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Sunday, January 09, 2005

THE SUN NEVER SETS ON THE ROCK AND ROLL EMPIRE 

Last night the Big Trunk from Power Line marked what would have been Elvis Presley's 70th birthday by publishing another installment in his recent series of posts about the King, this time listing and commenting on ten of his greatest songs. The first five come from the legendary Sun Sessions of 1954 and 1955. This may seem disproportionate, given that Elvis's career continued for over two decades more before his sad and premature demise. In point of fact, it doesn't give enough weight to those recordings.

What Elvis did in the cramped rooms of 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee was invent rock and roll. This makes the Sun Sessions one of the pivotal creative works of the 20th Century, equal to what (say) Joyce, Eliot, Stravinsky, and Picasso accomplished in their spheres. And no, I'm not kidding (and I'm big on Joyce, so I don't offer such praise lightly). Elvis took three distinctly American forms of folk music--blues, country, and gospel--and wove them into a fourth. Through the spark of his genius as both a creator and a performer, this fourth form of American folk music became massively and transformatively popular, for good or ill (mostly good, in my opinion, but that's a topic for another day). If you don't already own the Sun Sessions, I command you to go forth and purchase it immediately--here's the version the Big Trunk recommended; here's a one-disc, masters-only version; there's also the excellent box set "The Complete 50's Masters," the first disc of which includes all the Sun sides.

One more thing about the Sun Sessions deserves mention: the contribution of guitarist Scotty Moore. Nothing he plays is terribly virtuostic--even I can pick out passable versions of his work on tracks like "Mystery Train," "That's All Right," and "Good Rockin' Tonight"--but the way he plays it, the reverb-drenched chockety-chockety that his fingers wrung out of his 1953 Gibson ES 295, is an absolutely crucial element of the sound. Peter Guralnick puts it in these words in his liner notes for "The Complete 50's Masters":
Scotty's hero was Chet Atkins, and [Sun Records'] Sam [Phillips] appreciated Chet Atkins' pretty thumb-picking, too, he appreciated it very much--but he was always on Scotty to emphasize the rhythm. "I told him, 'We don't want none of that soft bullshit. We want some biting bullshit!' Everything had to be a stinger--and it had to have great rhythm."

By the last few sides--with "Baby Let's Play House" and "Mystery Train" and the unreleased "Trying to Get to You"--you can hear the change, you can hear Scotty's guitar driving the song with slashing chords similar to the Memphis blues school, you sense that the instruments are fused in a fashion that Scotty described as "a total rhythm thing--it didn't bother Sam if we missed a note, you just kept going and hung on."

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