1954-55 — Elvis At Sun (BMG, 2004)
What a place Memphis, Tennessee was in terms of musical fertility in the first fifteen post-war years. Things were happening. Memphis is so close to Mississippi that it was an easy matter for any post-delta blues singer to wander into town. If they did so, and if they were good, they might get a guest spot somewhere on Beale, the black community’s musical street of congregation. Big bands (white and black) in Memphis were still going great guns, and members of some of them were still only at high school age. Hillbilly musicians proliferated, as ever, as did solo vocalists. With radio stations going gangbusters and Dewey Phillips talking to the (white) young’uns in a language they understood, playing daringly edgy rhythm & blues records on air, it was a time and community ripe for the taking. How incredibly fortunate that a white southerner like Sam Phillips, who loved and understood the local music, emerged to harness the talent of some of these people onto record at Memphis Recording Service, and later (from January 1953), with Sam Bulleit, to launch Sun Records. Sam Phillips followed his vision, through a lot of disinterest and misunderstanding on the part of many, to get the real deal, the heartfelt cry of the working man, the rough truth, the blood, sweat, and tears of the people onto record.
Sun was brand-new and nearly bankrupt when 18-year-old Elvis Presley first wandered in in 1953, for the purpose of making a record for his mother (so he said). But Sam Phillips’ studio had already put The Howlin’ Wolf onto record, recorded a huge hit (“Rocket 88”) with Ike Turner’s combo (under vocalist Jackie Brenston’s name), recorded Riley “B.B.” King, Rufus Thomas’s “Bear Cat”, and many, many more. Sam had had a vision for years by 1953, and he knew what he liked and what he didn’t like. Sam probably wasn’t won over by Elvis that first day (Elvis cut “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”), but he must have heard something as Marion Keisker, Sam’s assistant and secret paramour, wrote on the card next to Elvis’s name: “Good ballad singer. Hold”. Elvis came back in January 1954 to record another two-sider, “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t be the Same Without You”. No great shakes, either, and as Elvis went home and occasionally dropped by the studio in the months to come, he must have thought his chance had passed. Finally, in late May, Marian Keisker called Elvis in to try recording a song called “Without You” that Sam had received in demo form. This attempt evidently didn’t go well. That might have been the end of it if not for the concurrent ambitions of a young guitarist who was friendly with Sam.
Sam was also recording The Starlight Wranglers, a not-so-special, local country-ish combo. It was typical of Sam to give anybody a hearing, and even to record some people he knew might not sell. Sam was chums with The Wranglers’ band-leader and guitarist, Scotty Moore, a local boy. Scotty was from a musical family, but his elder siblings were a lot older than he, and consequently he had learned guitar the hard way and had needed to look hard for people to play with. An ambitious go-getter, Scotty finished his military service and put together The Wranglers, a combo with an amiable fellow called Bill Black on double bass. Scotty took his band to Memphis Recording Service, where Sam told him to come up with an original song. They brought back, “My Kind of Carryin’ On”, with Doug Poindexter on vocals. It was a tune that Scotty himself didn’t rate that high, and it flopped.
That record, which is quite bad, was barely out when Scotty began badgering Sam to find a new singer. Sam mentioned the young ballad singer with the sideburns a few times, but he took his time helping Scotty to meet him. Finally, he passed along the number, and Scotty got in touch. Elvis came over to Scotty’s place on the weekend, and Scotty invited his neighbor Bill Black over to check the kid out (this was convenient as Bill stored his big double bass at Scotty’s bigger house anyway). At the end of a few hours’ jamming, mostly on slow ballads, Scotty seems to have thought Elvis was just all right (Bill was less impressed). Nevertheless, Sam suggested the trio come into the studio to see what they could do.
The combo, with Sam watching and listening, recorded “I Love You Because”, “Harbor Lights”, and other slow tunes that weren’t what Sam was looking for, when, without warning, Elvis started playing and singing Arthur Crudup’s bouncy blues, “That’s All Right”, first recorded back in 1946. Bill knew the tune and started jamming along; Scotty didn’t, but in a few tries he’d figured out a catchy-as-anything electric lead riff that powered the breaks along. Elvis forgot, or perhaps skipped out on, a couple of Crudup’s verses to keep it all lean and simple (it’s over in about 1:56). Bill’s slap-back bass sound is heavy and fat, Scotty’s leads are nimble and raw, and Elvis’s voice is both authoritative and sensitive. The record swings and moans like rhythm and blues, but it also feels country and pop. It was different and it was exciting. Sam Phillips had hit pay dirt.
“Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill” issued only five singles on Sun Records in 1954 and 1955, as follows:
July 19, 1954: That’s All Right / Blue Moon of Kentucky
Sept. 25, 1954: Good Rockin’ Tonight / I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine
Dec. 28, 1954: Milkcow Blues Boogie / You’re a Heartbreaker
April 10, 1955: Baby Let’s Play House / I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone
Aug. 6, 1955: Mystery Train / I Forgot to Remember to Forget
A mere five singles, comprising about 23 minutes of music. But those five records collectively form a stunning vista of the convergence of popular forms of post-war music from the south. This is folk music, the people’s music, but with electric lead guitar and slap-back echo to feel up-to-date for the television age. The songs themselves are from white hillbillies and black bluesmen (and one was popularized in a movie by a female vocalist, Patti Page).
With only three musicians playing on most tracks (perfunctory drums do appear on a few, including one performance by a local high school student whom Sam dragged into the studio), the sound is dominated by Elvis and Scotty. In fact, instead of “Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill”, these Sun releases might better have been called “Elvis and Scotty”, so impressive and important is the guitar soloing by Mr. Moore. That rockabilly style of twangy and stinging soloing influenced a whole generation of guitarists to come. And how about that kid on vocals? Yeah, he wasn’t bad. Young Elvis Presley’s voice on unreleased cuts like “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because” is fine – sensitive and pleasant to the ear. But, as Sam Phillips immediately recognized that fateful night when the kid suddenly jammed on Arthur Crudup, it was on rhythm numbers that Elvis really shone.
As I mentioned earlier, white post-war kids in Memphis, by 1954, were ready for something new and different, and specifically for something less austere, less “white”, less “professional”, freer, and more uninhibited. And if one of their own generation and skin-color could deliver that, so much the more ideal. But my own feeling about why Elvis’s voice and style connected with young, white kids of the south back in 1954 and 1955 (and from 1956 with the whole nation) is the dichotomy within it. On the one hand, his voice at its most uninhibited suggests animal sexuality. But at the same time – and sometimes within the same song – his voice also communicates innocence, humility, and sensitivity. Just by straddling those two extremes as a vocalist, Elvis Presley was already pushing into different genres and he was doing it instinctively.
Listening to Elvis At Sun in sequence really underlines the importance of the rhythmic approach the trio took. “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because” are charming, though wimpy, and then suddenly Elvis’s guitar strumming on “That’s All Right” leaps out of your speakers with clarity and precision. “That’s All Right” is essentially a rhythm & blues song given a country-ish makeover by Elvis, Scotty and Bill, while its flip-side, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (made famous by Bill Monroe in 1947), is essentially a country song given a rhythm & blues makeover. That these two seemingly disparate songs could meet, in middle-ground, by 1954 shows the advent of not only the “rock’n’roll era” but, accordingly, the social changes bubbling under the mainstream of American society in the mid-1950s. In short, the baby-boomers were coming, and the racialized codes that had strictly divided society – even in the south – were going. (Not that it would be a quick or easy process.)
Anyway, of the gentler ballads attempted by the trio at Memphis Recording Service, “Blue Moon” and “Tomorrow Night” stand out
as highlights, to me, especially for Elvis’s vocals. The sudden and surprising leap into a haunting falsetto in “Blue Moon” is one of the great Elvis moments, and it speaks to Sam Phillips’s prioritizing rhythm-first tracks that he didn’t issue this outstanding track. I think “Tomorrow Night” is a good song as well, and I love Elvis’s vocal on it. But I’ve never cared for “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’)”, which doesn’t have much of a melody, and certainly Sam was right to hold that one back.
Nor was every rhythmic track a success. “Just Because” comes off as less than impressive, being a bit too twee and “pop”, and not raunchy enough. Sam let that one sit in the vaults, too. But finally, they hit on “Good Rockin’ Tonight” for the second A-side, and it was the worth the effort. Everybody shines on this winner, which might be the first real rockabilly track, with its two stunning guitar solos by Scotty and its fat beats by Bill. Elvis’s vocal treatment is both “bouncy” (for lack of a better word) and bluesy – both lighthearted and deadly serious. The cute ballad “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine” was on the B-side. It’s got a great melody, and Scotty does some more fine and nimble soloing. The vocal sensitivity I was referring to earlier is on great display here. Elvis sounds like a little boy crooning that “we’re gonna kiss, and kiss, and kiss; we’re gonna kiss some more!”. Not a lot of male singers doing blues numbers would have chosen to sing this song at all, nor with that much tenderness in approach. Right from the beginning, Elvis knew how to appeal to a cross-gender audience.
“Milkcow Blues Boogie” / “You’re a Heartbreaker” was the least commercially successful of the five Sun singles in its time, and that’s not surprising as the A-side is a classic blues number, rather low on melody. This is perhaps the only track among the ten Sun sides that doesn’t noticeably merge disparate styles – it’s just a blues, even if an enjoyable one that Elvis sings well. “You’re a Heartbreaker”, likewise, sounds more like a straight-ahead, if up-tempo, country song, and is mostly notable for having drums. Nice tune, anyway.
A slow version of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” was attempted before Sam and the gang realized its potential if sped up a bit. This led to the classic B-side. It’s a great song and a great recording. Elvis sings it gently, and Scotty’s leads are alternately loud and soft, more solid and better recorded than in the previous year. Drums are back on this track, and they’re now more noticeable and better mixed. (Incidentally, the sound quality on this track is really good, and was apparently the result of a discovered RCA master-tape not long before the release of Elvis At Sun, as well as some tricky restoration work.)
The stars aligned for the fourth A-side: “Baby Let’s Play House” is not only the finest rockabilly track ever recorded, I would also rate it the single greatest track Elvis Presley ever committed to tape. It’s just a stunner that grows better and better with age and with repeated listens. Here is every strength of the Elvis, Scotty and Bill combo at peak level, performing a recent track by Arthur Gunter, making it their own, and entering the highest annals of musical heaven. Elvis’s legendary “Buh-buh-buh-buh-baby, baby, baby” off the top, his inserting the “pink Cadillac” line, Scotty’s absolutely riveting and stinging leads (especially the second one, which is rock’n’roll’s future), Bill’s fat and bouncing bass lines, the slap-back echo perfected by Sam… and it’s all over in 135 seconds. This track needs to be listened to four or five times in a row to catch everything that’s going on. Even delivering a macho man-dawg lyric, Elvis still comes across as cute and harmless, stifling a little laugh in the outro, while delivering his last “baby, baby, baby” lines.
There’s a controlled strength to the vocals in “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”, even in the quieter moments, which shows how quickly Elvis's voice was improving, probably from the endless series of live shows in 1955. Scotty’s guitar is more assured and more deliberate. No doubt they had more time in the studio by now to perfect the tracks, and it’s audible. This country tune, written (like “I’m Left, You’re Right…”) by Stan Kesler, is another winner, even if it’s a tad more generic than at least seven other Sun sides. Elvis’s name and reputation were strongly in the ascendant by the autumn of 1955, and “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” became his very first #1 hit – eventually topping the Billboard country charts. It was only a matter of time before he would be pulled away from Sam Phillips and Sun Records.
The final Sun A-side was always Sam Phillips’s favorite: “Mystery Train”. The song had previously been issued by Sun, in late 1953, by Junior Parker under the name Little Junior’s Blue Flames. Sam obviously rated the song and brought it to the Elvis trio’s attention. The cut it on the 11th of July, 1955, and it was indeed another classic. If you’re not familiar with the song, you might be underwhelmed on first listen, as the tune’s quick rhythm kind of shuffles in and out with minimal melody and a restrained Elvis vocal. But the strength of the track lies in its rhythmic subtlety. That groove will eventually eat into you, I promise! Junior Parker’s original cut, with saxophone, has a more soulful and dominant vocal than Elvis’s, and thus falls more solidly in classic R&B territory. The Elvis version is… different. It’s hard to say what genre it is, as it seems to occupy its own space. It’s now as much a folk tune as R&B. The gentler vocal makes the lyric seem more profound and mysterious, and its lower place in the mix emphasizes the band, making the track more akin to that of a rock’n’roll combo. Cool track.
Amazingly, on the same day “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” and “Mystery Train” were cut (like that wasn’t enough for one day’s work), the trio also recorded the incredible “Trying To Get To You”, which might just be the equal of “Baby Let’s Play House” in sheer awesomeness. The mind boggles at how three such legendary songs were recorded at once. (It’s also amusing, if unfair, to reflect on how today’s big artists spend years in the studio, at tens of thousands of dollars’ cost, to produce albums of forgettable shite.) This time, Elvis’s voice is totally dominant. I have a feeling today’s audience is more familiar with seeing him sing this song at the ’68 Comeback Special. Sure, he really digs into it there, but back in 1955 both the power and the subtlety are present. Johnny Bernero’s drums are basic, to say the least, but at least we get to hear Elvis tinkling the ivories a bit, on piano. But that voice! Elvis is reaching the peak of his powers as a singer, and he pulls out all the stops here. When you hear this guy sing, you just believe him. (That final “...when I was TRYING’ TO GET TO YOU!” sends shivers down my spine.)
There was one more – aborted – session for Sun in the autumn of 1955, when they ran through “When It Rains It Really Pours”, a song Elvis wanted to do. It’s all right, but you can sort of sense a lack of energy or focus, as if everyone involved knew the game was up and that Elvis wasn’t going to be recording any more masters for Sam Phillips. According to Bernero’s recollections, it may have been that very afternoon, during a break in the session, that Elvis and Sam confirmed that the former was leaving for RCA. After this closed-door talk, the session ended. (Sam may have felt the sting of Elvis that day singing, “You got what you wanted / Now you left me”).
Elvis At Sun is a nearly perfect collection of the classic masters The King cut at Memphis Recording Service for Sun Records. It’s a staggeringly unique and important collection of music, but more importantly it’s highly enjoyable. The first time I heard these recordings, back when I was a student, they seemed to be coming from another world – from a place a country boy like me could recognize, but one that was long gone and that didn’t touch contemporary life anymore. They seemed to come from a time and place of great possibilities; indeed, a place where a teenage truck-driver with no musical experience could walk in off the street, and within two years be the biggest recording star in the world. This otherworldly feeling of Elvis’s Sun recordings only adds to their appeal, and that sense of wonder about them hasn’t left me to the present day.