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Elvis records ‘That’s All Right (Mamma)’

The rock-and-roll era began on 05 July 1954 with the first song by “the greatest cultural force in the 20th century.”

Sun Records owner Sam Phillips was looking for “a white singer who could sing ‘black’ rhythm and blues.” It was the mid-1950s in Memphis, a city sandwiched between the “blues-soaked” Mississippi Delta and “the virtually all-white country-and-western music world of Nashville.”

In 1953, 18-year-old Elvis Presley paid Sun Records $4 to make a 78 RPM acetate record as a birthday present for his mother (about $44 in 2022 dollars). After his session, Marion Kreisler “wrote Presley’s name and phone number down and jotted a note that said he was a good ballad singer.” Kreisler was a business partner in Sun Records.

A year later, and after Elvis had recorded another demo, Phillips asked guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to assess his talent. “He didn’t knock me out,” Moore told Phillips, “[but] the boy’s got a good voice.”

So Phillips scheduled a recording session on 05 July 1954.

When Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black arrived at Memphis Recording Service, it was a hot, sticky day, with the temperature soaring in the 90s…

[After a midnight break] Elvis suddenly began strumming his acoustic guitar, singing a blues song, “That’s All Right,” previously recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Taken by the beat, Bill jumped up and started slapping his bass in time to the music. Then Scotty joined in on electric guitar. The music was fast and reckless…

Using the same strategy of taking a popular song and flipping it to their liking, they worked up Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a beautiful waltz that had been a country music hit in 1946. They turned it upside down and breathed fire into it, drawing Sam out of the control room again, shouting jubilantly, “Hell…that’s a pop song now.”

Whether the magic that occurred during the Sun Sessions was an accident, or a logical amalgam of diverse musical talents, will be debated for years. What will not be debated is the immense impact those sessions had on American culture, not just on the genesis of rock ‘n’ roll, but on American culture itself, setting in motion social and political changes that ultimately redefined America in the eyes of the world.

Phillips took the tape of “That’s All Right” to a local Memphis radio station. They played it immediately; rock-and-roll would prove key in “radio’s sometimes difficult transition” following the rise of television.

“That’s All Right” (written by an African-American blues musician, Arthur Crudup) was the first of five singles Elvis would release on the Sun label. Its backside: “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (written by a white bluegrass man, Bill Monroe).

Joel Williamson, a southern history scholar from the University of North Carolina noted that Elvis had a “God-given rich and versatile voice, perfected by practice.” He wrote:

 Just as “That’s All Right” was not black anymore, “Blue Moon” was no longer hillbilly; it was joyous, country-come-to-town and damn glad to be there.

Phillips would sell his Elvis contract to RCA in November 1955. By 1957, Elvis was making his third appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Sullivan surprised Elvis by telling him on camera that his tv show had never had a better experience with a name act, and said, “I wanted to say to Elvis and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy.” It was this very same appearance by Elvis on Ed Sullivan that he was shown on camera from the waist up only, one of early television history’s most memorable moments…

His 1968 special, “Elvis,” is one of the most critically acclaimed music specials of all time. The 1973 Elvis TV special, “Elvis – Aloha from Hawaii, via Satellite,” was seen in 40 countries by 1 billion to 1.5 billion people and made television history. It was seen on television in more American homes than man’s first walk on the moon.

In the 1960s, Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, told journalist Richard Clurman that Elvis was the greatest cultural force in the 20th century.

“He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything–music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution–the ’60s come from it.”

The “king of rock-and-roll” was born in 1935 in a two-room “shack” in Tupelo, Mississippi.

He died in 1977 at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 42.

Elvis is the best-selling solo artist in the world, with 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) units sold. He had 18 number one singles and nine number one albums. In a 22-year career that spanned a two-year break for the Army, he starred in 31 feature films and two theatrically released concert documentaries.

Elvis in Jailhouse Rock
Elvis Presely publicity still from “Jailhouse Rock” (1957). Library of Congress

In 2016, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the Essential Elvis record platinum (minimum 1,000,000 units).

“What he did was earthshaking,” says Tim McGraw, the country-music superstar who counts Presley as a huge influence. “He changed not only the music that we make but social norms and the way we looked at each other.”

It may be hard to think of someone born into a two-room “shack” as the beneficiary of White privilege, but he was.

Phillips, the maestro of Sun Records who recorded artists such as B.B. King and Ike Turner in a still-segregated South, understood the underlying realities of Jim Crow America…

“I knew that for black music to come to its rightful place in this country, we had to have some white singers come over and do black music–not copy it, not change, not sweeten it. Just do it,” he said.

With Presley’s emergence (as well as Bill Haley’s and Jerry Lee Lewis’, among others), Phillips’ prophecy came true, but not without resentment from the architects of the tradition Presley was drawing on.

“I was making everybody rich, and I was poor,” said Crudup, who originally recorded “That’s All Right.” “I was born poor, I live poor, and I’m going to die poor.”

#scitech, #society  (166/365)
📷 Public Domain Pictures
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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