teenage Elvis

Almost exactly 60 years ago… on Saturday 18th July 1953, a teenage boy walked into the offices of Sun Records, on 706 Union Street, Memphis, Tennessee. He had been past the door many times before but this was the first time that he had actually entered.

In later years the woman on reception, Marion Keisker, would still remember him, his long greasy hair, his shyness, the beat-up guitar that he was holding and what she described as a desperate look of need in his eyes. He asked how much it would cost to make a record. She told him. $3.98 plus tax for a two-sided acetate. An extra dollar got you a tape copy as well.

Elvis and Sam Phillips

It has often been suggested that the boy was making the record as a birthday present for his mother, Gladys, but that particular celebration had taken place nearly three months earlier in April. Others say that it was a belated gift to mark his parent’s 20th wedding anniversary but that was a month earlier on June 17th. The greasy haired teenager was later to claim that he simply wanted to hear what he sounded like… but he was deluding himself. If that was all he wanted he could have saved himself $3 by going to W.T Grant’s on Main Street and making a recording for 25 cents. In truth the boy had chosen Sun Records because he wanted to present himself to the man who owned the company, a respected independent record producer with some rhythm and blues hits to his name, Sam Phillips.

Marion Keisker

Unfortunately on Saturday 18th July 1953 Sam Phillips was not in the studio – although he was later to claim that he was! – and Marion Keisker handled the session. As she set things up in the studio she and the boy talked…

He said, “If you know of anyone who needs a singer…”

And I said, “What kind of singer are you?”

He said, “I sing all kinds.”

I said, “Who do you sound like?”

“I don’t sound like nobody.”

I thought, Oh yeah, one of those…“What do you sing? Hillbilly?”

“I sing hillbilly.”

“Well, who do you sound like in hillbilly?”

“I don’t sound like nobody.”

The teenager was right. He didn’t sound or act like nobody at all. Although he was clearly nervous instead of opting for a couple of simple straightforward songs to record he decided on two sentimental standards that demanded control and interpretation. With his mouth close to the microphone, as if whispering into someone’s ear, the kid crooned his way through “My Happiness”, a gentle ballad from the late 40’s, his guitar plonking away behind him… “Evening shadows make me blue / When each weary day is through.”

 Sun Studio, Memphis

Listening to the recording now it sounds as if he is performing for a private audience that exists only in his own head. Forty years later one reviewer, Peter Guralnick wrote “there is a strange sense of calm, an almost unsettling stillness in the midst of great drama, the kind of poise that comes as both a surprise and a revelation.”

The second song, “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” was in similar mood, save for a spoken rendition of the lyric, copied directly from the original recording of the song by the Inkspots in 1941. In many ways it was less successful than “My Happiness” and finished abruptly with a curt “That’s the end”.

According to the Sam Phillips version of the story at the end of the session the boy looked up at Sam who nodded politely and commented that he was an interesting singer. “We might give you a call sometime” he said. Marion Keisker made a note. “Good ballad singer. Hold.” She then wrote down the boy’s name, misspelling it…

Elvis Pressley.

Elvis, Bill, Scotty and Sam

A year later on 5th July 1954 Sam Phillips did call Elvis back to try recording with local musicians Bill Black on double bass and Scotty Moore on guitar. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to record anything of interest they fell almost by accident into an up-tempo, raw and ragged version of a ten year old blues song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup – “That’s Alright,”. Afterwards Scotty said “We thought it was exciting but what was it? It was just so completely different… but it completely flipped Sam!”

The following day they gave the same up-tempo irreverent knockabout treatment to “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, an iconic country and western classic written by respected bluegrass star Bill Monroe. Bill Black remarked afterwards, "Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town!

“That’s Alright” sold over 20,000 copies and reached No. 4 in the local Memphis charts. Eighteen months later Elvis Presley was No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 2 in the U.K. with “Heartbreak Hotel.”

On the same day that Elvis recorded ‘My Happiness’, in Sun Studios, Memphis, 18th July 1953, Bill Haley and his Comets recorded ‘Crazy. Man, Crazy’ in Coastal Studios, New York – later recognised by Billboard magazine as the first rock ‘n’ roll record in their charts. If Bill Haley was the herald then Elvis was the King.

“My Happiness” by Elvis Presley, recorded 18th July 1953

— from Martyn Day