Guest Blogger: Elvis Presley’s Recordings

BY JOHN JACKSON
Vice President of A&R and Content Development at Legacy Recordings

As a follow-up to the liner notes in the new box set, “Elvis Presley: The Album Collection,” I was asked to write a series of blog posts about Elvis’ recordings.  I wanted to highlight some specific songs from Elvis’ legendary career and relate how we see them now to how they were originally brought to the mass public’s attention.

“That’s All Right” is a prime example of a confusing recording when looking through the lens of 2016.  Any of us Elvis aficionados rightly regard “That’s All Right” as Ground Zero – the original moment when rock ‘n’ roll first exploded out of the mouth of a nineteen-year-old truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi.  Some (myself included) regard it as literally the very first rock ‘n’ roll recording – the perfect, natural amalgam of blues, country and gospel that flowed unconsciously like lightning through this unknown talent.  First jammed between takes of more tame material, “That’s All Right,” recorded July 5, 1954, is, in retrospect, the spark that lit the proverbial fuse.  But that’s only in retrospect.

Sure, Elvis’ singles recorded for the great Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis were regionally popular.  They may have sold thousands of copies in local shops and out of the trunk of Sam’s car (some estimates are as many as 20,000 of Sun 209), and the song may have been played on regional radio stations, but it was by no means a “hit” record.  It did give Elvis’ career momentum and the ability to record subsequent singles for Sun.

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That momentum increased for a little over a year, which led to RCA Records purchasing Elvis’ contract and all of the Sun material from Phillips in November 1955.  Once Elvis began cutting sides for RCA – with the intention of releasing his first LP (long player) album in 1956 – he had the national promotion and marketing reach that Sun could never dream of.  RCA would turn him from regional novelty act into the world’s most famous person, complete with a Hollywood movie deal, in just one short year.  The first RCA LP, “Elvis Presley,” was a mix of newly recorded songs and some previously unreleased recordings from the Sun sessions.

Elvis was heading full-steam into the future, while “That’s All Right” (despite having been re-issued by RCA as a single) was old news and not really to be heard from again.

portrait

That was until Elvis got drafted.  In 1958 he announced to his frenzied fans that he was to serve in the US Army and that his recording career would unfortunately be put on hold.  Only slightly over two years into his major-label career, Elvis’ album sales future seemed in doubt.  Could a 23-year-old rock ‘n’ roll singer take time off and come back to his fans?  No one knew yet – rock ‘n’ roll was such a new and untested medium.

Fortunately, Elvis had The Colonel.  Tom Parker was a promotions man through-and-through and he shrewdly mapped out enough releases to keep Elvis’s fans satisfied while Elvis would be over in Germany.  The first was For LP Fans Only, a mixed bag of released songs that hadn’t yet been on an LP – RCA singles, soundtrack numbers and the critical Sun tracks that most of America would not have yet heard.  The first track was rightfully “That’s All Right.”  This would have been the first exposure that most casual Elvis fans (i.e. the millions of young boys and girls) would have gotten to that song.  In the context of 1959, almost five years after its recordings, the song may have even sounded primitive and corny to fresh ears.  The importance of the recording had already been engulfed by the tidal wave that was “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up,” “Love Me Tender,” “Jailhouse Rock” and so many others.

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It’s easy to place “That’s All Right” as the first track on any sensible guide through Elvis’ recording career.  That’s exactly where it should go, even though he recorded a handful of songs before Sun 209.  But it’s unfair to assume that the “explosion” the song detonated in 1954 is anything more than academic.  If Elvis had only ever recorded this, or any of the Sun singles, his impact on popular music and on society in general would not be anywhere near as massive as it is.  It took the reach and vision of RCA and The Colonel to package and re-package his material so that the most number of fans could enjoy it.  Sometimes those attempts failed, but the success rate was much higher.

Taking a tour through “The Album Collection,” one can see that the release of the songs was almost never in conjunction with the recording of the songs.  And in some cases, that makes Elvis’ career confusing, but that’s only looking back.  In 1959, the fans got For LP Fans Only – a great new LP filled with fresh delights for their Elvis collection.  OH! Plus a new picture of Elvis in his Army dress uniform!  COOL!!!

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John Jackson graduated from Indiana University in 1997 with the world’s first Bachelor of Arts degree in Rock and Roll History, delivering a thesis project on the life and cultural impact of Elvis Presley. He is also a musician and touring member of the Minneapolis-based Americana group The Jayhawks.


9 Comments

  1. Dale Hampton

    Great review.

  2. Steve Goddard

    john, you neglected to mention RCA’s failed mishandeling of Sam’s original recording. RCA did not release “That’s All Right” on their own label until extra echo was added, which is what all subsequent releases have been. It wasn’t until FTD’s excellent box set “A Boy From Tupelo” was released, that it was officially issued it its true form. As for the “For LP Fans Only”, the song selections are terrific. The added echo is unlistenable – a gross injustice to the music itself. Up until the time Ernst Jorgenson began (with a few exceptions by Joan Deary) the Elvis catalog has been a joke. So if you’re going to speak with any authority on the recordings, please take ownership of the disservice that was done for many years, and the efforts to correct past sins. Elvis’ recordings are indeed great. RCA’s handling of them was not.

  3. William F. Martin, Jr.

    Mr. Jackson did focus on an area we don’t think much about and that is how well the Colonel was able to keep Elvis before the public by repackaging his songs through the years.

  4. Marc-A. Comtois

    Thank you!

  5. Jim Patino

    Very nice write-up. However, as a fan since 1956 & contributor to RCA releases over the years, “That’s All Right” didn’t really become a signature song until the ’68 Special & subsequently the opening song during the concert years before See See Rider took over. That’s All Right still has quite a bit of gutso for a 3 instrument song & only one of them is electric, Scotty Moore’s guitar. The song is a classic. I have a saying; when Elvis recorded a song which was not an original, it became his & most people never knew who the original artist was. No other singer could accomplish that, not even Sinatra!!!

    • Yvonne Hart

      You are so right about Elvis and any song he sang becoming his own Jim even Paul Simon said he could never compete with Elvis once he heard his vision of Bridge Over Troubled Water!!! I love all things Elvis he is truly a legend. Thanks for all the information from Graceland and the Elvis fans who post on here
      Eve from England ❤️

  6. Dennis Peck

    “For LP Fans Only” and the follow up release, “A Date with Elvis” provided Elvis fans with the means of having all of his released recordings in the LP format.

  7. Pierre Cartier

    With reference to the echo, there are 10 selections on the For LP Fans Only LP, only 4 of which originate from Sun…but all have that awful echo. Isn’t it about time this album, as well as A Date With Elvis, be re-released, without echo, in the LP vinyl format…much like the Elvis At Sun 2004 release?
    Ernst Joorgensen…where are you???

  8. Pierre Cartier

    With reference to the echo, there are 10 selections on the For LP Fans Only LP, only 4 of which originate from Sun…but all having the annoying echo reverb. Isn’t it time this album, as well as A Date With Elvis be re-released (without the echo) in the vinyl LP format…much like the Elvis At Sun 2004 release???

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