Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Dawn of the Age of Elvis

Sixty years ago today, 19–year–old Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right (Mama)" at Sun Studio in Memphis.

It was the first commercial recording of Presley's career, and it launched him to superstardom.

There are stories of some noteworthy recordings that were made at Sun Studio, which opened 4½ years before Elvis recorded "That's All Right (Mama)" there and changed everything for himself and the studio, but the studio struggled at first, and, apparently, it would record anything in its early years.

In fact, the studio's slogan was "We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime." That included recording special events like weddings and baptisms and graduations, and anyone could walk in off the street and make a record — for a fee. That's what Elvis did.

It wasn't his first #1 hit — that was "Heartbreak Hotel" about 18 months later. In fact, it wasn't even the first recording he made at Sun. But it was released a couple of weeks later and went on to become a reasonably big regional hit.

Elvis was really before my time. In fact, I have rarely owned an Elvis album in my life.

I have to give all credit for my first such purchase to my friend Brady, who shared with me his recording of Elvis' Sun sessions — and told me a bit about Elvis' history with Sun. Until that time, I don't think I had heard "That's All Right (Mama)" — or "Blue Moon of Kentucky," the other noteworthy song he recorded 60 years ago.

But I liked them well enough that I went out to get a copy of that record.

It was in August 1953 when Elvis, a recent high school graduate, first walked through the doors of Sun Studio and met a receptionist, who asked him about his musical style. What kind of music did he play? "I sing all kinds," he replied. The receptionist repeatedly asked him who he sounded like. "I don't sound like nobody," he kept saying.

On that occasion, he recorded two songs ("My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin"). The receptionist made a note that he was a "good ballad singer."

Nothing came of it. Nor did anything come from a second session in January 1954, when Elvis recorded "I'll Never Stand In Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You."

Sam Phillips, the original owner of the studio, was looking for a white singer who sound like he was black; he thought such a performer would be a huge success. He invited Elvis to record some songs on this night in 1954, but the session yielded little until near the end. Elvis started playing "That's All Right (Mama)," a hyped–up version of a 1949 blues number by Arthur Crudup, and the studio musicians who had been working with him that night joined in.

Phillips asked them to start over, and he recorded what they played. It wound up being the demo that he shopped around to local DJs and led to a single that was released on July 19, 1954 — with "Blue Moon of Kentucky," originally a Bill Monroe bluegrass tune that Presley gave a rock 'n' roll makeover, on the B side.

And the rest was rock 'n' roll history.