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|SUN RECORDS SEASON FINALE
April 14, 2017 - The Commercial Appeal / Elvis Express Radio
“Sun Records” Episode 8: “Finishing School”
With financial problems pressing, Sam Phillips contemplates selling Elvis Presley’s Sun contract to Col. Tom Parker, who has maneuvered his way into management position for the
rising star. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash, living in Memphis, forms his first band and gives his first public performance. Jerry Lee Lewis’ private life takes a wild turn. And Carl Perkins
arrives from Jackson, Tennessee, looking for an audition.
Memphis Plays Itself:
After missing their close-up in the Memphis-set episode of “This is Us,” the Peabody ducks make a grand entrance here, and the rest of the Peabody gets its most elaborate use.
Elvis performs at the grand opening of Katz Drugstore. This was a real show, from September 1954. The actual Katz was in the Lamar/Airways area. Here, the front of Katz is
recreated on the Somerville Town Square.
Red, Hot and Blue (Featured Music):
The main plot of this episode is more about the music business than music itself, but the episode is still full of the latter. Most significantly is the debut of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede
Shoes,” performed twice, in an audition at Sun and again at a club
“Blue Suede Shoes” is often associated with Elvis, who recorded it soon after and played it multiple times on national television. But Perkins didn’t just write and first record “Blue
Suede Shoes.” He also had the more significant success with it. Many credit it as the first song to be a big hit, simultaneously, on the country, pop and R&B charts.
Elsewhere, Johnny Cash impresses his future bandmates with a rendition of the folk ballad “Wreck of the Old 97,” which he would later record, and gives his first public
performance, playing the original “Hey Porter,” which would become his debut single.
In concert, Elvis plays “Hearts of Stone,” a song from the R&B vocal group the Jewels that was part of early Elvis’ repertoire.
At Sun, Elvis is working on a version of “Love Me,” which would later appear on his second RCA album. The song was not released as a single at the time, because of its title
similarity to “Love Me Tender,” but charted at #2 anyway after Elvis performed it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
In 2015, we named “Love Me” the 31st best Elvis song. My note on it then:
Sophisticates and humorists, songwriters Leiber & Stoller intended “Love Me” as something of a parody of country love songs:
“Treat me like a fool/Treat me mean and cruel/But love me.” Elvis played it (mostly) straight. Recorded in September, 1956, about eight months after “Heartbreak Hotel” had
cemented his superstardom, “Love Me” may have been the first song to acknowledge the helpless and intense ardor of Elvis’ female fans, indeed to make that the song’s subtext. In
Elvis’ hands, and in that context, those first lines aren’t ironic commentary on love-song convention has much as an invitation for bedlam. Watch that “Ed Sullivan” show
performance and you’ll see Elvis mischievously anticipate the reaction before he’s through the song’s opening phrase. More than a decade later, digging deeper into the song on
his 1968 “comeback” special, the effect was the same.
The Best Part: “Red, Hot and Blue” host Dewey Phillips sits drunk at the foot of the stage of the blues bar where he and Sam Phillips hang out. He holds up a copy of Cash Box
magazine with Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed on the cover, and he rants:
“Alan Freed. Alan Freed? Do you know Alan Freed’s going around telling everyone he invented rock and roll? That ain’t nothing but steaming bull crap. You know we started it right
here! Right here! ‘Rocket 88.’ Elvis Presley. … Alan Freed. ‘Mr. Rock and Roll’ my ass.”
This is followed by some payola trash talk. (“I don’t take money to play records. If the record’s good enough, I’ll pay you.”)
This brings to mind one of Sam Phillips’ greatest moments, from more than 30 years later, speaking at the first induction ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which had
been granted to Cleveland:
“I mean no disrespect to the people of Cleveland, who I’m sure are a fine and spiritual people. But Cleveland ain’t ever going to be Memphis.”
Wait, Did That Really Happen?: Pitching what would become Elvis’ RCA contract to Sam Phillips, Colonel Parker says: “With your assent, I’ll sell the boy’s contract to a major label.
That money clears your debt. Once he’s a big star it will get out he’s a Sun Records discovery. They’ll flock to you. Then you’ll have the money to make Sun Records. It’s either that
or you go bust and take Presley down with you.”
Was this a bill of goods or an honest assessment? I’ve quoted Peter Guralnick extensively throughout these recaps, so forgive the indulgence of quoting myself. I wrote an essay
on the RCA contract for the “Archives of Graceland” auction catalogue when a copy of the contract -- I believe it was Parker’s copy -- sold for $65,000 in 1999. Some pertinent
sections of that essay:
The deal that would forever change American popular culture didn’t happen overnight. Its seeds were planted months in advance -- by the concomitant increase in the intensity of
Elvis Presley’s success, Colonel Parker’s ambition, and Sam Phillips desperation. …
This contract meant many things to many people. For Sam Phillips, for whom the decision was by far the toughest, it meant financial solvency. His little label was finally in the black
and through the deal had acquired a reputation that promised to draw talent, and the resources to develop and promote that talent. The artists that followed Elvis at Sun is perhaps
the greatest testament to the wisdom of Phillips’ choice: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich. For RCA, it was a gamble. They had just paid an
unprecedented amount to sign a 20-year-old who had never dented the pop charts. (Vernon had to sign the contract because Elvis was still a minor at the time.)
For Elvis Presley, it was the fulfillment of a dream. The poor boy from Tupelo who had watched movies and imagined himself in them, who had read comic books and made himself
the hero, was now on the cusp of realizing his every ambition, even if some would wonder at what Faustian bargain this success was attained.
But whatever the ramifications of this document for Sam Phillips, or RCA, or Elvis himself, it pales in comparison to what it meant for the country and its culture. When RCA paid
$35,000 for Elvis Presley’s contract it sent a message: That the largest of all record companies believed that a rock and roll performer could become as broad-based a star as
Before the RCA deal, Elvis had been marketed as a country performer: He had won country music awards, his record had performed best on the country charts and he toured
almost exclusively with country artists, such as on the Hank Snow Jamboree. But the sheer size of RCA’s investment necessitated that Elvis be promoted as an all-market performer
-- country, pop and rhythm and blues. And, at least initially, RCA pushed Elvis into all of these markets without trying to significantly alter the style and instrumentation that he used
Some other episode elements:
Was Johnny Cash really in the crowd for Elvis’ Katz Drugstore performance? Yes. From Robert Hilburn’s “Johnny Cash: The Life”:
John and Vivian went to the opening and watched Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black perform on the back of a flatbed truck parked outside the store. ..
John was mesmerized by what he saw and heard, from the sensual energy of the music to the enthusiasm of the group of young, mostly female fans. …
After Elvis stepped down from the truck, John went over and told him how much he liked his music. Elvis was flattered and invited John and Vivian to come see him again the next
night at the Eagle’s Nest.
The show stops short of this actual meeting.
Was Jerry Lee Lewis really married to two women at the same time? For a brief period, apparently so, his second marriage a few weeks before his first divorce was final.
Did Carl Perkins really audition at Sun with “Blue Suede Shoes”? No. Per Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips bio, it was a country song “about taking a girl named Maggie to the movies
on Saturday night on his old mule.” It was more than a year later that Perkins would record “Blue Suede Shoes,” at song he’s just written. The idea of “Blue Suede Shoes” was
actually sparked by a story Johnny Cash had told Perkins. In the show, the future label mates haven’t met yet.
Were Peabody Ducks already a thing in 1955? Yes.
Verdicts, Questions and Asides: That was current Memphis drummer Shawn Zorn playing W.S. Holland, drummer in Carl Perkins’ band, who would go on to play with Johnny Cash.
Speaking of Cash, he’s seen first sitting in with brother Roy and a couple of Roy’s co-workers at a garage. This was Automobile Sales, at 309 Union, near Sun. Those co-workers
are Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, soon to be known as the “Tennessee Two.”
Dewey Phillips raging about Alan Freed was the best part, but runner-up goes to Johnny Cash’s “Hey Porter” scene, mostly because of the silent reaction-shot work of actress Anna
Grace Stewart as wife Vivian Liberto.
The secondary music in the episode is a rehash of a lot of songs heard earlier in the season: Wynonie Harris’ “Bloodshot Eyes” and Elvis’ “Baby, Let’’s Play House” on the radio
when Elvis visits the Summer Drive-In. Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept-a Rollin’” at a WHBQ Halloween party. The blues standard “Catfish Blues” in the background at a bar. This felt a
Next Year on “Sun Records”?: Will there be one?
We’ll find out soon. This show wasn’t great by any stretch, and was certainly disappointing at times. I hope it comes back because it will bring more attention to Memphis, more
money into the city and more work for locals. But also because it has more story to tell, and this season finale was its best episode.
A second season was obviously envisioned, since the first ends before Johnny Cash appears at Sun or Jerry Lee Lewis appears in Memphis. The “Million Dollar Quartet,” which
gave the series its initial name, hasn’t happened yet. (Could the name change have been hedge against non-renewal?)
But if the plug is pulled, “Sun Records” has given its principal characters all a decent landing: Lewis begins to acknowledge his muse. Cash performs for the first time. Perkins is on
the verge of his break. Elvis rides off into the night, toward stardom. And Phillips is setup to start anew.