|Subject: ELVIS AT SUN Wed Mar 23, 2011 5:52 pm|| |
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 nigger."
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's All Right Mama/Blue Moon Of Kentucky on 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 and January 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 lyrics 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."
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, includingl I'll Never Let You Go, Trying to Get to You, ILove You Because, Blue Moon 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 Have 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 left Sun 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, 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."