History is a word thrown around the music industry daily. This artist is a historical icon – that artist was involved in this project – those guys sang backing vocals on this album. Rarely does one iconic landmark embody the true meaning of “history” more profoundly than the bricks and mortar at the reaching out to passersby at 706 Union Ave in Memphis, TN. For industry professionals, music connoiseurs, fans and artist alike – the building resonates a steady bass rhythm in each person’s heart and brings goosebumps across their skin. Beneath the scorching Memphis sun in a semi run down part of town whose former glory was prominent but with age – it’s beauty is fleeting and what stands in a cast memorial to what has built a nation on the back of rock n’ roll. Sun Studios is the birthplace of much of what brings light to our days some 60 years later. Within it’s humble walls and beginnings dwells a encyclopedia of musical talent with unsuspecting grass roots anchored deep in the Tennessee mud. The meteoric careers of those initial performers at Sun reads like a music driven biblical passage including the likes of such icons as:
Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats
Jerry Lee Lewis
In January 1950, WREC radio engineer Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue with his assistant and long time friend, Marion Keisker. Phillips had dreamed of opening his own recording studio since he was a young man, and now that it was a reality he was overjoyed. However, getting the company off the ground was not an easy task. To make money in the beginning, Phillips would record conventions, weddings, choirs, and even funerals. He also held an open door policy, allowing anybody to walk in and, for a small fee, record their own record. Phillips’ slogan for his studio was “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime”.
Rufus Thomas’s “Bearcat”, a recording that was similar to “Hound Dog”, was the first real hit for Sun in 1953. Although the song was the label’s first hit, a copyright-infringement suit ensued and nearly bankrupted Phillips’ record label. Despite this, Phillips was able to keep his business afloat by recording several other acts, including The Prisonaires; a black quartet who were given permission to leave prison in June 1953 to record their single, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”, later a hit for Johnnie Ray in 1956. The song was a big enough hit that the local newspaper took an interest in the story of its recording.
In August 1953, fresh out of his high school graduation the previous June, the 18 year old Presley walked into the offices of Sun. He aimed to pay for a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. He would later claim he intended the record as a gift for his mother, or was merely interested in what he “sounded like”, though there was a much cheaper, amateur record-making service at a nearby general store. Asked by receptionist Marion Keisker what kind of singer he was, Presley responded, “I sing all kinds.” When she pressed him on whom he sounded like, he repeatedly answered, “I don’t sound like nobody.” After he recorded, Phillips asked Keisker to note down the young man’s name, which she did along with her own commentary: “Good ballad singer. Hold.” Presley cut a second acetate in January 1954—”I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You”—but again nothing came of it.
The session, held the evening of July 5, proved entirely unfruitful until late in the night. As they were about to give up and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1949 blues number, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”. Moore recalled, “All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.'” Phillips quickly began taping; this was the sound he had been looking for. Three days later, popular Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played “That’s All Right” on his Red, Hot, and Blue show. Listeners began phoning in, eager to find out who the singer was. The interest was such that Phillips played the record repeatedly during the last two hours of his show. Interviewing Presley on-air, Phillips asked him what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black. During the next few days the trio recorded a bluegrass number, Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, again in a distinctive style and employing a jury-rigged echo effect that Sam Phillips dubbed “slapback”. A single was pressed with “That’s All Right” on the A side and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the reverse.
On December 4, 1956 an impromptu jam session among Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash took place at Sun Studios. The jam session seems to have happened by pure chance. Perkins, who by this time had already met success with “Blue Suede Shoes”, had come into the studios that day, accompanied by his brothers Clayton and Jay and by drummer W.S. Holland, their aim being to cut some new material, including a revamped version of an old blues song, “Matchbox”. Phillips, who wished to try to fatten this sparse rockabilly instrumentation, had brought in his latest acquisition, singer and piano man extraordinaire Jerry Lee Lewis, still unknown outside Memphis, to play piano on the Perkins session.
Sometime in the early afternoon, Presley 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 Perkins’ session, which he pronounced to be good. Then he went out into the studio and some time later the jam session began. At some point during the session, Sun artist Johnny Cash, who had recently enjoyed a few hits on the country charts, popped in. (Cash wrote in his autobiography Cash that he had been first to arrive at the Sun Studio that day, wanting to listen in on the Perkins recording session.) Cowboy Jack Clement was engineering that day and remembers saying to himself “I think I’d be remiss not to record this” and so he did. After running through a number of songs, Elvis and girlfriend Evans slipped out as Jerry Lee pounded away on the piano. Cash claims in Cash that “no one wanted to follow Jerry Lee, not even Elvis.”