Fifth in A Series
By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Saturday, July 29, 2017
In the early 1950s Sam Phillips enjoyed a measure of success for his upstart recording studio in Memphis, marketing black artists of rhythm-and-blues such as B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett. Phillips directed and recorded a pioneering rock song, Rocket 88, by Ike Turner and The Kings of Rhythm, released in 1951 through Chess Records of Chicago. Soon after, Phillips founded his own label in Memphis, Sun Records.
By 1954 Phillips sought a different sound for Sun, and he surely heard the contemporary beat around Memphis. A new music was meshing at bars, halls and fairs since World War Two, although hardly played on radio stations. Essentially, musical tempo was cranked-up on guitar, bass, piano, drum and horn, by players white and black, to fill dance floors like jazz swing of the 1930s.
A music vacuum was drawing distinctly different genres into a broad, driving sound that would revolutionize pop culture and marketing. Forerunner artists of impact in the delta included Turner, Fats Domino, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton of R&B; “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe in gospel blues; and Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams of country music.
The Perkins brothers, white “pickers,” developed hot guitar licks in honky-tonks around Jackson, Tenn., north of Memphis. The Perkins band added a drummer, unheard of in country music, to really inject folks with dance fever. “In fact, we called it feel-good music,” Carl Perkins said later. ”We were just taking country music and putting that black rhythm in it, that’s what it was. It was a marriage of the white man’s lyrics and the black man’s soul.”
Phillips envisioned that breakthrough for Sun Records, for America, as a producer in both black and white music. Undeterred by social segregation, Phillips knew white youths increasingly bought “race records,” the R&B of blacks, despite industry fear and ignorance emanating from New York and Nashville.
“Black styles” were sparking “quiet revolution” among young whites, wrote Peter Guralnick, preeminent biographer of Elvis Presley. “Many of the small independent [record] producers were becoming aware of it, and in Memphis, where there had long been a relaxed social, was well as musical, interchange, it was particularly noticeable. White kids were picking up on black styles—of music, dance, speech and dress. ‘Cat clothes’ were coming in; be-bop speech was all the rage; and Elvis Presley—along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, and all the other Southern children of the Depression, who would one day develop the rockabilly style—was seeking his models in unlikely places.”
Phillips sensed his chance to harness and harvest a musical convergence of talented and innovative individuals along the Mississippi River. He saw a musician prototype required to lead change. “Enjoying success on the R&B charts, Phillips began searching for a white artist who could move Sun into the more lucrative pop field,” observed Robert Hilburn, music critic and rock historian for The Los Angeles Times, following 12 hours of interview with Phillips in 1981. “Seeing a void in the youth market, he wanted a white singer who could sing convincingly in the upbeat blues style that Phillips enjoyed most.”
Phillips told Hilburn: “I had grown up in the South and felt a definite kinship between the white southern country artists and the black southern blues or spiritual artists. Our ties were too close for the two not to overlap. It was a natural thing. It’s just that the record business in those days looked at the music as totally separate. They didn’t realize that it was a natural exchange and that the public would eventually accept it.”
“But rhythm-and-blues, from the beginning, was an extremely limited sound,” Hilburn noted. “Alone it could not have reshaped pop music. It needed help. Fortunately, country-western provided that help.”
Malcolm Yelvington was a country player who introduced himself to Phillips at Sun around 1954. “I just asked him for an interview, asked him for an audition,” Yelvington recounted. “And he told me, ‘I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for but I’ll know it when I hear it.’ He said, ‘That’s the reason I listen to everyone that comes in. One of these days somebody’s going to come in here and do something that I’m looking for.’ ”
“And lo and behold, it turned out that Elvis was the one…”
In early 1953, Memphis television presented a young performer named Presley—Toleitha Presley, 9-year-old baton twirler from Sikeston, Mo., appearing on a talent show. Her cousin Elvis Presley, meanwhile, was finishing his senior year at L.C. Humes High School in Memphis. Elvis’s public performances stood limited at that point, to occasions of spot singing since his boyhood at Tupelo, Miss.
After graduating high school, Elvis Presley drove a delivery truck in Memphis for $1.25 an hour. He also started showing up at Sun Records on Union Avenue, often hesitating outside, afraid to enter, according to recollection of Sam Phillips. “I saw that Crown Electric Company truck that he was driving pull up a number of times outside the studio,” Phillips said decades later. “He would sit in it and try to get his courage up.”
Presley was bold enough to come in and pay for cutting two records at Sun, singing four established ballads and strumming his guitar. Phillips assisted Presley on one such vanity production, when the kid was impressive enough. “I could see that he was a highly sensitive person,” Phillips told Hilburn.
“I took him back in the studio and sat him by the microphone. I told him to sing just like he would at home. He was very nervous. He’d sing a couple of words and then look over at me. But we finally got it together. I think we charged people $2 for one tune or $3 for two at the time and Elvis paid for two. They came off good.”
“I wrote his name down, the only time I can recall doing that with a singer,” Phillips said, “and I mentioned the possibility of making a real record if we could find the right song. Well, this just thrilled the hell out of him. He lit up like a Christmas tree with a thousand bulbs on it.”
In spring 1954, Phillips suggested Presley should “woodshed” or jam music with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, country players associated with Sun. A band might result. Presley agreed, even if Phillips still lacked a song for him, along with clear instruction. “I wanted them to get together and get a feel for each other,” Phillips said of the trio. “I also told them to keep an eye out for material. After a while, they came back and we went into the studio a number of times, and it was real rough.”
Presley, Moore and Black finally struck rock music at Sun Records on July 5, 1954, during a demo session in the studio of 11-by-13 feet. They covered familiar songs of pop and country, exploring melody and beat without impressing Phillips, before Presley’s knowledge of discography paid off. Young Elvis “was a big fan of people like Arthur Crudup and Junior Parker,” Phillips said. “He was a great blues and great country music fan.”
The session paused for a soda break but Presley was restless with a Crudup song in mind. “Elvis picked up his guitar and started banging on it and singing That’s All Right Mama. Just jumping around the studio, just acting the fool,” Moore later recalled for author Jerry Hopkins. “And Bill started beating on his bass and I joined in. Just making a bunch of racket, we thought.”
“The door of the control room was open and when we was halfway through the thing, Sam came running out and said, ‘What in the devil are you doing?’ We said, ‘We don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, find out real quick and don’t lose it. Run through it again and let’s put it on tape.’ ”
Phillips returned to the production board and Presley repeated his Crudup rendition. Moore added electric guitar in stylish solos and bursts: “Rather than just play a few notes, I was trying to fill up space,” he said. Black picked strings and slapped the upright bass, knocking out a beat. Phillips recorded straight takes on one track, without over-dubbing, and quickly declared a wrap.
That’s All Right Mama by Presley wasn’t the first rock-and-roll song but epic nonetheless, historians would proclaim. “At a time when popular music was straining for something new, there was no better catalyst than Presley,” wrote Richard Harrington, music critic for The Washington Post, in 1985. “He was the one who most publicly and effectively sowed the seeds of the new rhythm, and in so doing, unleashed a million libidos. He was the fuse as well as the flame.”
While Moore lauded Presley, he didn’t go far in designating That’s All Right Mama as a great moment in American history. “We got through the song and then we listened to it. We all liked it,” Moore said simply in 2004. “I think Elvis would’ve happened anyway. Whether he would have made it and had the popularity he gained, I don’t know. All I know is that he was just eat up with music like we all were.”
Moore praised Phillips for vision and spontaneity, a point echoed by former Sun personnel. “Nobody could duplicate the sound,” said Charlie Feathers, Sun singer-guitarist in the 1950s. “Elvis could make it here with a man like Sam because Memphis was open to anything: cotton-patch blues, country, bluegrass, soul, rockabilly. If there ever was such a thing as the ‘Memphis Sound,’ Sam came closest to it. The music that came outa here was a sorta let’s-try-it-and-see-if-it-works thing.”
Roland Janes, guitarist and sound engineer, said, “What Sam was doing was totally different than anything else that’d ever been on the music scene. And only Sam Phillips would have had the nerve enough to have done it.”
A Phillips trick involved positioning microphones around the little studio, not directly upon singers and instruments. Moore noted that “Sam kept Elvis’s voice close to the music” or set back with the band. “In essence, Elvis’s voice became another instrument.”
Microphone placement was “the most important thing that I had to do,” Phillips said in 2000. “Because I had a very limited board, everything was monaural—there was no such thing as overdubbing. So mikes were placed to complement not only the instruments but especially the voice… I worked sides [of performers]. Very seldom did I work anybody directly. And it wasn’t because I was worried about them huffing. I just had to get what I knew was the best sound, the most natural sound of that person’s voice when he was talking to me a few steps away.”
Phillips mastered slap-back echo, trademark of Sun recordings, “just to make it sound more live,” he said. Producers and disc jockeys tweaked the period’s monophonic equipment, adding sonic textures like electronic echo and reverb. Phillips manipulated a reel-to-reel machine for his echo, setting a recording delay between tape heads, milliseconds apart. The tape gap required skill to gauge precisely, avoid distortion, and Phillips was expert. Feathers said the man pulled “stereo sound” from monaural setups.
On the night Phillips cut That’s All Right Mama with Presley, he shared the tape with radio host Dewey Phillips, a Memphis star for his No. 1 music show on WHBQ. Dewey Phillips, a friend of the Sun owner but of no relation, wanted to air Elvis immediately and requested two acetate record copies.
Next day the Elvis song was cut on acetate discs by needle lathe at Sun Records, and possibly an additional copy went out the door, beyond the pair promised Dewey Phillips. Sun assistant manager Marion Keisker apparently took an initial Elvis record to her second job at WREC radio, the CBS affiliate in Memphis where she co-hosted shows.
Later, longtime WREC voice Fred Cook said he may have been first to broadcast Elvis Presley on radio—briefly. Keisker “came in all excited” with the Elvis record, Cook recalled on his Memphis show in 1991, two years after her death. “She said it was the greatest thing she ever heard.” Cook, however, aired the Presley music only seconds before fading out the volume. “That’s the worst piece of shit I’ve ever heard,” he told Keisker off microphone.
Cook’s opinion of Presley reflected traditional morality of Memphis, but not fresh thought in the river city. Dewey Phillips and listeners proved that on his show at WHBQ, where That’s All Right Mama most assuredly debuted in its entirety, historians agree, and likely on Thursday night, July 8, 1954.
Dewey Phillips was undoubtedly a radio man to cross lines in music, of race and genre, for Sam Phillips and his Presley recording. Dewey’s show “seemed the only place to go,” Hopkins wrote. “A the time, mixing black and white music wasn’t as acceptable as it would be just a few years later.” Hilburn observed that early Elvis style on Sun records “was too country for blues stations, too ‘black’ for country stations, and pop stations weren’t going to touch it.”
Dewey Phillips had already aired R&B songs to the satisfaction of his young white audience, for years, including Rocket 88 by Turner and The Kings of Rhythm. Dewey “challenged all who heard him to step into a new realm, one free of racism and bound only by a good beat,” wrote Bill Ellis, Memphis Commercial Appeal, in retrospect.
Presley’s song was a smash hit that first night on the Daddy-O-Dewey show, with WHBQ besieged by phone calls for replay. Telegrams, postcards and letters piled up. Presley kept his day job a little longer at Crown Electric, where females and phone callers tracked him down. The 19-year-old, living near poverty level thus far, was on way to music stardom and financial security for his family.
Larger progress was forged, public rather than personal, Elvis analysts conclude. “That Presley made his first record within weeks of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation was just one more indication that new winds were blowing in America,” Harrington wrote in 1985. “The social intermingling of black and white was being eased by the kind of musical intermingling provoked by rock’s pioneers, an evolution much more important than the sexual one rock ‘n’ roll’s critics fixated upon (though that was real as well).”
“Elvis’ importance in the ’50s was both musical and sociological,” Hilburn wrote in 1987. “Presley—young, white and handsome—was unquestionably in the right place at the right time. Those factors made him far more marketable in the mid-’50s (on radio, television and film) than older rivals (Bill Haley), less handsome ones (Carl Perkins) and, most undeniably, black ones.”
Harrington concurred. “Elvis was so essential at the beginning… He simply dipped into America, the America that he heard singing on the radio, the record player, in the church, on the tin-roof shack porch, at the roadhouse. Presley listened to the heartbeat of Tupelo, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn., and imbibed from all sources, black and white, holy and profane. He understood precisely the distance between the hedonism of Saturday night and guilt of Sunday morning and tapped the middle ground, drawing on the energy and fervor that bound as much as separated them.”
“Presley’s sources—blues, gospel, country—shared another trait: They were working-class art forms, the property of the South’s two disenfranchised minorities, poor whites and poor blacks.” Harrington wrote that “Presley never made any bones about his sources.”
Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com
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Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, publisher and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.