Reviewed by Johan Palme on 4th December, 2021
Perhaps the most unique feature of the rock‘n’roll revolution in the mid-fifties is its cross-market singularity. For a brief period of a couple of years, the black, rural white and urban white communities listened to essentially the same music, and all the sales charts – Rhythm & Blues, Country & Western, Top 100 – lined up in a way they never have before or since.
But while everyone acknowledges the influence of R&B and to a lesser extent C&W on rock‘n’roll, it’s easy to overlook just how important traditional pop was in its formation, too. For better or worse: It added a sense of ambition and a desire to explore beyond the narrow confines of its predecessors, with string sections and new harmonies. It also, regrettably, brought in a lot of the worst kind of gimmicky, one-note novelty records.
Unfortunately, by 1957, Elvis Presley had squarely started to fall into the latter category. The traditional pop machine had pushed him into silly TV stunts and Hollywood B-movies. And as for his music, while he still was a fantastic singer at his best, at his worst, he’d started to sound like a bad Elvis impersonator. On this Christmas record in particular, you get a sense a fair few of these tracks have been picked specifically to fit an idea of what Elvis sounds like rather than work from what would suit his voice. The result is a hodgepodge of originals that sound like parodies of other Elvis records, and standards that have a few, subdued rock‘n’roll twists, with a strangely staccato “White Christmas” lifting ideas wholesale from the bolder Drifters version. “Blue Christmas” stands out, as a musically adroit cover of an obscure country classic, but even that is a bit of a colour-wheel novelty.
However, there’s another side to the record, quite literally. The B-side, for some reason, consists mainly of the gospel EP Peace in the Valley from earlier in the same year. And here Elvis Presley’s voice is allowed to actually shine. He’s no Mahalia Jackson but his gospel is earnest, modulated, and most importantly, free. For once, he gets to be Elvis Presley the singer, not Elvis Presley the Character.