It’s hard to believe – impossible, even – but Elvis Aron Presley once was just A Boy from Tupelo. The once and future King’s transformation from modest beginnings to international superstar has never been more vividly traced than on the new 3-CD box set from RCA and Legacy. A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings is a trip back in time to the birth of rock-and-roll (destination: Memphis) featuring every one of Elvis’ known Sun Records masters and outtakes, as well as his four earliest, privately-pressed sides, plus vintage radio and concert performances from the period. It all adds up to 73 tracks – including one previously unreleased, newly-discovered recording, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” from the Louisiana Hayride, Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 29, 1955.
Elvis fans, of course, know that the first version of this box set was released through the online/mail order Follow That Dream series back in 2012, at which time ten tracks made their premiere. This updated edition with streamlined packaging is the first time these tracks, and this package, have been available to general retail. For those who missed out in 2012, this remarkable set (and winner of The Second Disc’s 2012 Gold Bonus Disc Award for Best Historical Reissue) places the incendiary sides that created a legend in full context of the early days of rock-and-roll. It’s housed in an 8×8″ slipcase, making it an ideal companion on your shelf next to the Legacy releases of Prince from Another Planet and Elvis at Stax.
One cannot adequately discuss the contents of this box set without considering its printed text as a key component. A Boy from Tupelo contains an impressive 120-page, squarebound softcover book (cut down from a truly staggering 512-page hardcover tome in 2012) which is formatted in the style of a timeline and lavishly illustrated. It begins on July 4, 1954, less than a day before Elvis recorded his first official masters as a Sun Records artist, and concludes on December 31, 1955, when he performed at the Louisiana Hayride show in Shreveport, Louisiana. In between, the book and accompanying CDs chronicle the rise of the intense, young “kid with the sideburns,” as Sun secretary Marion Keisker once referred to him. “I sing all kinds,” Elvis once told her. “I don’t sound like nobody.” Inspired by the yin and yang of church music and rhythm and blues, not to mention doses of pop balladry, country weepers, and Hollywood froth, Elvis intended to prove that statement from his earliest recordings.
Disc One of this box begins with the original performances recorded by Elvis prior to his signing with Sun. For the price of $3.98, a budding singer could make a double-sided record at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service facility, located at Sun Records’ address of 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. Reflecting his broad taste, Elvis chose to record “My Happiness,” a 1948 pop tune which had charted in no fewer than four different versions, and The Ink Spots’ 1940 hit “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” one day in July 1953. Phillips and Keisker later debated as to whom actually recorded these sides, but either way, Elvis was back in January 1954 for another pair: the Joni James favorite “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way” and a Jimmy Wakely crossover pop/country record, “It Wouldn’t Be the Same (Without You).”
Simply accompanying himself on guitar and singing these honeyed ballads in his gentlest croon, Elvis didn’t necessarily exude the makings of a star, yet there’s a purity and utter sincerity to the then-deliveryman’s voice that’s altogether disarming, with not a sign of the swagger and danger which would soon thrill kids and threaten their parents. His drawled faux dramatic rap on “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” is as sweetly earnest as his pinched tone on “It Wouldn’t Be the Same (Without You).”
Elvis returned to Sun on June 26, called by Keisker (with whom he’d forged a bond) when her boss was in a bind over a missing singer. That abortive session on the song “Without You” hasn’t survived, and Elvis’ inability to get it right could have derailed a less persistent person’s career then and there. But Elvis pressed on, and his friendship with guitarist and Sun artist Scotty Moore led to another session on Monday night, July 5, 1954. One can draw a straight line from the Memphis Recording Service sides to the first tracks laid down that night, the popular ballads “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because.” But nobody – Elvis, Scotty, Sam and bassist Bill Black included – could have predicted the explosive “That’s All Right” which came next at the session. Arthur Crudup’s composition introduced a new Elvis – loose, vibrant, free, and electrifying. At nineteen years old, Elvis Presley was born. Phillips was convinced that he had a hit, and when he brought the record to local DJ Dewey Phillips the next day, the DJ agreed. The song was played that night over and over again. On Wednesday the 7th, Elvis returned to Sun to cut a B-side: the raucous “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” further displaying the phrasing and raw talent that would make a local boy into a King. On Monday, July 26, Elvis officially became a Sun Records artist.
The rest, as they say, is history. Disc One presents all of Elvis’ Sun masters in one place, along with four Sun tracks as they subsequently appeared in altered and/or overdubbed form on RCA. At Sun through November 1955, Elvis and Phillips defined his personality and sound with an array of diverse tracks. The hauntingly stripped-down “Blue Moon” (of which its composer Richard Rodgers, ever a stickler for fidelity to his songs as written, most likely would not have approved!) was strong enough to be repurposed for Elvis’ first RCA album. He also evinced his burgeoning musical personality on the rockabilly-ballad blend of “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’),” a Jimmy Wakely tune also held over for RCA, and the playful “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine,” first performed by Dean Martin, one of Elvis’ heroes who influenced his laconic phrasing. Elvis made Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” his own with his most full-bodied vocal to that point. The countrified R&B of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” was recorded at Sun in both slow and fast versions, with a particularly strong vocal on the latter.
A number of the songs recorded with Phillips remain among the most visceral in the entirety of the Elvis canon, including the quintessential rockabilly of “Baby, Let’s Play House,” the rhythmic ballad “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” (one of a small number of originals introduced by Elvis at Sun), the pleading “Tryin’ to Get to You” (like “Blue Moon” and “I’ll Never Let You Go” released on Elvis’ RCA debut platter) and of course, Phillips’ own, chugging “Mystery Train,” which the Sun founder co-wrote with Junior Parker.
Disc Two of this set is a compelling look at the Sun Studio sessions, offering alternate takes and outtakes which illuminate Elvis and producer Sam Phillips’ creative process as well as the crucial contributions of guitarist Moore and Bill Black in shaping each song into its finished form. (Note that the 2012 edition indexed this disc’s multiple takes as 40 tracks; here, the same content is here indexed on 26 tracks.) Typical of packages such as this, the material here isn’t designed as much for repeat listening as for an in-depth, fly-on-the-wall immersion into the environment at Sun Studio – complete with false starts, aborted takes, occasional chatter, and in-the-moment improvisation and experimentation. (There are also abrupt stops and starts, due to the original tape sources.) Phillips was capturing lightning in a bottle, even if it’s unlikely that any of the participants knew it at the time. Not every take is radically or even significantly different than the completed master, but those who know the original recordings well will be most richly rewarded by a “deep” listen here.
Disc Three is devoted to every known live and radio recording from this period, culminating in an interview with Elvis and then-manager Bob Neal, and the newly-found “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” These have been culled from a variety of sources – from the Louisiana Hayride radio program to performances at high schools, festivals, and radio studios throughout the American south. Sound quality on these tracks (captured between October 16, 1954 and October 29, 1955) is variable, ranging from solid to poor. The sonic deficiencies on Disc Three are even more pronounced considering the nuanced audio restoration of the material on Discs One and Two by Sebastian Jeansson along with the team at Sony’s Battery Studios. That said, the historical significance of the material outweighs the audio imperfections. Happily, this disc offers Elvis performing a number of songs he didn’t record in the studio at Sun, broadening our understanding of his repertoire during this period.
There’s a definite thrill to hearing Elvis introduced as he was on the October 16, 1954 Louisiana Hayride broadcast before he and the band launch into the one-two punch of “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” He had ample energy and an even more confident air as he prepared to face the appreciative (and screaming) audience: “Just a few weeks ago, a young man from Memphis, Tennessee recorded a song on the Sun label, and in just a matter of a few weeks, that record has skyrocketed right up the charts…He’s only 19 years old [and] has a new, distinctive style…Elvis Presley!” The introductions are amusing throughout. On one later performance from Houston, Texas, he’s called to the stage as “the bopping hillbilly,” while it’s noted elsewhere that he sings “country music – but it sure is a lively country!” and “bop-type western.” (Indeed, Elvis’ earliest successes came regionally and on the country charts.)
Among the many live treats are multiple versions of Jesse Stone’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Money Honey,” and Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” (predating Elvis’ RCA recordings of the songs), Winfield Scott’s “Tweedlee Dee,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” and The Clovers’ “Little Mama.” The one wholly previously unissued track not included on the 2012 box, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” from Louisiana Hayride, on October 29, 1955, ends A Boy from Tupelo on a high note, and in surprisingly good quality, as well.
A Boy from Tupelo is true one-stop shopping, as it handily supplants the various releases (both official and unofficial) which over the years have covered the Sun material as well as the early live recordings. It’s joined today by a new vinyl release. A Boy from Tupelo: The Sun Masters is a single album with 17 tracks – the A- and B-sides of all of Presley’s Sun singles plus additional songs recorded at Sun Studio and released on his self-titled RCA debut album in 1956. Though vinyl fans may well savor the highlights, the complete (and completely affordable) 3-CD package for A Boy from Tupelo is simply essential for anyone interested in the meteoric rise of one of the twentieth century’s most influential superstars. Elvis’ short but blazing period at Sun set the stage for his massive crossover success once he had the muscle of RCA Victor behind him. In music and printed word, this box is a sublime time capsule of a period when a talented and passionate young man armed with nothing but ambition and a guitar could truly change the world.