary sound. (These are the three songs omitted from the Legacy Edition line-up.)
Elvis, Live and In Person
As Young Man with the Big Beat is a complete chronicle of Presley’s 1956, one disc has been devoted to live performances. These offer a window into Presley, the stage performer, long before the rhinestone jumpsuits. It couldn’t be more apropos, though, that the live disc opens with a performance from Las Vegas’ New Frontier Hotel from his final evening there on May 6. This performance is the best-sounding of the three on the disc, and also the most revealing. The April 23-May 6 stand marked Presley’s first performances in Sin City, and his last for thirteen years; the rising superstar wasn’t prepared for the barrage of negative reviews that greeted his arrival at the New Frontier. The Las Vegas Sun found his “musical sound with a combo of three” to be “uncouth,” of all things, to a Las Vegas far from accustomed to rock and roll. Elvis did take on some of the expected trappings of a performer there; he was joined by Freddy Martin’s Orchestra, and greeted by their big brassy fanfare. He introduces them just before tearing into “Blue Suede Shoes,” but the orchestra’s presence doesn’t add much impact, however, just a big horn blast at the song’s conclusion and a playoff. His dialogue in Vegas reveals a polite young man who hadn’t yet refined his “showbiz” persona incorporating the “aw shucks” sensibility with a self-effacing wink at his sex appeal. He sounds a bit uneasy during these four songs, although he jokes mid-song, singing of “Heartburn Motel.” It’s fun hearing him point out Ray Bolger (of The Wizard of Oz and Where’s Charley?) in the audience. And fans will no doubt appreciate his “Thank you very much!” punctuating a song’s conclusion.
Each of the three concerts preserved here offer a similar setlist. The Little Rock show of just a few days later, on May 16, is presented in less-than-superb sound, but the performances still practically jump off the CD. Elvis is actually out of breath after a particularly raucous “Long Tall Sally,” while the screaming of the female audience members is deafening! “Heartbreak Hotel” gets mangled again, this time by the announcer of the broadcast from which this was taken, downgrading it to “Heartbreak Motel.” Elvis is more humorous and more at ease in his patter in Little Rock, relishing in and feeding off the non-stop screaming.
The lengthiest set is from December 15 in Louisiana. This concert makes its first-ever appearance on this collection. Again, the sound isn’t optimal, with Elvis’ vocals even occasionally drowned out by the shrill screams! Still, there’s a certain undeniable frisson as he returns to the environs of his Louisiana Hayride stomping ground. On “Love Me,” Elvis wields his sex appeal like a weapon on the sea of teenage girls shredding their vocal cords. With his slow-burning finale to “Hound Dog,” you can practically hear him gyrating!
The Cutting Room Floor
Disc Four is titled “The Outtakes,” but “The Alternate Takes” is a more accurate description. It features selections from the first RCA session (alternates of “I Got a Woman,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” I’m Counting On You” and “I Was the One”) and the complete session of February 3, 1956. From the latter, you’ll hear Elvis experiment with intonation and emphasis through eight (!) tracks of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” representing the full Takes 1-12, some of which disintegrate amidst laughter. For “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” heard in Takes 1-12 over four tracks, Elvis plays with alternate lyrics to start the song, inquiring “Same lyrics?” before Take 8. Though squarely aimed at the hard-core fan, these takes offer true insight into the process that created these seemingly-effortless recorded performances. The only constants are the resonant voice of the singer and the muscular playing of his musicians.
All of the above tracks have appeared before, but this disc brings them all together for the first time on a mainstream, general-retail release. 2006’s deluxe edition of Elvis Presley (on the Internet/mail-order Elvis specialty label Follow That Dream) is the only more comprehensive source for this material. That title, in addition to the versions included here, offers more from the first RCA session including other attempts at “I Got a Woman,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I’m Counting On You,” “I Was the One” and “Money Honey,” as well as alternates of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.”
Having already presented Elvis live and in the studio, we get a glimpse of the future King while not performing via a number of lengthy interviews. These show a charming, and almost always polite and respectful young man, even when the questions are condescending. (“Do you call it singing, the stuff you do?”) He even-handedly touches on topics ranging from religion to cars! The Complete TV Guide Presents Elvis Interview took place in August in Florida; the same session yielded a discussion with the controversial manager and svengali “Colonel” Tom Parker. The talk with the plain-spoken Parker is also included here. (When Parker is asked where Elvis discovered his style, he blithely replies, “Well, I have no idea, but I know it’s a good one.” Queried about Elvis’ sex appeal, he’s understandably defensive.) Then there’s a spoken-word 45 rpm disc entitled The Truth About Me (originally enclosed with Teen Parade magazine!), an interview of the same title from the set of Love Me Tender, and two ads for the Victrola. These conversations truly capture a brief moment in time when Presley still seemed genuinely taken aback by his stardom; the TV Guide interview begins with Elvis politely if sternly responding to accusations that he’s a “no-talent performer riding the crest of a wave of mass hysteria.” Wow!
Elvis, Day By Day
As if all of that wasn’t enough, here’s where the “immersive” part comes in. In many ways, the five audio discs are a soundtrack to this set’s most distinguished feature, its book. To say that its 80 pages are lavishly illustrated is an understatement. You’ll find record labels, sleeves, newspaper clippings, press materials, photographs and ephemera, all beautifully reproduced. But its centerpiece is a timeline, offering fascinating tidbits in amazing detail: Was Elvis “The King” as early as January 1956, when he was billed as “The King of Western Bop” on a bill with Johnny Cash and David Houston? Or: “Elvis watches a western that runs between shows at the theater” on February 21, 1956. This exhaustive collection of major events and minutiae alike makes for a true page-turner. Presley fought fatigue, flu, vehicular accidents, even brushes with the law during the year – and of course, riots, the likes of which hadn’t been seen likely since Sinatra played the Paramount!
The cornerstones for so much of Elvis’ career can be explored in the book. You’ll learn that on April 6, he signed with Hal Wallis for Paramount Pictures for seven films; the same day, he flew to Las Vegas to visit The Frontier Hotel where he soon would be performing starting Monday the 23rd. Elvis’ legendary, controversial television appearances are chronicled here. On June 5, he returned to The Milton Berle Show, causing a furor and firestorm over his movements especially during the slow ending to “Hound Dog” (the arrangement of which can be heard on Disc 3’s concert performances.) On July 1, the conservative – but often musically forward-thinking – Steve Allen sees that Elvis performs in a tuxedo, for the demeaning performance which included his singing “Hound Dog” to an actual basset hound! (He recorded his definitive single of the Leiber and Stoller song the following day.) For an August 11 performance in Florida, a local judge actually warned Presley to tone down his act, and he later recalled it as the only occasion he performed the song while simply moving his little finger from side to side! September 9 was Presley’s first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, although you might be surprised to find that Charles Laughton actually hosted that night’s program while Sullivan recuperated from a car accident! Chances are you’ll spend hours engrossed in the whirlwind of Elvis’ day-to-day world.
Long Live the King
Often the familiarity of so many songs can be an obstacle to understanding the significance of an album, but that’s not so here, as producer (and longtime keeper of the Elvis flame) Ernst Mikael Jorgensen has seen that every aspect of Presley’s year in music is covered via text and audio. As far as that audio goes, it’s all been splendidly remastered by Vic Anesini, as Legacy utilizes the remasters created by Anesini for the 30-disc Complete Masters box from 2009.
The all-encompassing treatment of Young Man with the Big Beat is truly fit for a King. Unlike many recent box sets loaded with “swag,” each component here is valuable, and the attention to detail in the nostalgic design (from the exterior of the box to the RCA Victor labels on the discs themselves) is evident. So is the care in packaging. This lavish, definitive box set only documents one pivotal year of Elvis Presley’s all-too-short life. Thanks to Young Man with the Big Beat, however, it’s more clear than ever that even at this early stage, he did it his way.
You can order Young Man with the Big Beat here!