|THE COMPLETE SUN SESSIONS
The album notes from the 1987 RCA Records release
By Peter Guralnick
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"He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior ... Elvis Presley probably innately was the most introverted person that [ever] came into that studio. He didn't play
with bands. He didn't go to this little club and pick and grin. All he did was sit with his guitar on the side of his bed at home. I don't think he even played on the
front porch." - Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records
It was on a hot summer day in 1953 that a young man, just out of high school, first showed up at the door of the Memphis Recording Service, a custom studio
whose motto read "We record anything - anywhere - anytime." For a few minutes he paced nervously outside the plateglass window clutching a beat-up guitar,
then finally plunged into the small outer office whose reception area was already filled to capacity by the three or for customers waiting to make a "personal"
record of their own for just $3.98 plus tax. Sitting behind the desk jammed to the left of the door was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, who took the
young man's name and politely asked him to take a seat while he waited his turn. "[At first] I wondered if he wanted a handout," Marion Keisker later recalled.
"We get a lot of drifters along Union Avenue. His hair was long and shaggy, and he was wearing khaki work clothes and was dirty. Of course he had his guitar."
"Who do you sound like?" Mrs. Keisker asked, just to make conversation.
"I don't sound like nobody," said the young man politely.
When it finally came his turn to record, Marion Keisker ushered the young man back into the little studio where blues singers B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf and
Ike Turner had all cut their first sides for Memphis Recording Service owner Sam Phillips, who had a leasing arrangement with the Chess and Modern labels in
Chicago and Los Angeles. Phillips, who had recently started his own label, Sun, was just about to go out for lunch, so Marion set up the acetate disc cutter
herself and, halfway through the young man's performance of his first song, an old Ink Spots number called "My Happiness," she decided to make a reference
tape as well. His guitar playing was rudimentary, and his singing style "changed every eight bars" as he swung erratically from a thin tenor to a somewhat
wobbly bass guitar and back again - but Marion felt there was something "different" about his voice and she though Sam would too. She got about a third of
"My Happiness" on tape and all of his second song "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," complete with recitation. She noted down his address and a
neighbor's telephone number on a piece of paper that was headed: "Elvis Presley. Good ballad singer. Hold."
The young man returned some six months later, on January 4, 1954, and recorded two more slow numbers, this time in a western style, "Casual Love Affair"
["It Wouldn't Be The Same (Without You)" - Ed.] and "I'll Never Stand In Your Way." On this occasion it was 31-year old Sam Phillips who noted the singer's
name and the fact that he was "a good ballad singer." If anything suited to his style were to come up in a commercial vein, Sam assured the young truck driver,
he would call him. "I had never sung anything but slow music and ballads in my life at that time," said Elvis Presley, reminiscing just two years later.
He stopped by the studio often in the next few months, trying out songs and seeking out advice, but Sam
Phillips didn't call him for anything even resembling a session until June. Phillips had gotten a demonstration
record that spring from Peer Publishing in Nashville on a song called "Without You" and, struck by the soulful
quality in the singer's voice, had contacted Peer to see if he could put out the demo on Sun. No one at Peer
even knew the name of the singer, though; it was just a young black man who had been hanging around the
"What about the kid with sideburns?" said Marion Keisker.
"If you can get him over here ... " said Phillips.
"I called and asked him at his convenience to come see us," recalled Marion. "I turned around and there was
Elvis coming through the door. I think he ran all the way."
As good an idea as it may have seemed to everyone involved, it didn't work out the way that any of them
planned. For whatever reason, Elvis Presley couldn't capture the special quality that Sam Phillips had heard in
that anonymous black man's voice, and Sam Phillips was definitely looking for something different. For Phillips,
who had started out as a radio announcer and engineer in his hometown of Florence, Alabama, individuality
had always been the one quality he had most pursued and prized. In Memphis he had made his reputation
broadcasting the big bands on a national hookup from the Hotel Peabody Skyway, but he soon grew
disillusioned with the way those bands were "programmed." Every orchestra, every number sounded alike. It
bored me, and I assumed it also bored the public. It just seemed to me that [the Negro people] were the only
ones who had any freshness left in their music."
That was why he had started the Memphis Recording Service in 1950, "just to make records with some of [the] great Negro artists." And it was why he had
started his own record label two years later. He had never, he boasted at the time, "made a record with an established star yet," and he was looking even then
for the same distinctiveness that he continues to seek to this day.
"Without You" was simply not the right vehicle to bring it out in this singer. At Phillips' instigation the young man ran through every song in his repertoire,
including "Rag Mop," a host of Billy Eckstine favorites, and just about every number in the Dean Martin songbook. Sam Phillips wasn't sure just what he heard,
but he knew he heard something. "I suppose it was all the gospel singing Elvis had done that gave me a hint of that special thing," he said a year or two later.
Marion Keisker had evidently heard the same thing when she originally noted the name "Over and over," she told Elvis biographer Jerry Hopkins, "I remember
Sam saying, "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars."
At this same time there was a young guitarist in Memphis named Scotty Moore who also had a vision. Moore, recently out of the Navy and working as a hatter
in his brother's dry-cleaning establishment, had just cut a record for Sun with the group he was fronting, Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers. The
record, "My Kind Of Carrying On," has been pointed to as a seminal step in the development of rockabilly music, but if it in fact represented the seed of the
revolution, it was a very modest seed that remained to be planted. For Scotty Moore it was contact with Sam Phillips that crystallized his sense of where the
music was going.
"He knew there was a crossover coming," says Scotty. "He foresaw it. I think that recording all those black artists had to give him an insight; he just didn't know
where that insight would lead. Well, Sam and I got to be pretty good friends, just by my hanging around the studio all the time. It got to be an almost daily thing,
in fact. I would get through work and just drift down to the studio, and we would sit there over coffee at Miss Taylor's Café next door and say to each other,
"What is it?"
That was where Sam Phillips first mentioned Elvis Presley's name to Scotty Moore. "The best I can remember, he can sing pretty good," Sam said. Well, that
started me to thinking, and every day after that I would ask him. 'Did you call the guy?' 'No.' 'Did you call the guy?' After a couple of weeks of this - either me or
Marion bothering him all the time - he finally went back to the studio one day and actually came up with the number. He told me, 'You get him to come over the
house and see what you think of him.' Which I did.
"Bill Black [the bass player in the Starlite Wranglers] lived just a couple of doors down, and he came down and listened for a while. Well, you know, Elvis came
in, he was wearing a pink suit and white shoes and ducktail, I thought my wife was going to go out the back door. We sat around a couple of hours going
through a bit of everything - Marty Robbins, Billy Eckstine, Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold, you name it. After he left Bill came back and said, 'What do you think?' I
said, 'Well, he sings good, but I can't really say he knocks me out.' This was on a Sunday afternoon. The next day I told Sam the same thing, and he called
Elvis to set up an audition.
"A few days later, I believe it was the following Monday night [this would have been July 5, 1954,
following that June 27 [July 4 - Ed.] initial meeting], Elvis came in for the audition. Sam just wanted to see
what he sounded like on tape, because quite naturally you can sound quite a bit different in the studio
than sitting around the living room singing. It wasn't intended to be a session - that was the reason just
Bill and I were there. Well, we tried three or four things. 'I Love You Because' I believe was the first we
actually put on tape. Then we were taking a break. I don't know, we were having Cokes and coffee, and
all of a sudden Elvis started singing a song, jumping around and just acting the fool, and the Bill picked
up his bass and he started acting the fool, too, and, you know, I started playing with 'em. 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.'"
And that, according to Scotty Moore, was the genesis of "That's All Right," a free-flying blues with a
country beat that sounds - for all the work that went into it - as fresh and spontaneous as the most
spontaneous Howlin' Wolf blues that Sam Phillips ever put on wax. The next night the trio came up with
"Blue Moon Of Kentucky," a reworking of the Bill Monroe classic arrived at under similar circumstances,
and by the end of the week Sam Phillips had a two-sided acetate to deliver to three Memphis disc
jockeys, Country DJs Uncle Richard and Sleepy Eye John jumped on the bluegrass tune, but it was the
irrepressible Dewey Phillips, a Memphis tastemaker whose role in the popularization of rock 'n' roll and
rhythm and blues cannot be overstated, who really put the record across. He played it over and over
again, first one side, then the other, while the unwitting subject of all this furor went to the movies [a
western double bill]. "When the phone calls and telegrams started to come in," Dewey told writer Stanley
Booth, "I got hold of Elvis' daddy, Vernon. He said Elvis down at Suzore's No. 2 Theatre. 'Get him over
here,' I said, and before long Elvis came running in. 'Sit down, I'm gone interview you,' I said. He said, 'Mr. Phillips, I don't' know nothing about being
interviewed.' 'Just don't say nothing dirty,' I told him.
"He sat down, and I said I'd let him know when we were ready to start, I had a couple of records cued up, and while they played we talked. I asked him where
he went to high school, and he said, 'Humes.' I wanted to get that out, because a lot of people had thought he was colored. Finally I said 'All right, Elvis, thank
you very much,' 'Aren't you gone interview me?' he asked. 'I already have,' I said, 'The mike's been open the whole time.' He broke out in a cold sweat."
The record was released on July 19, just two weeks after it was recorded.
On July 27, Marion Keisker brought a very uncomfortable-looking Elvis Presley down to the Memphis Press-Scimitar building, where he was intereviewed by
theater critic Edwin Howard (who would later make a record of his own for Sun). "Marion said he was a truck driver," recalled Howard, "and he could only come
during his lunch hour, I'll never forget ... he walked in there looking like the wrath of God. Pimples all over his face. Duck-tail hair. Had a funny-looking thin
bowtie on. He was very hard to interview. About all I could get out of him was yes and no."
On July 30 Elvis appeared at an outdoor concert at the Overton Park Shell headlined by Slim Whitman. He didn't go over well at the afternoon show, where he
sang mostly ballads. In the evening he came back with "Good Rockin' Tonight," and the shock was hear all around the world. Elvis Presley himself was no less
shocked, it seemed. "My very first appearance," he recalled in a 1956 interview, "I was on a show in Memphis as an extra added single, I was scared stiff. I
came out, and I was doing a fast-type tune, and everybody was hollering, and I didn't know what they were hollering at. Everybody was screaming and
everything, and I came offstage and my manager told me that they were hollering because I was wiggling. And so I went back out for an encore, and I did a
little more. And the more I did, the wilder they went."
That was the story in a nutshell; that was the genesis of Elvis Presley. The more he did, the wilder they went. Everyone knows something of the progression of
events. Sometimes it is portrayed Hollywood-style as a long, hard, rollercoaster-like climb, with obstacles looming along the way. Unquestionably, to the
participants it must have seemed like a perilous ride which would come to an end at any moment ("We didn't have any idea how this thing was going to turn
out," says Sam Phillips today).
With the benefit of hindsight, though, it seems more like a nuclear explosion.
On September 10, Elvis recorded "Good Rockin' Tonight," the Wynonie Harris blues with which he had shaken up the Overton Park Shell, while "Blue Moon of
Kentucky" hit the top of the Memphis Country & Western charts (it had probably sold 20,000 copies nationally by this point). In October he made his debut on
the Louisiana Hayride, the Saturday night broadcast on which Hank Williams made his reputation, and the next month signed on as a regular, after quitting his
job at Crown Electric. In November, too, he was named eighth-most-promising Country & Western vocalist by Billboard magazine (behind Tommy Collins, Justin
Tubb and Jimmy "C" Newman), and in December he was acknowledged as "the hottest piece of merchandise on the Louisiana Hayride ... the youngster with
the hillbilly blues beat," by the same magazine.
Within a year he had left forever the schoolhouse gyms and hardwood floors, the
shopping center openings and impromptu shows on the back of a flatbed truck, and
signed with RCA Victor. By the time he was 21-years-old he had acquired the status of
legend and would never again be able to venture out in the world.
All this is known and can be interpreted in various ways. What isn't known, and what can
perhaps never be fully explained, is where the music came from and what caused it to hit
the way it did. Nor is it simply that there never was a phenomenon quite like Elvis Presley
either before or since. If this were all there was to the story, you could always point to
Sinatra or the Beatles, say, as similar manifestations of cultural explosion.
No, what is truly astonishing - what is unique - about Elvis Presley is that at 19 he knew
instinctively not so much who he was as what he wanted to be and that, out of that desire,
he was able to create a style which was original from start to finish.
That is what is so important about this record. It shows the creation of the style. It shows
Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips groping for something it would have been impossible to
name (simply because it didn't exist), struggling to discover a common language, and,
together, creating a new form out of what anyone else might have discarded on the scrapheap of history. Even this might be deserving of only passing cultural
note, were it not for the fact that the ten sides that Sun issued in the sixteen months that Elvis was with the label are so perfectly realized that, had he never
recorded again, they alone would be sufficient to sustain the legend of the birth of rock 'n' roll. This is the most improbable story of all: in a tiny Memphis
studio, in 1954 and 1955, Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley created rock 'n' roll.
What do we actually hear in the Sun sides? Here is what Bob Johnson, the Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter who followed Elvis from the beginning of his
career, wrote at the time. "'That's All Right" was in the R&B idiom of Negro field jazz, 'Blue Moon' more in the country field, but there was a curious blending of
the two different musics in both ... [Sam Phillips] doesn't know how to catalogue Elvis exactly. He has a white voice, sings with a Negro rhythm which borrows in
mood and emphasis from country style."
When I first read these words 32 years after they were written, in 1987, it was as if the theory of relativity had finally been proved by practical demonstration.
Certainly this is the received wisdom about Elvis ("A white boy with black hips," as the New York Times once said), but as often as I and others had stated it,
sometimes I wondered if we were not merely perpetuating some abstract theoretical construct on to which the participants themselves had unaccountably
latched. It's only recently that I've had a chance (mainly through the Dutch publisher and archivist, Ger Rijff, whose "Long Lonely Highway" and "Faces and
Stages: An Elvis Presley Time-Frame" are essential reading and viewing) to scrutinize some of the contemporary accounts, and there is no longer any
question in my mind that Elvis and Sam Phillips knew exactly what they were doing, if not why they were doing it.
"The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doing now, man, for more years than I know," declared Elvis in a 1956 interview. "They played it
like that in the shanties and in the juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind till I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old
Arthur Crudup [the Mississippi bluesman who originated "That's All Right"] bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old
Arthur felt. I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."
He may or may not have gotten to that place - but, of course, he did become a music man like nobody ever saw. With this record we see, insofar as you can
ever see anything of the nature of creativity, how the process occurred. The issued sides (the first ten cuts) have been written about so often that I'm not
going to dwell on them here. They illustrate perfectly Sam Phillips' belief in purity, simplicity, and economy of musical expression. They also possess that
indefinable spark that could not have been drawn out, no matter what the production methods, if it had not simply arrived unbidden. Or a clue to the more
prosaic mysteries, though, listen to the outtakes and the five completed master takes (from "I Love You Because" to "Trying To Get You") that RCA put out
after Elvis came to the label. It's here that we see for the first time the extent to which spontaneity merely served as handmaiden to a great deal of
experimentation and hard work. It's there that we are finally able to glimpse not just the range of styles attempted but the range of possibilities.
Musically, the song selection runs the gamut from the most sentimental of ballads ("I Love You
Because" and the Hawaiian-inspired "Harbor Lights") to the most low-down of blues - but all have one
element in common: a willingness to go out on a limb, a zest for taking risks, for venturing off into
unknown territory, regardless of whether anyone has ever been there before.
Listen to "Blue Moon," the Rodgers and Hart ballad which Billy Eckstine recorded in 1948 in a
satin-and-silk version with which Elvis must have been familiar (Eckstine was one of his favorite
singers). What is he doing to this song? What is that eerie falsetto wail? The first time I heard this cut
on Elvis's debut album in 1956 when I was 12 years old, I was outraged! I must have taken it as a
betrayal of rock 'n' roll.
Now I hear it somewhat differently: now it seems touching to me, a ghostly echo from the past, though
whose past - Elvis' or mine - I'm not really sure. That isn't really the point, though. The point is that
here in the course of a single song we witness the first rock 'n' roll wedding; we see an improbable
marriage of the most unlikely elements approaching consummation.
Here is the crooner who admired Dean Martin and Eddie Fisher, the devout church-goer whose single
greatest ambition was to sing with the gospel Songfellows, the Beale St. dreamer who listened to R&B
"bird groups" and wanted more than anything to be able to sing like Clyde McPhatter, the apprentice
bluesman who wanted to feel all that Arthur Crudup had felt. We hear the western clip-clop of Scott
Moore's guitar. We hear all of these elements coming together, or not coming together as the case
may be. We see Elvis Presley struggling blindly to creat a new music by instinct and will. And we see
Sam Phillips doing all that he can - technically and psychologically - to further that instinct, fulfilling his
own mission "to bring out of a person what was in him, to recognize that individual's unique quality and
then to find the key to unlock it."
"Tomorrow Night," "I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')," the various takes of "I Love You Because" and "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine" all offer the same
blend of drama and tentative resolution. On the alternate takes of "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone," a straightforward country tune written expressly for
Elvis by Stan Kesler and Bill Taylor, the musicians explore a blues direction which seem unpromising at first, is then refined but finally discarded for the light
breezy flavor of the issued take. "Don't make it too damn complicated," Sam remonstrated with Scotty after an unsuccessful take of "When It Rains, It Really
Pours," a blues which was never completed in the Sun studio and to which Elvis eventually returned nearly two years later.
"That's All Right," the song which has always been portrayed mainly as an inspired accident, appears here in a version very close to the issued take and yet
undeniably lacking the magic. Simplify, simplify, Sam Phillips seems to keep on saying. "All right, boys, we just about on it now. Do it again. Do it one time for
Sam." And they did. The guitar solo got less complicated. The vocal communicated more of the essence of the song. The whole finally flowed. And at the end,
just as he did when the band finally started hitting it on "Blue Moon of Kentucky," Sam Phillips might pronounce himself pleased.
"That's fine," he says. "Hell, that's different. That's a pop song now, nearly 'bout." And it is.
You can see the sessions in our mind's eye. Time didn't matter. Mistakes didn't matter. "You just forgot about making a record and tried to show him," Carl
Perkins later recalled. "I'd say, 'Mr. Phillips, that's terrible." He said, 'That's original.' I said, 'But it's just an original mistake.' And he said 'That's what Sun
records is. That's what we are." There was simply no containing the enthusiasm, the ingenuousness, the sense of possibilities. You listen to the Elvis Sun
sessions, and you sense the belief in those possibilities, the firm conviction that it didn't matter a damn what the rest of creation thought as it went about its
appointed rounds, that it didn't matter a damn if to the "music industry" Memphis was just another backwater town out of which nothing, and no one, of
significance could ever come - there was simply no formula that could encapsulate Sam Phillips' vision or Elvis' omnivorous embrace of the world and all that
was in it. That is what I think the records finally come down to: a young man hungry for success - no, hungry for everything - and just impatient to get on with it.
A few years ago I happened to be watching the television documentary, "The Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll," with Sam Phillips, when Elvis comes on the screen,
looking impossibly young, impossibly expectant. "Ah, wasn't he something? Let me tell you something about him. Elvis - you looking at him now, back then - he
looks so clumsy and so totally uncoordinated. And this was the beauty of it, he was being himself. Well, he had that little innocence about him, and yet he had,
even then, he had a little something that was almost impudent in a way. That was his crutch. He certainly didn't mean to be impudent, but he had enough of
that, along with what he could convey, that he was just beautiful and lovely - and I'm not talking about a physical beauty, because he was not that good-looking
Really, by conventional standards he was supposed to have been thrown off that stage, and I - listen, I calculated that stuff in my mind. Are they going to
resent him? With his long sideburns? That could be a plus or a minus. But I looked at it as this. When he came through like he did, it was neither. He stood on
This in-depth article was used as the album notes for the 1987 double album 'The Sun Sessions' and also for the subsequent CD release