Shelter in place with "Elvis Presley," a foundational classic rock album

Cue up the first bona fide rock 'n' roll LP to top the Billboard charts and follow along with this listening guide

By Kenneth Womack
May 30, 2020 2:59PM (UTC)
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Sheltering in Place with Classic Albums (Getty Images/Salon)

Each week, I'll present a new album for your consideration—a means for passing these uncertain times in musical bliss. For some readers, hearing about the latest selection might offer a chance reacquaintance with an old friend. For others, the series might provide an unexpected avenue for making a new one.

Released in March 1956, "Elvis Presley" marked the King's stunning debut album. Perhaps even more significantly, it was also the first bona fide rock 'n' roll LP to top the Billboard charts, which makes "Elvis Presley" the über classic album of all time.

For Presley, the early months of 1956 were arguably the most heady days of his extraordinary career. Up first was the chart-topping "Heartbreak Hotel" single, which established the rocket thrust that elevated the "Elvis Presley" LP into the stratosphere. Indeed, the success of "Heartbreak Hotel" is inextricably linked with the album, even though the runaway hit song wasn't included on the Elvis Presley LP.  

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In the month leading up to the release of "Elvis Presley," he performed "Heartbreak Hotel" on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. Elvis was already in full flower, with his gyrations and stutter-steps on display. But his band absolutely tore it up, with guitarist Scotty Moore establishing the song's patented slow burn before breaking off a fiery guitar solo for the ages.

Listen to "Heartbreak Hotel":

On his debut LP, Elvis's remarkable backing band, led by Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana, backs the King across a wide assortment of genres and styles, serving up a rock 'n' roll smorgasbord and highlighting the singer's extraordinary range in the bargain.

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Take "Blue Suede Shoes," Elvis's cover version of Carl Perkins's soon-to-be rockabilly classic. With a flourish, "Blue Suede Shoes" sets the album into motion. As Moore would later recall, the recording session for "Blue Suede Shoes" typified the band's loose approach: "We just went in there and started playing, just winged it. Just followed however Elvis felt." As the recording demonstrates, he must have felt awfully good.

Listen to "Blue Suede Shoes":

In short order, Elvis would turn to a cover version of Ray Charles's R&B effusion "I Got a Woman," memorably revealing how easily Presley could shift across different singing styles. As with several other tunes featured on his debut LP, "I Got a Woman" had been part of his live act since early 1955. Not surprisingly, Elvis and the band sport an easy facility with the song. Far from sounding road-weary, Presley and his band perform the tune with a welcome sense of gusto and freshness.

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Listen to "I Got a Woman":

The album's closer, "Money Honey," was recorded at Nashville's RCA Victor studios on the same day as "I Got a Woman." In many ways, the songs' proximity in the recording process demonstrates Elvis and the band's fluid skills in the studio. In rapid succession, they shift gears among such pop classics as a cover version of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and Rodgers and Hart's doo-wop classic "Blue Moon." For Elvis, of course, it was merely the beginning of even greater things to come.

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Listen to "Money Honey":

That September, Presley would make his legendary inaugural appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," singing a sultry version of "Hound Dog" with his swinging hips in all their vulgar, gyrating splendor. During a later appearance in January 1957, the variety show would famously edit the King from the waist down in order to protect impressionable young television viewers from his brazen sexuality. But then, it was far too late. America had a full-on dose of Elvismania, and there was nary a cure in sight.


Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. His book "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles" was published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary. His latest book, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life," is out now. 

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1950s Commentary Elvis Presley Music Rock