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50th Anniversary of the Beginning




The very first Sun "private" recordings:
(Two-sided acetates for $8.25)

Saturday July 18, 1953

- My Happiness
- That's When Your Heartaches Begin

Monday January 4, 1954 - invoice

- I'll Never Stand In Your Way
- It Wouldn't Be The Same Without You

The Complete Recording Sessions

by Ernst Jorgensen, St. Martin's Press (1998)

"There had been little progress since the first recording. The plaintive, insecure, but strangely passionate voice seemed to hold no commercial promise whatsoever. And so Elvis went back to waiting, stopping by the studio every now and then, determined for something to happen. It HAD to, he wanted it so much. Then, On Saturday June 26, Marion Keisker called. Could he be there by three? "I was there by the time she hung up," he later joked; she suspected he'd run all the way, all charged up with the idea that Mr. Phillips might have found something for him.

The previous year, Sun had had a sizable hit with a group called the Prisonaires, all residents of the state penitentiary in Nashville. Their song, "Just Walking In The Rain," had been written by another prisoner; now Sam had a tune from yet another inmate, this time a ballad called "Without You," and he thought it might suit the quiet young singer. It might have, but Elvis couldn't find a way to do it; nevertheless, Sam invited him to keep singing–to let him hear whatever other songs he knew. The older man encouraged the boy, listened and tried to understand him, but when it was all over he didn't really know what to suggest. He only knew there was something there. "I have one real gift," Sam Phillips later said, "and that gift is to look another person in the eye and be able to tell if he has anything to contribute, and if he does, I have the additional gift to free him from whatever is restraining him." It didn't happen that afternoon, but sometime over the next ten days it did. Sam's insight and his patient persistence would help make him one of the most inspired and productive record producers of American vernacular music.

At around the same time a young guitar player, Winfield Scott "Scotty" Moore III, was also hanging around the studio, and eventually Sam gave his band, Doug Poindexter's Starlite Wranglers, a chance to record. Scotty had ambition–he wanted to work in the record business–and Sam liked him a lot. One day over coffee he suggested that Scotty contact a young ballad singer Sam was thinking of recording, to see if they could work something up for a session. Scotty wasn't given any further direction, but he knew that if he wanted to get something going with Sam he should at least give it a shot. He called the young singer and arranged to meet him. Bill Black, the Wranglers' bass player, would come along too; Bill's younger brother Johnny was one of the young musicians Elvis had hung around with in Lauderdale Courts, in a loose group that also included Lee Denson and the Burnette brothers, Johnny and Dorsey.

Because everyone worked during the week, the trio met at Scotty's house the following Sunday (July 4th) and began by working their way through all the songs that Elvis could think of. The two older musicians were left with no distinct impression of his singing ability, but they were impressed with his outrageous appearance. He had arrived dressed in a black shirt, pink pants with a black stripe, white shoes, and a slick hairdo, all sideburns and ducktail. The very next evening, after work, the trio took their rehearsals to the studio, where a determined Sam Phillips seemed ready to get to the bottom of the situation–to try to understand why it was that he couldn't seem to shake the idea of this kid.

Monday night into Tuesday
JULY 5-6, 1954

- I Love You Because (RCA LPM-1254)
- That's All Right (Sun 209)
- Harbor Lights (Leg. Perf. Vol.2 - 1976)
- Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Sun 209)

sam_p4.jpg "Back in the studio, this time with Scotty and Bill, Elvis once again tried everything he could think of. Sam recorded him singing Leon Payne's country hit, "I Love You Because," with little success; it wasn't that Elvis was bad (save for the dismal recitation in the middle), but what was the point in Elvis doing the song when it had already been done better? Then, toward the end of the night, Sam was in the control room doing something when he got caught off guard by what would become the most significant musical moment in his, Elvis', Scotty's, and Bill's lives. Patience might not have been the frenetically busy Sam Phillips's most obvious virtue, but it was one of his most important, as the hours he spent with Elvis and the boys were finally proving. In four years of work with local black musicians, he'd found their talent was frequently obscured by a lifetime of insecurity, and waiting for musicians to shake those feelings of "inferiority" and get beyond their natural fear of failure naturally took patience. Sam had always believed in the amateur spirit; to him it was only with fresh, unjaded nonprofessional musicians that truly creative and innovative work could be done. Now–if he could believe the sound coming over the monitor–his patience was finally paying off. After all his failures, Elvis was starting to warm up.

Scotty and Bill weren't yet comfortable themselves, exactly, but they were falling right behind Elvis, giving it their best shot, catching up with him as best they could. Clowning around was definitely second nature to both Elvis and Bill, so it shouldn't have been much of a surprise when the two of them started fooling around with a familiar blues song, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right." When the normally reserved Scotty joined in, Sam sensed that the patience part of his job was over. This was something truly unexpected, something original; it had a logic of its own, even if Sam recognized elements that were borrowed from his own recordings of Jackie Brenston or Junior Parker. It was the "something different" he'd been looking for, the beat the music had always been lacking, and without hesitating Sam finally made his move. Stopping the group in midverse, he asked them to start over as he pushed the RECORD button on the tape machine. Relaxed and loose at last, Elvis injected a bright, breezy, more melodic feel into the traditional blues, and with only two guitars plus the slap of Bill's bass, a sound came through that got Sam's eyes dancing. Suddenly, they were making a record.

sam_p1.jpg Perhaps, they tried other material that night, tried working up other songs in the same vein as "That's All Right." They may have done "Tiger Man," a song Sam had cowritten (under the name Burns) with blues artist Joe Hill Louis and given to Rufus Thomas to record. (We know that in 1970 Elvis kicked off the song with a cryptic introduction: "This was my second record, but not too many people got to hear it.") It may have been before "I Love You Because" that they spent time on "Harbor Lights," but they couldn't get the Hawaiian-inspired pop song right. Eventually, though, they came up with a song even more improbable than "That's All Right"–and just as promising. From a childhood of Saturday nights listening to the Grand Ole Opry, Elvis knew the bluegrass music of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. The waltz tempo of "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" was as far from Crudup's rhythm and blues as you could get, but the group straightened the song out, converted it to 4/4 time, and brought the tempo up to that of the earlier number. After an early take Sam enthused, "Fine, man. Hell, that's different. That's a pop song now, nearly 'bout." With a few more takes and a little more refinement, the song edged even further from its country roots and into the domain of rhythm and blues. The result was something compatible with "That's All Right," and, more important, the perfect B-side to a record.

"Scotty and Bill were sure "they would be run out of town" if the song ever saw the light of day. But Sam knew what he was doing. He rushed a reference record down to the hippest DJ in Memphis and all of America, Dewey Phillips (no relation) of WHBQ. When Dewey played Elvis' record on his "Red, Hot and Blue" show three nights later, Elvis was so embarrassed he hid out at the Suzore No. 2 Theatre until his mother and father retrieved him. Dewey Phillips was calling: The switchboard at the station had lit up with confirmation of Sam's instincts. This was something new, something worthwhile, a sound they all could run with. All of a sudden, all those old hopes of Elvis' began cropping up as immediate facts and demands in his life. On the strength of the record's "Red, Hot and Blue" reception, the little band, who had never appeared in public, was booked for a guest spot at Memphis' Bon Air Club. Then, before long, Elvis was added to the bottom of a bill headlined by Slim Whitman, on well-known Memphis DJ Bob Neal's "Folk Music" show out at the Overton Park Shell (Friday July 30). A flurry of publicity, including a picture and article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, took note of the record's startling local success.

overtonshell.jpg At the Overton Park show, almost overcome by panic, Elvis got through his opening number, but not without another unexpected development: his leg started shaking uncontrollably, just the way he'd seen Statesmen bass singer Jim "Big Chief" Wetherington's do as he worked the crowd. The response from the girls in the audience was instantaneous. All through that summer the record was heard everywhere in Memphis, and through the power of radio it spread to neighboring areas."

The King Of The Road: Elvis Live 1954-1977
by Robert Gordon, St. Martin's Press (1996)

Saturday, July 17, 1954, marked the professional debut of Sun recording artist Elvis Presley. Scotty and Bill, while making history with Elvis, were also playing a regular weekend gig. The Starlite Wranglers were a country swing band, and their jazzy feel made them easy to dance to – therefore popular. With Elvis exhibiting such talent, there was talk of making him a, gosh, regular part of the Wranglers' show.

The Bon Air Club was on Highway 70, the outskirts of town, rural, walking distance to cotton fields. Its clientele was tough, and on Saturday nights they were as friendly with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam as they were with Jesus on Sunday. Step outside and say that, mah frien'. The steel guitar whined, the fiddle hemmed and hawed, and the Wranglers began injecting a good time into their crowd. They wore matching outfits, they told a few jokes, and they had a good time on stage, all of which kept the crowd smiling, dancing, and drinking. When their first set ended, there was a little confusion about the new kid. Scotty Moore, who was now managing him, had to get a little stern when he insisted that only he and Bill return on stage with the intermission act.

When Elvis took the stage, a murmur went through the crowd. This youngster with greasy hair and sideburns, the funny-fitting clothes, wasn't part of the usual act, and the unexpected made this audience uneasy. Bassist Bill Black thrilled to the tension that began creeping across the stage. He looked over at Scotty, who was grinning nervously as he anticipated the crowd's reaction to something they'd never heard, and then he looked at Elvis. It was time to start, but Elvis was short of breath. He turned to Scotty, then Bill, who grinned back widely. That put him at ease, and then he performed the only two songs his trio knew.

It wasn't that the crowd responded poorly, but Elvis was already anticipating the riots that were soon to greet him. When they applauded after the first song, then again after the second, and though they moved their heads in time to the beat, and though some danced and several seemed immensely pleased – Elvis, when they didn't react wildly, felt like he'd failed.

elscotbill2.jpg What he came to realize what how much he'd learned in just one night. When he returned the next week he was looser, more the prankster, and the fact that he was clearly starting to enjoy himself on stage allowed the audience to enjoy him more. When this performance was done, someone even WHOOPED, and in a place like the Bon Air, there was no higher sign of adulation. He quickly thanked Scotty and Bill, agreed to talk with them the next day because they had to get right back out on stage with the Wranglers, and with his head feeling a little light, he found the front door and drove home a few inches off the ground. He forgot his jacket and, too wired to be tired, returned. Inside, a few patrons recognized him and began to shout. Others turned and saw who it was, applause began to ripple through the club, and as if it was happening to someone else, Elvis found himself back on stage for a command performance. Delighted and more than a little dazed, he said something corny, stuttering a bit in his shy way, and the audience hooted because, having seen him a time or two already, he was still different but now they could relate to him. One-two-three-four, and the trio cranked it up, whipping through those same two songs and thinking sooner or later they'd better learn another one.

The record was released on July 19, the Monday between Bon Air gigs. The crowd's response and the record's reception earned Elvis a slot just before the headliner. Scotty and Bill may have been used to performing, but never in an open-air venue like the Overton Park Band Shell. The stage was as big as some of the clubs they played, and they were nervous. If they had the jitters, Elvis was an earthquake. But when the time came, they took their place, waited for Elvis to strike that first chord, and then tore into their thing.

When Elvis began swinging his whole body into the music – giving the audience a brand new image for their brand new soundtrack – they roared with approval. Bill began his own dance, a clownish version of Elvis' movements. Scotty dipped his head and looked at the floor and grinned, keeping the rhythm with his foot.


JULY 1954

Mon  5 - Sun session #1
Sat 17 - Bon Air Club, Highway 70, Memphis
Mon 19 - Sun 209 released
Sat 24 - Bon Air Club
Fri 30 - Overton Park Shell, Memphis


Sun  1 - KWEM Radio, West Memphis AR
Sat  7 - Eagle's Nest, Memphis
Mon 16 - Eagle's Nest
Wed 18 - Bellevue Park
Thu 19 - Sun session #2
Fri 27 - Eagle's Nest
Sun 29 - Kennedy Hospital, Gerwell Road


Thu  9 - Lamar-Airways Shopping Center
Fri 10 - Sun session #3
Sat 18 - Eagle's Nest
Mon 20 - Sun 210 released
Fri 24 - Eagle's Nest
Sat 25 - Eagle's Nest


Fri  1 - Eagle's Nest
Sat  2 - Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville
Wed  6 - Eagle's Nest
Fri  8 - Silver Slipper, Atlanta
Sat  9 - Eagle's Nest
Wed 13 - Eagle's Nest
Sat 16 - Louisiana Hayride, Municipal Auditorium, Shreveport (recorded)
Wed 20 - Eagle's Nest
Sat 23 - Louisiana Hayride
Fri 29 - Eagle's Nest
Sat 30 - Eagle's Nest


Sat  6 - Louisiana Hayride
Mon  8 - Memphis State University
Sat 13 - Louisiana Hayride
Mon 15 - Sun session #4 (Sun 215)
Wed 17 - Eagle's Nest
Fri 19 - Lake Cliff Club, Shreveport
Sat 20 - Louisiana Hayride
Sun 21 - Magnolia Gardens, Houston TX
Sun 21 - Cook's Hoedown Club, Houston
Mon 22 - KSIJ Radio, Mint Club, Gladewater TX
Tue 23 - Roundup Club, Gladewater
Wed 24 - New Boston TX
Thu 25 - Paladium Club, Houston
Fri 26 - Paladium Club
Sat 27 - Louisiana Hayride


Thu  2 - Catholic Club, Helena AR
Fri  3 - Municipal Auditorium, Texarkana AR
Sat  4 - Louisiana Hayride
Fri 10 - Eagle's Nest
Sat 11 - Louisiana Hayride
Sat 18 - Louisiana Hayride
Wed 22 - Lake Cliff Club, Shreveport
Sat 25 - Louisiana Hayride
Tue 28 - Cook's Hoedown Club, Houston


(I don't care if the sun don't shine anymore.)