Elvis fans are celebrating the eightieth anniversary of his birth today. As usual, even in the absence of round number anniversaries, it’s Elvis all over the world. The celebrations take in the expected spots such as Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo (where the North Mississippi Symphony Concert is holding an Elvis-themed show) and Elvis’s Graceland home in Memphis. Commemorative events will also take place in Hollywood, at the Elvis Fest in Chicago, at the European Elvis Championships in Birmingham, UK, at the Elvis Festival in Parkes, Australia — the Elvis Capital of Australia — and at many points elsewhere. What’s all the fuss about?
On July 5, 1954, 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 his head 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 recording 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 may be subject to embellishment. 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 joy 60 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 the thrill of Elvis’s discovery of the musical mother lode in which the elements of blues, bluegrass, gospel, and country fuse into what Gram Parsons called the Cosmic American Music.
In the video above, from the first sit-down show recorded for Elvis’s 1968 Singer Special, Elvis performs an impassioned version of “Trying To Get To You” in an informal group setting that included Scotty Moore. Elvis pulled out all the stops on the song for the second sit-down show as well. Something in the song touched Elvis’s deepest feelings. I’m guessing the gospel touch — “When my way was was dark as night…” — had at least a little to do with it.
Elvis originally recorded the song in July 1955 at Sun with Scotty, Bill Black on bass and Johnny Bernero on drums. Guralnick comments regarding the 1955 recording that it reflects “a desperate striving linked to a pure outpouring of joy” that “seemed to just tumble out of the music.” Elvis returned to the striving and rediscovered the pure outpouring of joy in his historic 1968 live in-studio performance. (First posted in 2009.)