Elvis and the night of the Big Bang

“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”—John Lennon

Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, at his Memphis home, Graceland. After years of physical abuse, both drug- and diet-related, Elvis’ heart finally gave out. Like all great icons, Elvis never really died, however. Both his iconic image and musical legacy live on. Yet it was a legacy that almost never made it off the ground.

It was July 1954 and the night before, fireworks had lit up the Memphis sky. But they were nothing compared to the Big Bang that was about to explode in Sam Phillips’ tiny Sun Studio. The story of what took place that night is chronicled in Peter Guralnick’s 1994 master work, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley.

Phillips had assembled some of his favorite musicians, including Scotty Moore and Bill Black, to see if the 18-year-old ballad singer could get anything down on record that would be worth their while. Scotty had already auditioned Elvis the day before at his house. Bill Black had been there, too. “What’d you think?” Scotty asked, hoping that Bill might have seen something in the boy that he didn’t. “Well, he didn’t impress me too much,” Bill said.

The musicians and Elvis showed up at Sun Studio around 7 p.m. There was some small talk, and Sam tried to make “the boy”—the name they called Elvis—feel at ease. Finally, Sam turned to Elvis and asked, “Well, what do you want to sing?”

There was some confusion as Scotty, Bill and Elvis tried to come up with something they all knew. After a few false starts, they settled on “Harbor Lights,” which had been a big hit for Bing Crosby in 1950. And then they struck out on “I Love You Because,” running through the song again and again. Sometimes Elvis led off with several bars of whistling.

Phillips sat in the control room, tapping his fingers absentmindedly on the console. His attention was focused on the interaction among the three musicians as he looked for that “something different” sound. Every so often, he would come out to the studio area to change the microphone placement and chat with Elvis to get him to feel at home—and above all, to relax.

For Elvis, what had looked like his big chance was now evaporating. He felt like nothing was happening, and he was getting frustrated. In a desperate effort, Elvis flung himself into various versions of “I Love You Because,” trying to get something new. But this wasn’t working, either.

It was time to take a break. It was now late, and everyone had day jobs they had to show up for the next morning. Maybe, they thought, they should come back the next night and try it again. Phillips was in the control room, and as Elvis explained afterward, “This song popped into my mind that I had heard years ago, and I started kidding around with it.” The song was “That’s All Right, Mama,” an old blues number by black bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.

“All of a sudden,” said Scotty, “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—I don’t know, he was either editing some tape, or doing something—and 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!’”

Phillips, who recognized the song right away, was amazed that the boy even knew it. Nothing in the songs Elvis had sung up to this point vaguely pointed to the fact that he knew any blues tunes. But this was what Phillips was looking for, and Elvis sang it with a freshness and exuberance.

This became Elvis’ first single on Sun Records. From there, everything is history, so to speak. It became a hit in the Memphis area first, as record listeners, unfamiliar with the yet-unknown Presley, assumed the singer was black. Tracks like “That’s All Right, Mama” personified the joy in singing and music making that were unequaled in rock until the emergence of The Beatles. With Elvis, the rock ‘n’ roll revolution had begun.

Phillips, Black and Presley are all dead now. But Scotty Moore is still living and active.

Sun Studio is now a museum. When I toured the museum several years ago, I was told about all the greats who have recorded there, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Ringo Starr, U2 and so on. One who visited the studio but never recorded a song there is the legendary Bob Dylan. He simply walked into the studio, bent down on his knees, kissed the floor where Elvis’ microphone still stands and walked out. A fitting tribute to the King.

About John W. Whitehead: Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book “The Freedom Wars” (TRI Press) is available online at www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

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