From: 29th Anniversary Issue, August 2006
(The 30th Anniversary of Elvis’ Best Album)
by Phil Arnold
How odd is it when it takes more than 20 years for a successful singer’s first five singles to show up in an album? How strange is it when a record album reaches only #76 on the charts, but most music critics consider it the artist’s greatest album achievement? Like so many things about Elvis, The Sun Sessions don’t fit into conventional patterns.
Everybody knows the story about Elvis getting his start at Sam Phillip’s Sun Records Studio and recording those great rockabilly songs in 1954 and 1955. Sun released five Elvis 45’s, using ten of the songs, but never put out an album of Elvis music. Another five songs had been recorded, but not released, when Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA for $35,000 in November 1955. The entire library of Elvis songs went to RCA as part of the deal.
RCA released their first Elvis album in March 1956, simply titled Elvis Presley, and it contained seven songs from the young star’s first Nashville recording sessions with the company. The LP also included the five unreleased songs from Sun. For the next twenty years, the folks at RCA never saw the potential for an album of all the Sun songs together.
What finally pushed RCA into action was the wide distribution of an import from England titled The Sun Collection. RCA released The Sun Sessions in early 1976. It contained fifteen songs (plus an alternate version of one song, for some reason). Here are the songs on the album, divided into two groups – the ones released on Sun 45’s, and the ones that weren’t, but did appear on the first RCA album.
Elvis Sun Recordings Released As Singles
That’s All Right Sun 209 (recorded July 5, 1954)
Blue Moon of Kentucky “ (recorded July 6, 1954)
Good Rockin’ Tonight Sun 210 (recorded Sept. 10, 1954)
I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine “
Milkcow Blues Boogie Sun 215 (recorded Nov. 1954)
You’re A Heartbreaker ” “
Baby, Let’s Play House Sun 217 (recorded February 1955)
I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone “ (recorded March 1955)
Mystery Train Sun 223 (Recorded July 11, 1955)
I Forgot To Remember To Forget “ ”
Elvis Sun Recordings Not Released As Singles, But On 1st RCA Album
I Love You Because (recorded July 5, 1954)
Blue Moon (recorded August 19, 1954)
I’ll Never Let You Go (recorded September 10, 1954)
Just Because (recorded September 10, 1954)
Trying To Get To You (recorded July 11, 1955)
In fairness, it can be said that the four songs recorded in 1954 and not released on singles were probably the weakest of Elvis’ production at Sun Records. However, “Trying To Get To You” is a strong rocker that Sam Phillips planned to release as Elvis’ sixth single. Elvis was actually in the studio trying to record the B-side for it when the sale of his contract to RCA was announced. They stopped in mid-session, and Elvis sent everybody home.
A significant body of critical review considers The Sun Sessions Elvis’ best album. Of particular note is the recent Rolling Stone Magazine listing of “The 500 Greatest Rock & Roll Albums.” As usual with contemporary media, Elvis’ got pretty shabby treatment overall, but The Sun Sessions did rank # 11 on the list. In a similar poll three years ago, VH1 ranked The Sun Sessions as the 21st best album ever.
It’s tempting to argue with the much lower rankings these two authoritative sources gave to Elvis Presley, Elvis’ first album. After all, it was the first LP to sell more than a million copies, the first rock & roll album to reach #1, and the catalyst that changed the buying habits of America’s teenagers (who previously bought only 45’s, not long-play albums). However, the songs on Elvis Presley were mostly Sun leftovers and covers of earlier hits by Carl Perkins, Ray Charles and Little Richard, so maybe VH1 and Rolling Stone based their decisions on the quality of the music, rather than the impact of the album.
In the case of The Sun Sessions, there was almost no impact when the album was released in 1976, reaching only # 76 on the charts. But there was plenty of significance for many of the songs it contained. As Rolling Stone has said, “In a tiny Memphis studio, in 1954 and 1955, Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley created rock & roll.” You can’t get more significant than that.
Beyond its historical importance, there is much more to recommend The Sun Sessions, as noted in a review on www.allmusic.com: “This music is fun; you can hear the thrill of discovery and experimentation on every cut.”
Which makes it hard to understand yet another delay in bringing The Sun Sessions to the masses. It took more than fifteen years after compact discs rose to the dominant musical format for The Sun Sessions to be released on CD in 1999. Now, it is exalted by a great many print and Internet references as a must-have for any Elvis fan’s collection. Fifty years from now the critical assessments will probably be the same, and The Sun Sessions will still be selling to the fans.
© 2006 Philip R Arnold All Rights Reserved
Contributing Editor Phil Arnold is host of ELVISBLOG www.elvisblog.net