It’s July 5, 1954, and rock ‘n’ roll is being born.
“That’s fine, man,” says a voice over the intercom at the Memphis Recording Service. “Hell, that’s different. That’s a pop song now.”
The song in question is a version of “That’s All Right Mama,” originally recorded by bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label in 1946. It’s been a frustrating day at Sam Phillips’s studio, trying out this new singer who had wandered in off the street a few months back, and now seems to be searching for a musical style to match his penchant for loud clothes — emphasis on pink and black — and long, greased, slicked-back hair. He has an undeniably good voice, and is certainly good-looking, but he doesn’t seem to know what to sing.
Sun is the home base of Phillips’s label and recording studio where, up to this moment, his stock in trade is rhythm and blues that he would either release himself, or lease to labels like Chess in Chicago or Modern in Los Angeles. He’s among the plethora of independent labels working beneath the imperious gaze of the majors, filling in the gaps of the music they are too “sophisticated” to even recognize. Among his productions, “Rocket 88″ by Jackie Brenston, with a band led by Ike Turner, has the driving sound and ferocity he is looking for. And he’s been having regional R&B hits with artists like Rufus Thomas (“Bear Cat,” an answer to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”), harp blowers like Dr. Ross and Harmonica Frank, and even a vocal group composed of inmates from the Nashville state penitentiary called the Prisonaires. But as the market for black music is declining in the south, he’s beginning to dabble in country sounds. And when he permits himself to dream, he thinks that “if [he] could find a white singer with the Negro sound and the Negro feel,” it might be a way he could achieve more than localized success.
It’s not unusual for black R&B hits to show up in the more mainstream charts, if only in bowdlerized versions. These covers — the Moonglows’ “Sincerely” as interpreted by the McGuire Sisters, the Chords’ “Sh-Boom” onomontopeia’d by the Crew Cuts — are usually smoothed and drained of emotional unseemliness — catchy, but homogenized for a mass audience. Phillips doesn’t like keeping things clean — he enjoys it when James Cotton and his guitarist Pat Hare overload their amplifiers in “Cotton Crop Blues,” or when he ladles on the reverb for Howlin’ Wolf in his earliest releases — and he is surely aware of a growing white audience for R&B as well as a honky-tonk atmosphere pervading the outer edges of country.
The Chosen One shows up at Memphis Recording Service (motto: “We Record Anything — Anywhere — Anytime”) in the summer of 1953, ostensibly to make a record for his mother. When Marion Keisker, the secretary who is holding down the fort while Phillips runs an errand, asks him who he sounds like, he replies, “I don’t sound like nobody.” She thinks he’s a “good ballad singer.” He pays $3.98 to record a two-sided acetate of “My Happiness/That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” and something in Presley’s manner causes Marion to make a tape of the session for Phillips to hear.
Phillips is not overly impressed, though he does engineer the next time Elvis Presley comes into the studio, on January 4, 1954, to record another two songs. He jots down Presley’s phone number, but doesn’t follow up. Presley continues to drop by Sun, and finally Phillips, hearing a country song that reminds him of Presley’s voice, gives him a try at recording it. The results are not heartening. Still, Phillips puts Presley into the hands of a 21-year-old guitar player from local country group Starlight Wranglers, Scotty Moore, to see if Presley might be molded into something intriguing. While Moore is trying out songs with Presley in his living room, a neighbor, bassist Bill Black, wanders by to see what the ruckus is about.
On Monday, July 5, the trio enters Sun’s 30′x18′ studio with its five microphones and single-track mono input board to see what they can come up with. The musicians aren’t enthusiastic, though they like Presley’s voice. They try a version of “Harbor Lights,” run through some desultory takes of a ballad (“I Love You Because,”), and finally stop for a soda and a smoke. This is the moment of emergence: Presley picks up his acoustic guitar, more for cutting up and to find an outlet for his nervous energy than to actually play, and starts flailing a jumped-up version of “That’s All Right.” It’s practically a blues standard — even Crudup’s version lifts whole verses from Blind Lemon Jefferson — though Phillips, listening through the control room door, is amazed that Presley even knows it. Nothing they’ve worked on so far has shown any sign that Presley contains such bursting propulsive otherworldliness and animal instinct. Turning on the tape machine, summoning the musicians to play along, Phillips captures lightning in a bottle.
It’s an unusual record to signal the coming of rock ‘n’ roll. For one thing, there are no drums; Presley himself wouldn’t add a formal kit until D.J. Fontana joined Moore and Black in December 1954, with “Milkcow Blues Boogie.” The rhythm is supplied by Black’s doghouse bass, slapping the strings so it’s not just notes but percussion, and Moore’s Gibson guitar accesses finger-picked arpeggios and call-and-response-style playing, important signifiers of what would soon be known as rock-a-billy. Presley scrubs along on acoustic, giving himself something to hold onto as the song wigs out. His voice is surprisingly delicate, given the gutbucket origins of the tune and the force of his delivery, on the higher end of his range, drawing out the second syllable of “ma-ma,” and suggestive when he ad-libs “I need your lovin’.”
It doesn’t really sound like anything else. Enhanced by a chambered echo, Phillips calls it “alive,” and excited by this sonic breakthrough, visits a local disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, the following day. He plays it for him. Dewey considers the matter overnight and then calls Phillips the next morning to request two acetates. Black wonders whether they’ll “be run out of town”; Presley fears people will laugh at his outlandishness. Still, when Dewey plays the record on his Red, Hot and Blue Show, carefully alerting his listeners that Presley is from the local Hume High School — thereby coding the fact that Presley is white — the telephone switchboard lights up. Presley is so on edge about his recorded debut that he hides at a local movie theater watching High Noon until he’s tracked down to go on the air and be interviewed.
Two weeks later, on July 19, the first rock ‘n’ roll record is officially released.
The question remains: Why Elvis Presley? What makes this record so different from the other attempts at this new form of music that it can be regarded as the opening shot in a musical revolution?
The answer lies in Presley himself. There is an undercurrent of smoldering sensuality within him, a primitive and primal expression of emotion that captivates audiences, that embodies the release from inhibition and caution that rock ‘n’ roll’s very existence implies. And though the performers that will follow his lead — Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, along with rhythm and blues performers caught up in rock ‘n’ roll’s youthful frenzy — will benefit from his breakthrough, he alone was the new sound made manifest.
His charisma moves past recordings and even performance into phenomenon, and his sudden ascendance — “Elvis went from high school boy to hit entertainer so fast it was hard for any of us to realize the change had come,” Phillips later mused — spoke not only to musical evolution but a deep-seated need in American culture at this crucial moment to break free from constriction and propriety, to throw off inhibition, to become Elvis Presley, even for the brief under-two minutes of “That’s All Right.”