At their best, Elvis' recordings contain a pure joyousness and a sense of soaring release, qualities of innocent expressiveness increasingly rare in our self-conscious era. The primal energy and almost lascivious pleasure of Elvis in full flight released forces beyond anyone's (least of all his own) comprehension.
The shock of the world's initial reaction to the Memphis flash still reverberates half a century later, when rock is the mainstream music of our times, and its former rebel leader is considered suitable for family entertainment. But even after the world adjusted to Elvis, and Elvis to the world, he continued making records that expressed his unique personality, giving the lie to the lazy critical consensus that Elvis's muse never recovered from a short back and sides from the US army barber.
Elvis is the only pop star to have had number one singles in every decade since the '50s, and the simple reason is that the best of his music has so much life and spirit, time and changing fashions cannot dim its appeal.
These magnificent seven original albums are touched by genius.
The Sun Collection
RCA, released March 1976, recorded 1955
Elvis was a 19-year-old truck driver with a pink suit and duck-tail haircut when he caught the attention of Sam Phillips, owner of Sun studios in Memphis. Drawing on his folk, gospel and country roots, with a heavy dose of negro rhythm and blues and a shot of natural ebullience, Elvis and a couple of sidemen stumble into a weird new rockabilly sound before your very ears.
That's Alright Mama is not just a white boy singing the blues, it is a white boy transforming the blues. Elvis's voice is a living instrument, one moment deep, low and confident, the next high and trembling, bouncing and hiccupping all over Baby Let's Play House and whooping like a locomotive on Mystery Train. As the song fades, you can hear him laugh with unabashed delight.
This is an album filled with the pleasure of discovery. Released from polite country constraints, guitarist Scotty Moore scats up and down the frets while Elvis holds down a ramshackle acoustic rhythm and Bill Black's bass clatters beneath. Sometimes drummer DJ Fontana is on hand to provide extra click. Although not released as an album until 1976, The Sun Collection comprises all of Presley's debut recordings. Shimmering with excitement, the performances have an honesty and freshness undiminished by age. The simplicity and clarity of Phillips's production puts you right in the room at the birth of rock and roll.
RCA, released March 1956
Featuring one of the great album covers (copied by the Clash for London Calling), showing a black and white Elvis lost in ecstatic performance, his first major-label album was a hurried, slapdash affair that perfectly captures the energy of the moment. The racy lightness of his Sun-era rockabilly has given way to something more raw and rich, clattering drums and piano adding to a bigger, brasher sound.
The playful confidence of Elvis's vocals is astonishing as he hiccups and hollers all over honky-tonk and boogie piano beats. Already shamelessly adapting the rock and roll hits of his rapidly multiplying contemporaries, he grabs each song by the neck and makes it his own, attacking melodies and rhythms with a relish that leaves the originals in the shade. Presley's definitive version of Blue Suede Shoes makes Carl Perkins sound polite, an invitation to rumble as opposed to a request not to scuff some footwear. The bongo on the eerie Blue Moon (a leftover Sun recording) is actually Elvis restlessly tapping the rhythm on the body of his guitar. The sleazy, atmospheric Money Honey closes an album ripe with Presley's sensuality. Overloaded with ideas and almost tossed together, the album is like an aural snapshot of the '50s teen explosion.
RCA, released March 1956
Recorded in a three-day session immediately after filming Love Me Tender and a week before his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, this is the definitive Elvis rock and roll record. For the first time, the drums were individually miked up, lending a harder, sharper edge to the sound. The popular hysteria seemed to be making Elvis ever more manic. On a trio of hyped-up Little Richard numbers - Rip It Up, Long Tall Sally and Ready Teddy - Elvis belts out the vocals with a frenzy that evokes images of all the classic lip-curling, gravity-defying stage poses.
There are ballads, too, the nauseatingly sincere country lament Old Shep demonstrating the sentimentality that would consistently undermine his recorded output, his wide-ranging musical background and easy facility with different styles encouraging a desire to be an all-round entertainer. But the rockers capture the momentum of the moment. Paralysed, sullen and sharp, still sends shivers down the spine.
Elvis Is Back
RCA, released April 1960
When Elvis was young and on fire, even his soundtracks and Christmas albums were sensational. Then, in 1958, in a classic battle between the establishment and youth culture, Elvis was drafted. It is almost universally accepted that Elvis, who never saw active service, "died" in the army. Yet Elvis Is Back, recorded in Nashville on his release, is arguably Presley's masterpiece, in which he tackles ballads, blues, rock, pop and gospel with a quality of control that somehow makes his innate sensuality even more potent.
The superior Bobby-Sox pop is enlivened by harmony singing from the Jordanaires and precise, unshowy singing from Elvis, but the LP takes off on burning blues rockers with Presley getting down and dirty, groaning and whispering where once he whooped and hollered, the sound enriched by a tough horn section. Dirty, Dirty Feeling inspires a truly great Scotty Moore solo, Like A Baby is almost a duet between Elvis and Homer "Boots" Randolph's sleazy tenor sax, while the sensational Reconsider Baby is a low, lazy blues with Elvis on blistering form. On this evidence, a stint in boot camp seems to have turned the boy into a man.
Elvis NBC TV Special
RCA, released December 1968
If the army didn't destroy Elvis, Hollywood almost did. He gave up live performance for the sake of two or three increasingly banal movies and soundtracks a year. By the late '60s, in a musical world revolutionised by the Beatles, Elvis was an anachronism. An incident in 1968, when he found himself aged 33 walking unmolested and apparently unrecognised on a crowded city street, convinced him to do something about it. The result was a television special where he emerged from self-imposed exile to perform before a live audience. Dressed in black leather, reunited with Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, it was a career death-or-glory moment for the deposed king, and he turns in some of his most compelling performances.
In particular, it is the spontaneity and sense of fun that remind everyone, Elvis included, of what has been missing. He was never a great interpreter of songs, rather he possessed them, got inside them, scatted over the top of them, used them as a vehicle for his own exuberance. When he cuts loose on the unrehearsed blues of One Night, ramming his guitar out and delivering the lyric with unmitigated lust, the crowd goes wild, welcoming back the prodigal rocker, their enthusiasm driving Elvis further. "It's been too long, I said too long," he roars.
From Elvis in Memphis
RCA, released May 1969
After his TV triumph, Elvis returned to Memphis to record for the first time since his 1955 Sun sessions. Backed by some of America's top session musicians, he cut an album so good it makes you shudder at the thought of the years of wasted talent that preceded it. This is Elvis not as a boy rocker but as a man, delivering deep, soulful songs with passion and care, bringing an interpretative edge to his singing rarely in evidence before. From the roaring, rocking Wearin' That Loved-On Look to the more reflective True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, every track pulls out something special.
Drawing on his beloved gospel traditions, his performances have a spur-of-the-moment quality, with Elvis repeating lines and changing emphasis as songs build. He even plays piano on I'll Hold You in My Heart, cutting loose with a vocal that is heartfelt yet playful. The tragic and prophetic Long Black Limousine may be his finest moment, a Southern rags-to-riches story in which the star in a homecoming limousine turns out to be a corpse in a hearse, delivered with bitterly restrained emotion before Elvis loses himself among a wall of female backing vocals.I'm 10,000 Years Old, Elvis Country
RCA, released January 1971
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His singing is full of zest and pleasure, inspiring remarkable performances from his musicians. On a racy I Washed My Hand In Troubled Waters, a demonic piano lick is greeted with Elvis roaring, "Oh yeah!" And everyone listening will know exactly how he feels. It is one of the finest country rock albums ever made.
Buy Elvis at SUN (todays equivelant to The Sun Collection)
Buy Elvis Presley
Buy Elvis is Back
Buy Elvis NBC TV Special
Buy From Elvis in Memphis
Buy I'm 10,000 Years Old, Elvis Country