Friday, January 09, 2009

Last Train to Memphis

In honor of the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth, Scott Johnson at Powerline recounts the story of those early, legendary recording sessions at Sun Records in Memphis.

Those sessions yielded Elvis's first minor hit (his version of "That's All Right"), but more importantly, it captured what Mr. Johnson--and others--have rightly described as the musical mother lode: that perfect blend of blues, bluegrass, gospel and country that Elvis fused into rock and roll.

As music fans know, there was no shortage of irony in the discovery of Elvis, and his initial foray into the recording studio. Elvis first came to the attention of Marion Keisker, Sun's office manager, in 1953. For $3.95, the label's companion company, Memphis Recording Service, allowed anyone to record a couple of songs in their studio. On July 13th of that year, Elvis plunked down his money and recorded "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartache Begins" as a birthday gift to his mother.

Keisker was intrigued by what she heard. She also knew that her boss, Sun founder Sam Phillips, was looking for a new sound, a "white man who could sing the blues," as he suggested. Ms. Keisker urged Phillips to get Elvis back in the studio, culminating in two recording sessions, almost a year later.

As detailed in Peter Guralnick's seminal Presley biography, Last Train to Memphis, the first session was a bust, despite the presence of Phillips, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. A second session also proved disappointing; Sam Phillips was on the verge of calling it quits until Elvis began "fooling around" with "That's All Right" during a break in the studio.

After recording the song and dubbing an acetate, the next step was getting it on the radio. Phillips invited local disc jockey Dewey Phillips to the studio for a listen. The host of the popular "Red, Hot and Blue" program on WHBQ, Dewey Phillips agreed to play the record on his show. It aired for the first time on July 8, 1954, just three days after the recording session at Sun.

"That's All Right" was an immediate sensation. Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) played the song seven times in a row, and Elvis was on his way.

But, as we noted last month, the early efforts to get a Presley record on the radio weren't limited to WHBQ. About the same time that Dewey Phillips began playing "That's All Right," someone from Sun (most likely Marion Keisker) delivered a copy to Fred Cook, the morning DJ at WREC in Memphis.

Mr. Cook, who passed away last month, was not impressed, and Elvis wouldn't appear on the WREC airwaves until years later. It represented a minor setback for Presley's career; in those days, WREC was one of the most important stations in Memphis, broadcasting from the legendary Peabody Hotel, and playing a mix of adult standards and big band music.

Dewey Phillips was probably the most popular DJ in Memphis in 1954, but Fred Cook wasn't far behind. More importantly, morning radio--then as now--attracted a large audience. Cook's program could be heard throughout the Mid-South, while Phillips's late night show could barely reached the Memphis city limits, thanks to WHBQ's directional signal and reduced night-time power.

So why didn't Sam Phillips make a greater effort to get Elvis on WREC? Format restrictions aside, there was no small amount of animosity between the Sun founder and the radio station.

As Peter Guralnick reminds us, Sam Phillips spent much of his life in radio, both as an announcer and later, a station owner. His Memphis radio career began in the 1945 at--you guessed it--WREC, where he served as an on-air personality and broadcast engineer. By the early 1950s, he was working 18-hour days at the station and at his fledgling recording company. The schedule drove him to exhaustion and two stays in the hospital, where Phillips received electroshock therapy.

Sam Phillips quit WREC in 1951, after station owner (and founder) Hoyt Wooten made a sarcastic comment about his absences. With his resignation, Phillips devoted his full energies to Sun and the companion recording service. His business cards carried the motto: "We record anything--anywhere--anytime." Consistent with Phillips's vision, Sun became one of the first "white" labels to record African-American artists.

Phillips was joined in his venture by Marion Keisker, another refugee from WREC. It was Ms. Keisker who greeted Elvis the day he walked into the Sun Studios on Union Avenue, "engineered" his first recording session, and urged her boss to take a chance on the young truck driver.

Seven decades later, we can only guess what might have happened if Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker had remained at WREC. It's hard to imagine Elvis going undiscovered, but his route to route to stardom--and the birth of rock and roll--would have been much different, save a cutting remark in a Memphis radio station.

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