TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
Listening My Way Through Chris Smith’s 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music 2. Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley (1956)
Much like my first discussion of this project, exploring Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, I have a bit of an issue with Elvis Presley’s first album, in that it is not, in fact, an actual album. An album of music is written and recorded as a conceivable whole. Elvis Presley, released by RCA Records in 1956, is comprised of seven songs that RCA specifically gathered together for Elvis to record between January 5-31, 1956, but then it is fleshed out with five tracks recorded between August, 1954 and July, 1955 at Sun Records in Memphis.
While the specifics of these songs and their commitment to vinyl give me pause, this collection, nonetheless, may prove to be the first rock and roll album to ever be recorded. Stylistic debates surround the origins of rock and roll and which song may actually be considered “the first” of the new style is a matter of great contention. It is less my concern to promote Elvis Presley as “the very first rock and roll album” (with all the honors and privileges entitled therein), but rather to view it as a perfect representation of the synthesis that defined the newly emerging style. Elvis Presley demonstrates a masterful blending of country music with rhythm and blues. As such, it may very well be considered the very first album to define the style that we identify as rock and roll, but it certainly approached popular music in a way that had not been seen or heard before.
When I teach the music of Elvis in my popular music classes, I focus on the effortlessness with which he is able to communicate in two musical languages which in 1956, seemed worlds apart. His equal comfort in both country music and rhythm and blues no doubt stemmed from the circumstances of his childhood. The singer was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, where he first began to play guitar and sing, primarily in the styles of gospel and “hillbilly music,” as country was known at the time. When Elvis was thirteen years old, the Presley family moved to Memphis, and, due to financial constraints, they lived in public housing in a community known as Lauderdale Courts. While, like most places in Memphis in the 1940s, the housing project was segregated, it lay within walking distance of Beale Street, providing the teenager the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the blues music for which Memphis is still known today.
Elvis’s first album is not as stylistically neat and tidy as one might suspect. Of the five tracks purchased and included by RCA that were originally recorded at Sun, only two could be classified as having a strong country influence, while three (“Just Because,” “Trying to Get to You,” and his cover of “Blue Moon”) show a clearly more blue-influenced style. Similarly, the RCA recordings feature two tracks in a more rockabilly, that is country-tinged, style – “I’m Counting on You,” which features the inimitable piano sound of Floyd Kramer, and his cover of “Blue Suede Shoes,” composed and originally recorded by Elvis’s friend from Sun, Carl Perkins. While five of the RCA recordings would definitely be classified as having a stronger blues influence.
Another interesting feature of Elvis Presley is the fact that eight of the twelve tracks on the album were covers previously popularized by other artists, spanning all the way from Nelstone’s Hawaiians, who recorded “Just Because” in 1929 to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” released in 1955. Other notable artists whose songs appear on the project include Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Leon Payne, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, The Drifters, and a 1950s vocal group out of Washington, D.C. intriguingly known as The Eagles. Of course, in the mid-1950s, covering popular songs was a common practice among recording artists, which is why so many songs of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s are better known as “standards,” rather than songs that can be associated with a specific artist. What I find remarkable here is less the fact that RCA opted for a safer approach by recording songs that already had a history and a following, and more the breadth and scope of the songs selected for Elvis’s unique singing style.
Ultimately, for the unfamiliar, I think the thing that will stand out most sharply to a listener in today’s time is the inconsistency of the recording quality between the Sun tracks and those recorded by RCA. I get the impression that RCA was not trying to turn Elvis into, as is often claimed in rock and roll history texts, a “white singer who can sing like a black man.” Rather, it seems, they stumbled upon an artist with a unique ability to blend two styles of music that seemed to stand as potent markers of the racial divides that existed in 1950s America.
While I highly doubt that Elvis himself gave much thought to the socio-cultural implications of his musical stylings (at least at first), it is almost inevitable that his seamless fusion of “white music” and “black music” would launch popular music into a territory that other aspects of American society were not yet ready to explore. It almost seems ironic that it took a poor white kid from Mississippi to be so instrumental in the desegregation of American popular song, but nonetheless, we have Elvis Presley, an album that clearly began to pave the way for the true fusion that is rock and roll.
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.