Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 59: "Elvis Presley at 706 Union Ave: The Sun Singles 1954-55" (2024)

The 59th set of exclusive vinyl items offered to members of Third Man Records’ Vault service was mailed out to the members in March and April of 2024. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (usually one full-length album and one 7” single) to its members every three months.

The 59th Vault package was titled Elvis Presley at 706 Union Ave: The Sun Singles 1954-55, and contained five 7-inch vinyl reproductions of Presley's first five singles, which were originally released on Sun Records seventy years earlier. These five discs were pressed in yellow-and-black-marble-colored vinyl, resembling the colors of the Sun Records logo. An additional 7-inch disc contained four more tracks recorded during Elvis' sessions at Sun Records, pressed in a different design of yellow and black “sun ray” splattered vinyl. (One lucky subscriber reportedly received a package that contained original 1950's pressings of the five Sun singles).

These historic recordings, cut at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee by producer Sam Phillips, marked the humble beginnings of the King of Rock and Roll. In 1954, Elvis was a 19-year-old truck driver, with no prior recording experience except for a 1953 acetate single. The then-unknown singer and guitarist was backed by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black for these sessions. Many would say that these Sun recording sessions were the birth of rock and roll -- which is not exactly true, because rock and roll did technically exist before the mid-1950's. However, these legendary Elvis sessions do have the same essential historical significance, as they capture the beginning of the rock and roll phenomenon as we know it.

Presley's debut single "That's All Right" was a cover of a 1946 blues song by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, though it sounds more similar to Marty Robbins' hit country version, which also was recorded in 1954. But Elvis' version was recorded before the Robbins version, and it immediately demonstrated how The King would effectively interpret black music with his own distinctive country-based style of singing, giving the song more swagger than those other two versions had. A legend was born! The B-side, "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", was a cover of a bluegrass song by Bill Monroe, also originating in 1946. Elvis' crooning and the use of electric guitar transformed it into one of the first rockabilly tunes. (The original single was issued in 1954 as Sun 209, and was credited to "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill" -- the other two gents being Moore and Black).

Presley's second single was a cover of Patti Page's "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine", an orchestral pop hit from 1950. Elvis' rockabilly rendition has a sense of rock 'n' roll irreverence, as he delivers the lyrics in a fast and cheeky fashion. The B-side is a cover of Roy Brown's 1947 orchestral blues song "Good Rockin' Tonight". Elvis' bopping guitar-based rendition is a fantastic early example of what we now call rockabilly, every bit as pioneering as the earlier recordings of the song by Brown and by Wynonie Harris. (The original single was issued in 1954 as Sun 210, and was billed as a single by Elvis Presley on the A-side. On the B-side, Elvis again shared billing with "Scotty and Bill").

Presley's third single was titled "Milkcow Blues Boogie", and was a cover of Kokomo Arnold's 1934 "Milk Cow Blues". After an intro that makes it sound as if the track will be faithful to the rustic Depression-era blues tune, we hear Elvis telling Scotty and Bill, "let's get real, real gone" -- and then the song kicks into '50's "boogie" gear with a faster tempo and with Elvis' distinctive crooning. The B-side, "You're A Heartbreaker", is a more country-based rockabilly number. (The original single was issued in 1955 as Sun 215, and was credited to "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill").

Presley's fourth single, titled "I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone", showed increasing chemistry and refinement by Elvis, Scotty and Bill. This single was a breakthrough for Elvis, reaching the Top 10 on the Billboard country chart. Elvis sounds a bit less brash here than he did on the previous singles, clearly developing into a more controlled performer on his way to the big time. A surprise guitar solo by Scotty paved the way for many of rock's future guitar soloists. Speaking of influencing future rockers, the single's B-side "Baby, Let's Play House" contains the line, "I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man", which was lifted by John Lennon for the Beatles song "Run for Your Life" ten years later. This cover of Arthur Gunter's 1954 blues song has more rockabilly edge than the single's A-side, thanks to Elvis' faster-paced crooning and the instrumentation by Moore and Black. (The original single was issued in 1955 as Sun 217, and was credited to "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill").

Presley's fifth and final single from his Sun Records sessions was "Mystery Train", a cover of Junior Parker's 1953 blues song. Although it was basically faithful to the original, Elvis rendered the song as a rockabilly tune, and the success of Elvis' version played a major part in the transition of rock and roll from "race music" to the musical mainstream. And just how successful was the single? Its other side, the country ballad "I Forgot To Remember To Forget", went all the way to Number One on the Billboard country chart, making it The King's first chart-topper. (He would later reach #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 Pop Chart eighteen times). In another performer's hands, this song may have ended up being just a standard country ballad, but Presley's distinctive voice and Moore's electric guitar made it special for its time. (The original single was issued in 1955 as Sun 223, and was credited to "Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill". The single was reissued by RCA after Presley moved to that label, as RCA Victor 47-6357).

The sixth disc in this Vault package is a 7-inch EP containing four more tracks which were recorded by Presley during his Sun sessions, but were released after Elvis was signed to RCA. The two tracks on the EP's first side, "Blue Moon" and "Just Because", were first released on Elvis' self-titled 1956 debut album Elvis Presley, and also on a 1956 single (RCA Victor 47-6640). "Blue Moon" -- not to be confused with the aforementioned "Blue Moon of Kentucky" -- is a much-recorded Rodgers/Hart standard. Elvis' version differs from earlier orchestral recordings by crooners like Mel Torme; it has spare instrumentation that draws more attention to Presley's vocals, which have a striking echo effect on this track. Presley's version of the similarly aged country standard "Just Because" is sped up compared to earlier versions, converting the song into vintage rockabilly. The first of the two songs on the EP's second side was also first released on Presley's debut album. "Trying To Get To You" was a cover of a 1954 r&b song from a group called the Eagles (no relation to the '70's country rock giants). Elvis' version is another fine example of the way The King was able to make such r&b songs his own. The surprise inclusion on the EP is "When It Rains, It Really Pours", which was not released until 1983, on a compilation titled Elvis: A Legendary Performer Volume 4. This song was another cover of a 1954 r&b tune, this one originally recorded by Billy "The Kid" Emerson for Sun Records. Presley's Sun Session recording of the song sounds like an unfinished demo, making him seem distant, but Elvis' singing and the track's instrumentation make it worth hearing. (This track should not be confused with the 1957 re-recording of the song -- which also sat unreleased for years, until it was included on the 1965 Elvis For Everyone! release. That version has a more "finished" sound that is more pleasing to the ears).

The bonus items in this Vault package included two linen-style postcards, one depicting the facade of the Sun Records storefront, and the other depicting sound-absorbing acoustic tiles; a name-tag-styled iron-on patch which reads, "That's All Right, Mama"; and a milled nickel 45 record adaptor featuring the rooster from the Sun logo.

A note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these discs. Each respective side has a single word etched: "My", "Whispers", "Motherly", "That", "Dolls", "Were", "The", "Reason", "Union", "Visit", "First", "Happened".

Elvis Presley "Elvis Presley at 706 Union Ave: The Sun Singles 1954-55" (Third Man TMR-967) 2024

Track Listing:

Disc one:

That’s All Right | Blue Moon Of Kentucky

Disc two:

I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine | Good Rockin’ Tonight

Disc three:

Milkcow Blues Boogie | You’re A Heartbreaker

Disc four:

I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone | Baby, Let’s Play House

Disc five:

Mystery Train | I Forgot To Remember To Forget

Bonus EP:

A. Blue Moon | Just Because
B. Trying To Get To You | When It Rains, It Really Pours

Reviews of other Third Man Vault packages