The shape of Presley’s career is peculiar, because his musical greatness rests essentially on the dozen-odd songs he cut for Sun Records in 1954 and ’55. To be sure, he went on to make some magnificent records (his early hits “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”; his ballads “Don’t,” “Suspicious Minds”; most of Elvis’ TV Special, which marked his 1968 comeback; and his last hit, the terrifying “Burnin’ Love”), but it is in the Sun sessions that all Presley’s contradictions stand in bold relief. None of these songs was a hit outside the South; it’s unlikely that most of the people who bought “Heartbreak Hotel,” the single that elevated Presley to national stardom, ever heard them. In fact, they became available in their entirety only in 1975, when RCA released Elvis – The Sun Sessions. But they are among the most important rock ’n’ roll records ever made. “That’s All Right (Mama),” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Mystery Train,” each rings with the exhilaration of discovery: Presley broke all the rules (he countrified rhythm and blues, jumped up country ballads) and did so altogether naturally. This isn’t to say that these songs do not express struggle or pain, only that they have an assurance and innocence about them which transcend their content. The hiccup intros, the quavering vibrato and the falsetto are the products of exaltation, of someone’s finding out how far he can go and going farther. The naïve recklessness and spirited intelligence make these records timeless.
Obviously, they touched a nerve when they were originally released. The day after “That’s All Right (Mama)” was first played over a Memphis radio station, Sun received 5000 orders for the song. The reaction was even greater when Presley began to tour small-town auditoriums and high-school gyms throughout the South and Southwest. Beyond the obvious influence of evangelical preaching, there’s been little explanation of how Presley developed his act. Nobody seems to know whether he formed it gradually or came to it suddenly. I like to think he arrived at it intuitively, the same way he created rockabilly. He swiveled his hips one night, shook his head, got a reaction and went with it. Whatever the case, this 20-year-old, who had been a mama’s boy all his life, evolved into the most frighteningly potent sexual presence this country has ever seen.
Presley’s combination of brute arrogance and doleful innocence was not artifice but an accurate reflection of the music he loved. The reassuring tones of Dean Martin and Billy Eckstine were influences as important as Arthur Crudup and Big Bill Broonzy. As Presley became more popular, ballads would begin to replace (never completely) rock ’n’ roll. It was the natural extension of his tastes. The first song he recorded was a demo of “My Happiness,” a sentimental Ink Spots tune, which he gave to his mother for her birthday. Even during the Sun sessions he displayed an affinity for pop in his decorous out-take of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The schlocky songs and lousy movies, the Las Vegas dates and perfunctory performances that marked his career after he signed with RCA in 1955 were not the products of a gigantic sell-out or the evil schemes of Presley’s manager and mastermind, Col. Tom Parker, but of supreme indifference. By every account, Presley was fiercely ambitious from the first, desperate for a chance; yet his success was so monumental and ultimately so assured that eventually nothing mattered. Even his worst records sold.