Elvis Presley: Elvis at Sun

Elvis Presley
Elvis at Sun

“…if it came down to a choice between sound and feel, there was never any question which Sam Phillips, or Elvis Presley, would choose. Sam believed totally in the accidental, the unexpected, the unique; he placed his full faith in the spontaneity of the moment, whether or not it might include formal mistakes. And that is exactly how Elvis Presley’s records were made.”
— Peter Guralnick, in his liner notes to The King of Rock and Roll: The Complete 50’s Masters

— Motto of Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service

As the legend has been told and re-told for 50 years now, “That’s All Right”, the seminal recording of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records sessions, erupted serendipitously, seemingly out of nowhere. Elvis, along with bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, was engaged in his first rehearsal session on that Monday, July 5, 1954. The band had run through two ballads but nothing seemed to click; sparks would not take flight. It was during a break from rehearsing that Elvis began to fool around playing Arthur Crudup’s old blues song. Black and Moore jumped in on the shenanigans, prompting Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records owner/engineer Sam Phillips to stick his head into the room, exclaiming: “What are you doing?” “We don’t know,” the band responded, to which Phillips insisted they take it from the top and set the tape in motion.

It’s this shared sense of spontaneity, abandon, and excitement that characterized Elvis’ Sun sessions, a year’s worth of recordings that fused blues, country, and pop, single-handedly created the rockabilly sound and brought rock and roll to the unsuspecting masses. It’s impossible to describe within a few paragraphs the widespread, rippling effect these sessions had (and still have) on pop music as we now know it. Elvis would soon go on to become one of this century’s most massive pop culture icons, riding a wave of international stardom that saw its own highs and lows, creative genius preceding pompous slumps, artistic resurgences peppering a slow burning decline. Elvis begat the Beatles, and well, as they often say, the rest is history. It can be all too simple for one to forget the 19-year old Elvis Aaron Presley of Tupelo, Mississippi, an oily slick-coiffed heartthrob who launched a thousand hips, in favor of the bejeweled, parodied incarnation of his later years (all of which is documented, incidentally, in Peter Guralnick’s compulsively readable books Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love). But despite what he became, despite a trajectory of self-destruction and wildly inconsistent releases, we’ll always have the Sun sessions to stand as one of the definitive documents of rock and roll in the 20th century.

Elvis at Sun is RCA’s 50th anniversary edition of the Sun sessions, marking the fourth time they have been issued on CD (previously released on 1987’s The Complete Sun Sessions, 1992’s The King of Rock and Roll: The Complete 50’s Masters boxed set, and 1999’s two-disc Sunrise). Once again the tracks have been remastered from their original master tapes. Although it may not be apparent to indiscriminate ears, the sound has been rendered with an increased clarity, courtesy of new advances in technology; as a result, Elvis at Sun offers a more immediate punch in presentation than previous releases. RCA is touting this collection as “the definitive single disc edition” of the landmark sessions, which is probably true. Sunrise still remains the definitive edition, but if you don’t feel like paying extra for a second disc of alternate takes and live performances, Elvis at Sun is a good way to go, as it contains all of the tracks on Sunrise‘s first disc. One small annoyance is the new compilation’s sequencing: in trying to stay true to the sessions’ chronological order, two slow ballads (“Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because”) open the disc before diving head-first into “That’s All Right”. To begin the collection with one of the upbeat tunes would have made for a smoother listening experience.

If you don’t own any editions of the Sun sessions… well, no offense intended, but what’s wrong with you? Lecturing you on such an oversight would be like a dentist reminding you to brush your teeth. No rock and roll collection can ever be considered complete without its inclusion. Put off buying the new Velvet Revolver for another week and go pick up Elvis at Sun. It includes all the essentials: the rambunctious “Just Because” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”; the frenzied, pregnant vocal in “Milkcow Blues Boogie”; the hiccupped “Baby Let’s Play House”; the churning velocity of “Mystery Train”; the rapturous, quivering luminosity of “Blue Moon”. You can practically hear John Lennon teaching himself to sing along to “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Trying to Get to You”. All 19 tracks that appear on Elvis at Sun are indispensable, smothered in Black’s galloping heartbeat bass rhythms, Moore’s infectious guitar sparks (he plays rhythm and lead simultaneously like no one else), and Phillip’s slap-back echo production.

Elvis’ career spanned so many years and produced so many records (many of them thinly-veiled regurgitations as a way for record companies to make money), that one can be easily overwhelmed by where to start. The easy answer: start where it all began. It’s safe to say that Elvis never again topped these flagship sessions at Sun. The spontaneity, the joy, the palpable thrill of doing something that had never been done before: nothing beats it.