“That’s All Right”, what would be the first single, which went off like a bomb (at least in Memphis, although other regions of the South would follow) was recorded on July 5, 1954, by Elvis Presley, Bill Black (on bass) and Scotty Moore (guitar), with Sam Phillips in the control room. Elvis was 19 years old.
Excerpt from Dave Marsh’s amazing Elvis about that day.
They hit the new sound while fooling around between takes. Elvis began to sing an Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup country blues, “That’s All Right”, and Scotty and Bill joined in. From the control booth came Sam’s voice, excited. “What are you doing?” They shrugged. “We don’t know.” “Well, find out …” Phillips commanded. “Run through it again.”
Every rock writer returns to “That’s All Right”, as though to the Rosetta stone. It’s not the greatest record Presley ever made, and it certainly is not the bluesiest. But it has something else: a beautiful, flowing sense of freedom and release. Elvis’ keening voice, so sweet and young, playing off the guitars, Scotty’s hungry guitar choogling along neatly until it comes to the break, where it simply struts, definitive, mathematical, a precise statement of everything these young men are all about. Is it art? Is it history? Is it revolution? No one can know, not anymore, unless they were there to hear it before they’d heard any of the other music Elvis made or any of the rock & rollers who followed him. Is it pure magic, a distillation of innocence or just maybe a miracle, a band of cracker boys entering a state of cosmic grace?
What’s most remarkable, given how assiduously pursued this sound had been, is its spontaneity and unselfconsciousness. “That’s All Right,” like the best of the later Sun material (its B side, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” “You’re a Heartbreaker”, and, most of all, “Mystery Train”), sounds casual, the kind of music you could hear any day or every day, the kind of sound that has always been familiar but is still surprising. These men are reaching that elusive noise and once they have it in their grasp, they simply toy with it, flipping the thing back and forth among them as if they have been playing with it all their lives.
The take they got was the take that went out. It’s live, all three guys playing at the same time, no futzing with the tracks, nothing added. What we hear is what happened at that moment. There is one alternate take in existence. But this, what you hear here, is not engineered, manufactured, planned, or edited. That’s how it came out, when they were “fooling around”.
They listened to the song afterwards. Bill Black said, “Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town.”
Let’s back into it. Because, of course, there was a preamble.
On July 18, 1953, 18-year-old Elvis Presley walked into the Memphis Recording Service on 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, a recording outfit that had been created by Sam Phillips in 1950 to record new artists and find new (mostly African-American) sounds, something that obsessed Phillips. For a small fee, you could record a song at Memphis Recording Service, and you would be given a two-sided acetate disc upon completion, with a little label on it, just like you were a real recording artist.
There are varying theories as to why Elvis Presley, who had just graduated from high school, would choose to do this.
He himself said in interviews later that he wanted to give a present to his mother. He also said that he just wanted to hear what he sounded like. But more likely, he had ambition. More likely, he wanted to throw his hat into the ring. He had moved to Memphis with his family when he was 14, and he found himself swept away by the Beale Street scene as well as the rocking music from black churches. He had sung in a talent show in high school and did very well. He was painfully shy and dated a girl he met at church. It’s all a bit of a mystery what was going on with him, although there are numerous stories about how, when he was 16, 17, he started bringing a guitar to school, he started dressing in a distinctive manner to set himself apart, but in general his dreams remained private. Who knows why he walked into that studio.
Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ devoted business partner, remembers vividly the teenager walking into the office for the first time, and how he asked her if they needed any singers for anything on the fledgling Sun label. He was holding a child’s guitar, and he stood in the doorway, looking ready to flee at any moment. At the time, he had a job at a machinists’ shop. Keisker knew why he was there, she could see the look of hunger in his eyes, but she interviewed him a bit to try to find out more.
She asked him, “What kind of singer are you?”
He replied, “I sing all kinds.”
She asked, trying to draw him out, “Who do you sound like?”
And Elvis replied, in a now famous statement, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
Marion was skeptical (wouldn’t you be?) She asked if he sang hillbilly music (he certainly looked the part) and he said that he did.
Then she asked again who he sounded like, in hillbilly? Elvis replied again, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
On the face of it, they may seem like arrogant remarks, but Keisker’s memory of the moment is that he was sincere, shy, and could barely speak above a whisper. There was something about him she found intriguing, so he recorded two songs on that day: “My Happiness” and “That’s Where the Heartache Begins”. She typed out a little label, put it on the record, and sent the pimply teenager on his way. Sam Phillips, in the control booth, had said to Elvis, “You’re an interesting singer”, an ambiguous statement, and he didn’t seem compelled to leap right up and record more with the boy. (I also would like to point out that it is no surprise that it was a WOMAN who first saw the potential in Elvis.)
And that was that. For some time. Elvis joked that his “overnight sensation” actually took a year.
Nobody was blown away by that first acetate. It was a conventional sound, a pop sound, and Sam Phillips was not interested in pop music. However, Elvis’ claim that he “don’t sound like nobody” is actually borne out a bit, if you listen to those two tracks. There’s clearly something there. But he still is trying to fit into a mold. You can hear it. He’s so young, a virgin, no experience in life except his vast love of music, and the eclectic nature of his musical interests (country, bluegrass, gospel, he loved it all).
Compare “My Happiness” (recording below) and “That’s Where the Heartache Begins” (recording also somewhere below) in 1953 to the songs he cut just a year later with a two-man band put together by Sam Phillips, the songs that would make Presley famous, and it’s like a different person. It’s actually unbelievable that it’s the same guy, and you wonder: Wow, Elvis, what did you DO during that year?
“My Happiness” was a hit song from 1948, which already made it an “oldie”, and Presley plays it straight, in a quavering tenor that sounds very very young. He also shows no hint of the “Is he black or white” confusion that would come just a year later, when he suddenly found a raw rough energy in his voice. You can just imagine Sam Phillips in the booth listening to this, thinking, “Well, at least recording shit like this pays my bills for the time being, but honest to GOD.”
Then he recorded a very pretty ballad the Ink Spots had made famous, “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” (sound clip below). It has one of those long bridges for a narration in it (similar to what Presley would do later in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”). The narration part is obviously meant for a deep and manly voice, as per the style of the day. Presley sings the song and you can tell his guitar playing is rudimentary at best. He also does the narration during the bridge. I find it hysterical, because he is so completely out of his depth. He’s a teenager, and there he is pontificating on heartache in a phony deep speaking voice, totally making fun of himself (you can actually hear it in his voice), pretending he’s some grizzled middle-aged dude holding a cocktail looking back on the vagaries of youth. It’s quite funny. But you can also understand why Sam Phillips didn’t immediately leap from the booth and proclaim the kid his next big star. Elvis doesn’t seem to complete the song, either. He doesn’t go back to the song after the narration. Instead, he, maybe feeling foolish, it’s hard to tell, says, “That’s the end” and that’s that. The song has a strange intensity (I like it better than “My Happiness”) and he sings it with an ache to it, cut up by his goofing-off Sam Elliott narrator voice. It’s a bizarre recording.
After cutting those tracks, nothing much happened for a year.
He got a job driving a truck. He went to church. He started dating a girl named Dixie Locke from his church, and they hung out all the time. They would go to gospel revival meetings together, and Elvis would tell her how much he enjoyed this musical group, or that one, and how the quartet format of religious music was something he loved. Maybe he could get into that. Maybe he could join a group or something. And he kept stopping by the Sun Studio. Like clockwork. He would chat with Marion, she came to look forward to his visits. He would hang around, check out who was there, talk to people. He was a pest, although always polite. This also tells me that “I wanted to record something to give to my mother” was certainly not the whole truth. Sam Phillips was making a name for himself by recording black artists. Presley chose to hang out there. Unfortunately, later in his life, Presley never really gave interviews, or wrote anything, or wrote a memoir, so we don’t know what was going on with him, but he just kept stopping by. It eventually paid off. But for that long year, he coasted. He dated Dixie, mainly, and they shared a love of gospel music, it was one of their bonds.
The whole Dixie thing is actually quite fascinating, because it is the relationship that straddles the not-famous/famous divide. She knew him as deeply religious, they pledged to one another to “remain pure” until marriage, and I suppose she may have had some expectation that should he become a singer he would go the gospel route. She was still dating him when all hell broke loose a year later, and she would go to see his shows with Elvis’ parents – who loved her – and she felt nervous about what was going on in those stands with the screaming girls. Not that what he was doing was bad, but it seemed to be taking him far away from her, from his roots, from who she thought he was. She was shocked by it. He began touring, he was away for long periods of time, Dixie found herself hanging out at the Presley’s house all the time, as she reminisced with Elvis’ mother about how awesome Elvis was and how much they both loved him. He went as her date to her junior prom. Out on the road, girls were ripping his clothes off backstage, and he had most probably abandoned the promise to remain pure until marriage, and yet there he is in the prom photo, in a tux, holding Dixie’s arm. They were good friends.
For a while, he had feet in both worlds – he still could do that – but finally, it just got to be too big and he left Dixie behind.
Listening to his plaintive delicate voice on those tracks in 1953 (Elvis? Delicate? Yes.), it is unfathomable that he would explode the proprieties of the day a year later, sending teenage girls into orgasmic public frenzies, and upending the traditional classification of music genres in one fell swoop.
Elvis Presley wasn’t some mythical God, he wasn’t a legend or something artificially put together like Frankenstein. The Image of Presley may have won the war, but individual battles for his artistry and his journey are still being fought along the way.
When Presley told Marion Keisker in 1953, “I don’t sing like nobody” – how did he know that? Because he doesn’t come roaring out of the gate with those first two tracks. So, alone in his room, was he messing around in the way he started messing around one night during his first real recording session at Sun on July 5, 1954, the moment when Sam Phillips said, “YES. That’s IT!” Did he feel in his bones that vast VOID that was in white American culture at that time, a void that just needed someone to come along and fill it up? Or … was he working on instinct? It was probably a blending of both. Sam Phillips is very interesting on his own yearning at that time, saying that he didn’t even know what sound he was looking for, he didn’t know how to describe it because it didn’t exist yet – but the search for it was what drove him on so tirelessly. However, in 1953, Sam Phillips didn’t hear it in Presley. A year later, he did. And then, almost by accident. It was Presley goofing off on this fateful day that made Sam Phillips shout, A HA.
And once that track went out on the local air-waves not too much long after, all hell broke loose. Elvis hadn’t even played a live show at that point. He was completely green. But you wouldn’t know that from “That’s All Right.” The fans in Memphis crowded around the radio station clamoring for more. Elvis’ first time in front of a live audience of any significant size was on July 30, 1954, at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis. He and Scotty and Bill only had two songs in their repertoire at that point. Elvis was so nervous that night that he actually shed tears on the back steps of the Shell before the show. Sam Phillips found him there, pacing and stuttering and panicking. Sam had to talk him off the ledge. And Elvis performed that night and the crowd went wild.
July 5, 1954, during a moment of letting off steam during a frustrating and seemingly unproductive recording session, Elvis busted loose. As a joke really. As a way to relax himself. But also as a way to say, “Here is who I really am.” And Sam was there to record it.
That’s the explanation of what happened. There is still so much more that cannot be explained. It could have been a fluke. It could have been a one-shot deal. It wasn’t. They had tapped into the Mother Lode.
And here it is. The Rosetta Stone. The track that started it all. The track that has in it all of those who came before, the black and white artists whom Elvis revered, worshiped, listened to, admired, the whole of the culture he had absorbed.