RCA/Legacy (five-disc set) $139.98
Anyone with even a passing interest in American pop culture knows that the most successful acts can be based on fairly modest, even meager, artistic talent. For a performer to charm and entertain millions of common folk takes novelty, audacity, perseverance, luck and marketing (these days, especially marketing), but not necessarily musical virtuosity. But that truth doesn’t tell us who is genuinely talented, and so a question: Was Elvis Presley really all that good?
Like many people who weren’t around during his heyday, I heard a lot about Elvis and his music long before it registered on me that a given song on the oldies station was one of his million sellers, or that, wow, that was him on the television in some B-grade bloodless Western chock-full of mostly forgettable songs. I knew that at a certain point Elvis became a piñata for both amateur and professional humorists, much the same way Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian are now. This was the inevitable fate for a performer who became a living dinosaur in Las Vegas, dressed in ridiculous jumpers, swelled to troubling proportions, and a king who died on his throne, so to speak.
The evaluation of Elvis’s music followed a similar decline late in his career and after his death. The easy dismissals and curt summations put Elvis into the iconic cultural patriotism category along with George Washington and his cherry tree, or watching moon-landing footage. Elvis became a time-capsule item, a symbol of modern celebrity culture, his music not really meant for serious listening. Americans already had Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein and many others for that. For a lot of people, Elvis was not about the music but about Elvismania, the generationally defining cult of rock music and frenetic dance. Indeed, Elvis pioneered the musical cult, setting the stage for the Beatles deluge of 1964.
All true, but what about the music? In heady books of rock criticism, one finds ample talk about the Sun recordings that Elvis cut for Sam Philips between 1954 and 1955 as a kind of rock-and-roll Upanishads. When I became old enough that such pronouncements mattered to me, I tracked down the Sun material: What I heard wasn’t so much epic and gargantuan as lean and fleeting; it was very nearly quicksilver. Presley was at the center of it all, beneath waves of echo, pounding away on an acoustic guitar while Bill Black’s countrified acoustic bass anchored the beat and Scotty Moore’s clean electric guitar lines offered commentary.
It didn’t sound much like rock-and-roll, as we would eventually come to think of it. The Sun recordings, to paraphrase Dylan, mix up the medicine: rockabilly, jazz, honky-tonk, Tin Pan Alley and the blues all went into the pot. But there was often this sense that something else lurked just out of view, something waiting to unleash itself more fully, elsewhere, to more dramatic effect. That effect had its full-flowering in 1956, a year that represents Elvis’s annus mirabilis. We can now hear that flowering, separated from the very mixed-medicine “greatest hits” litany on the oldies stations, thanks to the fine new box set, Young Man With the Big Beat.
The album’s name derives from an RCA publicity poster campaign, begun after Elvis had become a sizable enough commodity that it was difficult for Sun to retain him. He jumped—with the help of Colonel Tom Parker—to one of the market’s prime-time players in RCA. That tag line makes for an appropriate and telling title. There is the James Dean angle, of course, in that caption. The words “young man”, and all of the associations that go with post-Rebel Without a Cause America are deliberate. We know about the furtive, suggestive glances by those with no intention of getting married any time soon. We know about the temper, the angst, the frantic and elusive search for meaning. But Elvis was about something more than diluted postwar French existentialism mass-marketed to Americans. RCA’s marketing suggested as much. Elvis was the one with the big beat, with a sexual potency at once forbidden and, paradoxically, essential. And you can’t help but wonder what, exactly, music of that nature—or against nature—would sound like.
Leaving aside for a moment what it sounded like, I remember the first time I found out what it looked like, courtesy of a video clip from the June 5, 1956 broadcast of The Milton Berle Show. Presley and his band were working their way through Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, a gritty blues cut leavened by its jocular lyric. The gist of the song is akin to one of those Jackie Gleason “to the moon, Alice!” lines from The Honeymooners: humorous domestic discord in the form of a quasi-novelty number. Whatever novelty Thornton may have embedded in the lyric, Elvis buried with his hips. From the perspective of the parents who watched him thrust his pelvis this way and that during the song’s protracted bump-and-grind segment, this was sex incarnate, a virulent threat to their daughters. But just as there had never been anything so primal on television to that point, there had rarely been anything so musically nuanced at the same time. Presley wasn’t selling sex, or at least not just sex. He was asserting that the old blues tropes of yore were ripe for remaking. The field hollers, the chants from the prison yards and the rhythmic surge of the railways were all well and good, but what the blues had heretofore refused to do was careen. The Elvis that we see on The Milton Berle Show was clearly ready to go careening.
The studio cut of the song on Young Man With the Big Beat illustrates Elvis turning the blues inside out. This version has more polish, but it also has more drive, the likes of which transforms the old “My woman done up and gone” into the new “Get your ass in motion, boy.” The pain of the blues morphs into the assertiveness of rock-and-roll, an assertiveness which shaped the personality of a generation beyond even the music. Not a mean accomplishment for a guy who might have thought he was just bashing out some numbers that made the teenyboppers go crazy. Then again, there was always mystery at the core of Elvis’s greatest music, as though the singer who had channeled its power was waiting for someone to explain to him what he was actually doing.
Young Man With the Big Beat presents four sides of Elvis in 1956. We have the official, RCA sanctioned versions—which is to say the material that was commercially available to the public. The Beatles launched hit after hit in England in 1963 and then in the United States in 1964, but Elvis’s run of mega-hit singles in the mid-1950s blew everyone’s mind. Many listeners will recognize this official material. It is, after all, rock-and-roll’s bedrock and it’s what made Elvis a Transatlantic phenomenon. It’s the material that a teenage John Lennon in Liverpool assumed could only have been sung by a black man, but was also the material that was a pied piper’s tune, calling forth him and every other angst-ridden boy of that generation.
As Elvis became bigger and bigger throughout 1956, boys like Lennon must have wondered what sort of culture could produce such a figure. There were no Elvises in England, for instance, nor any reason to think that one might be forthcoming. If America was already the great nation of possibility, it now also registered as one of sublime improbabilities—a country that could redefine, mostly through one man, what it meant to be young. In England, the Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers adopted Elvis’s rakish look and at times mistook his wild dash from America’s musical past as an excuse for the kind of nihilism that the punk movement later fetishized.
Young Man With the Big Beat also gives us the behind-the-scenes Elvis, at work in the studio. This Elvis proves to be just as interesting as chart-topping Elvis. One of the many revelations here comes courtesy of a complete studio session from February 3. The day’s objective: to get in the can masters of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy”, a barrelhouse Lloyd Price number, and “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, a rollicking, double-entendre piece from Big Joe Turner. The session has its frivolous moments; Elvis is clearly a man who likes a laugh. But as the process to nail each song lengthens, his mood turns more businesslike, even as his vocals, intriguingly, become more elastic. We begin on the outside of something and emerge over the course of eleven takes of both songs with the guts of each one dripping onto the tape. Both songs have been covered again and again by untold artists. But no one has ever made these songs seem so malleable to an artist’s will as Elvis has here. A later take of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” ends in an instrumental breakdown, after which Elvis, who seems to hear something that no one else at the session did, declares, “That’s the best one we’ve done yet.” Another take commences, and a new high is reached, followed by another. Elvis begins to draw out the “Bye, bye baby/I won’t be comin’ no more” refrain (for this is a song of departure) until you start to think of the song as a lament for some sexual relationship that had ended. And then you realize that, in Elvis’s hands, it’s a song about a male lover denying favors instead of, much more common for these sorts of songs, the female counterpart doing so.
As exciting as the outtakes are, the major “find” of Young Man With The Big Beat is a previously unissued December 15 concert from the Louisiana Fairgrounds, where we get to experience Elvis in his natural environment: performing before a crowd. In-concert discs had been the norm in jazz for many years, but the volume of nascent rock-and-roll—and the assorted ambient sounds of teenage concertgoers—didn’t translate well to live recording. Modern listeners used to high-def specs might be taken aback by this primitive tape, but what it lacks in fidelity it more than makes up in energy. Elvis had boundless amounts of it, and while his stage patter featured bad jokes and puns, there is little in live rock-and-roll to match the perfervid grandeur of “Money Honey” and “Blue Suede Shoes” from this gig. Carl Perkins, the author of the latter song, had already created a classic that bopped and strutted with twangy ease. This Elvis version doesn’t have time for bopping as it opens a jet throttle that subsumes the listener. The kids, naturally, go nuts, and as the concert progresses the intensity increases. By the end, you’re in doubt that any venue could hold it all.
America was certainly not a large enough venue as Elvis’s Bildungsroman journey through 1956 continued. This was an age when pop culture exports were still limited but were growing fast. You had Hollywood movies, and then you had music. Television didn’t flow across time zones so freely back then, but Elvis—particularly this 1956 incarnation of him, with all of the trappings that have come to symbolize the man in his prime—and his music tumbled out into the world, as the singer became a sort of global spokesman for American pop culture.
The final disc of Young Man With the Big Beat features an extended Elvis interview with one Paul Wilder of TV Guide, who attempts to get a handle on who or what Elvis really is. There are questions about his gyrations: Was he an adrenalized Casanova? Did he want loads of girls? Had he turned his back on God? Morals? His upbringing? Was he a progenitor of the new American youth? Would similar artists follow? What was happening to music?
Elvis dodges most of this and ends up talking a lot about his cars. He was asked about them incessantly in 1956. The point might seem trivial—after all, most young men who come into money and fame like hot rides. But when we consider the music in relation to the fascination with Cadillac fins and speed, we see how Elvis was becoming, for the United States and for the world looking in, a symbol of the new American modernism. This was an America of sleek, chromed-out vehicles, where youth was royalty, if not king, and hard-rocking music was made with a beat so heavy that you felt it in your stomach. But just as the cars seemed to soar the music could be light and up-beat—an altogether appealing paradox.
That paradox is just like Elvis himself was in his prime. He loved the older American musical forms, not just blues but also the country music of his Tupelo, Mississippi birthplace and the Memphis, Tennessee, of his youth and that jazzy Texas swing music, too. He took it all and created something no one had ever heard before. Wilder never notices any of this. He instead persists in his efforts to reveal Elvis as a fraud, freak, debaucher or all three, as many people of his time did. He summarizes Elvis’s 1956 output as “peppy music”, a label roughly akin to calling Mozart’s music “tinkly.”
Elvis answers Wilder like a man not particularly interested in reductionist characterizations, a man confident in how history would judge him. Elvis punched a hole in American culture big enough for multitudes to pass through after him. That is why, indeed, he lives on.