Forget the Elvis you think you know. The curling lip, the wiggling hips, the predilection for fried foods. Cast them aside in your mind and replace them with a living, breathing man of 19. This man is the poorest of the poor, a man whose Dad, Vernon, doctored a cheque and went to prison for it, who was born into a ‘shotgun house’.
This boy is training to be an electrician, but drives a truck for $40 a week. Inside him, a fire is burning. ‘From the time I was a kid, I always knew something was going to happen to me,’ Elvis later said, and this pot started simmering long before he walked into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios to commit his voice to record, ostensibly as a gift for his beloved mother, Gladys.
There, he was asked by receptionist Marion Kessler who he sounded like. ‘I don’t sound like nobody,’ Elvis replied.
And he was right. His musical influences and experiences spanned both sides of the segregated South, with Elvis going to gospel churches as a little boy to sing, spending time on Beale Street in clubs where he is remembered as being conspicuous because he was the only white person there.
When his time to record music came, he blended blues, country music, and gospel together, calling on all he’d learned to make an entirely new sound that would change the face of music.
But his success wasn’t instant.
Sam Philips recognised something in Elvis that he had been looking for, a mix of humility and deep determination, someone who seemed different, looks different, someone who, most importantly of all, sounded different.
Undeniably talented though Elvis was, it didn’t quite translate into the songs he sang for Sam during their first session at Sun Studios. Sam remembers Elvis trying to throw every trick in his book into all the songs, and it just wasn’t working.
Sam asked Scotty Moore, a guitarist he’d worked with a few times, to invite double bass player Bill Black and Elvis to his house to see what Scotty thought. He had the same verdict: Elvis had a voice, but his sound was all over the place.
Another session at Sun Studios ensued, and more of the same.
Frustrated, they all took a break. And that’s when a blues song recorded by Arthur Crudup called That’s All Right popped into Elvis’s head. He started singing it. Bill and Scotty joined in, creating the swinging background rhythm that Elvis’s voice sails above. Sam Phillips’s ears pricked – that was the sound he’d been looking for. With some gentle nudging, he managed a recording of the song that evening. When he went home, he rightly knew he’d just recorded something that would go down in history.
Now listen to that song. Cast Elvis’s face out of your mind. Can you tell if a man or woman is singing? Can you tell the race of the singer? None of the first raft of listeners managed to discern either – and curiosity as to the identity of the singer who sounded so different, so raw, became feverish; after it was first played on a local Memphis radio show in 1954 by Dewey Phillips (no relation of Sam), the station received over 40 phone calls asking about who the singer was, which school he went to (which, in segregated Memphis would answer the race question), and whether he could come on the show to discuss it.
Elvis had gone to the cinema when he heard about it being played as he was nervous, but they fished him out and he went on air to answer questions, which he did, shyly.
That song wasn’t Elvis’s big break through hit. He’d have to wait a couple of years for that. But it marked what he was capable of doing, and how very different a singer he was to anything that had come before. It’s also one of my favourites for that very reason – listen to it intently, and you can hear all the promise of Elvis’s outstanding voice, and also the rawness of unpolished talent.