Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Story Goes... Sun Records and Elvis

The Million Dollar Quartet at Sun Studios
Elvis died 41 years ago. I've always felt a little responsible. I fell asleep in the afternoon with the TV on. I dreamt that Elvis was dead. And when I awoke, it was on the Big News with Jerry Dunphey. He confirmed it. Elvis was dead and it was my fault.

 Journalist Tony Scherman stated in his Elvis bio that by early 1977, "Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts." The next few nights of the tour proved a disaster with Elvis in Baton Rouge unable to get out bed, his biography more and more resembling that of Howard Hughes. The fall of the King, though, while fascinating, isn't AM's style; instead, let's venture back to Sun Studios where, alongside Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, it all began.

 In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, creating the Interstate Highway System, Marilyn Monroe married playwright Arthur Miller, heavyweight boxing champion, Rocky Marciano, retired, having never lost a match, and Elvis Presley was on track to become a national pop sensation. In the previous year, Elvis and his band had toured much of the country, especially in the south, getting rave reviews (indeed, Elvis performed 260 times over the course of the year). On January 28th, Elvis made his first national television appearance on the Dorsey Brother's Stage Show, recorded and broadcast on CBS.  After the success of Elvis’ first appearance, he was signed to five more shows in February and March that year. Meanwhile, by late February "Heartbreak Hotel" entered the national music charts for the first time.  A month later he released his eponymous, genre-changing first album, Elvis Presley. On June 5th, Elvis introduced his new song, “Hound Dog” during a national TV appearance on The Milton Berle Show, "scandalizing the audience with his suggestive hip movements." The August 7th edition of Look magazine, with Prince Philip on the cover, appeared on newsstands with an Elvis tagline that read: "Elvis Presley: What? Why?" Inside it read, "…but Presley is mostly nightmare. On stage, his gyrations are vulgar. He has also dragged 'big beat' music to new lows in taste."

60 Years Ago
There are watershed moments in music, the most apparent of which is the release of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. Sgt. Pepper was the moment when rock became more than teen frivolity – The Beatles had elevated rock to an art form. That progression began with Elvis 60 years ago at Sun Records, the Genesis of it coming in December 1956 at Sun Studios when Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis huddled around Elvis Presley at an upright piano – The Million Dollar Quartet. Even before that, though, an equally iconic moment happened in that same studio. It was on July 5, 1954 that Elvis, a 17-year-old truck driver who presented himself as a ballad singer but sucked at every ballad he was offered, suddenly and inexplicable reinvented himself. On a break from his torchy mediocrity, Elvis broke into a rockabilly version of "That's All Right." It was all about blues, country, sex, and freedom and instantly rock 'n' roll had its first and definitive idol.

Sun Records was founded, along with Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee by Sam Phillips in 1952. After leaving the service, Phillips worked as a deejay and engineer at WLAY in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  By 1946 he hosted a daily show at WREC, Memphis called "Songs of the West." There, Phillips developed the signature sound that he'd take into the recording studio. With Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (later recognized as Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm with Brenston on vocals), Phillips produced Chess Records' proto-rock R&B hit "Rocket 88," the first true rock n roll record,  (a 10 in. 78, by the way).

Elvis Presley came to Sun Records paying $4 to record songs for his mother's birthday. In June and July 1954, at the urging of his secretary, Sam Phillips invited Elvis back to the studio to record other tracks, including "That's All Right, Mama" (Sun 204). Traditionally, it's said that with Elvis Presley, Sun Records and Sam Phillips mashed together white musicians with black music, country music and rhythm and blues thus igniting the rock 'n' roll era. Eventually, Sun Records sold Elvis' contract to RCA and Col. Tom Parker for $40,000, a then unheard of sum.  Before Elvis departed, Sam Phillips recruited other top talent including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash who on December 4, 1956 recorded and released an impromptu session referred to as The Million Dollar Quartet. The resulting recording is less than impressive from a production standpoint (essentially Sam Phillips just recorded the impromptu meeting), but the session itself represents one of rock music's astounding historical moments.   


Elvis dominates this session (with Johnny Cash's input negligible and no recordings exist of the star's lead contributions), but Jerry Lee Lewis is also prominent throughout. Carl Perkins remains in the background, taking the lead only on "Keeper of the Key." Elvis' tremendous gospel take comes through loud and clear on "Just a Little Walk With Jesus," "Peace in the Valley," and "Down By the Riverside," and Jerry Lee's strong backup on these songs shows a tremendous sense of confidence. Soon the guys shift to bluegrass, giving us snippets of several Bill Monroe classics, then the real fun begins: Elvis explains how the song "Don't Forbid Me" sat in his house for months without his knowing about it, although it was written for him, with Pat Boone ultimately recording it. Then the guys honor Chuck Berry, repeatedly returning to the "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." Jerry Lee seemingly loves the line about Venus losing both of arms while wrestling to win herself a "brown eyed handsome man." The greatest part of this session, to my mind, is Elvis' imitation of an imitation of his "Don't Be Cruel." He talks about seeing Jackie Wilson perform the song in Las Vegas. He was so impressed that he went back four straight nights just to hear it. Elvis' imitation of Jackie's imitation of his own song is really something special. These recordings are essential, if just for the history and for the exact moment when rock 'n' roll was born.

My son and I took a ten day road trip from the East Coast to the Grand Canyon this past July. After 16 hours in the car, we finally made it to Memphis. Time constraints didn't allow for Graceland, but Sun Studios was imperative. The tour inspired in me, and my son as well, different sensibility with regard to Elvis. I grew up with Elvis movies (Viva Las Vegas a mid-century biopic), the music eluding me for the most part, but Elvis' celebrity was tarnishing before our eyes. The fat, bespangled, caricature of Elvis in the white fringed jump suit pervaded my sensibilities. At Sun Studios (more accurately Sam Phillips Recording), that Elvis doesn't exist; the studio is simply a celebration of the rise of the King, his contemporaries and the Sam Phillips innovations that injected the lifeblood into rock 'n' roll. (Oh, and my son and I got to sing into Elvis' mic!)


Mostly through the encouragement of his assistant and studio manager, Marion Keisker, Phillips began contemplating a young man who'd come in a couple of times to record for his mother. No suspense here; it was Elvis Presley. Phillips wasn't particularly interested in his style. Then, by chance, Presley started singing an old blues number, "That's All Right, Mama." Passing by the control room, Phillips heard what was going on, turned on the recording machines and urged Presley to start again, upping the tempo. It became Elvis' first big hit. Despite the record's success, Phillips ran short of cash and, in November 1955, sold Elvis' contract to RCA for $35,000 - worth $350,000 today - the most ever paid for any artist to that point. While Phillips used the money to promote the studio and artists like Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, it was a move not dissimilar to the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth; indeed Sam Phillips' only "oops."

Elvis returned to Sun, if just for a day (December 4, 1956), and met up with Cash, Perkins and Lewis, the since named Million Dollar Quartet. From the Sun Records Website: "Sometime in the early afternoon, Elvis Presley, a former Sun artist himself, but now at RCA, dropped in to pay a casual visit accompanied by a girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. He was, at the time, the biggest name in show business, having hit the top of the singles charts five times, and topping the album charts twice in the preceding 12 month period. Less than four months earlier, he had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, pulling an unheard-of 83% of the television audience, which was estimated at 55 million, the largest in history, up to that time. After chatting with Philips in the control room, Presley listened to the playback of the Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went into the studio and sometime later the jam session began. Phillips left the tapes running in order to 'capture the moment' as a souvenir and for posterity. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had also enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in (Cash noted in his autobiography that it was he who was the first to arrive at Sun Studio that day). As Jerry Lee pounded away on the piano, Elvis and his girlfriend at some point slipped out. Cash claims that “no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis.


"The following day, an article, written by Memphis newspaperman Bob Johnson about the session, was published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar under the title, "Million Dollar Quartet." The article contained the now well known photograph of Elvis Presley seated at the piano surrounded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash."