In November 1955, Sam Phillips sold Elvis Presley's contract to RCA Victor for $35,000, plus $5,000 in back royalties he owed Elvis. It was the largest amount paid for a single performer up to that time. Steve Sholes, RCA's premier A&R (artist and repertoire) man, had helped sign Elvis to the label. Sholes oversaw the company's specialty singles, which included country western, gospel, and R&B, so he served as the producer of Elvis' first recordings for RCA.
Moving to RCA was a major step in Elvis'
career and a major investment for the company; at the very least, it meant
going national and international in promotion and distribution. Sholes was aware
that the execs at RCA were closely watching their unusual new artist, who
didn't fit into any of the company's existing categories of music.
A mix of rock 'n' roll and ballads, Elvis Presley reveals a talented
young singer with a unique style exploring his musical tastes.
RCA rereleased Elvis' Sun singles in December 1955 and then arranged for Elvis to begin recording new material in Nashville the next month. Chet Atkins, RCA's head man in Nashville, organized the sessions, which started on January10-11, 1956. Scotty Moore and Bill Black, who had worked with Elvis on the road and at Sun from the beginning, accompanied Elvis as usual. D.J. Fontana, who played with Elvis on tour, checked in as Elvis' drummer, though he had never recorded with the trio before. Atkins played rhythm guitar, Floyd Cramer was added at the piano, and gospel singers Ben and Brock Speer of the Speer Family and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires provided backing vocals.
The detached, professional air at the RCA sessions was intimidating to Moore and Black, who were used to the down-home atmosphere of Sun, while Sholes was unsure of how to duplicate Elvis' Sun sound. Stoker was unhappy because the rest of the Jordanaires had not been asked to join the session. In fact, everyone was nervous or unsettled except Elvis, who attacked his first number, Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman," with everything he had.
In effect, Elvis performed the song while he recorded it, which so impressed the typically cool Atkins that he called his wife to come down to the studio because "it was just so damn exciting." Elvis went on to record "Heartbreak Hotel” and "Money Honey" that day. The RCA engineers approximated the Sun Studio's echo effect for "Heartbreak Hotel" by the creative placement of a speaker and a mike. The following day, Elvis recorded two ballads that Sholes had found for him, "I'm Counting on You" and "I Was the One."
Sholes was disconcerted by Elvis' off-handed, instinctual approach to recording, in which he sang a take, played it back, discarded it, and then sang another, repeating the process until he felt he had captured the tune. Elvis did not read music, nor did he have any professional experience at arranging it. He just instinctively knew what to do and when. RCA executives in New York were also troubled with the Nashville session. The recordings did not sound as much like Elvis' Sun records as they had wanted, and the two ballads were unlike anything Elvis had released before.
A second recording session was arranged in New York, in which Elvis covered Cad Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti." This time only piano player Shorty Long was used in addition to Scotty, Bill, and D.J., and the focus was on explosive rock 'n' roll numbers. Seven tracks from the Nashville and New York sessions were chosen for Elvis' first long-playing album, Elvis Presley. These were combined with five songs previously recorded at Sun but never released. Interestingly, "Heartbreak Hotel" was not included on the first album.
RCA need not have worried about their new charge. Released on
Critics have long struggled over whether Elvis' music began to go downhill after he left the innovative guidance of Sam Phillips for the mainstream glory of RCA. Detractors point to the ballads on his first album as evidence of his move toward pop music and away from the groundbreaking rockabilly of Sun. However, Elvis had just turned 21 when he began recording for RCA, and as a young artist, he was still developing his style.
Elvis did not write music or compose lyrics. Rather, his talent was the uncanny ability to fuse diverse influences, ranging from the pop ballads of Dean Martin to the R&B of Arthur Crudup, into a unique sound that became polished rock 'n' roll at RCA. Elvis Presley, with its combination of ballads, rock 'n' roll covers, and unreleased Sun recordings, reveals a young singer developing his musical expression. Likewise, Elvis' second album reflected his variety of musical interests. To learn more about Elvis, see the next section.
- "Blue Suede Shoes"
- "I'm Counting on You"
- "I Got a Woman"
- "One-Sided Love Affair"
- "I Love You Because"
- "Just Because"
- "Tutti Frutti"
- "Tryin' to Get to You"
- "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)"
- "I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')"
- "Blue Moon"
- "Money Honey”
For more fascinating information about Elvis Presley, see: