MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Elvis Presley fans love an anniversary.
Every year, thousands of Elvis devotees flock to Memphis to remember the singer’s death on Aug. 16, 1977. The main event of “Elvis Week” is the solemn candlelight vigil at Graceland, his longtime home, at midnight Tuesday.
This year, fans have something else to commemorate. It was 55 years ago — 1956 — when the first two Elvis albums were released, launching an international music career that brought Elvis’ mix of country, rhythm and blues, and gospel to millions of fans around the world.
“It’s a documentation of what I think is rock music’s most incredible year,” said Ernst Jorgensen, a music producer and Elvis catalogue expert.
“Nobody was prepared for Elvis.”
To mark Elvis’ breakout year, Jorgensen and his team have assembled a five-CD box set called Young Man with the Big Beat.
Jorgensen will be unveiling the RCA/Legacy box set Monday at Graceland. The collection goes on sale Sept. 27.
The set includes not only the five CDs, but also an 80-page book that provides a daily chronology of Elvis’ year though photos, postcards, fan letters, magazine covers and other memorabilia.
The set also includes rare photos, posters and a replica concert ticket stub.
The first two CDs in the set are packed with music from the debut LP Elvis Presley and the follow up Elvis. Those seminal albums had some of Elvis’ most well-known songs: Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, Love Me Tender and more.
Those tunes, recorded in New York, Memphis, Nashville, Tenn., and Hollywood, Calif., helped sell 10 million singles and 800,000 LPs in 1956 alone.
They also brought Elvis to television on Milton Berle’s show, where he gave a hip-swiveling performance that excited his young fans and shocked their parents.
Elvis’ stage presence, soulful voice and love of songs he heard growing up in Memphis put him in a unique position alongside other rock pioneers of his time: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Fats Domino.
“We were fascinated about how this one man seemed to change the entire music business in America in 12 months,” Jorgensen said.
But it was the first album, which included Trying to Get to You and Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman, that author Peter Guralnick said is the more important of the two 1956 albums.
“I would look at the first album as an American songbook. It’s an homage to all the great genres of American music,” said Guralnick, who wrote two Elvis biographies, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.
The third CD in the set features rare live recordings that have been re-mastered. They include songs from a previously unreleased concert in Shreveport, La., in December 1956, and a Las Vegas concert where he bombed in front of an older audience.
Jorgensen said he is always looking for undiscovered gems like the Shreveport concert that can make Elvis’ music new to longtime fans.
“You try to get all the pieces to the puzzle,” Jorgensen said.
The fourth CD in the set features outtakes from the first RCA recording session in January of that year, and a February session in which Elvis does 12 takes of “Shake, Rattle And Roll.”
The fifth CD includes interviews and two segments of Elvis’ rare monologue, The Truth About Me. The outtakes and interviews display a sensitive, emotional side of Elvis amid a great deal of criticism.
Guralnick said the criticism didn’t start until Elvis became a national star, and it was based on class and social prejudice. It really bothered Elvis when critics put down his fans, Guralnick said.
“He was extremely outspoken that this was unfair, and that every generation needs to have its own style of music,” said Guralnick, who showed a documentary of Sam Phillips, the producer man who discovered Elvis, Saturday at the University of Memphis.
Fans can pre-order Young Man with the Big Beat for $109.99 at Elvis1956.com, or wait until Sept. 27 and pay a suggested retail price of $139.98.