Along with The Beatles, Elvis Presley would have to be one of the most documented and written about musical entertainers of the 20th Century. Even now, forty years after his death, the reissues, compilations, and commemorative boxed sets just keep on coming. Yep, Elvis is making more money dead than when alive. Although, unlike The Beatles, the Presley Estate seem more than happy to release almost everything and anything the late singer ever preserved onto tape, meaning that all those moments can now be enjoyed for generations to come.
Released in 1987, and based on an album first issued in 1976, The Complete Sun Sessions was one of RCA’s earliest attempts at presenting a more historical representation of Elvis’ legacy, not only capturing all of the master takes recorded during his short tenure on Sam Phillips’ Sun Label between 1954 and 1955, but also including a bevy of alternate takes plus a few songs previously thought lost.
Any serious fan of Elvis will already be familiar with the story of how one summer’s day in 1953 a teenager from Tupelo Mississippi walked into Sun Studios to record a song for his mother (anyone could make a personal record of their own for the cost of $3.98), before eventually being asked back by Phillips some months later to record a version of a new song titled “Without You”, and while it wasn’t quite what the producer was looking for, at least it got Presley’s foot in the door in terms of Phillip’s determination to see what else the singer was capable of. Several further sessions were attempted, none of which were deemed promising, until Elvis was teamed up with Memphis guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black that it all came together.
Unlike the discovery of nuclear fusion, the Higgs-Boson particle, or gravitational waves, Messer’s Presley, Moore and Black stumbled upon something far more important – Rockabilly! And that moment occurred when the trio recorded “That’s Alright, Mama”, at the instigation of Phillips, who believed that he could hear what the young musicians themselves couldn’t, since they had no idea of what it was they were actually doing. Finally Phillips got his wish: a white man who sang like he was black.
Whether it’s the upbeat blues-meets-hillbilly of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, or the ghostly “Blue Moon”, much of the magic which emanates from these recordings can be heard not only in the music itself, but in the creative process as well, where one gets a real sense that everyone was making it up as they went along, because at this point in the game, there truly was no real formula.
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Baby, Let’s Play House” are two of the heaviest tunes Elvis ever recorded, singing like he’d never sung before, nor ever would again. “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine”, “You’re a Heartbreaker” and “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” are all performed with innocent abandon, as is “Milkcow Blues Boogie”, on which can be traced the earliest origins of the vocal style Presley would later adopt on his first international hit “Heartbreak Hotel”.
Side two is mostly Elvis as balladeer, consisting of songs with such titles as “I Love You Because”, “Tomorrow Night” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, because let’s not forget that ballads were big business in the ‘50s, and Presley was influenced just as much by Fats Domino as he was by Dean Martin. But the tune which really holds the listener’s attention is “Mystery Train”, perhaps the most fully realised performance of the entire album. Presley’s voice is young yet soulful, while Scotty Moore reinforces the mood with a simple though self-assured guitar solo. Basically two minutes and twenty five seconds of rock and roll heaven – even if it may not technically be rock and roll per se, in the vein of “Rock Around the Clock” or “Be Bop A Lula”.
The second LP, containing rarities, will keep any Presley scholar entertained for hours (“Sorry love, I realise you’re wearing that special nightdress, but I can’t come to bed yet as I still have eight outtakes and nine alternate takes to listen to!”). However don’t expect any revelations, since most of these tracks are either basic run-throughs or inferior versions to the masters themselves.
All in all, if you don’t have at least several of these recordings in your Elvis collection then you have no right to call yourself a serious fan. The Complete Sun Sessions is to rock what Kind Of Blue is to Jazz. In other words, an essential piece of musical history that will never be repeated, nor it seems, forgotten.