Published in Rockabilly Monthly, Volume II, Issue 6 #13, July 2004
For 50 years now, rock’n’roll has been giving the world a way to express independence. Many set the 5th July 1954 as the day rock’n’roll and especially rockabilly was born with the recording of the first single of Elvis Presley for the Memphis-based label Sun Records. Flashback on a day that reunites us today, a day that would start a whole culture.
Memphis, 1954: crossroads
The city stands at the crossroads of the way that leads from Nashville to Texas, and the one that leads from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. On that side of the Mississippi River, up from the Delta where cotton is picked, the raw white textile material is traded in the city that got its name from an ancient egyptian city. But Memphis is not yet a center for the music industry: cotton remains the first industry in Memphis, in so far as music industry executives act from New-York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Nashville, even if they come down to the South to occasionally record some folk music. Chicago was known because of the involvement of the Chess brothers at recording and selling blues and rhythm’n’blues and making black artists famous. Already a leader in the Bible printing industry, Nashville is becoming at that time the capital city of the white country music thanks to the success of Hank Williams who died the year before, leaving a trauma in the southern culture. New-York and L.A. were the places from where the main radio corporations and young TV channels could nationally promote the clean pop music of the crooners like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como. Although the music industry seems to have already set what is sold where, a cultural melting-pot is boiling in the biggest city of Tennessee. Cowboys and pinchback hustlers meet each other there. Black people and white people play the whole range of the american music. At the top corner of the Delta, the musical barriers are not as clear as they seem to be in New-York, LA, Chicago or Nashville because no business man from the North had already yet tried to mold the musical landscape in Memphis.
The vision of Sam Phillips at the Sun-rise
At the dawn of the fifties, Sam Phillips, a young deejay and radio technician from Alabama who came to Memphis to seek fortune, opened a small recording studio on Union Avenue. Phillips knew the technology of recording as he had already recorded some bands performing at the famous Peabody Hotel which stands as the tallest building on the Mississippi side. Sam already understood the essence of the american music either black or white, folk or pop. Moreover and not least, Sam Phillips, who is not at all a musician, understands the pathos of the southern culture (the southern man had worked for a while for a funeral service). He can not only record artists but he can also make them give all their best to lay the blues, this unmaterial feeling uneasy to catch, on tapes. In the hands of Phillips, instead of simply recording, artists have to perform in the studio as well as they could do on a stage. The Memphis Recording Service (original name for Sun Records) made its name in recording anything, anytime, anywhere, as the motto of the young company said, from barn dances to wedding parties. But the first real artists who came into the studio where young black artists like BB King, Rufus Thomas, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker and many others who electrified the Delta Blues. Before founding his Sun label, Sam Phillips sold the recordings of such artists to companies in L.A. (Modern of the Bihari brothers) or Chicago (Chess Records). Sam Phillips was somehow proud to record these artists who would later count as the biggest stars of their time but he was still seeking. For that purpose, Sam Phillips needed a catalyst. It’s been known that Sam Phillips often said that he could make a million dollar if he could find a white guy who could sing like a black man.
Sideburns burning the face of a young guy
There was this young guy who just graduated from Humes High School. Sam remembered him because the boy came one day of summer ’53 to record a single for his mother. This guy looked strange with his sideburns and his clothes bought from the Lansky store on Beale Street. The young boy, whose Sam Phillips cannot remember the name as it may come from another galaxy, was working as a truck driver for the Crown Electric Company, an electrical equipment supplier, where also worked the Burnette brothers and the young Paul Burlison. Oh yeah, Sam remembered the name thanks to the attention of secretary Marion Keisker, who is as much responsible for discovering the young shy dude. Alvis, oh not Alvis, but uh… Elvis, yeah Elvis was the name of the guy came to the studio on demand after a call of Mrs. Keisker. Sam heard something possible in the voice of Elvis. This young vibrating voice contained the whole pathos of the southern culture. This voice expressed anything unconsciously from the country fatalism to the will of getting out of an uneasy existence, the life of a solitary boy not even understood by his friends (if he had any) or his family. The young Presley (yeah that’s the name of the guy, very uncommon, comes surely from the deepness of the south, down from Tupelo, if not from Mars) could sing the whole Top 40 of that era but it was quite different from the original hit makers. Elvis Presley had a potential. Not the best musician or singer Sam had ever heard, just a “potent new chanter” but the alchemy that Sam was looking for in an intuitive way, could well work if Phillips could find the right elements. The thing was to make Elvis, this real-shy boy, feel well in order to liberate his instincts.
Nothing to get your grandma out of her bed
In June 1954, Phillips got an appointment with Scotty Moore, a young guitar-slinger who already recorded under the Sun label for Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers. The topic was the young Elvis. Sam wanted Scotty and his sidekick, the doghouse bass player Bill Black to make a try with the truck driver. Scotty invited Presley to his house an afternoon to jam together along with Bill Black. As Scotty got back to Sam, he explained that the young Elvis could sing, not bad, but nothing that could get your grandma out of her bed. Anyway, Sam Believed. He believed that something was possible. It was time to schedule a session in the tiny Sun studio. It was intended as not to be just a rehearsal session. Something had to come out of this session. On monday 5th July 1954, in Memphis Tennessee, in an America directed by DD Eisenhower, with the threat of a Cold War against the russian enemy, the world was ready for an atomic explosion, a big bang in the history of popular music and american vernacular attitude.
Too much coffee
On that evening of the 5th July, Sam, Elvis, Scotty and Bill met each other at Sam’s studio. The issue of the session is to put out something that could eventually be heard on the local radio. For hours, the guys were playing songs after songs, ballads after ballads, actually everything Elvis could sing. Very nice but nothing really perverse. Sam got maybe discouraged as well as the other guys. It was wasted time to spend so much energy on nothing really outstanding. It was time for a break. A coffee break, the right substance to get the excitement after a session that could make you sleep. Nowadays, we still don’t know if Elvis drank coffee that night and, if that’s true, if he drank too much of the beverage. However the coffee break made him fooling around. As Scotty Moore always reminds, the young dude with the side burns took up the guitar and went on singing “That’s All Right”. The excitement worked so much that Sam Phillips decided to put it on tape. Maybe two or three takes, one to rehearse, another one to check the sound and the last one to record. That’s how an obscure blues number of the great Arthur Crudup was laid on tape with a white boy singing. If one can rationnaly explain that alchemy, Elvis sang this blues song in a country or bluegrass manner. Same operation to record the flipside but in the reverse way: recording a country tune “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” of Bill Monroe in a rhythm’n’blues way. These two songs which came from quite different musical areas were just sounding the same. Just listen to the beat of both songs as recorded by Elvis, Scotty and Bill.
A long time before this Holy Year for rockers, many guys already played rock’n’roll. Many were already playing hillbilly boogies and rhythm and blues. Black guys were playing country songs and white dudes were covering blues numbers. While all those guys were doing that just to entertain, the three guns who got together on that night of the 5th July, united by Destiny, announced the Doomsday. It had nothing more to do with a nice happy song as today’s stereotypes would consider rock’n’roll. It was all about something orgiastic where love songs were turned into declarations of war. The alchemy operates between the satanic preacher’s voice of the Hillbilly Cat, the raunchy guitar sound dived in slapback of Scotty Moore and the elastic slapping of Bill Black. Rock became an attitude blowing up the dimensions between black music and white music as well as it would break the material fence between black people and white people on saturday-night parties. The nuclear fusion was irreversible between the shuffle of « That’s All Right » and the one of « Blue Moon Of Kentucky ». The same operation was made to record the later tunes during the following months: “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Baby Let’s Play House”, “Mystery Train”.
The day after the session, Sam cut an acetate of the two songs and brought the weird thing to his fellow deejay Dewey Phillips (not the same family), the most famous radio deejay at that time. It was a good idea to invite the young performer of the new thing that one cannot describe. Dewey noticed that Elvis was afraid to speak at the microphone so that the deejay made Elvis believe it was time for a commercial break. During that virtual break, as Elvis thought they were off the mike, Dewey ask some questions to Elvis to know him better. The boy answered easily without thinking about being on air. At the end of the unformal discussion, the deejay just told Elvis it was nice to have met him and that he could get back home. The Hillbilly Cat’s face became white as he felt bad that whole Memphis had heard him. During all these months spent in the stable of Sun Records, Elvis did all the same way as this interview: unconsciously. He just followed his instincts and played this music that had not yet a name. He would then prove that on stage. The Hillbilly Cat was performing unaware of what the people tried to name this music or what they could think about that. That simply expresses the Independence.