As artists gain fame and notoriety, stories start to swirl about them, creating myths, dramas, and legends. But let's dial it back to July 5th, 1954 for just a few moments. Pioneering DJ Dewey Philips had long been playing rhythm and blues, country, jazz, and music from Sun Records artists. His personality was such that he became a local radio legend in Memphis during the early fifties, playing tracks from local artists that exemplified the racial make up of the city and surrounding rural areas.
His Red, Hot & Blue show was a big hit on WHBQ Memphis, and just a few days after Elvis recorded “That's All Right,” Dewey Philips was playing it on his show. The trio that recorded the track also laid down a version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which was the b-side for the eventual release of “That's All Right” as the first single Elvis Presley released.
And after this point, who truly knows the facts — and do they really matter? One story goes that Elvis went to Sun Records originally in mid-1953 because he wanted to record a track for his mother's birthday present. Apparently he was noticed by Marion Keiser, who was aware that the head of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, was “looking for a white man who sounded like a black man.” After recording a few other numbers over the next few months, Elvis recorded this relatively unknown track, “That's All Right,” which was a blues song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, turning it into a much faster and more rock 'n' roll type of number.
Elvis had the same dreams of stardom that all young kids have — a guitar in one hand, a comb in the other, and a voice that would melt the world.
It's also claimed that Dewey Phillips liked t so much that he played it six times on his show that day, and he urged the young “Elton Preston” to come in to the studio so they could chat. It seems that Dewey Phillips wasn't quite sure of the King's name. But even here, history can't be absolutely sure. The consensus is generally that Dewey played the track on the 7th of July, but some sources still claim that it was the 8th or the 10th. Whatever the case, it was the beginning of something big, a signal call that rock 'n' roll was new, vibrant, and possibly quite frightening for the adults in the lives of these youngsters in America.
Elvis, aware that the track had been sent to the Red, Hot & Blue show, got a bout of the nerves and went to the movies, according to his mother Gladys, but only after tuning his parents' radio to WBHQ and telling them to leave it on.
Eventually, it seems, Elvis made it into the studio for a chat with Dewey. One other interesting side-note about this momentous event was that Dewey Phillips found a way to get Elvis to say what race he was without asking him directly. He simply asked him what school he went to. This may not, on the surface, appear like a big deal, but in a state where segregation was still very much the norm it was actually quite a political statement, whether Dewey meant it to be or not. Young whites, who were buying the records of black artists, many of whom were signed to Sun Records, now had someone they could identify with, someone who understood their love of rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll.
Elvis stayed with Sun Records until signing with RCA in 1955. During this time he recorded over twenty tracks, releasing five singles. And there is another moment of magic that neatly bookends the experience Elvis had with Sun Records. It's December 1956, and about a year since Elvis moved on from Sun to join RCA. The story has it that he stopped off at the Sun Studios on a casual visit with his girlfriend. While he was there, Carl Perkins was in the studio, eager to get more recording done after the success of “Blue Suede Shoes.” Sam Phillips (head of Sun) decided that he wanted to augment the instrumentation with a piano, so up stepped a young Jerry Lee Lewis. The session soon became an all out jam, now known as “The Million Dollar Quartet,” with Elvis joining in, and then later Johnny Cash.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. The young Elvis Presley couldn't have had any idea how his life was going to pan out. Sure, he probably had the same dreams of stardom that all young kids have, a guitar in one hand, a comb in the other, and a voice that would melt the world. The downsides to all the fame came thick and fast in the end; but for that one week in July of 1954, the whole world must have seemed like it had been carved out as a small slice of Heaven for this young man from Tupelo, Mississippi.