Last month we began in this column the epic story of Elvis Presley. We focused on Elvis’ early years growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi. This month we continue, on the second part of his journey. This covers the period after the Presley family moved to Memphis, up to the time he began his association with the legendary Sun Record company. Once again we will focus especially on the hidden or less well known stories about the King.
On 11th May, we held another Elvis themed event at the prestigious Esse Jazz Café in Moscow, to celebrate the King. I booked the Aleksey Fetisov Rock’n’Roll Trio to perform for us on. I’ve written about this terrific group before in this column. Their style is classic 1950s rock’n’roll and they are one of the greatest rockin’ bands in Russia. Aleksey himself is also renowned as the first person to produce and direct a film about Russian rock’n’roll. It’s a crackin’ movie and some time ago we dedicated a concert to it at the Esse Café, with Aleksey as our guest of honour. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the Event on 11/05/19: Thankyou Aleksey, for a brilliant concert.
I explained last month how the Presley family, Mum, Dad and Elvis, were more or less run out of town, due to Dad’s criminal ways. They arrived in Memphis in 1948 and set up home. This was to be a pivotal event in Elvis’ life. It was in Memphis that he became exposed to the musical influences that were to transform the young teenager into the greatest pop singer of all time and more importantly for us, the all-time King of Rock’n’Roll. Beale Street in Memphis was the centre for blues and soul music and was within walking distance from Elvis’ home. He spent many hours there, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to the music. It was here that he became exposed to a vast range of musical influences and performers. For example, the legendary guitarist B.B. King remembered Elvis from those times. Here’s how he describes it, ”I knew Elvis before he was popular. He used to come around and be around us a lot. There was a place we used to go to and hang around at on Beale Street.”
Also on Beale Street there were Black American churches, with lots of gospel singing. Elvis recalled this during the first years of his success, in his Southern drawl, “The coloured folk been singing it and playing it just the way I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. Nobody paid it no mind till I goosed it up. I got it from them.” In addition there were extended family get togethers, where the Presleys joined in for singing together around a piano especially at weekends. Here the music would be more country and western oriented. All these influences were important in shaping the uniqueness of the Elvis to come.
There were other influences during this period. Elvis used to love singing along to Dean Martin’s crooning records whenever they were played on the radio. He idolised the actor James Dean and saw the film “Rebel Without a Cause” over a hundred times, even memorising all of Dean’s lines in the movie. He related closely to the Dean on-screen image, that of the sensitive loner and rebel. But they would never meet – Dean was killed in a car accident in 1955. Elvis was also in awe of the characters who frequented Beale Street. Especially in the evenings, he was hugely impressed with the dress codes of the people who hung out there. As a result, Elvis experimented with his own dress style and appearance. For example he’d spend a long time in front of the mirror, trying out what would be his best hair style. On top of all this he tried to add on the James Dean image of cool, rebellious sensitivity. He said at the time, “I’ve made a study of myself: I don’t understand it exactly, but I know you can’t be a rebel if you smile. You can’t be a rebel if you grin.” He graduated from high school in 1953 and already knew he wanted a career in music.
Then in August 1953 an event occurred which seemed insignificant at the time, but was to change rock’n’roll and music history. A young and shy Elvis Presley went to the Sun Record Company offices in Memphis. Marian Keisker, who was on the reception desk, noticed a nervous young boy at the front of the offices pacing back and forth. She went out to ask him if he was OK. After a while Elvis plucked up the courage to enter the building and asked Marian how much it would cost him to cut a record. She told him the cost and then asked, “Who do you sound like ?”. He replied, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Truer words had never been spoken !
The Sun Record Company was run by Sam Phillips. Like Elvis he played a key role in rock’n’roll history, but in a different way of course. His musical philosophy was a revolutionary one for that time. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to quote one of his famous remarks, “If I could find a white man who had the negro sound and the negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” That statement in a way is an over-simplification of what he was trying to do, but you get the idea. And of course the “white man” in question would turn out to be Elvis. Although Phillips didn’t end up making quite that amount of money !
Not that Phillips was completely sold on Elvis straightaway. The first recordings he did with him were unsuccessful and even Elvis was unhappy with the way things were going. But Phillips identified that there was something a bit different about this performer and decided to keep him as a recording artist. Then in July 1954, Elvis cut “That’s Alright Mama” in the studio, with the help of backing musicians which included Scotty Moore and Bill Black. It was the turning point. Phillips at last realised he had the sound he wanted and that his faith and patience with Elvis had been well worth it. When he heard them performing in the studio, Phillips exclaimed, “Good God, they’ll run us out of town for this !”
Early on Presley teamed up with Tom Parker, a man who promised to make him a star if he allowed him to manage his affairs. Phillips sent Elvis, along with the band who had been backing him in the studio, out on tour. He was advertised in those early days as the “Hillbilly Cat”. The impact of those early concerts can hardly be over-estimated. They were witnesses to Elvis performing at his youngest and his wildest. If you look back at film clips of those times, you will see the evidence that there really never was anyone like Elvis, either before or since. He was rock’n’roll at its very very best. The legend had now truly arrived.
We will continue on Elvis’ journey, carrying on from his time in Memphis as the Sun King. But not next month: in the next issue, we’ll be focusing on a great Russian rock’n’roll city. In the meantime, here’s to you Elvis; you were the One and Only.