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Presley's last Sun single was Mystery Train, originally recorded by Junior Parker for Sun in 1953. Presley's version borrows the guitar riff from the flip side of Parker's disc, Love My Baby, and highlights Presley's acoustic guitar. There is no apparent reason why the song should be titled "Mystery" Train unless, as an English reviewer said in 1956, "it refers to a mystery train of thought." Countless versions of the song have appeared throughout the years but none have matched the effortless swing of Presley's first version or the compelling train rhythm and beautifully pitched vocal of Junior Parker's original.
In October 1955, just as the disc was beginning to sell, Elvis played the annual Country & Western Disc Jockey convention in Nashville and the haggling over his future began in earnest. Earlier in 1955 he had been signed to a management contract by Jamboree Attractions, Col. Tom Parker, President. Parker could see no future for Presley on a label like Sun with its limited capital for promotion and shaky distribution through the minor independent factors. "When I found Elvis," said Parker, "the boy had a million dollars worth of talent. Now he has a million dollars." Sun had already received an offer from an unlikely source, Mitch Miller, the king of the singalongs, who performed an A&R function at Columbia Records. Atlantic Records in New York had also expressed an interest but both companies balked at Phillips' asking price of $18,000, although the owners of Atlantic had been prepared to mortgage their little company up to the hilt to buy Presley's contract.
Among those watching the Disc Jockey convention in Nashville were Steve Sholes and Ann Fulchino of RCA Victor. They both agreed that they "hadn't seen anything so weird in a long time" and the negotiations started. Parker almost certainly played a big part in the negotiations because of his connections with RCA which stemmed back to the time when he managed Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold. Finally, in November 1955 Phillips flew to New York and the deal was signed. Sun received $35,000 and Presley received $5,000 which may have represented unpaid royalties. In any event, he used it to buy his first limousine. It was an unprecedentedly good deal for a singer whose appeal in the huge northern and western markets had yet to be tested. Some indications may have been received when deejay Bill Randle reportedly used Presley in a short movie he was making titled The Pied Piper of Cleueland. The response to Presley had been overwhelming and Randle became one of Presley's first boosters in that area.
It was a calculated gamble by Steve Sholes who had put his job on the line by signing Presley. It was probably only Sholes' enviable record that encouraged RCA to back him. He had signed an outstanding roster of hillbilly artists and helped establish Victor's pre-eminence in the country market. Sholes helped produce Presley's first Nashville sessions and remained active in Nashville until his death in 1968. He had been instrumental in setting up the Country Music Association and had been one of the first living members voted to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Presley's own feelings about signing with RCA are unknown but he was reportedly upset at leaving Sun, possibly because of its "family" atmosphere.
Although Phillips did not have enough capital to promote Presley properly and even knowing that Presley would almost certainly have left Sun when his contract expired, one cannot disguise Phillips' error in releasing him this early. A Victor official commented, "Maybe it was a question of Phillips not wanting to stand in the kid's way, knowing we had the facilities to do so much for the kid.
Or maybe he just liked the color of our money. Victor's money is so much greener than any other." Phillips himself always publicly maintained the attitude that "We had two up and coming stars in Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins under contract at the time we sold Presley. I haven't regretted selling his contract because I figured then, and still think, that you can't figure an artist's life for more than six months in advance." In any event, the sale of Presley to Victor was more than a financial loss for Phillips, it was an artistic disaster because Presley was never recorded in more favorable circumstances than at 706 Union.
From the time that Elvis signed with RCA there has been much speculation about what he did, or did not, record for Sun. All this speculation could be ended by RCA but they are not letting on. They have issued two boxed sets which contained a fragment of Presley's jump suit as the only previously unavailable item and three volumes of the "Legendary Performer" series have been devoted to greatest hits and esoterica from Presley's long career. The accompanying booklets have offered tantalizing glimpses of Sun tape boxes, containing such items as Satisfied and hinting at unissued takes of other songs. No doubt all will be revealed by the time we are old and gray.
Sam Phillips was supposed to hand over all recordings by Elvis Presley in his possession in exchange for $35,000 and limited sell-off rights. He complied but a few fragments have escaped including a false start of I Don't Care ff the Sun Don't Shine and a trial run through Blue Moon of Kentucky, which offer fascinating glimpses of Presley in the Sun studio, interacting with Scotty, Bill and Sam Phillips. An acetate of a bluesy version of I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone also came to light in the late '60s. Still in the Sun vaults is a tape fragment of a guitarist, who sounds amazingly like Scotty Moore, rehearsing How Do You Think I Feel? which Elvis later cut for RCA.
When RCA was putting together their first Presley album, after the initial success of Heartbreak Hotel they dug into the Sun recordings. They had received hours of tape from Phillips and some fully mastered songs, includingl71 Neuer Let You Go, Trying to Get to You, ILoue You Because, BlueMoon and Just Because. These were probably the "five unissued waxings" that Billboard mentioned when they announced his signing with RCA on November 26,1955. From that point, RCA touched nothing in those boxes until 1973 when they issued Harbor Lights on one of the "Legendary Performer" albums. It was far being the finest thing Presley had recorded for Sun but it was interesting to see him trying to become a crooner. RCA has admitted having Tennessee Saturday Night on tape and various guesses have been made concerning the other songs left unissued. It might be a long time before we know the complete story because it was twenty years from the time he signed with RCA before all his Sun recordings were brought together in one package.
Sam Phillips probably still has the pages from his notebook which logged the session details, cash advances and the like and he definitely still has his original contract with Presley. The Sun International Corp., a division of the Shelby Singleton Corp. in Nashville, also has the tapes of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, a session recorded in the old Sun studio in December 1956 just after Elvis had finished his first dates in Las Vegas. Elvis played piano in the two keys he knew, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins played guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis, just arrived from Louisiana, sang and played piano occasionally. "John was already there," recalled Perkins. "He stopped by to pick up a little money and Elvis . . . came to see us. We started singing old hymns and we did things like Blueberry Hill, Island of Golden Dreams, I Won 't Haue to Cross Jordan Alone, Tutti Frutti, Peace in the Valley and The Old Rugged Cross. I guess Sam must must have two hours of tape there with lots of laughing and joking on it." The tapes have been the subject of a lawsuit and it seems unlikely that they will be issued legally in the near future.
Presley's voice is also rumored to be present on Ray Harris's Sun recording of Greenback Dollar and on a series of duets recorded with Jerry Lee Lewis. It is anybody's guess whether Elvis is singing with Ray Harris and it is highly unlikely that he is participating in the duets with Lewis. Jerry Lee's comment on the album was typically irreverent, "That dead of son-of-gun is still riding on my coattails."
So much has been written about Presley, especially since his death in August 1977, that it is almost superfluous to comment upon his contribution to popular and rock music. He was also a pivotal figure in the development of country & western music. He was not doing anything radically different but he took some developments further than their originators had intended. White country singers had freely plagiarized and overtly covered R&B material since the War and many country boogie artists used black rhythms and black instrumentation. Wayne Raney and the Delmore Brothers, for example, had mastered the boogie idiom as successfully as any jump blues combo. It was only the cornball vocals and the plodding hillbilly rhythms on the slower numbers that identified the artists as country personalities. Even Presley's clothes, sometimes as loud as his music, were not unusual. Nudie's Rodeo Tailors in Los Angeles, for example, had outfitted most country artists at the height of garish bad taste for years.
It was unusual for country artists to gyrate to the music, though. A few uninhibited souls danced a solitary jig during a spirited fiddle solo and some tapped an immaculately studded boot on the stage but no one flailed and wailed or threw himself to the floor. Tex Ritter viewed this development with more detachment than most because Presley was unlikely to encroach upon Ritter's market for cloying western ballads. "That boy," he drawled, "sure gits audiences worked up and he sure gits himself worked up gitting 'em worked up.
Presley also freed country music from its plodding rhythms and gave it a freer blues style. In short, he was the first artist to bring a totally black approach to country music. This was partly because his background in poor downtown Memphis, close to the black neighborhoods, had given him a genuine feel for black music and partly because his voice was deep, which enabled him to adapt easily to black singing styles. "When I first heard him," said one girl in 1956, "I thought he was an old man." Presley, in common with many of his contemporaries was looking for something more exciting than half a dozen stately choruses of the Tennessee Waltz. He looked for a medium through which he could express his youthful vigor and sensuality. Sam Phillips was one of the few producers who would have encouraged this hybrid style. "Take your hats off to Sam," said the anonymous writer of "Your Record Stars." "He recognized talent where most people would have winced."
At Sun, Presley was recorded in exactly the same way as the R&B acts who passed through the door. Reverberation was used to create a stark, lonesome and incisive sound which was not lessened by the addition of vocal groups or choruses which became the bane of many of his later recordings. Moreover, Scotty Moore, an exciting and inventive guitarist, was able to adapt to both country and R&B styles. After a few months with Presley his playing took on the harsh tone and searing runs characterized by B. B. King. This fusion makes Scotty one of the founding fathers of modern rock guitar playing. His solos on Baby Let's Play House, for example, are among the finest in '50s rock & roll.
The limited instrumentation brought the acoustic guitar into greater prominence and highlighted the powerful support of Bill Black's upright bass. Drummer D. J. Fontana was recruited from the Louisiana Hayride in the Spring of 1955 but he is hardly noticeable on the Sun recordings because the pulse is sufficiently strong to make a drummer almost redundant. D. J.'s day of glory was to come with Hound Dog a year after Elvis left Sun.
Presley's group continued to work with him after he left Sun and are seen and heard to particularly good advantage in his second movie Loving You. Sadly, the sound they had forged with Phillips became partially submerged when the Jordanaires began their association with Presley which stretched over twenty years. Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D. J. Fontana quit Presley's line-up in September 1957, claiming that their $100 a week salary was insufficient, but they returned for the occasional live appearance and to make the "King Creole" soundtrack.
After Presley's induction into the army, Bill Black formed his own combo and was one of the first artists to record for Joe Cuoghi's Hi label. He led the group until his death in October 1965. Scotty Moore returned to session work and produced many later Sun sessions in addition to work for Fernwood and his own Music City Recorders in Nashville. He has played on countless other sessions and even recorded an album of Presley's greatest hits for Epic in 1962. In 1968 he joined Elvis and D. J. Fontana for a nostalgic romp through their old hits on Presley's NBC comeback special.
Presley's career after he leftSun has been formidably well documented. He never quite gave up on his country, blues and gospel roots but he rarely managed to recapture the effortless excitement of his earliest records. Twenty years after he chased around the mid-South playing That's All Right Mama twice a night for peanuts, he was sitting on his bed in the International Hotel in Las Vegas, bloated, bored and paranoid waiting for his love bath with the blue rinse set. No one will know the thoughts that passed through his mind on those nights any more than we will know the thoughts that passed through Hank Williams' head on the night before he died. We just know that Elvis Presley rarely tried to make records with the same magic formula that he used in his early days. The formula does not sound dated; in fact, it's still used as a point of reference by countless musicians around the world.
The last word belongs to Sam Phillips, who watched some early footage of Elvis on a television documentary and said, "Wasn't he something? . . . He stood on his own. I'll see it in my mind's eye until the day I die-and then I'm not so sure that I won't see it after that."