In trying to find a way to write about the classic artists of rock & roll history, I basically decided facts are no good. You can find plenty of those at Wikipedia or Allmusic. (And you should, if you’re a budding rock scholar, spend lots of time at those sites. Read everything! Websites, books, magazines, codices, stone tablets…anything you can track down.) So, my method of storytelling will involve presenting the albums and songs necessary for basic conversation with other music geeks. In other words, if you know nothing else about these artists, this is the minimum you should know, whether for musical or historical reasons, and should serve as a good entry point for the unfamiliar. The albums are linked for listening, or you can check out a couple of song examples.
It’s important to bear in mind that when Elvis first arrived on the scene, teens thought him sexy and parents considered him dangerous. Swinging his hips and singing the devil’s music, he swept across America, capturing the hearts of young girls (who wanted to date him) and the imaginations of young boys (who wanted to be him). If Bill Haley introduced rock & roll to the mainstream, Presley made the music take off its shoes and make itself comfortable. Today, the stereotypical image of Elvis tends to be that of late-period, 70s Elvis: slightly overweight, wearing the oversized jumpsuit, with the oversized belt, and the oversized collar. But it was the young and lean trucker from Tupelo who earned the appellation “The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Here’s the least you need to know:
The Essential Elvis Presley Any two-disc greatest hits set will provide you with the basics; most–though not all–of his biggest hits, with a few other tracks thrown in. This set covers a nice spectrum but doesn’t even include all his #1 hits. Given the importance of Elvis to American music, you will need to hear more. If you ever decide that Elvis is your new hero, you can move on to innumerable box sets — these sets document his soundtracks, his Christmas songs, his gospel recordings, rare and unreleased recordings, live performances, or you can simply go crazy and buy the 30-disc set The Complete Masters, which covers pretty much everything. (If you’re serious–or insane–about music scholarship, this mammoth set actually serves as a good method of stripping away the iconography, following Presley’s entire journey from boy to man. Somewhat more manageable are three 5-disc box sets–The King Of Rock n Roll, From Nashville To Memphis, and Walk A Mile In My Shoes–each representing a different decade, which also serve this purpose nicely.) Check: Hound Dog & Burning Love
Sunrise – The Complete Sun Sessions (1954-1955) Raw Elvis. Just off the streets. His first singles for the Sun label, and some people, including John Lennon, believe he never bettered these 19 tracks (that’s what happens when you jump from an indie to a major label–everyone thinks it’s all downhill from there). Check: That’s All Right & Blue Moon
Elvis Presley (1956) His debut album for RCA. The sound of youth and confidence. The first rock & roll album to reach the number one spot on the national charts and the beginning of world domination. Also, a much-imitated album cover. Check: Blue Suede Shoes & Heartbreak Hotel
From Elvis In Memphis (1969) After years of producing half-baked soundtracks and sitting idly by while a new generation of British and American bands overtook him in cultural significance, Elvis finally decided to show the young pups that the old dog could still hunt. In doing so, he made arguably his finest album, blending country, soul, and rock in a manner he could never quite duplicate again. Check: Wearin’ That Loved On Look & True Love Travels On A Gravel Road
Elvis Live Live in the 70s. The beginning of excess. Overblown and admittedly cheesy at times to modern ears, but that’s part of the Elvis experience. Karate moves, bedazzled jumpsuits, sweat-stained scarves, a massive band behind him… the beginning of the mythic Elvis. Check: Suspicious Minds & You Gave Me A Mountain
Note: By no means am I 100% sold on this format for writing about the classics. I’ll try it for a while and see if it sticks, or morphs into something else, or requires a total rethink. Let’s do the 60s next time.
Note 2: If you should choose to click on a Spotify album link, you’ll notice some of these are deluxe, double-disc editions. The second disc usually has alternate takes and unreleased tracks with contemporaneous singles. Historically interesting, but not always necessary.