Personalities | Elvis Presley | Fifties | Rock

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in his family’s shot-gun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, on 8 January 1935. His twin brother died at birth, and his mother doted on her sole son. He showed musical aptitude early, and loved to sing at the local First Assembly of God church. His mother, Gladys and father, Vernon, moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13, first to a run-down area, then to good public housing at Lauderdale Courts.

Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Elvis would drink in music of every variety, anything from Dean Martin to Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, from the Blackwood Brothers Quartet to Mario Lanza; and, according to some stories, he secretly frequented the black clubs on Beale Street. Ike Turner for one, remembers sneaking him into a West Memphis night-spot and hiding him behind his piano.

The Rising Son

Presley graduated from Humes High School and went to work first at M.B. Parker Machinists’ shop. He may have heard about Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio from an article in the local paper about The Prisonaires, a group of convicts who had recorded there in mid-1953. In summer 1953, he presented himself at 706 Union Avenue, and taking advantage of their $3.98 offer, recorded ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’. He returned in January 1954, obviously trying to catch the ear of Mr Phillips. Sam’s secretary, Marion Keisker, suggested Presley to Phillips when Sam was looking for someone to demo a particular song, and the man who had already taped Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King on the premises agreed to give him a try. It did not go smoothly but Phillips persevered, putting him together with two other hungry, if slightly older musicians; guitarist Scotty Moore, serious but talented, and Bill Black, a bassist and natural clown.

Their session on 5 July 1954, seemed to be going nowhere until Elvis started messing around on an old Arthur Crudup blues number, ‘That’s All Right’; attacking it with punky vigour. Phillips knew that this was the combination of country and blues, sung by a charismatic young white man, he had been searching for. They recorded a hopped-up version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ to complete the single and rush-released it as Sun 209 on 17 July 1954. It lit up the Memphis area, and it soon became apparent that Elvis had the live act to promote this new and exhilarating hybrid. Four more Sun records followed the same blueprint over the next year; country song one side, R&B the other, all backed by Moore’s fine rockabilly guitar and Black’s slapped bass. Excitement grew exponentially amongst fans – helped immensely by the band’s weekly slot on the Louisiana Hayride radio show. ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’, the flip side to the awesome blues power of ‘Mystery Train’ – the final Sun single, even made the Top 10 of the national country charts. The calculating Colonel Tom Parker, who already looked after country...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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