Thursday, March 09, 2017

A Review of Elvis' First Album

In 1956, when Rock'n'Roll was released, Elvis was already well known, as he had released a number of singles for two years.  This is a collection of some of those singles as well as his versions of other songs that were known at the time.

Some consider Elvis' first single, That's All Right, to be the first rock'n' roll song. Well, if we consider Rock 'n' Roll to be the white version of 40s and 50s rockin' soul, then I suppose so.  But Elvis' version was a toned-down rock from what Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thorton, Ike Turner, Fats Domino (although he was really doing boogie woogie) and Little Richard were already doing for years before.  Even Bill Haley and the Comets, a country band that decided for a couple years to borrow on the black sound, released Rock This Joint before Elvis hit the scene.

This album of Elvis songs was compiled a couple years after he hit the scene with his first single, but it's a good collection of his early work.  He has a great voice and his stuff is smooth to listen to.  It may have been insane to white kids in the early 50s, but it seems so tame compared to Little Richard.

I like Elvis' version of Blue Suede Shoes better than Carl Perkins, but I think that has more to do with production than performer.  Carl's version is rough and a bit hard to hear.   It's easy to see who was the favored one at Sun Records.

"I Got a Woman"   This one was written by Ray Charles based on a gospel tune "It Must Be Jesus".  In the original, it's Jesus taking down the names of the righteous and, well, Ray certainly did a makeover on that.  But Sun Records did a number on this song, changing it up from a simple big band rock to something that mixes and rocks and quiets down and really gets you going.   You can hear some early Beatles influence here as well.

"I'm Counting on You" was written for Elvis and really focuses on his vocal performance and his sultry voice.  And he's really got it here.  The lyrics aren't so great, the back up pretty simple, but his vocal work is really nice.

"You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone"  Basic country song, influenced more by Hank Williams than the rock background.

"That's All Right"  This was written and released by Arthur Crudup ten years before this album.    The original is so very similar, Sam Phillips didn't do much of anything to change it.

"Money Honey" was written for and released by The Drifters in 1953.  In my estimation, they do a better version, but I'm a real Drifters fan. I like the echo effect they give Elvis on the chorus, though.   For Elvis' song, they up the tempo slightly and put the booogie woogie piano at the forefront-- all to good effect.

"Mystery Train"  Written by Junior Parker who recorded it with Sun Records in 1953 based on a Carter Family Celtic standard, "Worried Man Blues."    Great blues song.   Elvis' version is sped up and given some country pickin' instead of the sax.   To me, this is a perfect distillation of why Elvis' worked.

"I'm Gunna Sit Right Down and Cry" Another, less successful, blues song.   It was a pop ballad before Elvis made it his.   The Beatles did a powerful version with their sound in 1962.

"Trying to Get You"  Released by The Eagles (no, not THAT Eagles) in 1954, if you listen to that recording you can really hear Elvis' sound all put together, in a group vocal.  Great sax in that version.  Elvis' version, in comparison, is fully guitar rock, taking out the piano and putting the guitar right in front.  I like both versions.

"One Sided Love Affair" Very boogie woogie, and Elvis is really owning those vocals.  He's almost a southern preacher, here.  Originally recorded by Bill Campbell, but I couldn't find it.

"Lawdy Miss Clawdy" A Lloyd Price song that introduced the New Orleans sound that we usually associate with Fats Domino (who played the intro on Price's version).  This recording replaces the sax solo with a rough guitar solo, which is tough to choose between.  But I have to give the vocals to Lloyd Price.  He smoothly takes control of the song, while Elvis sounds like he's trying a bit too hard.  Both versions are good, though.

"Shake, Rattle and Roll" A Big Joe Turner song made famous by Bill Haley and the Comets.  Honestly, I've been a long fan of Joe Turner's version with the piano at the forefront and the sax echoing the vocals.   Elvis' version ups the tempo, but it doesn't improve the song as a whole.  It just feels noisy in comparison to Turner's version.

In general, I feel that rock n roll of this era is really a time of singles, not albums.  There are some masterful singles on this album, but some of the songs I don't care for as well.  I made a playlist of the old rock n roll of this era, and that's how it works best for me.  Hearing the best from the late 40s through the 50s and ignoring the mediocre.  Certainly this album has some of the best songs of the time-- Mystery Train, Blue Suede Shoes, I Got a Woman, and That's All Right are fantastic.  But the album as a whole doesn't work for me, because I hear all these songs in the background, some of which are better.

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