- Elvis Presley: vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano (on “Tryin’ to Get to You”)
- Scotty Moore: electric guitar
- Chet Atkins: acoustic guitar on “I’m Counting on You” and “Money Honey”
- Floyd Cramer – piano on January 10–11
- Shorty Long – piano on January 30–31
- Bill Black: bass
- D.J. Fontana: drums except “I Love You Because,” “Just Because,” “Tryin to Get to You” “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’),” and “Blue Moon”
- Johnny Bernero – drums (on “Tryin’ to Get to You”)
When first looking at the track list for Elvis Presley’s first album it could almost be a greatest hits collection. It’s not. Instead, Elvis Presley is a great first offering by the oft called “king of rock n’ roll”. The album spans several genres: r&B, doo wop, country, and of course early rock n’ roll. Recorded in just a few months, the album was released on March 23, 1956. This turned out to be perfect timing, as one of his biggest hits, and one of the most influential songs in rock history, “Heartbreak Hotel” had been climbing the charts since January. While “Heartbreak Hotel” is not on this album, it easily could have, and, I would argue, should have been included. They opted to leave it as a single but it would have meshed beautifully with the other songs on this album.
The album opens with “Blue Suede Shoes”. Originally made popular by Carl Perkins, Elvis’ version changes the country tune into a song that sounds a little more salacious, and playful. The piano is the standout here, adding a bluesy shuffle to the once standard country fare. The second track on the album is the ballad “I’m Counting on You”, a song that sounds awfully similar to the, in my opinion superior, “How’s the World Treating You”, which would be released later that year. Elvis’ vocals sound particularly young and nasal on this song. Chet Atkins, the founder of “the Nashville sound” played acoustic guitar on this track, and you can hear the foundation of that sound on this song.
“I Got a Woman” is up next and the guitar on this is so bluesy and wonderful; a perfect example of when the backing musicians and vocalist synchronize perfectly. The drumming by D.J. Fontana lends the song an urgency. Another classic follows this song, “One-Sided Love Affair”, which is jaunty and again the piano comes in with a nice blues shuffle. Elvis sounds moody and almost punk (??) on this song. He is making demands and he means it. This is the song on the album where you can almost understand why The Clash opted to imitate the cover for their classic “London Calling” album 23 years later.
Whistling?? Ok…well it certainly took me by surprise. The next two songs both have the word ‘because’ in their titles, which might be a record for any album. However, that’s about all these two songs have going for them, as they should have been left off the album because they are not that great. The first of the two, “I Love You Because”, is the aforementioned whistle song and it features some very nasal over-singing by Elvis. He sounds young here and it does not help this song. The twinkling piano is very busy, while Elvis sings frustratingly slow, causing his voice to drag behind the music. While the whole song has very cheesy lyrics, the last lyric is “I love you cause you’re you”….I just cannot. The second ‘because’ song is called “Just Because”, and features the opposite problem as the song before. Instead of singing too slow, Elvis sounds as though he is struggling to keep up with the fast pace of this song. It starts out ok, but when the second verse kicks in, Elvis is trying way too hard. He is affecting his signature “Elvis” affectation that he is so famous for, but because of the extra effort, it does not come across well.
Elvis’ version of “Tutti Frutti” is on this album, and while his version garnered some popularity, this song belongs to Little Richard. Unlike “Blue Suede Shoes”, Elvis brings the energy of this song down about 10 notches. The result is a song whose urgency is stripped from it, making it a fun, but not as raucous or flamboyant. The next song, “Trying to Get to You”, is SULTRY. Scotty Moore comes in with raunchy guitar work that suits Elvis perfectly. The slow romp of this song and the roughness of the vocals is a perfect encapsulation of why audiences were so scandalized and titillated by him back in 1956.
In the next song, “Cry Over You”, Elvis sounds like he aged about 3 years, and I mean that as a compliment. The lyrics are balladesque, but the rockabilly feel of this song give it an edge that it would not have if it were arranged as a straight up ballad. This time, the Elvis voice is effortless, and the longing comes through beautifully. The next song, “Little Darlin'”, has a great syncopated guitar opening that continues through the whole song and combined with the slight reverb to Elvis’ vocals, lends it a dreamlike, sedated quality. That is, until they decide it’s time for you to wake up! That’s right, 3/4 of the way through this song, the pace picks up turning the song from dreamy to playful and it works wonderfully.
As someone who has loved all covers of the standard “Blue Moon”, I am very biased. But I genuinely think Elvis’ version made some points. The clip clop of the percussion grounds the very lyrically sentimental song, and it serves vocal showcase for Elvis on this album. He switches from alto to falsetto seamlessly and this song has an even dreamier vibe than “Little Darlin'”. The last song on the album, “Money Honey”, has a GREAT beginning. The piano (again) really shines on this track, playing a blues shuffle that is grounded by the rhythm section, giving the track an edge that is not dissimilar to “Jailhouse Rock”. Great ending song to the album.
Elvis Presley is a solid debut album. The great stuff on this album: Scotty Moore’s guitar, Elvis’ nuanced vocals, and the genre hopping all show the versatility of Elvis and the musicians. I even respect the parts of the album I didn’t like, because in listening, I can admire the strong choices that were made. This album is a sonic intersection of where music was at in 1956, showing how the music world was being taken by storm by this brand new thing called rock n’ roll.