Friday, August 29, 2014

Elvis Presley: History and Album Guide

Elvis Presley will forever be known as simply, “The King,” to his legions of fans. His title is not only acknowledged by his fans, but by the broader public as well, as Presley must be recognized as the figure most responsible for the popularization of rock and roll music.

Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. In his teens, he moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee, where at the age of eighteen, he decided to visit Sam Phillip’s Sun Records ostensibly to record some songs as a birthday present for his mother. His recordings of those songs, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” were considered so good by Phillips that he invited Presley to return at a later date to try some more recordings. Phillips had long been seeking a white singer who could sing in a black style, and the young Presley, who had grown up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Tupelo, seemed to be a good candidate.

 On June 5, 1954, Presley returned to Sun Records. Phillips had invited two local musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, to join Presley on a recording session. That session did not start well, and the musicians were ready to give up when Presley picked up his guitar and began belting out a rendition of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama.” Moore and Black joined in, and Phillips exclaimed that this was the sound he had been looking for. Philips asked the musicians to start again from the beginning and recorded the performance.

Three days later, Phillips sent the recording to a Memphis DJ, Dewey Philips, who played it on his radio show. Listeners began to call the radio station to ask about this new singer, Elvis Presley. Philips played the song repeatedly and eventually had Presley come to the radio station for an on-air interview. Philips asked Presley to identify his high school as clarification that he was indeed white, and not black, as many of the listeners had assumed.

A few days later, Presley was back in the Sun studios with Moore and Black to cut their version of the bluegrass standard, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Sun Records released a single with “That’s All Right Mama” on one side and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the other.

Soon the trio began performing live shows during which Presley would shake his legs and hips wildly in part as a response to the rhythm and partly due to nervousness. As Presley moved, young women in the audience would scream with delight. Moore and Black quit their regular bands to work with Presley full-time.

In the fall of 1954, the trio was invited to appear on the Shreveport, Louisiana radio program, “The Louisiana Hayride,” which was widely broadcast in The South. The trio’s appearance made an indelible impression on all who heard it and Elvis and his band were invited back to perform as regular Saturday night guests. By early 1955, Presley and his band had become famous throughout much of the South. Presley’s music, which blended white country music and black rhythm and blues, would become known as “rockabilly’, and later, simply, “rock and roll”.

By mid-1955, the trio’s manager, Bob Neal, brought in Colonel Tom Parker as a special advisor in the management of the fortunes of Presley and the trio. Parker would later become a notorious figure in Presley’s life for his mismanagement of Presley’s affairs. Drummer D.J. Fontana, who had appeared with the trio on the Louisiana Hayride program, would make the trio a quartet when he joined them in the fall of 1955. Several record companies had begun to make overtures to Presley and Parker and Sam Philips arranged the transfer of Presley’s Sun Records contract to RCA for the unprecedented sum of 40, 000 dollars.

By December of 1955, RCA began to heavily promote their 20-year-old acquisition and began to reissue many of the recordings of Presley and the trio from Sun. Those recordings can be found on the legendary album, “The Sun Sessions” (1976). In January, 1956, RCA arranged recording sessions for Presley and his band, Moore, Black and Fontana. The recording sessions would be bolstered by the addition of legendary session players, guitarist Chet Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer, and the vocal band, the Jordanires. This assemblage cut Presley’s first RCA hit, “Heartbreak Hotel” as well as a version of Carl Perkin’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and eight other songs. In February, one of Presley’s Sun recordings, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”reached No. 1 on the Billboard country music charts. By March, Col. Tom Parker had taken full control of Presley’s management.

Presley’s first album, “Elvis Presley,”would be released in March. It would become the first rock and roll album to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts. The album featured five previously unreleased Sun tracks and covers of songs by Little Richard, Ray Charles and The Drifters. Elvis was the first white singer to cover songs by black singers without making the songs sound “white.” He also made the guitar, not the piano, the lead instrument on all the cover songs. The album’s famous cover photo of Presley holding his guitar during a performance would do much to position that instrument as the focus of this new music, rock and roll.

In April, Presley would appear on the nation-wide Milton Berle show and gain nationwide fame. Another appearance on that show in June would spawn national controversy as a result of Presley’s seemingly indecent movements during his performance of Big Mama Thornton’s“Hound Dog.” Many started to refer to Presley in derogatory terms in the wake of the controversy.

Presley’s appearance on the Milton Berle show led to further appearances on the Steve Allen Show and most significantly, The Ed Sullivan Show. Presley was paid the unheard of sum of 50,000 dollars for three appearances on the Sullivan show in 1956. His appearances on the Sullivan show resulted in a level of adoration unseen in music since the rise of Frank Sinatra, a decade earlier. Presley soon signed a movie deal with Paramount Pictures, and his first movie, “Love Me Tender, was released in November of 1956.

Presley’s second album, “Elvis,” was released in October of 1956. “Elvis” would quickly rise to the top position on the album charts. The album featured more rockabilly material very much in the vein of his debut, but also contained ballads, including a fine version of “Old Shep” with Presley accompanying himself on piano.

By early 1957, Presley had achieved international fame with singles such as “Teddy Bear,” “All Shook Up,” and “Too Much” all becoming number one hits early that year. Another massive hit, “Love Me Tender,” from the movie of the same name, would follow shortly thereafter. Later that year, Presley had made enough money from his music and appearances to purchase a Memphis mansion for himself and his parents which would later be dubbed, “Graceland.”

Presley albums from 1957 and 1958 include,“Loving You,” “Elvis’s Christmas Album,” and the excellent soundtrack from his movie, “King Creole.”

Presley was drafted into the US Army in 1958, and served two years, initially in Arkansas, and later in Germany. During the Arkansas phase of his military duty, Presley’s mother, with whom he was extremely close, died, leaving him devastated. While in Germany for the next phase of his military duty, Presley met his future wife, Priscilla.

Presley was released from his army duties in March, 1960, and he wasted no time in recording the album, “Elvis is Back.”The album was a brilliant return to the rocking music of his first two RCA releases. The album also featured two ballads that would become huge hits, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “It’s Now or Never.”

1960 saw the release of the soundtrack to his movie, “GI Blues,” and his first album of gospel music, “His Hand in Mine.”For the next seven years, Presley would focus on his career in movies, and his music would suffer. He would begin to drift away from rock and roll and toward the realm of mainstream pop. Almost all of his soundtrack albums from this period, save “Roustabout,” perhaps, are forgettable. He did record another fine gospel album during this time, however, with “How Great Thou Art.” The album contained another hit, the beautifully rendered, “Crying in the Chapel.”

In 1968, Presley would mount yet another comeback and return again to his roots. The years of making mediocre movies and mediocre music to accompany them had alienated many of his fans, and the music he was instrumental in creating, rock and roll, was now dominated by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Rumors had begun to circulate that Presley could no longer sing in a live setting, so it was high time for Presley to perform in a large-scale, live context.

The 1968 television special and accompanying album would prove to all that Elvis still “had it.” The album featured excellent material including “Trouble,” “Guitar Man,” and a medley of his earliest RCA hits from 1956. On the song, “If I Can Dream,” Presley belted one of his best-ever vocal performances, laying waste to the aforementioned rumors about his singing.

Soon, Presley would be back in the studio to record the album, “From Elvis in Memphis”(1969), which many critics believe to be his best ever. The album features the huge hits, “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” which would become two of the last big hits Presley would record. The album also featured inspired versions of several cover tunes.

Presley would record several other fine albums in the wake of his comeback including, “From Memphis to Vegas” (1969),“That’s the Way It Is” (1970), “Elvis Now” (1972), another gospel offering, “He Touched Me” (1972), “Promised Land” (1975), “Today” (1975), and “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee” (1976).

In 1977, Presley recorded the final album of his lifetime, “Moody Blue.” The album was a solid effort and spawned two hits, “Way Down,” and the title track.

Presley died in his home, Graceland, in Memphis, in of the summer 1977, of a heart attack apparently brought on by years of prescription medicine abuse.

Elvis with Bill Haley