40 Years Ago: The Day Elvis Died

Forget if you can, the hips, the hair, the pills, and the whole grotesque circus his life eventually became and remember that Elvis Presley, who died 40 years ago today, was in the beginning a hillbilly cat who could genuinely sing.

As is the case with many artists, Elvis Presley's best recordings, particularly when it comes to his vocals, are his first; the ones he made for Sun Records in 1954–55. They have been repackaged yet again in a very attractive box, Elvis Presley, A Boy From Tupelo, The Complete 1953–55 Recordings, The difference here is that this set, according to the press release, contains, "every known Elvis Presley Sun Records master and outtake," as well as, "all the live and radio recordings known to exist." While time will tell if this is really the final word on his Sun period, this is a trove of new tracks for Elvis geeks and anyone convinced that the Sun Records recordings are one of the grails of American music.

The first disc opens with "My Happiness," which he made for his mother, and the other three early acetates that Elvis paid Sun to cut for him in 1953, and includes the well-known master takes of all the tunes he cut at Sun during the next two years. The second, and by far the most fascinating disc, contains all the outtakes from the Sun sessions. The final disc is all live recordings, most from the Louisiana Hayride radio show, as well as assorted live gigs from that same era. Sixteen of these live tracks are previously unreleased, although many have less than pristine sound. Taken from banged[up acetate discs, the Hayride recordings have always been notorious for their poor sound quality. But the time and money invested in rescuing them in 2011 and for this boxed set (which may be the one and the same given the annoying lack of specific information in this set's 120-page book) has added clarity and brought Elvis's voice out of the mix and into sharp focus.

The press release for this set trumpets the fact that this box took "more than 1500 hours of restoration work and nearly 200 hours of additional studio time," and for the most part the sound quality is audibly improved from prior releases. Again, given all that subsequently happened in his life, it's easy to forget that in the beginning Elvis was above all else, a truly great singer.

A dramatic illustration of that comes on disc two in the outtakes of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," where Elvis, uses a fluttery falsetto to wordlessly soar in the style of Slim Whitman behind multiple slow takes. For a moment on first listen I thought there was a Theremin in the background. "Otherworldly" is about the only word I can think of to describe it.

Like all Elvis reissues this set was helmed by Ernst Mikael Jorgensen, the keeper of the Elvis flame as it were, at RCA/Legacy. The appearance of each new Elvis reissue set begs the question: is that finally it? Or better yet: what's left to reissue? Unfortunately, I missed an opportunity to talk in person with Jorgensen when he stopped in New York City on his way to Memphis for the festivities marking the 40th anniversary of Elvis's death, but that's a piece I will soon be writing so stay tuned. There were no SoundCloud tracks available from RCA/Legacy to post with this piece, but I found a Hayride YouTube track that illustrates the results of the 2011 sonic restoration. While the sound is nowhere near studio quality, just listen to how nimble and elastic his young voice was!

Jackblues's picture

Thanks for the article Mr. Baird. These recordings might be the most significant in American history. They would certainly change everyone's lives after.

A great thanks due to Ernst Mikael Jorgensen. If this set doesn't win a Grammy both he and Elvis will have been robbed.

Two minor disagreements with the article. While no one in their right mind would argue with the cultural significance of these recordings and
the RCA recordings released from 1956 through 1958. One could argue that his singing improved over the years. Most specifically in 1960. Then again in 1968 during the "Comeback Special". Even continuing in 1969 with the albums "From Elvis In Memphis" and "Elvis Back In Memphis". And the legendary monumental recording sessions from 1970.

The recording for his mother might be a bit of folklore. As the Presley family didn't own a record player during the time of his first demos. That's why the "My Happiness" acetate was left at his friends house. Then of course recently ended up with Mr. Jack White for a sum greater than $300,000 dollars.

I would highly recommend this set or the FTD Label set if one can afford it.

Allen Fant's picture

R.I.P. King.

Bill Leebens's picture

...and the city pretty well came to a stop.

Since then, Dead Elvis has become a cash cow, with week-long annual gatherings, seminars, whatever, during the week of his death---not his birth, because that was down in Tupelo.

Memphians have a peculiar disdain/cynicism when it comes to all things Elvis, but that doesn't mean they're not happy to cash in on it all when the opportunity presents itself. I was amused/perturbed to note that The Estate Of Elvis Aron Presley is now charging admission to the annual graveside candlelight vigil at his gravesite at Graceland. Well: why not?

Decades ago, as a jaundiced Memphian, I sat across the street from Graceland and watched tour bus after tour bus roll up to the wrought-iron gates of Graceland during Dead Elvis Week.

Most memorable: a busload of lederhosen-clad Germans who knelt weeping at the gates.

I shit you not.

Herb Reichert's picture

I am listening to this super-fantastic box set now - and writing about it in a equipment review. Thanks for your report.

@lec's picture

I grew up with his music, my father was a big fan of his voice.
We lived in a communist country, we didn't knew about his life, his exaggerations we just listen to his voice on very hard obtain vinyl records brought behind the Iron Curtain with much,much struggle. They were very very costly and we were marveled by the VOICE, nothing else...I am still today a big fan of his voice and personally I love his latest songs from the '70, especially that From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis Tennessee or his Country Album, I am 10,000 years old...His voice refined in time with experience, care, practice and by any standards was great. Today, some holland guy Bukke, sings EXACTLY like him, a thing that pure and simple amaze me... But, for us, who didn't had any clue about his life and we didn't even understood the lyrics of his songs, we loved his rithm and his voice.