The Sun Record Period
Downtown Memphis, Tennessee, July 1954. A small rectangular one-story building set back from the road at the junction of Union and Marshall Avenues, partially hidden by a car lot. Inside, three musicians, no onlookers and one engineer-accountant-record company president. They're working on a record in the white summer heat in a world concerned with Suez, Indochina and the first hydrogen bomb.
The guitarist, using a tiny 12" x 12" amplifier, has a shy gaunt face and says virtually nothing. The bassist, fatter, more ebullient, cries out, "Man we was hitting' it that time." The singer, with a nervous smile and a voice that leaps from a low register to a high whine has all the time he needs. So, they try the song another way, slow it down. He strums his acoustic guitar, a present from his parents to keep him off the streets, while his accompanists improvise a delicate melody line and find the tempo. The sound halts abruptly after one minute and the group looks toward the engineer at the console for encouragement.
They're all in a studio, the rented premises of the Sun Record Company and the Memphis Recording Service-"We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime." The company president, engineer, accountant, salesman and shipper is Sam C. Phillips, the bassist is Bill Black, the electric guitarist is Winfield "Scotty" Moore and the singer is Elvis Presley, hungrier, more nervous and, as always, disarmingly humble. "Fine, fine, man, hell that's different. That's a pop song now little guy, that's good" says Phillips. Somebody else in the background mutters something like "Sounds like a goddamn n*gger."
Among the white kids who had no business hanging around clubs on Beale Street was Elvis Presley, just out of school, who picked a guitar some. "I knew Elvis before he was popular," said B. B. King. "He used to come around and be around us a lot. There was a place we used to go and hang out at on Beale Street. People had like pawn shops there and a lot of us used to hang around in certain of these places and this was where I met him." Both entertainers returned to Memphis in December 1956 for the WDIA Goodwill Review, and the Tri State Defender for December 22, 1956, carried a photograph of Elvis Presley, no longer hungry, shaking hands with B. B. King, who was trying to come to terms with the stir that Presley had created in the Rhythm & Blues market. /
One night in July 1954, Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam Phillips) played a dub of Presley's first record, That'sAIIRightMama/BlueMoonofKentuckyon his Red Hot and Blue show which was broadcast from WHBQ in Memphis. The result was orders totalling 7,000 copies for a record, the product of many weeks work, which was finally released on July 19, 1954.
White singers had tried to sing the blues before Presley but there had always been a conscious effort to copy vocal styles and harmonic patterns. Presley achieved a natural fusion of the many influences that surrounded him and, as Sam Phillips said of Presley after he had left the label, "He sings Negro songs with a white voice which borrows in mood and emphasis from the country style, modified by popular music. It's a blend of all of them."
Elvis' first major influence had been gospel music. He deeply admired the music of the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet and had been on the point of joining the junior branch of the Blackwoods, the Songfellows, when he signed with Sun Records. Elvis also liked hillbilly, country boogie and the powerful early '50s R&B typified by Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and Big Mama Thornton. When he approached Sun, however, he saw himself as a singer in the Dean Martin mold, and the discs he cut for his mother in late 1953 andJanuary 1954 were in the slow popular crooning style. Phillips also thought that Presley was better suited to this style and tried him with Casual Love Affair-a song sold to Phillips by an inmate of Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville.
The first record was the product of experimentation by Elvis, Scotty and Bill. Blue Moon of Kentucky, for example, was attempted in a variety of styles which got further and further away from the slow bluegrass lament originally recorded by Bill Monroe. In fact, the first record created a lot of interest throughout the mid-South and That's All Right was covered by Marty Robbins for Columbia who added a fiddle to the sparse instrumentation employed by Presley. It became the first Sun release to achieve anything like national distribution since Junior Parker's Feelin' Good.
Later in the Summer of 1954 Elvis was interviewed by Dewey Phillips who had helped to make Presley a minor celebrity in Memphis. "I asked him where he went to school," recalled Phillips "and he said 'Humes'. I wanted to get that out because a lot of people listening thought he was colored." Sam Phillips, however, got a different reaction. "You can't believe how much criticism I got from my friends in the disc jockey business. l recall one jockey saying to me that Elvis Presley was so country that he shouldn't be played after 5:00 AM. Some people said they couldn't play him because he was too country and country stations would say that he was pop. The first break came when Alta Hayes of Big State Record Distributors in Dallas helped get the record moving in that area."
Elvis was getting mixed reactions but Sam Phillips decided that he should go on tour, which meant the country music circuit. Before long Elvis would be headlining with country stars like Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Onie Wheeler and Cowboy Copas, but, like everyone else, he started off small time. His first gigs after he started recording for Sun were at the Bel Air club in Memphis with Scotty, Bill and their former band, Doug Poindexter's Starlite Wranglers. Poindexter recalls that, "We were strictly a country band. Elvis worked hard at fitting in but he sure didn't cause too many riots in them days."
These early gigs were organized by Scotty Moore, Presley's first unofficial manager. Other people showed an interest, including deejay Sleepy Eyed John. He organized shows at the Eagles Nest club on the south end of Memphis where Elvis later played with Malcolm Yelvington's band. Yelvington recalls that, "Elvis wasn't at all professional in those days. He was a kid, full of enthusiasm but with a lot to learn. Sleepy Eyed John let him go. Lucky for Sam and Bob Neal."
Bob Neal was Presley's first professional manager. He was also a Memphis deejay and saw the potential in Elvis. He later placed an advertisement in the trade papers in September 1954 calling Elvis "the freshest, newest voice in country music."
That month Elvis moved up to the big time for a show at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis. Billed as the "King of The Western Bop" he came on early in the show and sang a couple of slower numbers that got minimal reaction. After the interval, however, he returned and sang That's AllRight and GoodRockin' Tonight. He was flailing his arms and shaking his legs, playing faster, bluesier country music than anyone had heard before. Among the artists standing in the wings was Marty Robbins who was so impressed that he recorded That's All Right Mama the following month. Elvis had made his first impact.
This increasing level of interest did not noticeably increase Presley's fortunes. He had given up his job with the Crown Electrical Company to devote himself to touring but he still traveled in Scotty's Chevy Bel Air, bought on credit by Scotty's wife. Bill Cantrell who worked for Sun and their hottest competitor, Meteor Records of Memphis, recalled, "I heard the dubs of Blue Moon of Kentucky before it was released and I came by the studio one day and saw Elvis for the first time. He was wearing patched blue jeans not because it was the style but because it was necessary."
For his second release Presley chose Roy Brown's Good Rockin' Tonight, which had been a bigger hit for gravel voiced Wynonie Harris in 1948. It was coupled with a pop tune, I Don't Care ff the Sun Don't Shine, recorded in three takes after Presley had fluffed the words on the second take. It was released on September 23, 1954 shortly before Elvis made his disastrous debut on the Grand Ol' Opry. Elvis wasn't ready for Nashville and Nashville certainly wasn't ready for Elvis. He went over very badly although his confidence was restored by a regular slot on the Louisiana Hayride, broadcast each Saturday night on KWKH (Shreveport). It was this valuable exposure that gave Elvis a solid base of support in the mid South and generated more radio station requests and plays.
The third release continued the successful pattern of coupling an R&B standard with a rocked up country ballad. Milkcow Blues Boogie was a vintage blues which was attributed to Kokomo Arnold. Elvis and the boys capitalized on their reputation for getting real gone by changing the tempo before the end of the first chorus. The revamped Milkcow Blues was coupled with You're A Heartbreaker and was issued on Presley's twentieth birthday, January 8, 1955.
The fourth, and possibly most interesting single was issued on April 1, 1955. One side was a cover version of Arthur Gunter's R&B hit Baby Let's Play House which had dented the R&B charts earlier that year. Presley made a telling change in the Iyrics when he sang "You may drive a pink Cadillac but don't you be nobody's fool" in place of "You may get religion but. . ." The reverse side was I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone, written by Stan Kesler and Bill Taylor. Years later, Taylor recalled the song's origins. "I wrote that thing in the bath. It was based on the Campbell's soup advert and was written as a western swing type thing. I'd almost forgotten that in the studio Elvis, Scotty and Bill tried it as a slow blues." The slower version, subsequently released on a number of bootleg albums, has a guitar figure lifted indirectly from the Delmore Brothers' recording of Blues Stay Away from Me. Elvis, his acoustic guitar heavily to the fore, sings in his slow blues style.
Even the bluesiest of the Sun singles were reviewed in the trade papers in the country section and it is probable that Elvis and Bob Neal were not setting their sights much higher. From October 1954 through 1955 Elvis continued to rush back to Shreveport every Saturday night to play the Hayride. He also played with other country package tours and headlined a Sun show which included Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Warren Smith. They mostly played within one day's traveling distance of Memphis although they ventured as far west as Texas where Elvis was starting to have a great impact. A recording has recently surfaced of a gig Elvis, Scotty and Bill played in Houston sometime in early 1955. They were obviously quite well known because there is some screaming as soon as Elvis is introduced as the "Bopping Hillbilly." Elvis ran through four Sun songs and also included I Got a Woman which had just been recorded by Ray Charles. He loved to sling the guitar behind his back and grab hold of the microphone stand but in those days the group needed him to carry the rhythm on his acoustic guitar. Occasionally he lets go of the guitar, shouts "Let's get real gone," shakes his legs and the girls in the audience go crazy. When they could ask a little more money for a show they were quick to bring in D.J. Fontana who could keep the rhythm moving and drop little bombshells while Elvis did his bumps and grinds. It was also starting to become obvious that Elvis might have a future outside country music but a lot of the older country performers felt threatened by Presley, mostly because they knew that they could not compete. Among these was Webb Pierce who observed somewhat resentfully, "That boy could put us all out of business."