John Lennon once said, "Before there was Elvis, there was no one." That's as simple and accurate an expression of Elvis' musical significance as you can find. It's a fact that rock 'n' roll didn't start with Presley, it's also true that it will always seem as if it did. In terms of the music, only Chuck Berry has been as influential and original.
Elvis musical trick was not so much the simple marriage of black rhythm and blues with white country music so often cited, but rather the liberation of white teen-age experience and its musical expression by embracing the passion and style of black music. The freedom in his voice drove a thousand hillbillies into the recording studios; most were shameless imitators, aping the vocal outrageousness and sensuality that were Elvis' natural gifts. Others like Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Eddie Cochran would be try truly inspired.
Because singles were the primary medium through which RCA and Col. Parker charted Elvis' musical path, his albums were generally an after-thought - products necessitated by the bottomless demand for his music. As such, the approximately 70 Presley albums released from a fuller, more ill-conceived and revealing musical legacy than the singles. The sales success of these albums reveals the most basic truth about his fans - more Elvis was always better than less.
Two albums - "The Sun Sessions" (RCA APM1-1675) and "Elvis' Golden Records" (RCA LSP-1707E) contain almost all of Elvis' great rock 'n' roll recordings. "The Sun Sessions" collects most of Presley's epochal recordings for Sun Records, the small Memphis label that discovered him in 1954. It was at Sun that Elvis developed rockabilly, a transformation of black blues into an unpredictable melange of nervous vocals, occasional hiccups, loose and skipping rhythms, and frenetic guitar work. "Elvis' Golden Records" presents all of Elvis' big hits from 1956-57, including "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Don't Be cruel," "Heartbreak Hotel," and "All Shook Up." He never improved on these hits.
Not surprisingly, two of the best Presley albums - "A Date with Elvis" (RCA LSP 2011E) and "For LP Fans Only" (RCA LSP 1990E) - were hastily thrown together collections of older material. Both were released in 1959 while Presley was in the Army and RCA was desperate for product. "For LP Fans Only" combines four of Elvis' best Sun recordings with a number of covers of rhythm and blues hits including "Lawdy, Miss Claudy" and "Shake, Rattle, and Roll." Presley's version of Arthur Crudup's "My Baby Left Me" is one of his most exciting vocal efforts ever. "A Date with Elvis" offers five more of the Sun recordings along with "Baby I Don't Care," I Want to be Free," and "Young and Beautiful" - three of the best songs from the movie "Jailhouse Rock."
Albums gave Elvis a chance to indulge the electicism of his tastes and two of his best LPs had little to do with rock 'n' roll. "Elvis' Christmas Album" was greeted in 1957 as a type of sacrilege, but once everyone heard him croon "Silent Night" with an air of beautiful solemnith, the furor died away. The hillbilly cat broke through the Yuletide spirit in two songs, though - a rockabilly version of "Here Comes Santa Claus" and a rendition of Leiber and Stoller's "Santa Claus is Back in Town" cram-packed with sexual innuendo. "His Hand in Mine" (RCA ANL1-1319), a pure gospel album, was released in 1960 and has become one of the most treasured Presley albums. The singing, perhaps his finest during the '60s, was sincere and without exaggeration.
In the last 10 years, Elvis' two best albums may be "Elvis' TV Special" (RCA LPM-4088) and "From Memphis to Vegas From Vegas to Memphis (RCA LSL-6020, two records) - both featuring live material. "Elvis' TV Special" commemorates Presley's 1968 TV comeback and contains his only versions of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" and Smiley Lewis "One Night." The TV special was one of the most critical performances in Presley's career and once again he turned to black blues for inspiration. "From Vegas to Memphis" contains a collection of some of his best live performances from his Vegas shows, including a lengthy and spectacular rendition of "Suspicious Minds." The only notable releases of the last few years have been "Elvis - A Legendary Performer Vol. I and II (RCA CPL 1-0341 and 1349). They are the only attempts by RCA to package Presley material with some thought given to his musical history and significance.
Presley's albums say much more about his career - its ups and downs, the bredth of his musical interests, the changes in musical and vocal style, and his personal problems - than anything I've read or seen since his death. Our need to know more about the man should start with his music.