Elvis Presley's Pre-RCA Years Are Documented on 'A Boy From Tupelo'

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

This latest archival release culls every existing professional recording the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll made before he jumped to RCA Records and became a national and international phenomenon in 1956.

The Twitterization of history, and with it culture, is a trend that deeply worries Ernst Mikael Jorgensen, the Danish music enthusiast and archivist who’s been overseeing Elvis Presley’s recorded legacy since the early 1990s.

“I’m convinced that history needs to be told and retold and retold again,” said Jorgensen, who is retelling a critical part of Presley’s contribution to cultural history with a new box set, “Elvis Presley: A Boy From Tupelo — The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings.”

This latest archival release culls every existing professional recording the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll made before he jumped to RCA Records and became a national and international phenomenon in 1956.

For Jorgensen, as well as RCA/Legacy Recordings’ senior vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire), John Jackson, “A Boy From Tupelo” is one more way to refresh the memories of those who may have forgotten just how monumental Presley’s arrival was more than 60 years ago.

“Stories tend to get shorter and shorter over time to the point where you can’t make sense of them anymore,” said Jorgensen, who chased down elusive outtakes, alternate takes, live recordings as well as radio broadcasts and interviews Presley made before his career fully blossomed.

He also uncovered hundreds of photos from the period that have never been widely seen. Those are included in a 120-page book along with a week-by-week chronology of Presley’s activities that accompanies the three-CD set released on July 28, roughly coinciding with the 40th anniversary of his death on Aug. 16, 1977.

Today, the reductionist line on Presley, Jorgensen said, is that “Elvis was lucky — that he was in the right place at the right time, that he made cool records in the ‘50s, made horrible films in the ‘60s and then started taking the wrong medication and died in the ‘70s. Reducing it that way, you skip most of what’s really interesting along the way.”

The heart of the new set is the recordings Presley made for Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn. Those works were first released in album form by RCA in 1976 as “The Sun Sessions.” Here, one will find multiple versions of most of the songs, starting with the original Sun single often referred to as the big bang of rock ‘n’ roll, “That’s All Right.”

“When you listen to that track now,” Jackson said, “you have to be reminded of how important, how groundbreaking it was. There was a lot of stuff released right around that time that sounds very similar, but to have that song, in that time, sung by that individual in that studio was one of the most important events of the 20th century. It set the stage for everything that followed.

“It’s hard to put that on for somebody in 2017 and just say, ‘See!’ The context and research helps you understand just how bizarre it was for an 18-year-old kid who had just graduated from high school in one of the most segregated cities in the country … walk into a studio, try some ballads that would be safe for his parents to listen to, discover that it’s not really happening and then reveal exactly who he is.”

It might have seemed like Jorgensen and Jackson had bled the well of Presley archival material dry after “The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” 30-CD set in 2010, containing all 711 official recordings Presley made during his 42 years. Then there was last year’s 60-CD box set, “Elvis Presley — The Album Collection,” which reissued all that material as it was originally released by RCA from 1956 to 1977.

Nevertheless, the new set delivers a comprehensive look at everything the Tupelo, Miss., native did en route to leaving fans around the globe all shook up with his RCA releases, which began with the bluesy ballad “Heartbreak Hotel.”

“Everything he did, all the hard work, all he learned from these people he worked with — when he arrives at RCA in 1956, he knows exactly what he wants to do,” Jorgensen said. “Nobody (at RCA) liked ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ but he believed in it.”

Yet Presley’s instincts turned out to be right. That debut major-label single shot to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for eight weeks, helping to usher in this new genre called rock ‘n’ roll.

For research, Jorgensen had to rely on more than just instinct. He placed ads in small-town newspapers throughout the South to root out people who had seen Presley in his early years. He was hoping to find photographs from those shows or recordings that had not previously surfaced.

“All these people, hundreds of Americans who helped me, came forward with audio, pictures and stories they let me use,” he said.

Jorgensen had assembled a larger version and put out a European-only five-CD version in 2012. That set can command $300 or more on eBay, whereas “A Boy From Tupelo” can be had for under $30 online.

Among the set’s musical finds are restored versions of “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which were taken from mint condition 45 rpm Sun singles. Previously released versions of those songs have come from copies that RCA made of Phillips’ original Sun tapes, which long ago were destroyed. RCA added echo and other “enhancements” to the Sun versions, the latter of which sound crisper and cleaner than the long-available releases.

The point, Jorgensen said, is “telling this story in much greater detail than it’s been told before. If nothing else should come through, it’s that we don’t need to go back to ‘Elvis got lucky.’ He didn’t just get lucky. Chuck Berry didn’t just get lucky. Little Richard didn’t just get lucky. They adjusted to a new form of music that wasn’t like any other form of music. They did something original, something that affected everything that came later.

“Yes, they arrived during an environment that was ready for the change. You could call it a cultural change even. They arrived at the right time, that’s for sure. But if those three hadn’t arrived when they did, would somebody else have come along in their place? We can speculate on that forever.”

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