As silly as the Brouhaha surrounding the selection of the Elvis stamp felt, it still came as a curious relief when the young, sleek Presley was announced as the nation’s choice. It was all too easy to imagine America memorializing Elvis the camp icon, the tabloid headline, and opting to render pop music’s most central figure a punch line forever.
The stamp vote was more than a question of which Elvis is more attractive; it also concerned which chapter of his rise and seemingly inevitable fall we ultimately wish to commemorate. Choosing the young Presley, the resplendent Hillbilly Cat, was a vote for the boundless possibility and the sexy threat presented by rock & roll — the dream of climbing from the two-room shack to the mansion on the hill, playing by your own rules. It is this piece of the Elvis myth that is documented in RCA’s monumental five-CD box The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Complete ’50’s Masters, released just weeks before the fifteenth anniversary of Presley’s death.
What actually comes through most strongly in this set, however, is a refutation of the most common perception of the early Elvis: that he was a simple country hick magically blessed with a golden voice, a musical idiot savant who naturally and effortlessly came up with a new sound that changed the world. Over the course of these 140 tracks (every recording from “My Happiness,” the 1953 acetate cut in Memphis’s Sun Studio as a birthday present for his mother, until his 1958 army induction, with fourteen previously unreleased cuts), Presley the singer emerges as a workhorse, a student — finally, unarguably, an artist.
In the six years covered, one can hear Elvis’s ever-confident singing become increasingly honed and refined, for better and for worse. Presented with generally decent, challenging material throughout this era, his singing reaches masterful heights in tracks like the 1957 Leiber and Stoller ballad “Don’t” until it stands poised at the brink of collapsing into the stiff mannerisms that would sink the worst of his insufferable soundtracks and his tossed-off later work.
The most revelatory cut in The Complete ’50’s Masters is the first release of “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” the flip side of the “My Happiness” acetate. When “My Happiness” finally surfaced two years ago, it proved a surprisingly assured, traditional reading, if not exactly the Grail — the work of a young man who genuinely idolized Dean Martin. “Heartaches” is something else entirely; from the vocal swoops and slurs to the melodramatic bel canto spoken verses, this is the blueprint for numerous classic performances that followed. This eighteen-year-old is immediately identifiable as the Elvis we know, the one who announced on his arrival at the Sun Studio that “I don’t sound like nobody.”
These two songs eventually earned Presley the chance to return to Sun, and the resultant 1954 and ’55 sessions, of course, are probably the most perfect recordings in rock & roll history. Hearing these first masterpieces in the context of the recordings that followed, it’s striking that Elvis did not attempt to re-create the stripped-down, soaring elegance of his breakthrough work, choosing instead to broaden his range and versatility. Standards, ballads, novelties, gospel (as early as a handful of wonderful 1957 tracks), Christmas songs and — finally restored to their proper place in the Presley chronology after being held back and stuck onto later collections — some stunning blues add up to far more of this set than do the most celebrated rock & roll hits in history, from “Heartbreak Hotel” to “A Big Hunk o’ Love.”
This breadth also conclusively refutes the popular argument that Presley was just a lucky white man ripping off black song stylings. Blending and juggling this many genres was completely without precedent; there is simply no one he could have copied to produce this sound. Many have described Presley’s studio perfectionism, his demands of thirty or more takes of a single song, but the overall effect through these triumphant years is more sweeping, a striving for something like a universal style and appeal — an impossible goal that, astonishingly enough, he would almost meet.
RCA has done a commendable job with this Rosetta stone of rock, which features attractive packaging and photos, liner notes by critic and Presley scholar Peter Guralnick, full session credits (most for the first time ever) and excellent sound. The big hits and the Sun sessions have been presented with clean audio from the original masters before, but many of the less familiar album tracks have only been available in electronically reprocessed stereo or some similarly horrible state.
Without minimizing these achievements, though, selecting the best treatment for the Fifties-era Elvis was relatively easy — just put it all out there, done properly once and for all. If anything in pop history deserves this kind of completist treatment, this is it. Now comes the hard part: What’s the right thing to do with the wildly uneven, often maddening Sixties and Seventies material? Determining the legacy of the older Elvis will prove a complicated task, but in the meantime, The Complete ’50’s Masters is a box set fit for the King.