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Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011

Elvis Presley

Young Man with the Big Beat (RCA Legacy)

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Nineteen fifty-six was the year Elvis Presley rose from promising, regionally popular Southern star in a genre the music press called “rural rhythm” into Elvis, the King of Rock'n'Roll. His ascent resulted in part from the work of his carnie manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Say what you want about the Colonel, and there is little good to say about him, he knew how to drive a hard bargain and had a shrewd understanding for the power of the nascent medium of television.  Thanks to his wheeling and dealing, Elvis was signed by one of the world's media giants, RCA, and stepped from low-rated TV shows to higher-rated shows. Ed Sullivan was the crowning performance.

The box set Young Man with the Big Beat
focuses on Elvis' miracle year. Packaged in the retro dimensions of a LP, the collection includes five CDs of music and interviews from 1956, a profusely illustrated 80-page book chronicling the year in his life and even a packet of photographs. The proof for whether this is valuable or simply indulgent is in the music, especially the first two albums he released for RCA (Elvis Presley and Elvis) and non-LP material cut at the time.

Although it became fashionable to unfavorably contrast Elvis' early work for RCA with his seminal recordings for Sun, the RCA sessions document a singer at the peak of his power, an artist who had achieved confidence in his talent and the music coalescing around him. The best of the Sun records were invigorating for their sense of play; Elvis was stretching his legs and finding his footing. By the time he reached RCA he knew what he was doing. Unlike some of his sessions in later years, Elvis was fully engaged and in control of the studio, demanding take after take until “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel” achieved their ideal form.


The many alternate takes included in Young Man with the Big Beat
provide fascinating glimpses into the process of the recording studio. The originally unreleased versions are solid, yet one can easily hear why they were passed over for the familiar renditions. They were clearly earlier drafts. The Young Man's live recordings from 1956 are documents of historical interest with their uncertain fidelity and wavering sound. In his first and rather premature foray into Las Vegas, Elvis and his little combo sound a little out of place. His swagger fails to cover his diminished status in the kingdom of Frank and Dino. Elvis sounds more in command during concerts recorded in Little Rock and Shreveport, where his furious performances are a match for the screaming intensity of his audience.
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