First recordings (1953–55)
Presley in a Sun Records promotional photograph, 1954
Sam Phillips and Sun Records
In August 1953, Presley walked into the offices of Sun Records. He aimed to pay for a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. He would later claim that he intended the record as a gift for his mother, or that he was merely interested in what he “sounded like”, although there was a much cheaper, amateur record-making service at a nearby general store. Biographer Peter Guralnick argues that he chose Sun in the hope of being discovered. Asked by receptionist Marion Keisker what kind of singer he was, Presley responded, “I sing all kinds.” When she pressed him on who he sounded like, he repeatedly answered, “I don’t sound like nobody.” After he recorded, Sun boss Sam Phillips asked Keisker to note down the young man’s name, which she did along with her own commentary: “Good ballad singer. Hold.” Presley cut a second acetate in January 1954—”I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You”—but again nothing came of it.
Not long after, he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet, the Songfellows. He explained to his father, “They told me I couldn’t sing.” Songfellow Jim Hamill later claimed that he was turned down because he did not demonstrate an ear for harmony at the time. In April, Presley began working for the Crown Electric company as a truck driver. His friend Ronnie Smith, after playing a few local gigs with him, suggested he contact Eddie Bond, leader of Smith’s professional band, which had an opening for a vocalist. Bond rejected him after a tryout, advising Presley to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.”
Phillips, meanwhile, was always on the lookout for someone who could bring to a broader audience the sound of the black musicians on whom Sun focused. As Keisker reported, “Over and over 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.'”In June, he acquired a demo recording of a ballad, “Without You”, that he thought might suit the teenage singer. Presley came by the studio, but was unable to do it justice. Despite this, Phillips asked Presley to sing as many numbers as he knew. He was sufficiently affected by what he heard to invite two local musicians, guitarist Winfield “Scotty” Moore and upright bass player Bill Black, to work something up with Presley for a recording session.
“That’s All Right”
Presley transformed not only the sound but the emotion of the song, turning what had been written as a “lament for a lost love into a satisfied declaration of independence.”
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The session, held the evening of July 5, proved entirely unfruitful until late in the night. As they were about to give up and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1946 blues number, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”. Moore recalled, “All of a sudden, 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 … 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 quickly began taping; this was the sound he had been looking for. Three days later, popular Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played “That’s All Right” on his Red, Hot, and Blue show. Listeners began phoning in, eager to find out who the singer was. The interest was such that Phillips played the record repeatedly during the last two hours of his show. Interviewing Presley on-air, Phillips asked him what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black. During the next few days, the trio recorded a bluegrass number, Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, again in a distinctive style and employing a jury-rigged echo effect that Sam Phillips dubbed “slapback”. A single was pressed with “That’s All Right” on the A side and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the reverse.
Early live performances and signing with RCA
The trio played publicly for the first time on July 17 at the Bon Air club—Presley still sporting his child-size guitar. At the end of the month, they appeared at the Overton Park Shell, with Slim Whitman headlining. A combination of his strong response to rhythm and nervousness at playing before a large crowd led Presley to shake his legs as he performed: his wide-cut pants emphasized his movements, causing young women in the audience to start screaming. Moore recalled, “During the instrumental parts he would back off from the mike and be playing and shaking, and the crowd would just go wild”. Black, a natural showman, whooped and rode his bass, hitting double licks that Presley would later remember as “really a wild sound, like a jungle drum or something”. Soon after, Moore and Black quit their old band to play with Presley regularly, and DJ and promoter Bob Neal became the trio’s manager. From August through October, they played frequently at the Eagle’s Nest club and returned to Sun Studio for more recording sessions, and Presley quickly grew more confident on stage. According to Moore, “His movement was a natural thing, but he was also very conscious of what got a reaction. He’d do something one time and then he would expand on it real quick.” Presley made what would be his only appearance on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry on October 2; after a polite audience response, Opry manager Jim Denny told Phillips that his singer was “not bad” but did not suit the program. Two weeks later, Presley was booked on Louisiana Hayride, the Opry’s chief, and more adventurous, rival. The Shreveport-based show was broadcast to 198 radio stations in 28 states. Presley had another attack of nerves during the first set, which drew a muted reaction. A more composed and energetic second set inspired an enthusiastic response. House drummer D.J. Fontana brought a new element, complementing Presley’s movements with accented beats that he had mastered playing in strip clubs. Soon after the show, the Hayride engaged Presley for a year’s worth of Saturday-night appearances.
Trading in his old guitar for $8 (and seeing it promptly dispatched to the garbage), he purchased a Martin instrument for $175, and his trio began playing in new locales including Houston, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas.
By early 1955, Presley’s regular Hayride appearances, constant touring, and well-received record releases had made him a substantial regional star, from Tennessee to West Texas. In January, Neal signed a formal management contract with Presley and brought the singer to the attention of Colonel Tom Parker, whom he considered the best promoter in the music business. Parker—Dutch-born, though he claimed to be from West Virginia—had acquired an honorary colonel’s commission from country singer turned Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis. Having successfully managed top country star Eddy Arnold, he was now working with the new number-one country singer, Hank Snow. Parker booked Presley on Snow’s February tour. When the tour reached Odessa, Texas, a 19-year-old Roy Orbison saw Presley for the first time: “His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. … I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.” Presley made his television debut on March 3 on the KSLA-TV broadcast of Louisiana Hayride. Soon after, he failed an audition for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on the CBS television network. By August, Sun had released ten sides credited to “Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill”; on the latest recordings, the trio were joined by a drummer. Some of the songs, like “That’s All Right”, were in what one Memphis journalist described as the “R&B idiom of negro field jazz”; others, like “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, were “more in the country field”, “but there was a curious blending of the two different musics in both”.This blend of styles made it difficult for Presley’s music to find radio airplay. According to Neal, many country-music disc jockeys would not play it because he sounded too much like a black artist and none of the rhythm-and-blues stations would touch him because “he sounded too much like a hillbilly.” The blend came to be known as rockabilly. At the time, Presley was variously billed as “The King of Western Bop”, “The Hillbilly Cat”, and “The Memphis Flash”.
Presley renewed Neal’s management contract in August 1955, simultaneously appointing Parker as his special adviser.The group maintained an extensive touring schedule throughout the second half of the year. Neal recalled, “It was almost frightening, the reaction that came to Elvis from the teenaged boys. So many of them, through some sort of jealousy, would practically hate him. There were occasions in some towns in Texas when we’d have to be sure to have a police guard because somebody’d always try to take a crack at him. They’d get a gang and try to waylay him or something.” The trio became a quartet when Hayride drummer Fontana joined as a full member. In mid-October, they played a few shows in support of Bill Haley, whose “Rock Around the Clock” had been a number-one hit the previous year. Haley observed that Presley had a natural feel for rhythm, and advised him to sing fewer ballads.
At the Country Disc Jockey Convention in early November, Presley was voted the year’s most promising male artist.Several record companies had by now shown interest in signing him. After three major labels made offers of up to $25,000, Parker and Phillips struck a deal with RCA Victor on November 21 to acquire Presley’s Sun contract for an unprecedented $40,000. Presley, at 20, was still a minor, so his father signed the contract. Parker arranged with the owners of Hill and Range Publishing, Jean and Julian Aberbach, to create two entities, Elvis Presley Music and Gladys Music, to handle all of the new material recorded by Presley. Songwriters were obliged to forgo one third of their customary royalties in exchange for having him perform their compositions. By December, RCA had begun to heavily promote its new singer, and before month’s end had reissued many of his Sun recordings.