Have you heard the news? The explosion of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural force was ignited 60 years ago this week, on a hot day in Memphis when a truck driver named Elvis Presley was called to a recording session by producer Sam Phillips, the savvy owner of Memphis Recording Studio.
The city of Memphis is marking the milestone with a series of “60 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll” events this weekend. Sirius XM’s Elvis Radio channel, which broadcasts from the singer’s Graceland estate in Memphis, has an abundance of special programming set to commemorate the moment when the alchemy in the studio was just right to spark a musical revolution.
On July 5, 1954, Presley joined guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black at Phillips’ studio in an effort to generate some sides for Phillips’ newly launched Sun Records label. The session resulted, mostly by accident, in the recording of the bluesy “That’s All Right,” among other tunes. The next day they went back to into the studio and recorded a rockabilly-flavored take on the Bill Monroe classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
By week’s end, according to Elvis historian Peter Guralnick, Phillips had the recordings in the hands of a few tastemaker Memphis DJs. Once “That’s All Right” hit the airwaves, Elvis was on his way.
But Presley wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation. He’d first gone to Memphis Recording Studio in the summer of 1953 to cut a do-it-yourself record of the ballad “My Happiness,” a hit for the Ink Spots. (Cost: $3.98 plus tax.) Phillips’ secretary, Marion Keisker, was intrigued by his voice and made a note of his name and phone number.
Around this time, Phillips’ studio had been rented by Chess Records and other established labels to record blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner and B.B. King. Phillips was famously prescient in anticipating the convergence of African-American musical styles with country and pop into a phenomenon that didn’t yet have a name.
As Keisker later recalled, according to Guralnick, Phillips often declared: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” This was the 1950s and the South, after all.
Phillips had Presley back in his studio in January 1954 to record a host of songs. But none of them captured the sound Phillips was looking for, according to Guralnick. Presley’s tastes leaned toward pop ballads in the vein of Dean Martin and Billy Eckstine.
At the July 5, 1954, session, Phillips took another shot on Presley, this time pairing him with Moore and Black. The spark of “That’s All Right,” a variation on a tune Presley knew from Mississippi bluesman Arthur Crudup, came during a break when the three thought they were just goofing around. Phillips finally got what he wanted.
By the end of the month, Presley had incited a frenzy at his first professional concert performance in a Memphis park. Sun Records released more Elvis singles (including “Blue Moon,” “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” “Baby Let’s Play House” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight”) as his regional hits became national sellers.
Elvis would leave Sun for the big leagues of RCA Records by the end of 1955. But Phillips secured his place in musical history, and made a tidy profit even if it wasn’t $1 billion.
Phillips’ vision of Presley as the one who could achieve crossover success by expropriating African-American influences was reinforced by the very first reference to “Elvis Presley” in Variety, which came in the Aug. 24, 1955, weekly edition.
The story wasn’t about Elvis per se (those came just a few weeks later) but about a movement in Houston led by the local branch of the NAACP to clean up the airwaves of sexually suggestive “race music” played on stations that targeted African-American auds.
A sub-committee of the city’s Crime and Juvenile Delinquency Commission, formed at the behest of the NAACP and a professor at Texas Southern University, came up with a list of 26 “objectionable” tunes and threatened stations with FCC complaints if they were played.
“First act of the group was to list 26 waxings mostly by indie labels, that had bothered Negro leaders as degrading or possibly contributory to juvenile delinquency. Most of the 26 were by Negro artists,” Variety reported.
The list of included Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” B.B. King’s “Everyday I Have the Blues,” the Dominoes’ “Sixty-Minute Man,” the Midnighters’ “Annie Had a Baby” and “Work With Me Annie,” Bull Moose Jackson’s “I Want a Bowlegged Woman” and two versions of “Good Rockin’ Tonight”: one by R&B hitmaker Roy Brown (who wrote the infectious “Have you heard the news/there’s good rockin’ tonight” refrain), and one by the singer who would soon be on a first-name basis with the world.
Postscript: The word “invented” in the original headline has stirred an angry response from some readers who argue that it diminishes the contributions of many African-American musicians. As the story notes, Presley and Phillips were greatly influenced by a range of musical styles and artists. Crediting a single “inventor” of rock ‘n’ roll is as hard as determining who invented television or the automobile, and the headline on this story was not meant to indicate an absolute in this regard. The July 5, 1954, recording session detailed here marked a turning point in musical history, but in deference to the concerns raised by readers we have adjusted the headline to better reflect the nuance of the story.