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The influence and impact of Elvis’ first album is far reaching. In fact, two of the most celebrated comments about those early Elvis recordings came from musicians that would play significant roles in the evolution of popular music during the next decade: Bob Dylan later recalled, “When I first heard Elvis’ voice, I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” Whilst John Lennon put things in more simplistic terms, saying, “Before Elvis there was nothing”.

There’s no doubt that this album held a special place in the hearts of both men, from music that jumped out of the grooves to its truly iconic sleeve design, which has provided the inspiration for album covers by a number of different artists over the years, with the most famous example being The Clash’s classic 1979 double album, ‘London Calling’. However, it’s worth noting that whilst the, then unknown, Robert Zimmerman and John Winston Lennon took huge amounts of inspiration from those trailblazing early Elvis recordings, growing up on opposite sides of the Atlantic, they were effectively listening to two different albums.

The U.S. version of the album (LPM 1254) was released by RCA Victor in March 1956, and featured three songs recorded at Elvis’ first RCA recording session, which took place in Nashville during January; ‘I Got A Woman’, ‘Money Honey’ and ‘I’m Counting On You’, along with a further four songs cut at a follow up session held just a few weeks later in New York; ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘One Sided Love Affair’, ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You) and ‘Tutti Frutti’. The album was completed with five previously unreleased Sun recordings which RCA had acquired when they bought out Elvis’ contract from Sam Phillips in November 1955; ‘I Love You Because’, ‘Just Because’ ‘Trying To Get To You’, ‘I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)’ and ‘Blue Moon’. This made for quite an eclectic mix of musical styles, with the album showcasing country, ballads, rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and therefore being true to the “I sing all kinds” philosophy that Elvis had adopted from the start.

The album wasn’t released in the U.K. until October 1956, when it was issued on the HMV label (CLP1093) under licence from RCA, with a significantly different track listing. Only seven cuts from the original U.S. album remained, and with the exception of ‘Trying To Get To You’ these were all sourced from Elvis’ first two RCA sessions. HMV added a further three Sun recordings, but in contrast to the U.S. album these were the classic single sides, ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’, ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Mystery Train’. The album was completed by a further two songs from Elvis’ second RCA session; ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ and ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, which had originally appeared on a 1956 E.P. release in the U.S.  

Therefore, with the exception of the Don Robertson penned ballad ‘I’m Counting on You’, the U.K. album was chock full of up-tempo rockers, and not surprisingly therefore, HMV gave it the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ subtitle which is now synonymous with it. There have been some interesting discussions amongst fans about which track listing is the strongest over the years, but as the HMV album was exclusive to the U.K., it seems fitting that this CD edition should open with the twelve tracks from the original U.S. title, as this is how the album was heard around the world upon its original release.

However, the five additional cuts from the U.K. compilation have been added as bonus songs, along with a further two recordings from Elvis’ first RCA session. Namely both sides of his first (newly recorded) RCA single, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘I Was The One’; the smash hit that made Elvis a global phenomenon.    

The U.S. version of the album became a mainstay of the RCA catalogue throughout Elvis’ lifetime and beyond, but following the introduction of ‘Electronically Reprocessed Stereo’ (ERS) during 1961, mono albums slowly began to be phased out, and the album was only available in the ERS format from 1969 onwards. Sadly, the U.K. title was deleted in September 1958 when HMV’s license to release Elvis Presley recordings in the UK expired, and it didn’t see a re-issue until 1972 when RCA U.K also presented it in the new ERS format, complete with garish new cover artwork which had no relevance to the albums content.

The ERS format was certainly successful from a business perspective, allowing RCA to sell considerable quantities of back catalogue album titles all over again, but it’s fair to say that it was never popular with fans and collectors, and more recent releases of this album on both CD and vinyl have reverted back to the original mono recordings. However, as technology and production techniques are constantly evolving, the idea of creating new stereo mixes from mono recordings is no longer something to be frowned upon, with new de-mixing techniques allowing for the separation of instruments and vocals which were originally recorded on one track.

RCA’s original mono mixes of these tracks were clearly geared towards AM radio airplay and were therefore, heavily compressed. This gave the impression that the recordings had a much harder sound than the music that Elvis, with Scotty Moore on lead guitar and Bill Black on bass, created at Sun Studios in Memphis. The trio were augmented by D.J. Fontana on drums, Floyd Cramer (Nashville) and Shorty Long (New York) on piano, along with vocal accompaniment from Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires and Ben and Brock Speer for those early 1956 RCA recordings, and this undoubtedly resulted in a much fuller sound. In fact, RCA executives in New York were not entirely satisfied with the results of the first Nashville session, with the perceived wisdom being that they had failed to replicate the unique rockabilly sound Sam Phillips had perfected at Sun.

However, despite those early reservations, all the elements that made Elvis’ Sun recordings unique were indeed captured on the RCA tapes, and these newly created stereo mixes clearly highlight this fact. Of course, Elvis’ meteoric rise to fame during 1956 soon allayed any fears that the RCA executives may have had, and the original mono recordings released during his breakthrough year will forever remain a pivotal part of rock ‘n’ roll history. Sadly though, that sense of excitement around hearing a great new record from Elvis is now a thing of the past, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace new ways of listening to the old ones, rediscovering the ‘young man with the big beat’ all over again. As a great philosopher once said, “go cat, go…”

David Parker

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