Elvis Presley – Young Man with the Big Beat (box set review)

Elvis Presley – Young Man With the Big Beat – The Complete ’56 Elvis Presley Masters (RCA / Legacy) CD review

5-CD box chronicles in detail how Elvis became the “king of rock n’ roll”

There have been numerous box sets and collections that have compiled the music of Elvis Presley over the years.  Yet, Young Man With the Big Beat may prove to be the most important one ever released.  Nowadays, we take for granted that Presley is the “king of rock n’ roll,” who helped pioneer a new form of popular music.  But, how exactly did it happen?  What was it like for the young singer from Tupelo, Mississippi to be thrust into the spotlight?  What was the public reaction to this new form of music?  Over the course of five CDs, this new collection helps answer those questions and puts things into perspective.

Taking a unique approach, the set focuses on a single, tumultuous year (1956) in the life of a rising pop star, a year in which he came in – a relative unknown, and left – a bona fide household name.  Through studio recordings, alternate takes, live concert footage, and interviews, Young Man With the Big Beat successfully traces the history of one of the most important figures in popular culture.  There’s even a day-by-day timeline that shows you just how insanely busy Presley was, sometimes playing as many as three shows a day.

Discs one and two focus on everything Presley released in 1956, both albums and singles.  Disc one starts with the original 12-song Elvis Presley LP, with its now-iconic cover featuring pink and green lettering and Presley, mouth gaping and eyes shut.  The album opens with a turbo-charged version of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” But, it’s with the next song, the ballad “I’m Counting on You,” that we start to see his genius; the instrumentation is pure country,  until the Jordanaires enter midway through.  Their backing is pure R&B doo wop, combining the two primary elements of rock n’ roll.   Other highlights include raucous takes on Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”  The goofy “One-Sided Love Affair” gives Elvis a chance to show off his early vocal chops – dancing and hiccupping around the melody.

There’s a primal feel to these initial recordings – the drums are loud as hell, and Scotty Moore’s guitar is drenched in an eerie, otherworldly echo.  Most importantly, Elvis’ voice is commanding, front and center – he has lots to prove, and he’s ready to do it.  Despite recording many new songs at RCA’s New York studios in early 1956, the album also features a head-scratching five songs that were leftover from his days at Sun Records in Memphis, recorded two years earlier.  While essential in their own right, these songs seem somewhat out of place amongst the meatier-produced newer tracks.  Presley’s voice has also deepened noticeably in those two years.  Disc one ends with several early singles, including the one that started it all, the almost suicidal “Heartbreak Hotel” – popular music had rarely ever been this bleak, and it’s original b-side “I Was the One,” Presley’s favorite of his early sides.  There’s also the stunning “My Baby Left Me,” sounding like a runaway freight train careening down the track, with Moore playing reverbed solos like they were shot out of a gun – this was Presley at his most evil.

Disc two opens with the 12 songs from his second long player, simply titled Elvis.  Right off, you can tell the difference – the piano has taken over as the lead instrument on many of the songs and Presley’s voice has been backed down in the mix – perhaps a little more pleasing to the ear.  The LP opens with “Rip It Up,” strangely one of three Little Richard covers – the song rocks, but there’s also a tightness there that can only come from playing gig after gig together.  Nine months had passed since the first LP’s sessions, and Presley sounds more polished and assured, especially on the fantastic ballad “Love Me,” again featuring the Jordanaires, while he sounds like he’s singing in the shower on the haunting “First in Line.”  Another highlight is the stop/start “So Glad You’re Mine,” which was the one track leftover from the first album’s recording sessions.

As a whole, Elvis has a wider stylistic range here, with many great ballads and midtempo numbers (although the tear-jerker “Old Shep” is hard to stomach).  The original album closes with the Latin-tinged “How Do You Think I Feel,” a sign of things to come as Presley would eventually delve into many different genres.  Disc two is augmented by some of the most important singles of his career.  The “A” and “B” side “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” may well be the greatest single ever released by anyone.  “Hound Dog” is blistering with DJ Fontana’s drum rolls throughout – one can only guess how this shocked listeners used to Perry Como and Pat Boone on the radio.  Its flipside, “Don’t Be Cruel,” with a repetitive guitar line and the Jordanaires so hot in the mix, they’re actually co-lead vocalists, is quite possibly Presley’s finest single.  There’s also “Love Me Tender,” recorded specifically for Elvis’ first movie – this simple ballad played on acoustic guitar would win over most of the naysayers that insisted he couldn’t sing

Disc three features live recordings, showcasing Presley in several different venues.  The best sounding footage is also the most restrained – Elvis and band playing a hotel in Las Vegas, backed by former big band leader Freddy Martin.  This material has already been released on the Complete 50’s Masters, and although he’s playing to a more adult crowd, he still manages several jokes, referring to one of his hits as “Heartburn Motel.”   It’s with the remainder of the disc, although of mostly poor quality, that we really see what is was like to attend a Presley concert.  One wonders how he manages to keep things together over the constant shrieking girls.  His studio work may have become polished, but his live concerts were still full of primal energy.  Especially telling is an early version of “Hound Dog” – not quite shaped into the massive hit it would become, although when Presley slows the song to half-time, you can almost hear the panties being thrown on stage.  In between songs, he growls at the crowd and the reaction is typical.  This disc truly shows what absolute pandemonium his early concerts elicited.

Disc four features alternate takes of some of the songs from discs 1 & 2.  Taken as a whole, this is the least revelatory of all the discs.  The alternate version of “Heartbreak Hotel” has the line “they’ll be so lonely / they’ll PRAY to die” which he later changed.  The twelve takes of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” does show just how Elvis and band whip a song into shape, but the differences between each one are subtle and don’t stand up to repeated listening.  The several takes of “Shake, Rattle & Roll” do show that Presley was working out which lines to sing.

One of the aspects of Presley’s rise to fame that has somewhat been forgotten is just how controversial the singer was initially.  The three extended interviews, which begin on the end of disc four and continue through disc five, help put things in perspective.  The Warwick Hotel interview is the longest (30 minutes) and the best.  Robert Brown seems honestly interested in the new performer and his career and is sympathetic in his questions.  We find out that Elvis gained 30 pounds since he began singing, he likes to eat pork chops and creamed potatoes, his biggest goal was to get better at acting, he liked Mario Lanza as a singer, and Helen of Troy was his favorite movie.  The other long interview is with a TV Guide columnist who is far more interested in all the controversy that Elvis had been garnering, and Presley definitely seems testy about all the questions about his “gyrations,” “lack of musical talent,” and the criticism he’d received over his wild concerts.

A final note about sound quality – even if you already own most of this material, it’s never sounded this good.  Mastering guru Vic Anesini and his staff have done an incredible job of making these recordings, over 50 years old, sound alive.  A fine example is “Love Me Tender” – the version on 30 #1 hits sounds mangled, and full of drop-outs.  Here, they somehow fix everything and the results are stunning.

Although the music on discs one and two have been released several times before, to hear it alongside alternate takes, live footage and especially the newly-found interviews, gives a much clearer picture of how Elvis became the “king of rock n’ roll.”  Young Man with the Big Beat is a truly monumental release.  –Tony Peters