Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions”

Album cover for The Sun Sessions

I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley’s “The Sun Sessions” this week. This 1976 album presents a collection of recordings of Presley from 1954 and 1955. Sun released ten of these songs as singles in the mid 50s; His debut album from 1956 on RCA Victor collected some of the others. This is a great collection, even with the less than stellar environment and recording equipment at Sun at the time. Of course, I’ve heard all of these songs in some form or another; If not these Sun recordings, I’ve heard later recordings of the same songs by Elvis and/or cover versions by other artists.

What we hear on this album is some early rock n roll in its youth. The genre did not start with an one single recording, but rather evolved naturally as combination of blues, jazz, swing, gospel, and folk music. Throughout this album, Presley gives us rock n roll versions of songs from the previous decades, further pushing that evolution. Among those is Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from 1947, which combined blues and swing in a way that definitely sounds like rock n roll with jazz instrumentation.

Presley was a great singer, guitar, and performer, he was not a songwriter. Depending on who you ask, he only wrote one song: “Love Me Tender.” However, Elvis did not write the music, and the song sounds a lot like the Civil War song “Aura Lee.” He is listed as co-writer on a few other songs, but his actual contribution was probably very little. Still, what he’s done is brought these songs together and played them in this new style, or emphasized that style, in an exciting way. While Presley was an important part of this evolution, he unfortunately gets a lot of credit at the expense of those he drew influence and also worked with. I believe that Presley deserves great recognition, but so do others who were denied the same attention because of their race.

That’s All Right

The album opens with Elvis’s first single, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s rhythm and blues song “That’s All Right Mama” from 1946. Crudup potentially got his chorus from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s country blues song “Black Snake Moan.” Presley’s cover introduced him to much of the world, as it was his first single. I love it, but now that I hear Crudup’s, I think I prefer the original.

Presley’s version opens with strummed acoustic guitar, joined by an acoustic bass. Elvis then sings with energy, “Well, that’s all right, mama, that’s all right for you.” The chord progression repeats I-I-I-I7 for the verses, and then the refrain has IV-IV-V7-I. The bass guitar mostly bounces between the first and up to the fifth note of each chord.

A clean electric guitar plays single note leads during the verses in a country style. However, the electric guitar plays two-notes to open the guitar-solo bridge. There’s not really any intentional bending of strings here, just straight-played notes.

Blue Moon of Kentucky

Probably one of my favorite recordings by Elvis Presley, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was the b-side of “That’s All Right.” This recording reworks Bill Monroe’s bluegrass waltz of the same name from 1946 as a rockabilly track. I love the sound of the slap-back echo on the vocals, especially the energetic way that he sings them. Again, there’s minimal percussion, just a shuffling of sticks on a surface, with the slap of the upright bass providing additional percussion. The acoustic guitar strums chords emphasizing the a swinging syncopated rhythm.

Presley and the other musicians performed this in the same key, with nearly the same chords, as “That’s All Right.” Here was have I-I7-IV-iv-I-I7-V-I-I7-IV-iv-I-V-V7-I. That’s a few more sevenths, plus a shift to minor for the fourth at the end of the 1st and 3rd line of each verse.

The guitarist plays a solo on a clean electric guitar during the bridge. The solo combines single notes and two notes played on adjacent strings. Again, these are played without bends. There are two bars of playing quick staccato notes on the beat, followed by two bars of syncopated notes.

Mystery Train

I really enjoyed Presley’s cover of Junior Parker’s 1953 song “Mystery Train,” which had also been recorded at Sun. While Elvis’s rockabilly version certain rocks more, it loses the emotion of Parker’s electric Memphis blues style. The lyrics of Parker’s song build on a verse of the Carter Family’s folk country “Worried Man Blues.”

The band play a variation of the 12-bar blues progression with a driving railroad rhythm: I-IV-I-I-I-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I. The bass hits every note, acoustic guitar plays constant rhythm in the background, rising at the end of the bars between vocals. Electric guitar shuffles and swings between the bass adding an urgent syncopated triplet groove.

Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Train, train, coming ’round the bend
Well, it took my baby, but it never will again
No, not again

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