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7/4/2004

Birth of Rock ; 50 years ago, Presley changed music history with 'That's All Right'; Presley's first hit created a rock 'n' roll king

July 4, 2004, Sunday

The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune (Utah)

BYLINE: Dan Nailen , The Salt Lake Tribune

Scotty Moore wasn't impressed with the dark-haired 19-year-old singer when they first met 50 years ago today.

The kid was nice enough, despite wild attire: a black shirt, pink pants with a black stripe, white shoes and a ducktail haircut. Moore just wasn't sure if he had a good enough voice to join Starlite Wranglers. After all, the band led by the 22-year-old, guitar-playing Moore already had a singer, a lot of gigs and a record out on one of Memphis' local labels, Sun Records.

"He had a young voice, of course, and a high voice," Moore said in a recent interview from his Tennessee home, recalling that first meeting and rehearsal with Elvis Presley and Bill Black, the Starlite Wranglers' bass player. "But he had real good timing, and he always knew the lyrics after we'd run through something just a couple of times. That was impressive."

Sam Phillips, the man who introduced Moore to Presley, owned Sun Records and a small recording studio called the Memphis Recording Service, a place that advertised "We Record Anything -- Anywhere -- Anytime" for a mere $ 3.98. Presley had recorded there a couple times -- some say to make his mother a gift recording, some say to make Phillips aware of his skills -- and Phillips decided he wanted to hear what Presley would sound like with professional musicians like Moore and Black, despite their lukewarm report from that July 4 practice.

The next day, July 5, Phillips gathered Presley, Moore and Black -- an electric-company truck driver, dry-cleaner and Firestone tire-changer -- at the Memphis Recording Service around 7 p.m. Not only did the three musicians hit it off a little better than the day before; roughly two hours later they were done recording a song that arguably changed the course of American culture.

A happy accident: "We'd run through a whole bunch of songs, for about an hour or an hour and a half, I guess, and we took a little break," Moore said. "Elvis started just goofing around and started singing 'That's All Right.' Bill and I, neither of us had ever heard it before, so we just started playing along. Sam stuck his head out [of the recording booth] and asked what we were doing, then told us to do it again. We ran through it about four or five times while Sam recorded.

"It was just a demo. There was only one mic on him and his guitar, but he played so loud, you didn't need to mic his guitar! And we'd kind of step in and step out away from the one microphone."

That recording of "That's All Right," a so-called "race record" by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, marked the point when Phillips and Moore realized that Presley kid was going to be more than a wannabe Frank Sinatra. It is also the point when Elvis Aron Presley became ELVIS!, the point when American music arguably began to be desegregated and the point, some say, that rock 'n' roll began.

Monday at 10 a.m., radio stations across the globe will simultaneously play Presley's "That's All Right" as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of rock 'n' roll. The city of Memphis is in the midst of a yearlong party commemorating the July 5, 1954, recording session, and Hard Rock Cafes across the country are hosting displays dedicated to the anniversary. Even Utah's Graywhale CD stores are part of the party, offering a free Presley CD with purchases of newly released CDs and DVDs on Monday.

Clearly, arguments can be made for other recordings being the first rock 'n' roll record, particularly the oft-cited "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston with His Delta Cats, or some older R&B and blues records we would now consider rock 'n' roll. But there is no denying the significance of Presley's off-hand choice of "That's All Right" after a night of recording sappy ballads, the "bunch of songs" referred to by Moore.

Susan Cottler, a Westminster College history professor who specializes in the history of rhythm and blues music, teaches "The History of Rock 'n' Roll" regularly at the school.

"Anybody who teaches that course has to begin with 'That's All Right,' because it was what they used to call a 'race record,' and the appreciation [Presley] had for that music was pioneering," Cottler said. "Regardless of what you think was the first rock 'n' roll song, Elvis is the key to understanding the shift in attitude and the acceptance of the subculture.

"Although the choice is arbitrary, the day must be celebrated. Elvis is the vector through which black music became popular. No matter what anyone thinks about him, that's a undeniable fact."

Ernst Mikael Jorgensen is a rock historian and author of an upcoming book about Presley's Sun Records years, in addition to being one of the producers of virtually every Presley reissue that's come out on RCA Records or its parent company, BMG, since 1988, including 2002's "30 #1 Hits," a compilation that has sold about 10 million copies globally to date.

"Everybody has their own opinion on when rock 'n' roll started and who started it and who their favorite artist is," Jorgensen said in an interview from his farm in Denmark. "I think we can all agree that the commercially most-important artist of rock 'n' roll was Elvis Presley, and that particular date, in my mind, is the date Elvis Presley invented himself.

"All anybody had heard Elvis sing was weepy ballads, country songs, Dean Martin songs. Even when he started that night, he started out with 'Harbor Lights' and 'I Love You Because,' and it wasn't going anywhere. So it's actually at that fateful moment when I assume Elvis was feeling the pressure, Elvis was understanding that this isn't going anywhere, that he started clowning around with 'That's All Right.' If rock 'n' roll wasn't born, at least Elvis' identity was found that night."

Overnight success: Moore and Black left the Memphis Recording Service building around 9:30 or 10 that night, and Phillips immediately made a one-sided record of "That's All Right." He called Dewey Phillips, a DJ on Memphis's WHBQ of no relation, and had him drop by the studio for a listen. Dewey Phillips liked it enough to play "That's All Right" on his evening shift on July 6, seven times in a row early in the show. The response from listeners was so immediate and positive that he would go on to play it 11 times in a row, and then seven times in a row again, before the end of his show, according to Peter Guralnick's Presley bio Last Train to Memphis.

"He even had Elvis come into the station and talk," Moore recalled. "The following day, Sam called and said, 'We need a b-side,' and Bill came up with the other side. It was kind of like the night before. We had tried everything I knew, everything Elvis knew, everything everybody there knew, and Bill, who was sitting on his bass on a break, just started singing 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' but faster, because it was a waltz."

The Sun Records single of "That's All Right/Blue Moon of Kentucky" became a regional hit, passed from Southern radio station to station as Presley, Moore and Black toured together in a 1954 Chevrolet.

"With three guys and a big bass fiddle, there wasn't a lot of room," Moore said. "One guy had to sleep while the other two rode up front. We paid some dues, boy. We did five records on Sun before RCA picked us up [in 1955], and each one seemed to get bigger and bigger."

Moore continued playing with Presley regularly until Presley went in the army, even acting as manager of the group until the infamous Col. Tom Parker took Elvis under his wing, and continued off-and-on gigs with him through the late '60s, and Moore still plays a couple times a month in Nashville. Asked if he's reflecting on that first recording session any more than normal with the 50th anniversary arriving, Moore is reluctant.

"I'm sure I do," Moore said. "I'm not really cognizant of the fact I'm thinking about it, but I do."

Long-term effects: Historians, academics and music fans have spent plenty of time contemplating the significance of Elvis's rise, particularly the idea that Presley was the right white face to put in front of "black music" to make it popular. Certainly he was first national pop star to introduce many white audiences to black blues and gospel songs and artists, even if those audiences didn't realize the source of Presley's inspiration.

"I disagree really strongly with those who say he was just a white boy doing black people's music," Jorgensen said, "because if you listen to Arthur Crudup's version of 'That's All Right,' which I particularly like actually, it was very much a 'jump' record or R&B record. The breezy, melodic feel Elvis added to it makes it a completely different recording."

Cottler finds the idea that Presley "stole" black music and culture for his own gain -- an accusation Eminem faces today for succeeding in hip-hop -- almost comical after researching the roots of R&B music and Presley.

"I often talk about the controversy among the white community that's really funny, that Elvis expropriated -- that's the term academics use, 'expropriated' -- black music, beginning with 'That's All Right' and then going on to 'Don't Be Cruel,' " Cottler said. "They sound so foolish, people who say that, because anybody who's done any research knows that the black community embraced Elvis from the beginning.

"Jet and Ebony, they did articles in the late '50s about how thrilled they were that Elvis loved their music. People around Tupelo [Mississippi, Presley's boyhood home] remember him going to black concerts, and nobody cared. This is one of those academic controversies that has no legs."

The song certainly does have legs, though. Put "That's All Right" through your headphones and the first thing you hear is Presley's acoustic guitar strumming out a few chords for about six seconds before Moore's carefully picked riffs, Black's bass thumps and Elvis's vocals come in together.

"Well, that's all right, mama, that's all right for you, that's all right mama, just any way you do," Presley sings, slurs and sneers in the sex-charged voice that would lead to a teenage revolution within a couple of years. It was a revolution of music, fashion, race relations, sexual politics and morality that continues to this day whenever the FCC fines a radio station for playing an "obscene" rap song or a parent tells his kid "turn down that racket!"

Listen to a clip of "That's All Right" online at http://www.sltrib.com