By Bruce Sylvester
1956 marked turning points for young Elvis Presley. On January 10 — two days after he turned 21 — he left his Memphis home for Nashville for his initial RCA Victor recording session (Victor having purchased his contract from the legendary Sun Records), laying down his first pop hit, chart-topper “Heartbreak Hotel.” In ’56, he became a teen heartthrob across America but, to his dismay, was denounced from pulpits and in the media for his unleashed music and gyrating stage movements. By year-end, he’d starred in his first film, Love Me Tender, singing its theme and three other songs.
Due for release September 27 on RCA/Legacy, Young Man With The Big Beat – a five-CD extravaganza with book, ’56 Elvis timeline, full-size poster replicas and other hoopla – presents his every studio release (including two LPs’ tracks) from the year on two discs. A third CD contains three concerts; a fourth, studio outtakes; and the fifth, interviews. (A two-CD box of the studio recordings will also be available at a lower price. It and the box can be pre-ordered at amazon.com.)
As the year began, songwriters weren’t yet tailoring their tunes for him, and he was largely relying on covers. Comparing earlier acts’ versions of his ’56 songs (The Roots Of Elvis series on Rev-ola is great for this), we see what an innovator he was. He turned Eddy Arnold’s 1952 waltz “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” into pure rockabilly. “Love Me” (on the 45 EP and 33 LP Elvis) has the rare distinction of making the pop top 10 without being released on a single. An early Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller composition, it had previously been done as a shuffle by Willie & Ruth (in R&B), Jimmie Rodgers Snow (in country) and Georgia Gibbs (in pop), though nobody’s version dented the charts. Elvis’s tastes were so eclectic that there’s no telling whose rendition he’d heard (maybe even all of them), but he slowed it to a dirge and melodramatically milked its lines for every drop of emotion like no one before him.
People might assume that he’d gotten “Hound Dog” (another early Leiber/Stoller venture) from Big Mama Thornton, but the box’s time line says that he picked it up from Freddie Bell when they played Vegas simultaneously.
The second studio disc closes with Love Me Tender’s title track (an adaptation of the folk song “Aura Lee”), “Poor Boy,” “Let Me” and “We’re Gonna Move.” Elvis and Vera Matson (wife of the film’s music director, Ken Darby) are credited with writing all four. But according to recently published Ain’t No Grave: The Life And Legacy Of Brother Claude Ely by Ely’s great nephew Macel Ely II, “Move” simply secularized Pentecostal preacher/singer Claude Ely’s roaring hymn “There’s A Leak In This Old Building.” (Check Rev-ola’s The Roots Of Elvis.) Elvis’s record library included Ely’s platters. And back in Mississippi, Gladys Presley had taken her young son to guitar-slinging Ely’s emotion-drenched services with their gyrating worshipers. Macel Ely states that Elvis’s stage movements were part of the Holiness church he grew up in, though amid this box set’s interviews Presley says he didn’t learn them from anyone but rather created them on his own.
The live disc’s three shows come from a Louisiana youth center, an Arkansas auditorium and Vegas – talk about reflecting a career in transition. All their songs are on studio recordings and the audio isn’t always the greatest, but we get to hear Elvis’s playful side. As his mid-‘50s girlfriend Wanda Jackson once told Goldmine, aside from his career, “In those days at least, Elvis hardly had a serious bone in his body, at least outwardly.” Take the line “Who learned a lesson when she broke my heart?” from “I Was The One” (the flip to “Heartbreak Hotel” – or “Heartburn Motel” as Elvis refers to it). In assorted live versions, the object of his affection variously breaks his leg and his neck.
Talking between songs in Vegas, he sounds genuinely honored that Ray Bolger and Phil Silvers have come to see him and takes a discreet pot shot at Roy Acuff, who hadn’t exactly been encouraging when young Elvis did his life’s only appearance on Grand Ole Opry.
The outtakes disc’s 17 tracks include 12 “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” takes and 12 of “Shake, Rattle And Roll,” with pianist Shorty Long noodling with “Yellow Rose Of Texas,” “Shave And A Haircut” and whatever else before “Clawdy” takes. We hear a brief discussion of the optimal drum riff.
Given how few interviews he did throughout his career and his not having been a letter writer, we don’t have a lot of Elvis in his own words, so the interviews are especially welcome. He speaks admiringly of Frank Sinatra and recalls a cherished car. The boy from the housing projects is happy that his mother can now go into a store and buy whatever she wants.
As for the controversy he unintentionally generated, Jackson once told Goldmine, “He was terribly hurt. He just couldn’t believe that people thought of him as being vulgar.” But in these interviews he reserves his anger for the naysayers’ trashing of the screaming girls in his audience. He’s tough-skinned and open-minded about people not liking his music. It’s the ugly potshots at his fans that he won’t accept. The human being emerging from the interview tapes seems like a pretty decent guy.