During the course of any reasonable discussion about the history of modern music, there are always going to be a few names that pop up again and again—Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley spring to mind.
But more than any of these other artists, Presley was the one who basically ignited rock ‘n’ roll’s feral heart and made it into a viable commodity, both in terms of its commercial strength and critical relevance. His wildly impulsive swagger and homespun good looks meant that girls would flock to this music, but even more than his larger-than-life personality, it was the combination of this media persona and the music itself that cemented his role as one of the founding fathers of rock music.
The road to the recording studio led him from his birthplace of Tupelo, Mississippi, to the big city of Memphis and a meeting with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips in his studio. Presley would later relate that his intention was simply to record a two-song acetate as a gift for his mother—there are those, however, who have argued that, given Phillips notoriety, it was far more likely that he chose this particular recording studio in hopes of getting discovered and having his music picked up by Phillips for his own label.
Invariably, Phillips did see something in the young singer and brought in guitarist Winfield “Scotty” Moore and upright bass player Bill Black to work on some material to be released. Initially, this session was unfruitful, but they continued playing late into the evening until at one point Presley grabbed his guitar and started playing Arthur Crudup‘s “That’s All Right,” a blues song that found the singer jumping around and generally acting goofy.
“That’s All Right” became his first single and helped bring him to the attention of promoter and manager Bob Neal, who would go on to introduce Presley and his band to Colonel Tom Parker, who would figure prominently in Presley’s mythology. It was around this time that the jerky leg movements that he would become known for began working their way into his live shows. Born from an inherent nervousness and Presley’s own reaction to the music, these rhythmic gyrations would help solidify his standing as one of music’s earliest sex symbols. After a lengthy bout of touring and promotion—which included the acquisition of drummer D.J. Fontana—several large record companies developed an interest in backing the singer, with RCA Records winning rights to distribute his songs. They would even go back and reissue his Sun Records material under their own label.
In 1956, Presley entered the studio and began his first recordings for RCA, many of which would find their way onto his debut record released later that year. Mixing elements of rockabilly, proto-rock and roll ‘n’ blues, Presley managed to straddle these genres without much effort—especially for someone so young. These sessions produced dozens of songs, notably including “Heartbreak Hotel” (this song did not make the cut for his debut album and was released as a standalone single at the time). With the addition of pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist Chet Atkins and a handful of background singers, including Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, the record’s roster read like a who’s who of studio musicians.
These songs sparked the imaginations of an entire country, and not just because they were all rocking stompers. Many of these songs were low-key ballads or covers that didn’t necessarily display Presley’s manic live energy—though they did convey that something new and unique was happening in these particular vinyl grooves and radio airwaves. His cover of the Carl Perkins classic, “Blue Suede Shoes,” opens the record with a fiery bounce, heralding Presley as someone who could hit the marks of his peers while also elevating the material to new and undreamed-of heights. Other tracks such as “I’m Counting On You” and “Just Because” showcased his range, if not his rock ‘n’ roll chops. But these interludes were necessary to prove that he wasn’t a one-trick pony and could hold his own in any given genre.
This album was released to capitalize on the success of “Heartbreak Hotel” and consisted of songs that the record label thought were less likely to be strong singles. The given practice at the time was to release stronger songs as singles and fill albums with weaker tracks. As it turns out, though, these songs created the greatest and most comprehensive perspective on Presley at the time and gave fans the ability to see him as a wholly complete artist and not merely some disembodied voice coming through their speakers. Based on the success of this record, RCA made the curious, but not entirely unpredictable, move to release all the songs here as singles. Although that might seem like overkill and could have saturated a market already well-versed in Presley’s sound, fans couldn’t get enough—and the first steady footing of his legacy was established.
Presley would go on to become an American institution, an artist who was recognized in almost every household and would have his visage adorn everything from truckloads of memorabilia to postage stamps. His reputation would only grow and expand, eventually changing based on his own musical development. But whatever you think of his later material, the songs that comprised his debut record were some of his best and most expressive recordings. They are a testament to his abilities to include his audience in each track rather than exclude them. These songs needed the active participation of their listeners to reach their full potential, and people gladly did their part. Presley became an icon, one of the greatest examples of classic rock ‘n’ roll, and it all started with a handful of songs and a young man from Mississippi singing his heart out.