60 years ago, on July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Records, with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Sam Phillips hustled the 45 over to Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, who broadcast out of the Hotel Chisca. Dewey Phillips played it a couple of nights later, and all hell broke loose. Elvis had known that “they” would be playing his song on the radio that night, so instead of hanging around his parents’ radio to listen, instead he fled to the movies. We could talk about that personal choice forever. I always have a sense that Elvis knew, somewhere, how huge he was gonna be. I mean, it wasn’t a done deal, but when that space opened for him, he stepped into it like he was born to the role. As indeed he was. And if you are going to be as big as Elvis, then you need to gear up for it. You are not going to cling to the radio to listen to them play you. You are going to hide out in a movie theatre and then have your parents report to you later what it sounded like. Putting off the inevitable. As Elvis was hiding in the movie theatre, biting his nails, Dewey Phillips popped on “That’s All Right.” Almost immediately the switchboard began lighting up with requests that he play it again. And almost immediately, local teenagers began swarming around Hotel Chisca, where the knew Dewey was, hoping to get a glimpse of the guy they heard singing on the radio. It was mayhem. Elvis was aware of none of it. Because, you know, HIDING.
Dewey Phillips played the song again. And again. And again. And again. He played it a total of 17, 18 times in a row, and still the requests were coming in. At one point, he put in a frantic call to Sam Phillips, demanding that he bring Elvis to the studio to do an interview. NOW. The callers were dying to know more about this person, and many people thought he was black. Dewey’s show was a crossover show: he was a white guy who played black music, and was part of the burgeoning cultural revolution that was going on in the country as a whole, but Memphis was Ground Zero. White kids buying black music. The radio democratized music. Nobody could police the airwaves. Shows might be segregated but the radio wasn’t.
Now the Presleys didn’t have a telephone, so Sam Phillips called a neighbor and had them run over to grab Gladys, and tell her to bring her son to the radio station immediately. Gladys and Vernon obeyed, and ran to the movie theatre to find Elvis. Imagine Elvis: sitting there in the dark, wondering if he was being laughed out of town after his own measly song was played, having zero idea that throngs of teenagers were calling the radio station begging for it to be played again and actually driving to the radio station to scream MORE MORE MORE. Gladys and Vernon found their son sitting in the dark and brought him to the Hotel Chisca, where Dewey interviewed him on the air. Elvis was still a teenager, and a shy one at that. He stuttered. Dewey asked Elvis where he graduated high school (which had just happened), and Elvis said, “Humes High.” Dewey wanted to make sure that got out there, that this kid was white. Humes was a white high school.
People like Sam Phillips and Dewey Phillips (no relation) were determined to blend the boundaries of our country, at least culturally. There was so much happening in black music, that informed white music, and vice versa, and there was no reason that it should all be separated out. A white kid who sang like that could, potentially, be a big deal. Maybe.
So that was Elvis’ big radio debut. “That’s All Right” started making inroads in regional charts immediately, and Sam Phillips had to crank out more and more of the 45s to keep up with the demand. Meanwhile, Elvis had never played a live show beyond a few talent contests when he was a kid. Sam knew he had to get the guys some gigs, just to get their feet wet. Who knows, maybe Elvis would bomb live. They had to get some practice.
A couple of weeks later, mid-July, Elvis and Scotty and Bill played a small show on a flat-bed truck in a parking lot, a promotion for a radio station. It was a minor thing, a mid-day thing. Sam also got Elvis and Scotty and Bill booked in a hillbilly show that was going on out at the Bon Air Club (a place Elvis couldn’t even get into as a customer, since he was a minor). Sam Phillips described the crowd at the Bon Air as “pure redneck”, and Elvis stuck out like a sore thumb, with his greasy pompadour.
Although Sam would later say that Elvis “came off real good”, Elvis was crushed by the experience. He said to Sam afterwards that he felt like he failed. Sam tried to reassure him, although he knew that Elvis still needed more experience. He said Elvis looked miserable onstage, nervous and unhappy. There was hostility in the crowd, too, towards the newcomer who was singing hillbilly music but with a blues sound to it. It was not a disaster, but Elvis was sensitive. What happened at the Bon Air was crushing. Elvis was a mystery – not only to himself, but to Sam, Dewey, Scotty, Bill, and every established musician in that joint. He was completely new, untried, and didn’t look like anyone else. Who did this young thug think he was, coming on THEIR stage playing THEIR music but in his own way?
Sam was determined to get the boy in front of people, so he called Bob Neal (who eventually would manage Elvis for a year, until the Colonel came along) and had Bob add the trio to a “hillbilly hoedown” that was going to be happening at the Overton Park Shell, an outdoor amphitheatre with a giant lawn. There would be a ton of musicians on the bill, and Slim Whitman was the star of the night. Bob Neal added the trio to the list of acts. The show was happening on July 30, 1954, not even a full month after Elvis first recorded “That’s All Right”.
And so Elvis’ real debut as a live performer, in a major venue, occurred 60 years ago today: July 30, 1954.
Nobody knew what he would be like in front of a huge audience. He was the definition of raw. He was a teenager. He could barely play the guitar. But he had something. Everyone sensed it.
And Elvis stepped out on that stage, started singing, playing, and jiggling, and within seconds, all hell broke loose.
When I drove by the entrance to Overton Park my first time in Memphis, I suddenly thought of Elvis’ parents driving out to the park with relatives, and Elvis’ girlfriend Dixie going out there too, driving with Elvis, excited for him, nervous, overwhelmed at what had been happening in the last couple of weeks, and scared that he wouldn’t get a good reception, knowing how rejection would affect him. Dixie had been on vacation with her family in Florida when “That’s All Right” started exploding in early July, and was alarmed by the urgent telegram sent to her by her boyfriend back home: “HURRY HOME. MY RECORD IS DOING GREAT.” Dixie was like: What record? What?
Elvis was still driving a truck for Crown Electric at this point. Dixie came home from her vacation. Elvis was relieved to have her back, you can feel his separation anxiety in his telegrams to Dixie during her absence. How dare she take a summer vacation when all of this crazy stuff exploded for him? WHERE THE HELL IS SHE?? Dixie would go on his truck delivery route with him, and they would go roller skating at night, and listen to the radio. His two songs would come on, and they would get quiet and excited. It felt like something was about to happen.
Elvis and Scotty and Bill got together periodically to rehearse for the upcoming Overton Park show.
The first advertisements started to appear. Some of the posters spelled Elvis’ name wrong.
Meanwhile, on the ground, some strange things were happening.
Elvis’ two records were in constant rotation on pop music stations, folk/hillbilly music stations, and what was then called “race programs” – black radio stations. The three diverse and normally separate audiences were all listening to and loving the same songs. It was unprecedented. The albums started to sell outside of Memphis. Orders were pouring into Sun from all around the South. Only a month before, Elvis’ main goal had been to join a gospel quartet.
On the night of July 30, 1954, everyone started gathering at the Overton Park Shell. Elvis drove over with Dixie and then Dixie went out onto the lawn to sit with Mr. and Mrs. Presley. Elvis stood on the steps behind the shell, having a nervous breakdown. That is where Sam Phillips found him. Right here, in other words.
Sam Phillips describes Elvis’ demeanor on July 30, 1954.
“When I got there he was standing on the steps at the back of the shell looking kind of pitiful – well, maybe pitiful is the wrong word, I knew it was the way he was going to look: unsure. And he just grabbed me and said, ‘Man, I’m so glad to see you, Mr. Phillips. I – I – I – I —’ You know, that was just the way Elvis did. ‘I – I – I – I just didn’t know what I was going to do.’ Well, you know, it’s like when somebody’s mother is real sick and you tell them everything is going to be all right, and yet you know there’s the possibility that his mother might die. I said, ‘Look,. Elvis, we’ll find out whether they like you or not.’ And then I said, ‘They’re gonna love you.‘ Now I didn’t know that, and if you want to call me a liar or a fake for saying something that I didn’t know to be the truth – but I believed that once he started to sing and they saw him, I don’t mean the stage act, once they heard that voice and the beautiful simplicity of what those three musicians were putting down … “
The show began. Then it was Elvis’ turn. He entered the stage and Scotty remembers that Elvis was shaking so badly that Scotty could almost hear Elvis’ knees knocking together. Elvis held onto the mike, and Scotty remembers he gripped it so hard his knuckles turned white. The three men had only just met a month and change before. They knew two songs. This was insane pressure.
Elvis reminisced many years later about what happened next:
“I was scared stiff. It was my first big appearance in front of an audience, and I came out and I was doing my first number ['That's All Right'], and everybody was hollering and I didn’t know what they were hollering at.”
Legend has it that it was the nerves that made him shake that left leg, trying to get rid of all of that extra tension, and that nerves made his lip curl up into a sneer. Sure, I’m sure nerves had a lot to do with it. But plenty of people choke when they experience that kind of nervousness. The majority of people, actually. Nerves are something human beings do their damndest to AVOID. Nerves/stress impacts the entire body. Nerves make you dry up – not only physically (you lose your voice, your throat stops operating, your breath gets shallow leaving you unable to produce sound) – but emotionally. When confronted with an onslaught of nerves, most normal people have a fight-or-flight response. It is how we are wired.
Great fear makes your choices clear: get the hell OUT OF THERE. But performers have to learn how to cope with nerves, work with them, embrace them, turn that stress into something positive and expressive. It sometimes takes years to master. This is why actors spend so much time in learning relaxation techniques. Because it’s all well and good to be brilliant alone in your bedroom, but when an audience is suddenly looking at you, shit starts happening to your body that you cannot control. You have to anticipate that: “Okay, I am going to have a dry mouth and throat, so make sure to drink a lot of water, and vocalize.” “Okay, I am going to be scared, so I need to find a way to concentrate and relax anyway.” Normally, this takes training. It takes practice.
People like clutch hitters are those who can come up BIG in very stressful moments. They do not lose their nerve. They are special people, different from most of us. Nerves do not affect them in a detrimental way. On the contrary: nerves are what make the clutch hitters do their best work. They perform their best when the stakes are high.
Elvis is the definition of a clutch hitter, only he had no practice at it. He didn’t even know that he would be a clutch hitter. He only knew his own need, his own desire to be in front of people. It was of the utmost importance. All he knew was that he was pissing his damn pants backstage, experiencing waves of vertigo, and had a huge bottomless fear of being laughed at, scorned, or, worst of all, dismissed. He had no training. It was all instinct.
When faced with the reality of his own dream, before that show, he panicked. He wanted to flee.
But the second he launched into “That’s All Right”, Scotty remembers Elvis suddenly going up onto the balls of his feet, his body quivering all over, and, with a roar, the audience spontaneously responded.
Interestingly enough, Scotty also remembers that afterwards, Elvis had no concept of what had happened and when he heard the crowd response, Elvis initially had thought they all were laughing at him.
Most hillbilly singers stood still and tapped their foot to the music. Elvis moved. He jiggled, shook, and leaped around. Scotty remembered later,
“That was just his way of tapping his foot. Plus I think with those loose britches that we wore – they weren’t pegged, they had lots of material and pleated fronts – you shook your leg, and it made it look like hell was going on under there.”
Bill Black was a real showman, and on their second number, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, he turned the bass sideways and rode it like a horse, slapping on it. The crowd went nuts. It spurred Elvis on. Elvis came offstage after the two numbers, confused about what was going on. He had to be told that the crowd was screaming for HIM. He didn’t get it. Bob Neal told Elvis that the crowd went wild because he was jiggling his leg. They were screaming for an encore. The trio went back out onstage to play one more (they sang “Blue Moon of Kentucky” again, having run out of songs), and Elvis – who had been clued into what was happening by Neal – jiggled his leg on purpose in the encore. He listened to the screams, knowing now that it was HE who did that, HE made them make that sound.
It is difficult to express just how quick a study he was. In 10 minutes, in the middle of a high-stress situation (the highest stress yet for Elvis, except for maybe first opening that door of the Memphis Recording Service), he understood his own power, and didn’t fight it, question it, or second-guess it. He went back out there, with his brand-new-found knowledge, and immediately used it on purpose. It takes some performers 15 years of live performances to really understand their own power up there, how in charge they are, how to conduct an audience and control them. Elvis got the memo in 10 minutes.
Bob Neal watched the encore from backstage and watched Elvis jump around, jiggling and quaking, now doing it confidently, having a ball, and could not believe that that was the same shy boy with the debilitating stutter backstage only moments earlier. Nobody could have seen that The Sex Thing (as I call it) was about to come exploding out of this young boy, who was still a virgin at this point. Nobody could have predicted that one. That was ALL ELVIS. It was who he was onstage. He figured it out instantaneously, and he figured it out all by himself.
Bob Neal said later, “He just automatically did things right.”
Dixie Locke, watching from the audience, had an odd experience watching the mayhem her boyfriend caused. She knew her boyfriend. She had seen him in action, playing for her and her friends, horsing around. She was familiar with his constantly jiggling leg. Hadn’t it driven her insane on their dates, when he couldn’t sit still? Hadn’t her parents said to her after their first time meeting Elvis, “Can’t that boy sit still?” But to watch him do that same thing in front of a crowd, and watching the Memphis girls erupt into spontaneous screams – the first girls to scream for Elvis – she wondered what was going on. She felt angry and possessive and wanted to tell the girls to leave him alone. She felt lonely, sitting out there, watching him. Suddenly he didn’t belong to her.
But she was happy for him too, because he was so happy afterwards. Elated is more the word. He was high. He didn’t sleep for two days, the adrenaline still buzzing through him.
Dixie said later, “I don’t think he was prepared for what was about to happen. He knew this was what he wanted to do and that it was breaking for him, but I don’t think he ever thought that everybody would just go crazy.”