All over the world fans of Elvis Presley are preparing to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of his birth this coming Saturday: “Elvis fans all shook up for 70th birthday bash.” The linked Reuters story notes that the festivities are expected to occur with particular enthusiasm in Blackpool, England, which will host a three-day convention this weekend aimed at finding Europe’s best Elvis impersonator. What’s all the fuss about?
Fifty years ago this past July 5, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black convened at the small Sun Records recording studio in Memphis. Elvis was all of 19 years old, working full time as a truck driver for Crown Electric. Scotty and Bill had day jobs as well, but they also worked as professional musicians in the Starlite Wranglers, a local country and western group.
They had been called together by Sun proprietor Sam Phillips, who sensed that Elvis might be prodded to produce something worthwhile with Scotty and Bill. At a session a week earlier, Phillips had worked fruitlessly with Elvis by himself at the urging of Marion Keisker, Phillips’s gal Friday. But Phillips wasn’t prepared to quit.
At the session with Scotty and Bill on July 5, Elvis first recorded two ballads — Bing Crosby’s “Harbor Lights” and Leon Payne’s “I Love You Because,” also a hit for Ernest Tubb. After several takes, both songs were delivered dead on arrival. Phillips stuck his head out of the control booth and called for a break, perhaps even an adjournment.
Then a song that Elvis had heard years before popped into hishead and he “started kidding around with it.” The song was a mediocre blues number by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, “That’s All Right.” According to Scotty, “Elvis just started jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool too, and I started playing with them.” Phillips again stuck his head out of the control booth and asked that they back up and “try to find a place to start, and do it again.”
They continued to work on the song until Phillips had an acceptable take. According again to Scotty, “We thought it was exciting, but what was it? It was just so completely different. But it just really flipped Sam — he felt it really had something. We just sort of shook our heads and said, ‘Well, that’s fine, but good God, they’ll run us out of town!”
On July 6, Phillips telephoned Dewey Phillips, the host of the successful “Red, Hot & Blue” radio show broadcast from 9:00 to midnight on WHBQ out of the Hotel Chisca. Dewey stopped by Sun after the show and listened to the recording of “That’s All Right.” They stayed in the studio listening to the song until the wee hours. Despite the beer and scotch Dewey had drunk in the studio, he barely slept when he got home. He called Phillips first thing in the morning and asked him to bring him two copies of the song for his show.
Phillips cut an acetate dub of the song with no backing side and delivered it to Dewey, who debuted the song on his July 8 show. The response was instantaneous; he received 47 phone calls and replayed the song seven times in a row, although the numbers obviously have the imprecision of legend. Is it fair to say the rest is history? (For the history, we are in debt especially to Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley.)
Listening to Elvis’s Sun sides is still a thrill 50 years later. “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Trying to Get to You,” and “Baby Let’s Play House,” for example, all communicate Elvis’s discovery of the American musical motherlode in which the elements of blues, bluegrass, gospel, and country merge into the pure gold of joyous freedom.
In the photo below Elvis tribute artists gather at the Eros statue, seen in background, Piccadilly Circus, London, Monday July 5, 2004, before attending an Elvis impersonation competition as part of the worldwide celebrations last summer that marked the 50 years since “The King” recorded his first song. My guess is that most of them will be back in Blackpool this weekend.
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