Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
This week, we’re exploring the legends behind Elvis Presley’s music:
“That’s All Right” –1954 (original 1946)
“My mama, she done told me, papa done told me too/’Son, that gal you’re foolin’ with/She ain’t no good for you’/But that’s all right now, that’s all right/That’s all right now mama, anyway you do.”
Many music historians regard “That’s All Right” as the “Ground Zero” that launched the rock ‘n’ roll scene as we know it today. And yet, this very recording that catapulted Elvis Presley’s career happened almost by accident:
Sam Phillips’ assistant at Sun Records, Marion Kreisler, noted that Presley was a “good ballad singer” when the unknown teenager came into the studio in 1953 to record two tracks as a gift to his mother. At Kreisler’s urging, Phillips invited Presley back to Sun Records in July 1954 to see if Presley might have the soulful voice he’s been looking for.
It’s important to note here that Sam Phillips’ vision, according to his biographer Peter Guralnick, was to break down societal prejudice and racial divides by infusing African-American music into the mainstream. In fact, around this time, Phillips was known as one of the few recording artists who would work with and promote African-American musicians. Still, he knew that he could only get the soulful R&B sounds he loved onto mainstream radio stations if he could sell African-American music through a white singer. Not only would a move like this ease a racist nation into accepting R&B sounds, but it would also help Phillips profit handsomely off of young Americans who were already getting hooked on R&B and early rockabilly music. On this point, Phillips was frequently quoted saying, “If I could find a white man who had a Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Maybe, just maybe there was a chance this Presley kid could fulfill Phillips’ dream.
At first, Presley’s trial recording session did not prove promising, with tepid renditions of “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because” take after take. When Phillips called for a break, Presley started fooling around on his guitar, and started playing and singing an upbeat version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama.” Supposedly, Phillips whipped his head out of the recording booth and asked, “What are you doing? Back up, try to find a place to start, and do it again.” As it turned out, Presley’s “fooling around” take on an old blues classic was exactly the sound Phillips was looking for…and, Phillips’ instinct about the music world being ripe for a white man who could sing with soul proved prophetic.
Phillips rushed to get “That’s All Right” on the radio, where the recording immediately stirred up a great deal of attention. According to several biographies (including Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, and Elvis: His Life from A to Z), Presley was urged to do an interview with local DJ Dewey Phillips almost immediately, in order to respond to the calls flooding in about who this new “Elvis” guy could be. Casually, but deliberately, the DJ asked Presley what high school he attended, in order to confirm to radio listeners that Presley was not black, despite his deceptively soulful sound.
When Presley’s “That’s All Right” was officially released on July 19, 1954 (on a double-sided record with Blue Moon of Kentucky), he sold 20,000 copies. While that number was not high enough to chart nationally, “That’s All Right” became the cornerstone of the Elvis Presley legend.
Here’s Arthur Crudup’s original “That’s All Right, Mama”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU3ZFNIa0t0
And, here’s Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” recording from Sun Records: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYhb7hZ4VUw
Thanks for tuning in to “Original Rock Legends!” We’ll be back on Wednesday with more stories behind the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. This program is sponsored by Geva Theatre Center, where the Million Dollar Quartet comes back to life, LIVE onstage, May 30th through June 25th. Until next time, rock on my friends!