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Box set review: Elvis Presley, Young Man With The Big Beat

Elvis Presley
Young Man With The Big Beat
[Legacy (2011)]

No one knows for sure who recorded the first rock and roll song. But, with the two albums (Elvis Presley and Elvis) that he released during the first year (1956) after RCA bought his contract from the much-smaller Sun Records, Elvis Presley left no doubt that rock and roll was here to stay. With every song a masterpiece of teenage angst, the earlier album went on to become the first rock and roll album to top the Billboard charts, and it’s follow-up was nearly as strong. The 39 tracks on the two albums include five chart-topping singles amongst its fifteen chart entries.

That pivotal year in Presley’s career and the development of rock and roll is thoroughly explored by the five-CD box-set, Young Man With The Big Beat. While a two-CD set, Elvis Presley–Legacy Edition, includes most of the newly re-mastered albums, along with outtakes, the five-disc collection is a Presley enthusiast’s early Christmas treat.

In both the two- and five-CD versions, Presley’s first two RCA albums are presented in their original order. With his band [Scotty Moore (guitar), Bill Black (standup bass), and D.J. Fontana (drums)] augmented by Nashville sidemen [Floyd Cramer (piano) and Chet Atkins (guitar) and a trio of background singers], Presley completely revolutionizes the course of popular music and reveals himself, like Frank Sinatra before him, as one of the greatest song interpreters of all time. Pat Boone may have tried to sing R&B tunes by Little Richard, but, with his polished shoes and clean-cut looks, he stood out as a poor impersonation. Presley, on the other hand, roared with the intensity of a James Dean-inspired motorcyclist and turned tunes popularized by Big Mama Thornton (“Hound Dog”), The Drifters (“Money Honey”), Lloyd Price (“Lawdy, Miss Clawdy”), Ray Charles (“I Got A Woman”), and Joe Turner (“Shake, Rattle and Roll”) into his own. The spirit of Presley’s debut Sun single (Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s All Right”), is revived with a blues-shuffling take on Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me,” while a rock-solid punch is added to Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” Presley even delivers Little Richards’s “Tutti Fruitti,” “Rip It Up,” and “Long Tall Sally” successfully.

Of the songs that Presley introduced on the two albums, the best may be the first single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and its follow-up single, “Don’t Be Cruel,” by Bumps Blackwell.

Though it was his rocking that created the ripples that reverberate 55 years later, Presley is equally effective singing ballads like Red Foley’s country tearjerker, “Old Shep,” which he had sung as a child, and “Love Me Tender,” based on a Civil War-era tune, “Aura Lee,” that, later, became the title track of his first film.

“Young Man With The Big Beat” includes a treasure trove of collectable recordings and artifacts. There are out-takes of “I Got A Woman,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I’m Counting On You,” and “ I Was The One,” from Presley’s first RCA recording session (January 1956) and the complete twelve takes that went into recording “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” and “Shake, Rattle, And Roll,” including studio chatter and false starts.

A CD of live recordings includes four songs from the last show of Presley’s first Las Vegas engagement (at the Frontier Hotel) in early May 1956; seven songs from his May 16th show in Little Rock, Arkansas; and ten songs from his December 15th show in Shrevesport, Louisiana.

A series of interviews, including a half-hour interview from March 1956 at the Warwick hotel in New York, provide insight into the then-20-year-old rock and roller who was taking the world by storm. Paul Wilder comes out condescending from the start during an August 1956 interview for a TV Guide feature, quoting articles about Presley being washed up, a one-hit wonder, and demonic for his pelvic thrust. Though Wilder attempts to take a similar approach during a subsequent interview with Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, Parker shows his business savvy by diverting Wilder’s assault and making the points that he wants to make.

A monologue by Presley, about his life, career, and love of family, The Truth About Me, that was originally released as a spoken word disc by Teen Parade magazine and an interview recorded on the set of “Love Me Tender” are much more respectful and allow Presley’s to share his inner depths.

Though a pair of “Victrola Radio Ads” round out the 5-CD collection, there is much more to the set, which includes an 80-page, photo-laden book with a day-by-day chronology of Presley’s 1956 schedule, five 8X10 black and white photographs, replicas of vintage posters, and ticket stubs.

—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)

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