The Hillbilly-Cat finely preserved on early historic recordings
In the 1950’s, Elvis Presley seemed to sum up everything that was great about rock ‘n’ roll. Not only did he have the looks, but also the right voice, combined with a charismatic presence whenever he walked on stage. Although Elvis didn’t write his own material, as a performer he had everything going for him in terms of talent, sex appeal and perceptive management. How some hillbilly truck-driver from Tupelo, Mississippi managed to capture the hearts and minds of millions of teenagers around the world is a story in itself.
But pre-international fame, before he recorded “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis was still very much a local act, performing on small stages in front of relatively small audiences, utilising the most basic of equipment in the process. It’s little wonder that live recordings of Elvis’s embryonic period are few and far between, but thanks to The Louisiana Hayride, located in Shreveport, Louisiana, a few of Presley’s early performances were preserved for posterity.
The Complete Louisiana Hayride Archives 1954-1956 documents all known recordings of Presley in his rockabilly prime when he was still signed to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label. Several of these performances have been released over the years, but this is the first time all surviving material has been compiled into the one package, speed corrected and properly mastered.
Beginning with Elvis’ first appearance on 16th October 1954, to his last on 16th December 1956, for over 75 minutes the listener is literally put into a time capsule and taken back to an era when rock ‘n’ roll was at its most nebulous and primitive, and is probably to rock historians what the Cosmic Microwave Background is to astronomers.
Elvis’ Louisiana debut kicks things off, where he performs “That’s All Right Mama” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” With Scotty Moore (guitar) and Bill Black (bass), the trio hardly deviate from the original studio versions, but that doesn’t matter, because what one hears is a certain kinetic energy, different to what one would normally expect to hear in 1954.
Two performances from January and one from April 1955 reveal how Elvis was beginning to develop and grow in confidence as an entertainer. He was also expanding his repertoire, including such songs as “Money Honey,” “Tweedle Dee,” and “Hearts Of Stone.” From 20th August 1955 we have an exciting albeit brief performance of “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Maybellene,” and “That’s All Right,” practically a perfect trifecta of rockabilly heaven. Scotty Moore might sound as though he’s plucking on barbed wire, yet his style would prove to be enormous, influencing everyone from Jimmy Page to George Harrison.
Elvis’ last ever Hayride gig on 16th December 1956, was when he had signed to RCA, which means that the scream-scale factor was a whole lot greater than it was just a year before. Presley performs his latest hits “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel” to much hormonal applause. “Love Me” and “Love Me Tender” are also included in the set, intonating Elvis’ penchant for crooners such as Dean Martin and Sinatra.
Although it isn’t all croon-city, because Elvis the pelvis closes the show with a rousing “Hound Dog,” something which must have had a few of the old Hayride fogies scratching their heads while keeping an eye on their teenage daughters.
The audio quality isn’t all that amazing, at least by today’s standards, true. Yet the fact that these recordings exist at all is in itself quite extraordinary. And while our perception of Presley is often multi-faceted, depending on the decade, listening to this album, in all its archaic glory, one gets a sense of how important Elvis was in helping to shape what was to come.
The ‘50s was indeed a complex era. It was a time of the Cold War and McCarthyism, however Elvis Presley offered something different – a looking glass through which many teenagers could escape from the reality of the outside world. Whether he realised it or not, Elvis had inadvertently pulled a cultural trigger, the consequences of which would eventually lead to The Beatles and beyond.