By Gillian G. Gaar
That’s the number of surviving masters Elvis Presley recorded at Sun Studio between 1954 and 1955 — enough to fill one CD, with room to spare. And they were more than enough to secure his legend. If they weren’t the first rock ’n’ roll songs (people are still debating what that song was), they nonetheless helped lay the bedrock for his extraordinary success.
All these tracks and more are on the box set “A Boy From Tupelo,” which also features a massive book. The set is the creation of Ernst Jorgensen, who’s overseen the Presley catalogue since the landmark 1992 box “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll.” He estimates he’s been working on the Sun project since 1995.
“I was fascinated about this early period, and it was, by far, the part of Elvis’ career that was documented the least,” Jorgensen said.
Elvis first walked through the doors of what was then called the Memphis Recording Service in the summer of 1953, a few weeks after he’d graduated from Humes High School. Sam Phillips had opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 specifically to work with African-American performers, and he was soon working with an impressive roster of talent. He started his own label, Sun Records, in 1952, eventually renaming his studio after the label.
Phillips’ business cards boasted: “We record anything — anywhere — anytime.” People could also cut cheap acetates at the studio, which was what brought Elvis there. “I just wanted to hear what I sounded like,” Presley later explained.
More likely, he wanted Phillips to hear what he sounded like, too.
Presley was always partial to romantic ballads, and he recorded two that first day. Both “My Happiness” (a 1948 hit for Jon and Sandra Steele) and the Ink Spots’ “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” have a yearning and a plaintiveness that was quite unlike what other ballad singers of the day were doing. The recordings were officially released years later: “My Happiness” on “The Great Performances” (1990), and “Heartaches” on the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” box.
The performances certainly made an impression on Sam’s assistant, Marion Keisker, who made a point of taking down his phone number, and, though misspelling his name as Elvis “Pressley,” made the additional notation, “Good ballad singer. Hold.”
A surviving receipt shows that Presley returned to Sun on Jan. 4, 1954, to record another acetate, again sticking with ballads: “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” (a Top 30 hit for Joni James) and Jimmy Wakely’s “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You,” both evincing the same yearning quality of his first record. Presley loaned both acetates to local record shops so they could be played on the store’s jukeboxes; “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” later appeared on “Platinum: A Life in Music” (1997) and “It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You” on “Sunrise” (1999).
Meanwhile, Keisker encouraged Phillips to contact Elvis and have him record something else, but for the moment he demurred. For his part, Presley continued to look for singing opportunities, such as auditioning for local gospel quartet, the Songfellows, though he failed to make the cut. There are numerous stories of Elvis playing area clubs during this time, but most can’t be corroborated. Those that can are a handful of local appearances he made with his friend Ronald Smith, who also helped Elvis get a short solo spot at the Hi-Hat club.
Phillips finally succumbed to Keisker’s entreaties. He’d been looking for someone to record a ballad he’d found, “Without You.” On June 26, 1954, Phillips asked Keisker to call Presley. An enthusiastic Elvis rushed right over. “I was there by the time she hung up the phone,” he later joked.
After listening to Elvis sing, Phillips felt he wasn’t quite right for “Without You,” but he still had the singer run through other songs to get a feel for what he could do.
Phillips next decided to set Elvis up with some other musicians. Sun had recently released a record by a local country act, the Starlite Wranglers, which had an ambitious young guitarist in the lineup named Scotty Moore. Phillips had mentioned Elvis in passing to Moore, and now suggested that the two might get together. Moore called Presley on July 3 to invite him to his house the next night. Moore also asked the Wranglers’ bassist, Bill Black, to join them.
“So he came over to my house,” Moore recalls. “And I listened to him, and I thought he had a good voice. And so, I called Sam and told him that.”
Phillips then arranged for the trio to come back to the studio on July 5, hoping they could find something that clicked. At first, they ran through the ballads that Elvis clearly had an affinity for; the first numbers recorded were Leon Payne’s “I Love You Because” and “Harbor Lights,” a song recorded by Bing Crosby. They weren’t much different from the acetates Elvis had cut; pleasantly sung, but not necessarily distinctive.
No one expected what happened next.
“We worked an hour or so on different songs,” Moore says. “And we were just about ready to go home, and I was taking a break, and Elvis started singing ‘That’s All Right.’”
“That’s All Right” was a blues song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and though Scotty and Bill were unfamiliar with it, they were able to fall right in behind Elvis.
“The door was open to the control room,” Moore recalls. “And Sam stuck his head out and said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’ And Elvis told him, and Sam said, ‘Well, that sounds pretty good, let me hear it again.’ Of course, it was up-tempo and everything, from what we had done before.”
Phillips immediately realized he’d found something fresh, new, and above all, different. You can hear it in Elvis’ carefree, unself-conscious vocal. Instead of trying to impress, as he was with the ballads, here he was just having fun. Phillips knew he was on to something. After the session, he took an acetate of the song over to WHBQ deejay Dewey Phillips, who hosted the popular “Red, Hot and Blue” radio show. Dewey agreed the song was exciting.
Sam Phillips determined to make “That’s All Right” Elvis’ first single. But he also felt the other songs they’d recorded weren’t good enough, so on July 7, the trio was back in the studio.
“We’d try anything anyone could think of,” says Moore. “We’d try this, we’d try that. And we was sitting there taking a break, and then Bill — in fact, I think he was sitting on the back of his bass fiddle — started singing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ up-tempo, ’cause it had been a waltz by Bill Monroe. And Elvis joined in with him, sang it along with him. Bill was singing it in a high voice, and that was it. It just fit the groove perfect. That’s how the first record came about.”
“That’s All Right”/“Blue Moon of Kentucky” was released in mid-July, getting a favorable write-up in Billboard magazine, which called Elvis “a potent new chanter who can sock over a tune for either the country or the R&B markets.”
The record took off in Memphis right away, but Phillips had to hustle to spread the word in other areas.
“It wasn’t easy,” Phillips later recalled. “I had no track record. I had to hit the road and talk to a lot of people. And I was doing something that was really different. But I had to make money to stay in business, and I thought for a while there that it wasn’t gonna happen!”
“Blue Moon of Kentucky” was more successful, hitting the Top 10 in the country and western charts in Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans. (Presley’s earlier cuts didn’t go to waste. “I Love You Because” later appeared on The King’s first album, “Elvis Presley,” in 1956, and “Harbor Lights” was featured on the 1976 compilation “Elvis: A Legendary Performer Vol. 2.”)
Phillips was keen to build on Presley’s newfound chart success, and he arranged for another session in August. “A Boy From Tupelo” puts it at sometime during the week of Aug. 15-21. Elvis recorded a particularly haunting version of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Blue Moon,” but Phillips ultimately didn’t feel it would work on a single. (It later appeared on the “Elvis Presley” album.) So Elvis returned to the studio on Sept. 12.
Presley ended up recording a diverse array of songs, beginning with a lovely, languid version of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night.” Jimmy Wakely’s “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’),” also started out slow, then rather incongruously slipped into a faster tempo midway through. Things went better on “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine” (from the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movie “Scared Stiff”), and “Just Because” (popularized, among others, by Frankie Yankovic), both of them lively romps. But the standout song was Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which Presley sang with an appealing confidence. “Good Rockin’ Tonight”/“I Don’t Care if The Sun Don’t Shine” was released in early October, with the A-side again making the Memphis charts. “I’ll Never Let You Go” and “Just Because” later appeared on “Elvis Presley”; “Tomorrow Night” appeared on the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll.” Another song recorded at the session (but since lost) was Martha Carson’s “Satisfied.”
To this point, Presley had only performed in Memphis. Phillips arranged the crooner’s first out-of-town date on Oct. 2, when Presley appeared on “The Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville. Though not a complete disaster as it’s been portrayed, Presley only generated a polite response and was not asked back. Phillips had better luck when he booked Presley on “The Louisiana Hayride” radio show, performed before a live audience in Shreveport, La. Presley’s Hayride debut was Oct. 16, and he was quickly signed on as a regular, appearing every Saturday night.
The date isn’t certain, but Presley likely recorded his third single in November. This time, he recorded a song originally known as “Milk Cow Blues” that Phillips renamed “Milkcow Blues Boogie” to make it sound livelier. The song has one of the most distinctive openings of any Elvis song, with Presley first singing slowly, then abruptly breaking off to announce, “Hold it, fellas! That don’t move! Let’s get real, real, gone for a change!” The song then transforms into a rockabilly jive. He also recorded an original number, the sweet “You’re a Heartbreaker,” by first-time songwriter Jack Sallee. The two songs were released at the end of December. The single earned another positive write-up from Billboard, which noted, “Presley continues to impress.”
In 1955, Elvis’ career began to take off. He played all over the South, and as far west as New Mexico.
“The thing that impressed me the most was the number of shows they did and the insane traveling that went with it,” says Jorgensen says. “He worked almost every day.”
Some live performances appear on “A Boy From Tupelo.” Jorgensen is optimistic that there is additional material to be found.
“I’m sure there is more‚ most likely ‘Hayride’ recordings,” he says. “We know that Elvis did the following songs, and these would all be priceless: ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World,’ ‘Lovey Dovey,’ ‘Rock Around The Clock,’ ‘Pledging My Love,’ ‘Only You,’ and ‘Sixteen Tons.’ But I’d be happy finding live versions of ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie,’ as well.”
Presley soon began to make inroads into the north. On Feb. 26, 1955, he played two shows in Cleveland, where he met influential WERE disc jockey Bill Randle, who helped Elvis secure a March 23, 1955, audition on the ‘Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts’ TV show. It was Elvis’ first visit to New York City. The audition was unsuccessful, but it was only a momentary glitch in Elvis’ rise. He now had a new promoter working for him who was steadily taking over the direction of his career: “Colonel” Tom Parker (an honorary title given to him by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis). Parker had previously managed Eddy Arnold and was managing Hank Snow when he first saw Elvis. Parker arranged to have Presley open for Snow on a few tours in 1955, noting that while Hank might be the headliner, Elvis was coming up fast.
Recording dates were squeezed in between live appearances, though there are no exact dates for Elvis’ remaining Sun sessions. Some time in late January or early February, he recorded “Baby Let’s Play House,” a hit for Arthur Gunter, which featured a terrific hiccupping vocal from Elvis. He also recorded Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” and an early version of “Tryin’ to Get to You,” both of which, unfortunately, are now lost.
Information on the next sessions is more confusing. Elvis recorded two versions of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” (an original by Stan Kesler and Bill Murray of the Snearly Ranch Boys). The first, slow version is thought to have been recorded sometime between November 1954 and April 1955 (perhaps at the “Baby Let’s Play House session), and it was later released on the 1986 compilation “A Golden Celebration.” Drummer Jimmy Lott also remembers working on “How Do You Think I Feel” and “You’re a Heartbreaker” at this session. A second, faster (and superior) version of “I’m Left ...” was done, possibly as late as mid-April. “Baby Let’s Play House” and the faster version of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” was released at the end of April. The songs resulted in a pair of firsts. “I’m Left” was the first Elvis record to feature drums, and “Baby Let’s Play House” was the first Presley record to hit the national country charts.
At some point in mid-July — paperwork suggests July 21, but Jorgensen notes that date could be earlier — a recording session was held for the next single. With Johnny Bernero on drums, Elvis recorded another original song by Stan Kesler (co-written with Charlie Feathers), the lyrically playful “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” He also recorded a satisfactory version of the impassioned “Tryin’ to Get to You.” But the highlight was a terrific rendition of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” featuring Elvis’ spirited performance that ends with a happy “Woo!” in the fade out. (Phillips declared the song “a f***ing masterpiece.”
“I Forgot to Remember To Forget”/“Mystery Train” was released in early August 1955 and became Elvis’ most successful Sun single, reaching No. 1 on the country charts. “Tryin’ to Get to You” later appeared on the “Elvis Presley” album.
Elvis’ final Sun session would have yielded in his sixth Sun single, had the session been completed. At that point, “Tryin’ to Get to You” was earmarked for one side, but another side was needed. The session was held sometime in November, with Johnny Bernero again on drums. Phillips suggested they work on Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “When It Rains, It Pours.” Eight takes survive, a record of work Jorgensen finds “the most fascinating, in that it shows you how they worked, when they actually didn’t succeed in cutting a master.”
During a break, negotiations were finalized for Phillips to sell Elvis’ contract to RCA, and the rest of the session was cancelled. The renamed “When It Rains It Really Pours” later appeared on “Elvis: A Legendary Performer Vol. 4” (1983). Elvis was no longer a Sun Records artist. His first recording session for RCA was set up for Jan. 10, 1956, two days after his 21st birthday.
Phillips handed over all the Elvis tapes he had to RCA. The label made good use of them, first re-releasing all of Elvis’ Sun singles on RCA in December 1955, releasing other tracks on Elvis’ first album, and letting the rest trickle out over the years. Interest in the period was revived with the release of “The Sun Sessions” in 1976, the first time most of the tracks had been presented on one album. It was subsequently expanded on CD; other Sun-era CD releases include “Elvis At Sun” (2004) and “Sunrise” (1999), the most complete package outside of “A Boy From Tupelo.”
The Sun era will always be a crucial period for Elvis, showing him in transition from humble amateur to an up-and-comer on the verge of unimaginable fame. The songs still have a freshness that’s been undimmed by the years. Elvis’ keening vocal on “That’s All Right” prompt the same kind of shivers you can get by visiting Sun Studio in Memphis and standing on the very spot where Presley recorded the song.
The power of the Sun songs is not only due to work of Presley, Moore and Black, but also that of their producer, Sam Phillips, who coaxed performances out of the musicians that would be tough to replicate in today’s high-tech studios, Moore says.
“From the engineering side of it, I’ve always said, I guess I read it somewhere years and years ago about studio work, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight piece of wire, not all this stuff in between. And that’s basically what Sam had, compared to now. He could turn it up or he could turn it down, and that was about all he could do to it, or tell you to back off the microphone or turn your guitar down or turn it up.”
Ultimately, it was Phillips’ determination to draw out of Presley’s talent that resulted in the stellar work from Elvis’ Sun period.
“I always knew, and I believe this from the day I was big enough to think, that music was probably the most common denominator that the human race has,” Phillips said. “I really believe that. I don’t believe you’re gonna be fighting a whole hell of a lot of wars if everybody is singing and having a good time doing it.”