Rock and roll is “brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious. … It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. … This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.” – Frank Sinatra, in perhaps the best description of rock and roll I have ever read.
Elvis cut another acetate at Sun in January 1954 but that too went nowhere. He got a job as a truck driver, all the while auditioning for bands who told him he “couldn’t sing.” (Reminiscent of the guy at Decca who turned down the Beatles who forever became known as “The Guy Who Turned Down the Beatles.”)
Meanwhile, Sam Phillips – always seeking that White singer with a Black voice – heard a song called “Without You,” and figured it might suit Elvis. (In fairness, it was always his receptionist Marian Keisker that kept reminding him of Elvis.)
That number didn’t work out but Phillips had him sing as many tunes as he could think of. Sam decided he’d invite two local musicians over, 22-year-old guitarist Scotty Moore and 27-year-old upright bass player Bill Black. (Electric bass guitar existed but hadn’t quite taken off yet.) Till now, Scotty had been a country and jazz player (and devotee of Chet Atkins) and Bill had been largely a country player. (And somewhat of a clown onstage.)
The guys got together on the (now) fateful date of July 5, 1954. (May I add that John Lennon and Paul McCartney met on July 6, 1957.) They played into the night but nothing really seemed to click. Then “as they were about to abort and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1946 blues number, Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup’s “That’s All Right.”
Moore recalled, “All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, 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. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.'” And he rolled tape. Black remarked, “Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town.”
Now you have to put yourself back in time to fully appreciate that statement. It’s 1954, it’s the Deep South. Segregation is the law of the land and the Civil Rights Act would not be signed into law for another 10 years. And here was this White band doing a Black blues with a jumped-up hillbilly sound.
But music back then was every bit as segregated as people were. If white people were listening to black folks music, what next? And in yet another triumph of American race relations, not only were there “Colored” bathrooms and water fountains but White and Black music fans would be separated by a rope at theaters. Or black folk would sit in the balcony.
A local DJ, Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), was described as having an “on-air persona of a speed-crazed hillbilly, with a frantic delivery and entertaining sense of humor.” He got hold of the song a couple days later and started playing it. People loved it and called in wanting to know who that colored boy was. The interest was such that Phillips played the record repeatedly during the remaining two hours of his show.
Truthfully Elvis’ version isn’t tremendously different from Crudup’s:
A few days later the guys got back in the studio and recorded again, this time a Bill “Father of Bluegrass” Monroe country tune, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Together with “That’s All Right,” this was released on Sun as a single. (Never occurred to me before but Side A of Elvis’s first single was blues, Side B country. Had there been a Side C I guess it might have been gospel.)
When Dewey interviewed Elvis on air he asked him what high school he went to, knowing full well that people would realize he was white by his school.
On August 28, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” entered Billboard’s territorial country and western chart for Memphis at number 3, and the following week “That’s All Right,” joined it at number 4.
By September 11, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” had topped the same chart, and within a couple of weeks “That’s All Right” was charting as a “C&W territorial best seller” in Nashville, too. Some jukebox operators, however, wouldn’t add the single because it was “too racy.”
Elvis and company played publicly just two weeks later. According to Wikipedia, “A combination of his strong response to rhythm, and nervousness at playing before a large crowd led Presley to shake his legs as he performed. His wide-cut pants emphasized his movements, causing young women in the audience to start screaming. Moore recalled, ‘During the instrumental parts, he would back off from the mic and be playing and shaking, and the crowd would just go wild.'”
Recognizing a potent thing when they saw it, Scotty and Bill quit their old band to play with Elvis. For the rest of 1954, they played at local clubs regularly and came back to Sun to do some more recording. Presley made what would be his only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage on October 2. He was not invited back as his style was deemed not appropriate for the staid, conservative Opry crowd.
Elvis’ second Sun release was a reworking of a Forties jump blues tune called “Good Rocking Tonight.” It was written by an R&B crooner named Roy Brown and has horns and a swing feel to it. Elvis, Scotty, and Bill put the rock back in it. Interestingly, it wasn’t a big hit. But I tell you, the rest of us heard the news.
The town of Shreveport, Lousiana, 350mi. SW of Memphis, had since 1948 been broadcasting country music. On October 16th, 1954, Presley performed on Louisiana Hayride—the Opry‘s “chief, and more adventurous, rival.” Elvis’ band broadcast on the show from Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium. It was broadcast to 198 radio stations in 28 states. Elvis’s first set brought on an attack of nerves but his second set was enthusiastically received. For that, they added house drummer D.J. Fontana who had learned how to emphasize the beat by playing in strip clubs.
It would be nice if they had actually recorded that, eh?
The Hayride – apparently not as tradition-bound as the Opry – signed Elvis to a one-year contract for Saturday night appearances. (Recall this is radio only. TV certainly existed in 1954 but it was far from being a ubiquitous item in the home. Although that said, color TV was introduced in that year, not, however, without its issues.)
Elvis made some money and had the good sense to go out and buy a $175 ($1700 in today’s dollars) Martin guitar. The band soon were playing regularly in places as far away as Houston, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas, one hour south of Shreveport. But bear in mind that Elvis and the boys were a Deep South phenomenon, and hardly anywhere near a household name.
That was soon to change.