From the Shelf: Elvis Presley – Young Man With the Big Beat: Complete ’56 Masters

A while back, after reading Mystery Train for the first time, I went on a bit of an Elvis kick: I ended up with the Complete 50s Masters box, which is great and something I’ll get to another day, and have two discs of this box set on my hard drive.


As the title suggests, this box is everything Elvis recorded in 1956 and then some. There are two discs of studio stuff, basically a whole bunch of singles and stuff from his first record, then a live disc, a disc of raw outtakes and a disc of interviews for good measure. The first two CDs are nice, as far as I remember, but redundant since that’s all on the Complete 50s Masters (assuming you own that set, too, which I would recommend if you only want one Elvis box). The interviews are nice, I guess, although I truthfully don’t listen to them pretty much ever.


That said, the stuff on the other two discs is cool, fun listening. The live disc spreads across three different performances and shows him as an early peak: he’s not just creating rock as him and his band plays a raucous kind of country blues, but he’s having fun, teasing his audience with yelps and moans, and cracking jokes between songs: “we’ve been doing this song for about 25, 30 years,” he says before they launch into “Blue Suede Shoes.” I can almost see him smiling as they goof around during songs and when they crack inside jokes between them. It’s a side of him it’s easy to forget: before the excess, the movies and the pills, he was an electrical jolt on stage.

The sound on the live stuff is okay, I suppose. The Vegas stuff sounds pretty good and the material recorded at the Robinson Memorial has a rough, distorted edge to it, but it’s more than listenable – I think the guitar tone peaking and distorting as the band crashes and thrashes on stage, kind of adds a nice ambience to things. The stuff from the Hirsch Youth Center is more distant, muddy and drenched in crowd noise, but it’s comparable to a C, C+ audience tape. Which is a way of saying I’ve listened to worse sounding Grateful Dead tapes.


The disc of outtakes and studio sessions is also interesting. God knows how these things survived so long; so many other tapes of alternate takes and so forth were wiped and reused, even over a decade later. The most interesting part comes right in the middle, a session showing the evolution of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The performance doesn’t really change all that much between takes, although Scotty Moore’s guitar solo goes through a series of changes; he kills a take when he stumbles on take 8, for example.

Personally, I always find stuff like this interesting – the disc from the last Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, showing all the alternates of “Like A Rolling Stone” was also great – because it’s kind of like being there in the studio, or at least seeing the daily rushes at a movie shoot.


All in all, an interesting set. This was a big year in Elvis’ history (he signed to RCA, released his first record, appeared on TV and, you know, helped shape modern popular culture) and the set does an admirable job showing in detail: you hear Elvis as people heard him then: a voice coming out of a 45-RPM single, a man cutting a compelling figure on stage and, finally, as a consummate pro, slogging his way through the same song over a dozen times, each time bringing it.


Rating: 4.5/5




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