Icons / June 2019

Elvis Presley: The Breakthrough Moment

G. Bruce Boyer recounts the pivotal moment of The King’s journey to super stardom, when, as a swaggering, confident and deviously handsome 19-year-old, he walked into Sun Records studio…

Elvis Presley sporting an argyle sock and penny loafer combination in 1956.

There’s a point to be made about Elvis Presley’s early life that actually touches on our music in a unique way. Forget the bloated, drug-addled, gun-toting, ludicrously dressed Elvis of his later years, the horror figure that haunted Las Vegas singing to middle-aged women and passing out his sweat-drenched cheap scarves. I’m talking about the shiny young man who walked into the Sun Records studio in the morning of his life full of hope and confusion, with charisma and talent bursting transcendently out of him.

Elvis came of age in the very middle of the 20th century, in the decade following two world wars and a soul-searing economic depression. And it was for the post-war American 1950s to delve chaotically into the issues of race, working-class anxiety, mass culture, corporate consumerism, and sexual permissiveness in a time of unparalleled and prosperity. When it came to the New Music of youth, rock ’n’ roll, it was clear to everyone from the beginning — fans and detractors alike — that Presley was a catalyst, that he straddled both black and white entertainment, and that his story was a uniquely American story: the poor southern boy who became a significant cultural icon of the century. As Bob Dylan later said, “Hearing him for the first time was like bursting out of jail”.

Those first few records he recorded at the Sun recording studio on Union Avenue in Memphis shined forth the promise of a new dawn, a new and vibrant world possessed by the spirit of joy and the hope of plenty. But to listen to the historic Elvis Presley Sun sessions today is to feel nothing so much as a great sadness, a sadness of waste and indulgence and exploitation, a gloom in which to contemplate what might have been instead of what was: the erratic but understandable downward spiral into drug addiction and death on a bathroom floor at 42, distended and destroyed by success.

There was so much promise, so much exuberance in those first songs — a mere 19 of them — recorded in the months from July 5, 1954 to  July 11, 1955. The actual recording dates of specific songs during this period are not known, so there’s considerable debate among critics, but everyone seems to agree that Harbor Lights was the first recording to have survived, and Tryin’ to Get to You and Mystery Train the last. We think, looking back over the trajectory of Elvis’s fame, that perhaps what followed was all but inevitable — even predictable — as success corroded and finally destroyed a budding talent who might have achieved so much more than just celebrity. He might have been an artist.

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G. Bruce Boyer