This is an excerpt from my novel, AROUND ELVIS
Memphis was the hot bed for underground, bootleg cuts and every kind of music was available in the local record shops, because distributors came from all points on the compass to get exposure for their artists here. In those days there were only a few stations in the nation playing R&B for White audiences, and WHBQ in Memphis was about the only one in the South. There were very few crossover labels in the South, but Sun Records was about the biggest.
Sam Phillips was on the look out for anyone with talent, from any music field, but particularlyas he said so many timesA Whiteboy with the Negro sound and feel. In the meantime, the area was filled with talented Black performers and Sam began rounding them up for his stable. His forte` was developing talent that had been ignored by everyone else and creating new audiences. In fact, he even launched the nations first all-girls, all-the-time radio station here in Memphis, WHER. But mostly Sam ran the Memphis Recording Service, which was an audition booth where you paid a few bucks for the privilege of being heard by the master and got a demo to boot. If you were any good, he might sign you to his little yellow label with a sun rising on a rooster . . .
It turned out to be a lucky break for ELVIS that Sam was absent the day that he came by to cut a couple of sides on his lunch break in August of 1953. Instead he performed for Marion Keisker, who was immediately won over by his charm and potential. ELVIS choice of music that day was My Happiness, by Ella Fitzgerald & The Song Spinners, and Thats When Your Heartaches Begin, by The Inkspots . . . it would seem that ELVIS was aware of Sams desire for race mixing music . . . After the session she began to heavily promote him to Sam as the singer with his ideal sound. Sam was in the booth for ELVIS second recording session. He told ELVIS that Marion had mentioned him, but he left him with no clue as to his impression of his ability. After that session, Marion Keisker again played ELVIS up to Sam as the Whiteboy with the Negro sound and feel that he was looking for and when Sam couldnt find the vocalist that sang the demo of Without You, he called for ELVIS . . . and the rest . . . well you know . . . All of his life ELVIS paid tribute to Marion Keisker by saying, If it wasnt for that lady, Id still be drivin a truck.
It seems that ELVIS and Sam were sent in two different directions in order to provide the other with what they needed when they met. I cant say if their meeting was destined, but it was certainly kismet . . . Sam was looking for something and ELVIS wanted to find it . . .
In 1953, R&B records sold 15 million copies, which was more than the entire record industry had sold the year before. With the advent of television, radio had to change its format to be more music driven and phased out theatrical radio programs, as they could no longer compete with TV shows for sponsors or audiences. The end result of this was an increase of record sales right across the board and the growth of music-only radio station formats. Television definitely wasnt aimed at Black audiences, since comparatively few Black families owned a set, so White deejays nationwide began pandering to their audience by playing Black R&B music or the pale White cover versions during televisions primetime hours. More and more White audiences were tuning into these broadcasts, particularly in the South where television was slow to catch on and the music was spreading like wildfire. The color lines of music were being broken down by proxy, in effect, as Black artists added cream to their act, so it was palatable to White audiences, and White artists sprinkled cocoa on their Milquetoast also to sate White audiences; nobody was vying for presence in the Black market.
Soon a powerful new consumer market emergedteens . . . The children that had grown up during The Depression and fought a World War in their youth wanted to give their kids the easy life . . . Bless their souls . . . For the first time, working class American teens didnt hand over their part time paychecks to help the familyat least not all of it . . . Life in the suburbs created a need for less-than-cheap, beneath menial, labor force that was perfect for teenyboppers. Folks no longer had their kin about them, so babysitters were needed. People werent having a half dozen kids or more, so lawns needed mowing, gutters needed cleaning, yards needed raking and sometimes snow needed to be shoveled . . . Plus kids got an allowance for doing chores around the house that were traditionally expected of them to earn their keep . . .
All of this disposable income supported diverse industries; fast food restaurants were born, soft drinks became the predominant American beverage, and automobile sales nearly doubled when kids got their own cars. When the youth of America spent seven billion dollars on records in 1956 and tripled the industry, Rock & Roll was here to stay and stations that didnt play it were gonsville . . . They were a mighty consumer lobby and they demanded music with rhythm, so thats what the establishment gave them. They were not possessed of the old prejudices and would buy any record from any artist, just as long as it was good. Soon, Black recording artists made their way onto the national scene and took their place in the pantheon of stars as never before . . .
Memphis own W.C Handy began flatting the third and seventh notes of Tin Pan Alley scores around the turn-of-the century and called it The Blues. The tunes featured Ragtime piano and raunchy horn riffs. Despite the often-bawdy lyrics, the vocals were performed with the same emotional dynamic of a spiritual, so the renditions were dramatic. The major difference between Blues and Jazz was the meter of the song. Jazz was urban and up-tempo; sharps made it brighter and it was arranged to be blaring. The Blues was played true to its Southern roots and its phrases drawled and wailed; it was subtle and engulfed the listener in its euphoric aura. Jazz tunes were about spooning with your girl and riding around town in sharp britches; it was music for dandies at swank watering holes to cut-a-rug to. The Blues was about hard times and hard drinking; of being hard done by, by life and luck, and done over by your cheating lady and backstabbing best friend; of being broke and roaming about and of loving a woman enough to kill her if you couldnt have herthe music was sultry and inspired couples to dirty dance in sweltering dives.
As with all inventions many people lay claim to being the Architect of Rock & Roll, as we know it today. The Boswell Sisters recorded a song called Rock and Roll, in 1934 although it did neither. In various musical genres the term began appearing in the titles and in the lyrics of songs that decidedly didnt rockthough some did roll . . . Either word in a song, rock or roll, or the phrase rock and roll, was an urban euphemism for having sex and didnt refer to a musical category. In the early days, songs like Sh-Boom, by The Crewcuts, or Sixteen Tons, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, were considered to be Rock & Roll songs, as were the terrible covers of Race Music being done by White artists. When Thats All Right Mama, was first released in the summer of 1954, it was alternately called Country Bop; Western Swing; Rhythm and Bop; Cat Music; Hillbilly Boogie, and occasionally Rhythm & Blues . . . its obvious that all who heard it thought it different enough to be classified in a category by itself. In fact, before ELVIS was called THE KING OF ROCK & ROLL, he was referred to in print as The King of Country Bop and The King of Western Swing. The world fittingly settled on THE KING. Pop Music stations wouldnt play his records after 5 a.m., because they were considered too countrified; the C&W stations wouldnt play them because they thought it was jungle music, and R&B stations didnt want to give airplay to a Whiteboy that they perceived was trying to pass, so its clear that his early Sun releases were quite anomalous to the ears of the beholders. In order to get C&W airplay, Sam had to deny there was percussion on the records, even though drummer Jimmie Lott can be heard clearly keeping time on the floor of the studio on many of them. Sam sold the Hillbilly deejays the story that the clicking was created by an echo coming off of the bass fiddle, and some bought it, even though the echo was playing a completely different riff. This is how part of Sams legend got started, for being a mad studio genius who applied secret production formulas and used mystery machines on his tracks.
ELVIS didnt set out to be a revolutionary artist. He had gone into the studio and played the style of music that he had been known for since he first sang on the Mississippi Slim Radio Show in Tupelo when he was 8 years old. When he was 10 years old, he had taken Second Prize at the Mississippi Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, for standing on a chair and warbling through Old Shep, and had made a minor reputation for himself in Tupelo and Memphis, by bringing tears to the eyes of students and teachers with his sentimental renderings of old Southern Folk tunes. On the many alternate Sun takes, you can hear that ELVIS wanted to be a crooner very badlyand unfortunately he was . . . He may have enjoyed R&B music and all that, but he longed to be a Pop singer like Dean Martin. He revered Gospel groups and idolized Gospel singers like Jake Hess, James Blackwood, and a man that he had met backstage as a teen during an all night Gospel sing at the Ellis Auditorium; J.D Sumner . . . the man with the worlds lowest voice . . .
Sam wanted a Whiteboy with the sound and feel of a Negro and ELVIS gave him a hillbilly plucking out Mona Lisa on the guitar that he had bought from the Tupelo Hardware Company ten years before. After months of time in the studio and no master cut to show for it, ELVIS was mortified that he was going to fail. Sam had been patient and generous and supportive, but sooner or later ELVIS had to either make something happen or pack it in. This was the first time ELVIS would have to summon forth all the Powers of Marvel to catapult his career out of the depths and soar as high as his dreams could take him . . . it would not be the last time . . .
One fateful night, after another half dozen uninspired takes of I Love You Because, came the bolt from the blue . . . ELVIS began frenetically bouncing around the studio while he was singing and playing an R&B cut by Arthur Big Boy Crudup just letting off some pent up steam in-between takes of his next torch song . . . Half playing the fool ELVIS sang in an unnaturally high falsetto and strummed a jumped up riff on his banged-up guitar. Scotty and Bill immediately picked up on what ELVIS was doing and in a few bars they were cooking with nitro . . . sadly this all took place during a break and Sam wasnt in the booth to record the most fabled moment in music history . . . By the time he returned, the boys were in full swing and the studio was filled with the magical sound of an artistic epiphany making itself heard. Sam stopped them long enough to restart them and five takes later a master was pressed . . . Sam then had them apply their new formula to songs from every category and thus a new musical genre was born . . .
This all took place a year before Maybelline by Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley came out. Bill Haleys Rock Around the Clock, was recorded in April 1954, but didnt become a national hit until it played at the end of the movie Blackboard Jungle, a year-and-a-half later, at a time when ELVIS was about to sign with RCA, so he wouldnt have heard it before he started his recording career. Little Richard, didnt release Tutti Frutti until 1955, and shouldnt even be considered a pioneer of Rock & Roll, because his Boogie Woogie music only rolled; it never rockedhe was just a jumped up version of Jelly Roll Morton . . . When these songs and artists were first emerging onto the national scene, ELVIS had been the biggest underground star in the country for a year and he already had several records out, including Good Rockin Tonight, Baby Lets Play House, and Mystery Train. CNN ended this long debate in 2003 when their panel of renowned experts chose Thats All Right Mama, by ELVIS PRESLEY, to top their list of Songs That Changed the World.
This has led people to question why Sam
ever let ELVIS sign with another label and it has given rise to much speculation,
when the answer is simple; its the smartest thing that Sam ever did
and the best thing that he couldve done for ELVIS . . . You see, ELVIS
was a regional sensation only on stage, and Sam was lucky enough to be holding
the paper on him when it finally paid off. ELVIS had modest hits with Sun,
but few managed to even make it up the Country Music charts, because of the
overwhelming opposition from the vanguard of the industry against the songs,
the singer and the label that released that Animalistic niggra bop.
Being a small label without national exposure or a lot of capital, Sams
dilemma was either not selling enough or getting more orders than he could
fillboth could ruin him . . . The answer to all of his problems was
to sell ELVIS contract to RCA for more money ever paid for a recording
artists contract. It worked out for Sam, who threw some of his winnings
into Kemmons Wilsons budding new Holiday Inn hotel chain that first
opened in August 1952 here on Summer Avenue in Memphis, and was beginning
to expand into what would become a nationwide hospitality empire. While ELVIS
was gaining national attention for his debut RCA record, Heartbreak
Hotel, his final release on Sun, Trying To Get To You, was
an important hit on the C&W charts and the exposure from his association
with the most controversial act in show business enabled Sam to develop other
stars who were soon vying with ELVIS for top spots on the Pop, Country, and
R&B Charts. Everyone benefited from this deal . . . well almost everyone
. . . After his crossover success with ELVIS, Sam dropped his entire roster
of Black artists in favor of developing his new formula of turning White singers
into R&B acts. Until Stax opened its doors some years later the Black
Bluesmen in Memphis were without a recording haven.