Jazz and Pop, Youth and Middle Age like Young

By Francis Davis | Go to book overview
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Elvis Presley's
Double Consciousness

In Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, the first half of what will be a two-volume biography, we read that as a teenager Elvis Presley used to sing along with the groups at the all-night gospel meets he took a girlfriend to hear. This embarrassed Presley's girlfriend, particularly his habit of "trying to hit the low notes with the bass singer [and] the high ones with the lead tenor," though we can guess that she also found this irrepressible urge of his rather endearing. This is just one detail in a book that vibrates with them, but it caught my eye because it reminded me of a similar moment on what's become my favorite of Presley's recordings— one Presley himself probably never heard.

I found a copy of it in a Boston record shop in 1984, seven years after Presley's death. Then available only as a bootleg, it's since been released through legitimate channels, most recently on an RCA compact disc as The Complete Million Dollar Sessions. It was recorded on the sly by Sam Phillips, of Sun Records, in his fabled studio on Union Avenue in Memphis on December 4, 1956, during what was supposed to have been a session by Carl Perkins, whose version of "Blue Suede Shoes" (his own song) had preceded Presley's up the charts earlier that year. As luck would have it, Jerry Lee Lewis was also at Sun that afternoon, sitting in with Perkins's band on piano. Johnny Cash, yet another of Phillips's contract artists, showed up just long enough to pose with


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