Even though it hadn't been that long since his sessions at Sun in 1954-55, the recordings from these sessions must have sounded to Elvis like out of another world at this point in time considering how much the music listening habits had changed in the years since then. The Sun recordings do sound odd by today's standards and it seems they already did in 1965 as RCA decided to 'enhance' the then unreleased 'Tomorrow Night' with overdubs for that year's Elvis for Everyone! album in an effort to make the song more appealing.
What RCA didn't seem to recognize at the time is that the unusual sound producer Sam Phillips had created at Sun is what keeps these songs fresh and exciting and the reason why they are still so relevant today. What distinguishes the Sun recordings is a certain oddness that makes them very compelling, which is why they are nowadays regarded as seminal recordings in the evolution of rock and roll and popular music at large.
Who can say whether Elvis himself actually realized the significance of his early recordings but, even though he apparently thought they sounded funny later in his career, it certainly seems that the songs he recorded at Sun meant something to him. After all he frequently revisited some of those songs ('That's All Right', 'Mystery Train', 'My Baby Left Me' and 'Tryin' to Get to You') throughout the latter part of his career.
1976 saw the release of the first US compilation album of the Sun material, 'The Sun Sessions', which has since been archived by the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for its significance in the development of American pop music. A number of different Sun anthologies have been released over the years. These include 'The Complete Sun Sessions' (1987), The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters (1992), 'Sunrise' (1999), 'Elvis at Sun' (2004) and 'A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-55 Recordings' (ABFT) (2012).
Yet another Sun anthology was announced in October 2016: Memphis Recording Service by the label of the same name. Subtitled The Complete Works 1953-1955, similar to 'A Boy from Tupelo', this release is advertised by the well-established label as a limited edition 2-CD book set containing 'the complete archival studio recordings from 1953-1955', which 'have been painstakingly remastered and restored'. Reportedly, the sound is 'much clearer and crisper' now thanks to the new remastering.
Regardless of whether more Sun anthology are even necessary at this point, the label's promise of superior sound quality certainly caught the interest of many. So, let's take a close look at the release and see if it is worthwhile.
The two CDs and the 100-page book come in a mediabook-style packaging. That is essentially a small book about the size of a DVD case with clear DVD trays glued to the inside of the front and the back cover. It's almost identical in size to RCA/Legacy's 2014 European reissue of Young Man with the Big Beat in book format.
The front cover of Memphis Recording Service features a nice colorized photograph of young Elvis in suit and tie that has rarely been used on music releases. It's commendable that Memphis Recording Service always chooses lesser-known photos for the covers of its releases. It sets them apart from the rest. The front cover is nicely designed as is usual for the label's releases.
On the back cover, there is a black and white picture of Elvis leaning against a car with the Memphis Recording Service logo in color in the background. On the left next to the photo are two short paragraphs that describe what is included in the 2-CD book set. The first paragraph says that it is a limited edition that celebrates Elvis' 'earliest recordings at the Memphis Recording Service'. It goes on to say that the book tells the story of Elvis' short recording career there from 1953 to 1955 and that it includes many photos and rare documents.
The second paragraph of the back cover text says that the two included CDs contain all studio recordings from that time and that they have been 'painstakingly remastered and restored'. The included Sun 45rpm master of 'That's All Right' is pointed out as a highlight that is available 'for the first time since 1954'. There is no complete track listing on the back cover but a list of songs that are included, in which the radio station acetates of 'Fool, Fool, Fool' and 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' are highlighted as bonus tracks.
The book cover is made of sturdy cardboard that feels good in the hands. The cover is printed in high quality on matte paper. When you open the book, there is a full-page sepia-colored portrait photo of Elvis on the right side and the tray with the first disc that reads 'Masters' on the left. Under the tray you can see many yellow labels of Elvis' Sun singles and some other documents. Under the second tray in the back of the book are even more labels.
The second disc reads 'Sessions & Outtakes'. On the left side f the second tray is another sepia-colored portrait photo that Memphis Recording Service also uses on the front cover of its Masters & Sessions 1953-1955 vinyl release.
The book is in color, has 100 pages and is printed on thick, semi-glossy paper, the kind that is also used for high-quality magazines. The text is easily legible and thumbing through the pages goes smoothly. The contents of the book are divided into an introduction, eight chapters, a recording log and the CD tracklist. The first chapter is called 'Memphis Recording Service', the last one 'The End of the Beginning' and the ones in between are named after the six songs 'My Happiness', 'That's All Right', 'Good Rockin' Tonight', 'Milkcow Blues Boogie', 'Baby Let's Play House' and 'Mystery Train'.
The short introduction recounts the story of Elvis' humble beginnings in Tupelo, how he sang 'Old Shep' at the Mississippi Alabama Fair in 1945, how he got his first guitar the following year, how the Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948 and how Elvis graduated from Humes High School in 1953. The first chapter features a short biography of Sam Phillips and tells how he established the Memphis Recording Service in 1950. In chapter number two, we learn how 18-year-old Elvis, anxious to be a singer, recorded two private acetates at Sam Phillips' recording studio in 1953 and 1954 before being teamed up with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
Chapters three to five chronicle Elvis' first recording sessions with Scotty and Bill and how the success of their first single 'That's All Right' and its B-side 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' established the trio as a popular live act in the south. Chapter six sees Colonel Tom Parker coming into the picture in January 1955. Parker's involvement in Elvis' fledgling career is told in this and the following chapters. Chapter 8, 'The End of the Beginning', ends with RCA buying Elvis' contract from Sam Phillips for $35,000.
A recording log follows on page 95 that lists the dates of Elvis' sessions for Sun and which songs were recorded during each session. The book ends with two pages (97-98) that detail the track listings of the two CDs and the credits for the release:
Direction, production and compilation by Joseph Pirzada
Audio restoration by Studio D
Liner notes by Joseph Pirzada and Gordon Minto
Design by Kev Reape, front cover by Ben Bayliss
The text is informative, well-written and rather detailed. All the essential events during Elvis' short time at Sun are recounted and complemented by many appropriate photographs and rare documents. There are about three dozen full-page or double-page photos of Elvis but also of his family, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, and Colonel Parker. Most text pages also include smaller pictures, newspaper clippings, contracts, promotional material like concert posters and advertisements, plus some rarities such as Elvis' employee identification badge from Precision Tool Co.
The Sun recordings have been highly regarded for many decades now, but it seems that, during the largest part of Elvis' career, the importance of these seminal recordings was not really recognized by his label, RCA, as they were all scattered over different albums. The songs were used for his 1956 eponymous debut album, 1959's 'For LP Fans Only' and 'A Date with Elvis', and 1965's 'Elvis for Everyone'. It was not until 1975 and 1976, respectively, that most of the Sun masters were combined for the first time on a compilation album entitled 'The Sun Collection' in the UK and 'The Sun Sessions' in the US.
Over the following decades, the available masters and outtakes have been reissued multiple times in various configurations that often provided significantly improved sound quality. One of the best of these releases was the 1999 RCA/BMG 2-CD set 'Sunrise' that contained all 19 studio masters alongside several acetates, alternate takes and live recordings. One of the best single-disc releases containing only the masters in great sound quality was 2004's 'Elvis at Sun' that RCA/BMG released in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of rock and roll.
Finally, Ernst Jørgensen's long-awaited mammoth 3-CD 512-page book project 'A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-55 Recordings' came out in 2012. That release on the Follow That Dream label was strictly limited to 3,000 copies and sold out quickly. The three CDs contained all Sun masters, single/LP versions, acetates, alternate takes and 1954-55 live recordings available at the time and was a must-have for any serious fan who could afford it. Since copies of 'A Boy from Tupelo' are not easy to come by these days, there was a demand for something similar yet more affordable.
Now, here we have the 2 CDs from the Memphis Recording Service (MRS) book set that largely contain the same material as the first two discs from 'A Boy from Tupelo' (ABFT). The live material on disc three of ABFT is left out on MRS as it was already released on Memphis Recording Service's Live in the 50's: The Complete Concert Recordings earlier in 2016.
Disc one of MRS includes Elvis' four personal recordings from 1953/54 and all 19 Sun masters in chronological order plus three radio station acetates from 1955 as well as the HMV 78rpm single version of 'Mystery Train'. This disc has almost the same content as the first disc of ABFT. The difference is that the latter includes four RCA single and LP versions instead of the radio station acetates and the HMV single.
Disc two of MRS includes all the known outtakes from the Sun sessions split into twenty tracks. The second disc of ABFT, on the other hand, includes 41 tracks. That is because the outtakes are split differently on there and five master takes from disc one are repeated on disc two. ABFT also includes some dialogue fragments that are not on MRS. The music content is virtually the same.
ABFT was an excellent set and it will be interesting to see if MRS can equal or even top it, at least in terms of sound quality. It seems that MRS has the advantage of newer and improved remastering techniques as the label announced that 'all of the newly remastered tracks now sound much clearer and crisper'. Let's see if that is the case by directly comparing the 2016 Memphis Recording Service remastered tracks to their 2012 Follow That Dream equivalents track by track. Here we go!
Disc 1: Masters
Track 1: My Happiness (acetate – personal recording 1953)
The first song Elvis ever recorded, 'My Happiness' first appeared on The Great Performances in 1990 and with reduced background noise on The Complete 50's Masters two years later. While there was always more or less noise on these early releases, the song sounded reasonably good considering the source. 'My Happiness' is pretty much free of background noise on ABFT but the fidelity of the recording suffers from the noise reduction which makes for a rather dull sound. On MRS, the song sounds much brighter and livelier but there is a constant crackle throughout. Even so, the new remaster is an improvement.
Track 2: That's When Your Heartaches Begin (acetate – personal recording 1953)
Even more improvement can be heard on this track, the flip side of 'My Happiness' that was first released in 1992 on The Complete 50's Masters. On MRS, It sounds better than ever before with Elvis' voice up front and his guitar strumming clearly distinguishable. There is some background noise, distortion and a couple of defects but they don't diminish an overall very good listening experience. On ABFT, on the other hand, it sounds almost as if Elvis were singing through a phone. A huge improvement on MRS!
Track 3: I'll Never Stand in Your Way (acetate – personal recording 1954)
This song was first released on Platinum: A Life in Music in 1997. It is a more problematic track than the previous two as there is a lot of noise on it. That was removed for ABFT but the heavy noise reduction makes the track sound pretty much dead and it also introduced hiss that is present throughout. MRS opted for keeping much of the noise intact in favor of a livelier sound. If you are not averse to crackle, it can be considered a small improvement in sound quality.
Track 4: It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You (acetate – personal recording 1954)
This was the last of Elvis' early acetates to be released. 'It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You' appeared for the first time on Sunrise in 1999. Like the previous one, this is a rather noisy track of low fidelity. On ABFT, the song sounds very dull because of noise reduction and there is also constant hiss. MRS didn't remove much of the noise and the song sounds better because of it. Again, if you don't mind crackle.
Track 5: Harbor Lights (take 3M)
This is where the improvements of the new remastering become less dramatic. 'Harbor Lights' sounds about the same on ABFT and MRS. Elvis' vocals are marginally clearer on the latter.
Track 6: I Love You Because
This track also sounds about the same on both releases. It even sounds slightly better on ABFT as the recording is a bit clearer and the bass a little more prominent than on MRS.
Track 7: That's All Right (Sun 45rpm master)
Here we have the 'dry' mix of 'That's All Right' that is also on ABFT. The difference, according to MRS, is that this recording was made from the 'mother' master of the original Sun 45rpm single. Even so, there is no audible improvement and it sounds in fact worse. Because of constant crackle, the song is much noisier here than on ABFT and it also suffers from some distortion.
Track 8: Blue Moon of Kentucky
This is another track that sounds equally good on both releases. ABFT uses the 45rpm Sun master while MRS doesn't specify what source was used. While the song sounds a bit fuller on ABFT thanks to a more prominent bass, the guitars sound a bit crisper on MRS. There is no obvious improvement here.
Track 9: Blue Moon (take 9M)
Now, this is a track whose sound quality has improved significantly. On MRS, it sounds totally different than on ABFT. Elvis' vocals are much more up front and all instruments are clearer and more audible, especially Scotty Moore's unusual guitar playing. All in all, the sound is way more spatial here than on previous releases. The improvement comes with a more prominent tape hiss, though, but that is always more welcome than noise reduction.
Track 10: Tomorrow Night
Similar to 'Blue Moon', Elvis' vocals are more up front and all instruments are clearer in comparison with ABFT. Another definite improvement!
Track 11: I'll Never Let You Go
Unlike the previous two tracks, the improvement in sound quality is less significant on this track. The song sounds a little clearer on MRS but ABFT is almost on par.
Track 12: I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine (take 2FS take 3M)
Like the previous track, this song sounds almost identical on both releases. The bass seems a little less prominent on ABFT. Oddly, a false start (take 2) is included before the master (take 3) on MRS. The false start would have fitted better after take 1FS on disc two.
Track 13: Just Because
This song sounds a bit different on both releases. The mix on ABFT is brighter and emphasizes the drums while the MRS mix sounds fuller and reduces the prominence of the drums. The MRS remaster sounds slightly better.
Track 14: Good Rockin' Tonight
This is the first track that sounds virtually identical on both releases. You probably couldn't tell the tracks apart in a blind test.
Track 15: Milkcow Blues Boogie
Here you can definitely hear an improvement. The song is clearer and livelier on MRS. There's just a little more punch to it than on ABFT.
Track 16: You're a Heartbreaker
In the case of this song, there is no real improvement. The song sounds about the same on both releases. The MRS remaster is slightly brighter.
Track 17: I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone (take 5M slow version)
This song has a slightly clearer sound on MRS and Scotty Moore's guitar sounds a bit crisper than on ABFT.
Track 18: Baby Let's Play House
Here is another song that doesn't sound much different on MRS than on ABFT. Again, Scotty Moore's guitar sounds a bit crisper in the slightly brighter MRS mix.
Track 19: I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone
The sound quality of this song has slightly improved on MRS. It sounds fuller thanks to a more prominent bass and a 'punchier' mix than on ABFT.
Track 20: I Forgot to Remember to Forget
While this track sounds cleaner on ABFT, the brighter mix on MRS makes it livelier but it also amplifies some hiss. The drums are much more prominent in the MRS remaster but overall the mix is a little too bright and is missing the depth of the bass as heard on ABFT. It's hard to decide if it is an improvement or not. It sounds different at least. The label has this to say about the track: 'For the first time on CD, 'I Forgot to Remember to Forget' appears without the false bass RCA added to it in the 1980s when tampering with the master tapes'. This is not stated anywhere in the book, though, and the track is not listed as a special version.
Track 21: Mystery Train
On MRS this song has a slightly clearer sound with a bit more depth. The improvement is not as obvious as on some other tracks but it is there.
Track 22: Tryin' to Get to You
Here we again have a track that sounds virtually the same on both releases. There is a little more hiss in the MRS remaster and there is also at least one short tape noise at 0:40 that is not present on ABFT. There's possibly another one at around 1:13 hat is more audible than on ABFT.
Track 23: When It Rains, It Really Pours
Even though this track sounds almost the same on both releases, the fidelity is a little higher on MRS than on ABFT. Elvis' vocals sound slightly more vibrant but the overall improvement is not dramatic.
Track 24: Shake, Rattle and Roll (acetate – January 6th 1955 radio station KDVA Lubbock, TX)
The following three acetates that were recorded at two radio stations in early 1955 are bonus tracks on the first disc of MRS and are also included on disc three of ABFT. This first version of 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' sounds much better on MRS even though or rather because the background noise, which becomes significantly less prominent halfway through the song, was not as heavily removed as on ABFT.
Track 25: Fool, Fool, Fool (acetate – January 6th 1955 radio station KDVA Lubbock, TX)
Unlike on ABFT, there is also background noise on this track (although less than on the previous one) but the sound quality is still better. The song sounds dull on ABFT, probably because of heavy noise reduction.
Track 26: Shake, Rattle and Roll (acetate – January 19th 1955 radio station WJOI Florence, AL)
Although its quality is not as good as the first one, this second version of 'Shake Rattle and Roll' still sounds better on MRS as it has a fuller sound with a significantly more audible bass compared to ABFT.
Track 27: Mystery Train (HMV 78rpm)
This 78rpm single version of 'Mystery Train' from the British label His Master's Voice (HMV) can not be compared as it doesn't appear on ABFT. Comparing it to the regular version, track 21 on disc one of MRS, it sounds brighter but also noisier and rather distorted. It appears to have a little more echo on it. It's nice to have this version of the song but the sound quality just doesn't compare.
Disc 2: Sessions & Outtakes
Tracks 1-2: Harbor Lights (takes 1FS & 2FS & 4 / 5FS & 6FS & 7 & 8END)
The outtakes of 'Harbor Lights' sound very similar on both releases. Elvis' voice is a little more spatial on MRS and the instruments are marginally clearer. There is a small tape noise in the beginning of take 4 at 0:19 on ABFT and at 0:53 on MRS that is notably more audible on the latter release.
Tracks 3-5: I Love You Because (takes 1FS & 2 / 3 / 4FS & 5)
As with the previous tracks, the alternate takes of 'I Love You Because' sound very similar on both ABFT and MRS. The sound on the latter is just a little bit more pleasing as it is a bit fuller overall with Elvis' vocals being louder and the instruments slightly clearer. There is another one of those tape noises on take 5 at 0:43 on ABFT and 1:20 on MRS. This time it is not noticeably louder on the latter, though.
Track 6: That's All Right (takes 1-3)
Interestingly, the outtakes of 'That's All Right' do not sound better on MRS. In fact, the sound on ABFT is clearer in this case. The higher frequencies go a bit short on the MRS mix, which makes for a more bass-heavy sound.
Track 7: Blue Moon of Kentucky (outtake part – slow tempo version)
There is a 20-second snippet of dialogue before this track on ABFT that is not present on MRS. This short slow-tempo outtake of 'Blue Moon of Kentucky'—that includes Sam Phillips' famous lines 'Fine, man. Hell, that's different. That's a pop song now, just about'. at the end—sounds virtually the same on both releases.
Tracks 8-10: Blue Moon (takes 1FS & 2FS & 3FS & 4 / 5 / takes 6FS & 7FS & 8)
While the sound quality of the master, take 9, has significantly improved on MRS compared to ABFT, the outtakes sound just about the same on both releases. The bass is a little more prominent on ABFT while Scotty Moore's guitar is a little more prominent on MRS.
Track 11: I'll Never Let You Go (alternate incomplete take)
On ABFT, there is a 9-second dialogue fragment before this track, which MRS doesn't include. This incomplete take sounds virtually the same on both releases. There is a little more bass on MRS.
Track 12: I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine (take 1FS)
There is a 6-second fragment of 'Good Rockin' Tonight' before this track on ABFT that you don't get to hear on MRS. The short false start of 'I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine' that follows is part of one track on ABFT that runs for 1:12 and is labeled 'takes 1-2'. On disc two of MRS we only get to hear the first part, namely take 1 (or take 1FS), which is about 40 seconds long. The second false start (labeled as take 2 on ABFT) that runs for another 30 seconds is included before the master take on disc one. Why is anyone's guess. Take 1 sounds identical on both releases.
Tracks 13-16: I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone (takes 1 / 2 / 3 & 4FS / 6 & 7END)
Here we get quite a number of alternate takes of the slow version of 'I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone', most of which are complete. Take 1 of the song is the most interesting of the bunch as Elvis' phrasing is very different from the later takes. All these alternate takes do not sound drastically different on MRS compared to ABFT but there is a slight improvement in sound quality. Bill Black's slap bass is more prominent and Elvis' guitar strumming is more distinguishable, which makes these takes sound a bit fuller overall on MRS.
Track 17-19: When It Rains, It Really Pours (takes 1END & 2REH / 3FS & 4FS / 6FS & 7FS & 8LFS)
There is not a huge difference in sound quality on these takes or rather false stars of 'When It Rains, It Really Pours' compared to ABFT. The mix on MRS has a little more punch to it as the volume of the instruments and of Elvis's voice are a bit more leveled. There is again a 20-second snippet of studio dialogue of Sam Phillips telling the musicians not to 'make it too damn complicated in the middle there' before take 6 on ABFT that is not on MRS.
Track 20: How Do You Think I Feel (guitar tape slapback rehearsals)
While they make up the last track on MRS, these recordings, taken from a guitar slapback tape, come before the 'When It Rains, It Really Pours' outtakes on ABFT. On there, they are split into two tracks titled 'rehearsal + take 1' and 'rehearsals'. On MRS, the sequencing of these two tracks is reversed and they are combined into one track. The sound quality is largely the same as on ABFT. After all, this is just a recording of Scotty Moore's guitar that somehow survived. Elvis can be heard singing a bit louder in the background on MRS.
Memphis Recording Service is known for putting a lot of work into its high-quality releases and Memphis Recording Service: The Complete Works 1953-1955 is no exception. The label kept their promise that the overall sound quality of these recordings would be improved thanks to new remastering. Memphis Recording Service painstakingly remastered and restored the classic Sun recordings 'using the most sophisticated technology available' according to the liner notes of the release, and you can certainly hear that on the majority of the master takes on disc one.
Also, the acetates sound particularly good considering their limitations. The radio station acetates have never sounded better and Elvis' private acetates are improved as well. A prime example of what can be achieved with good remastering is 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin', whose sound quality has dramatically changed for the better. The song has never sounded as good as it does here.
Many of the masters sound slightly better than they did before or at least equally good, but in some rare cases ('That's All Right' and 'I Love You Because') Follow That Dream's A Boy from Tupelo has the edge over Memphis Recording Service. In other cases ('Blue Moon', 'Tomorrow Night' and 'Milkcow Blues Boogie'), the remastering works wonders and makes these well-known songs sound very fresh. 'Blue Moon' in particular is a small sonic revelation. There are no such wonders to be found on disc two as the alternate takes and outtakes sound more or less the same as before with some slight improvements here and there.
The 100-page book, while certainly no replacement for A Boy from Tupelo (512 pages), is a good read and provides all the most relevant info on the progression of Elvis' early career. Also, the packaging is attractive thanks to good design and high-quality production.
All in all, Memphis Recording Service: The Complete Works 1935-1955 is an excellent release that will not only be of interest to those who missed out on A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-55 Recordings but to anyone who wants to have all of Elvis' Sun recordings collected in one place and in the best sound quality possible right now.
Buy Memphis Recording Service: The Complete Works 1953-1955
Buy Live in the 50's: The Complete Concert Recordings
Buy 'Elvis On Television 1956-1960 The Complete Soundtrack Recordings' 2CD/100-page set from MRS