Sunday, October 11, 2009

October 11: Elvis Presley, "Elvis Presley"

Artist: Elvis Presley
Album: Elvis Presley
Year: 1956
Label: Sun/RCA

Regardless of where you live and what type of music you prefer, there are a handful of acts and names that are familiar to quite literally EVERYONE on the planet. These few hallowed names are by far among the greatest and most important figures in all of music history. Furthermore, artists of this caliber had impact that reached beyond the world of music, and altered society in general. Looking at this list of the greatest of the great, there is one name, one man that rises to the top, "The King" himself, Elvis Presley. Due to the massive mystique that surrounds the Presley legend, it is rather difficult to write an unbiased review, and it is also difficult as many of the details of Presley's early years are very subject to question of truth. It is with this in mind that this review will purposefully ignore the "non-musical" aspects of Presley's impact and, as one would want in a music review, stick to the merits of the music itself. The music of Elvis served as the strongest and most traveled bridge between R&B and blues and country/western sounds. This middle ground is, in fact, where "rock and roll" was born, and few did more to push the genre forward then Presley. Though many will try, it is quite literally impossible to find another album that singlehandedly so drastically changed culture across the globe in every way as the 1956 debut LP from Elvis Presley, the simply titled, yet absolutely monumental, Elvis Presley.

Though Elvis had already had a moderate hit with "Heartbreak Hotel" a few months earlier, the massive impact of his debut record was simply unparalleled. First and foremost, Elvis Presley represents one of the first "rock and roll" full length albums. Also, sticking with the idea that this is, in fact, a "rock" record as opposed to a country album, it stands as the first rock record to top the charts. The album reigned supreme for more than two months, and became the first rock album to sell more than one million copies. The album itself was mostly recorded over two sessions shortly after Presley's contract was sold to RCA Records. However, after the sessions, Presley and his band returned to the road, and the label felt there were not enough songs to fill an entire LP. So, four songs were lifted from older sessions that Presley had made at Sun Records, including the classic "Just Because" and Elvis' legendary version of "Blue Moon." The album cover itself is, in many ways, equally iconic to the music within. The design style has been borrowed countless times throughout history, most notably for the equally pivotal London Calling album by The Clash. Though there are two rather distinct time periods featured on Elvis Presley, the album is very cohesive as Presley's backing band was the same for all of the recordings on the record.

Elvis Presley clearly shows exactly where the middle-ground is between R&B and country. Creating rockabilly versions of songs by Ray Charles and Little Richard, as well as a majority of the album containing more traditional country/western songs, the album in many ways represents one of the first "crossover" records. Herein also lies the "danger" that many parents associated with the music and style of Presley in his early years. With songs like "I Got A Woman" and "Tutti Fruti," it had been easy to write off the danger therein due to the original recordings being made by African Americans. But this time around, you have the same somewhat risqué words being sung by a hip-shaking, exceptionally handsome Southern white boy, and suddenly, the teenagers of the U.S. were in danger of being corrupted. Clearly, the success of Elvis Presley proves that, though they may have tried their hardest, great music will overcome any obstacle. The truth of the matter is, while Elvis' voice is spectacular, he also has the help of some of the finest musicians, powering the album to true greatness. Presley's primary guitarist at the time, Scotty Moore compliments the sound of "The King" perfectly, and the dual sound created by the two on "Blue Suede Shoes" is nothing short of iconic. Fellow guitar legend Chet Atkins also makes a few appearances throughout the sessions, though his contributions go largely uncredited. The rhythm section of Bill Black and D.J. Fontana remain one of the greatest in history, and their ability to make many of the songs swing was certainly one of the keys to the success of the album, as well as Presley in general. Though Elvis himself plays piano on a few tracks, a majority of the piano work was performed by "slip note" innovator, Floyd Cramer. Though Elvis is by far the center of attention on every song, the fact that he had such extraordinary talent behind him helped to catapult the album to iconic status.

Granted, he had the looks and the swagger, but if Elvis Presley did not have such and amazing voice, there is simply no way he would have been successful. Whether he is crooning low on "Blue Moon" or swinging all over the vocal range on "One-Sided Love Affair," there are truly few artists who even come close to the brilliant vocal stylings of Elvis Presley. Though on most of the songs, he is rather restrained in his delivery style, when he lets loose, as on "Blue Suede Shoes," there are few that can even remotely compare. The "classic" Presley sound is also found on Elvis Presley, as the albums' final song, "Money Honey" gives a preview to the sound that would help him conquer the world. While it is unquestionably Presley's presence that makes so stunning, the reality is, he did not write a single word or note for the record. The most famous song from the album, "Blue Suede Shoes" was written by Carl Perkins, and the remainder of the songs had already been recorded by others, or were purchased for the session. The choice in songs serves as a testament to the amazing ability of Sam Philips and Steve Sholes. Clearly understanding just how sensational a talent lived in Presley, the pair, each at different times, found sounds that brought our everything that made the sound of "The King" so mesmerizing. With perfect choices in songs, and the unmistakable singing of "The King," Elvis Presley took the world by storm and impacted quite literally EVERY album that was recorded in its wake.

The name "Elvis Presley" brings with it a myriad of thoughts, images, connotations, and respect. By far one of, if not the most important figure in the birth and rise of the rock and roll style of music, there are truly few artists that maintain as dedicated and massive a legion of fans as Presley does, more than thirty years after his death. Brilliantly showing the point of fusion between R&B and country styles, the music of Elvis altered and influenced nearly every genre that has formed since his time. Though when he was initially signed to RCA Records, other executives thought it was one of the biggest mistakes ever, and it was often referred to as "Sholes' folly," Elvis Presley shot up the charts and dominated airwaves for months. As soon as the album was released, Presley became the epitome of an "overnight sensation," and there have been few artists who have achieved even remotely similar success. With his fantastic backing band and his own, phenomenal voice, Presley created a truly iconic sound and style, and his songs remain some of the most instantly recognizable in the entire history of recorded music. From his risqué dancing and more aggressive singing style to his peerless voice and stunning looks, there are truly few people who so perfectly embody the term "icon," yet the reality is, if he were not, at the core, so amazingly talented, he would not receive all of the accolades that continue to this day. Though there are countless books, films, and recordings dedicated to the legend of Elvis Presley, to truly understand what makes him so fantastic and so idolized more than fifty years after his initial recordings, one need look no further than his magnificent 1956 debut record, the unparalleled Elvis Presley.

Standout tracks: "Blue Suede Shoes," "One-Sided Love Affair," and "Money Honey."

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