Elvis Presley has been dead for almost 40 years. It would seem by now that every single piece of music the King ever recorded has been released to the public, but that doesn’t mean that they have been readily available. While much music has found its way to legitimate albums with state of the art sound, the availability of the early Elvis material — before he signed to RCA and even before he signed to Sun — has been spotty. This explains the need for the three-CD set, Elvis Presley: A Boy From Tupelo, subtitled The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings. For the first time, every known Sun Records master and outtake, live performances, radio recordings, and Elvis’ self-financed first acetates, have been gathered together.
Let me be clear. This is not for the casual Elvis fan. The best stuff, his Sun 45s, have been available on CDs for decades. This is for those who want to hear the mistakes, the experiments, and the growth of a young singer defining his sound. Many of the recordings here are rough and partial. They have archival more than aesthetic value.
This release is for the curious and historically minded. As social critic Paul Goodman was fond of saying, “Nothing comes from nothing.” Hearing Elvis try out different sounds and search for the magic reveals how slippery the development of rock into a distinct genre was in those days. You can hear the musicians reach for that new sound. It leaks through in tunes such as the Rodgers/Hart ballad “Blue Moon”, as Elvis croons the words the way they are usually sung, but there is just a hint of a quiver in his voice as if he can’t hold himself back. You can tell he wants to let loose.
And then there are the Memphis Recording Service acetates: “My Happiness”/”That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” (recorded July 1953) and “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way”/”It Wouldn’t Be the Same (Without You)” (recorded January 4, 1954), the four songs Elvis paid his own money to record. They are just strange. Elvis sings in an affected voice with a rich bottom. The vocals go all over the place as he seems to be trying to impress the listener with the qualities of his voice rather than express the songs’ sentiments.
The three CDs are the products of 1,500 hours of restoration work and nearly 200 hours of additional studio time devoted to the remastering of the material. Disc one covers the masters recorded for Sun Records, some variations, and the four sides he paid for himself. Disc two covers all known outtakes, even just the smallest surviving fragments. Disc three covers all the live and radio recordings known to exist. They come as part of a deluxe package that includes a 120-page book that features photos, a calendar and essays that chronicle Elvis’ early years and explain the recording histories in detail, including the names and instruments of the backup musicians.
The last session here is from December 1955. While Elvis is not yet become famous, rock and roll itself had. This was the year of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”, Chuck Berry “Maybelline” and other early rock songs storming the charts. You can hear the King was already on board with songs like Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”, Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Kokomo Arnold’s “Milkcow Blues Boogie”. All he needed was publicity. By the end of 1956, Elvis had become a major star and the innocent days heard hear were over.