rock and roll

Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. He grew-up there in a shotgun shack that his father, Vernon, built. Elvis was thirteen when his parents moved to Memphis. Throughout his teens, the family moved around, living in small apartments and low-cost public housing.

For many Memphians of a certain age, August 16, 1977 was really “The Day the Music Died.” Elvis Aaron Presley died at his mansion, Graceland. 

A native of Tupelo, Elvis moved to Memphis as a teenager. After high school, he walked into Sun Studios to make a record for his mother, Gladys.

Sam Phillips heard him and realized that he had found a white singer with a black feel. Hits like “That's All Right Mama” and “Hound Dog” left the music world all shook up. And it's still shaking.

For a couple of years there, Sam The Sham was the real deal. Almost in tribute to his name, Sam had the first record to be named Billboard’s number one song of the year which hadn’t actually held the number one position during the year. And it probably won’t come as a surprise that Sam wasn’t even really his name.

In May, 1963, Elvis Presley spent a couple of days in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville working on an album project. Fourteen songs were recorded, of which “Devil In Disguise” and “Please Don’t Drag That String Around” were immediately siphoned off as a single. The balance of the tunes never did coalesce as a unit, but were parceled off as single B-sides or album filler.

The story, as I understand it, can be summed up in these two parables, noted by Chris Davis in the Memphis Flyer in 2006. At the peak of their popularity in 1964, British duo Peter And Gordon played a gig in Chicago. At the time, they held the top spot nationwide with their song “A World Without Love.” Travis Wammack, who grew up in Memphis, was a young guitarist in the touring band, and also had a single on the charts. Before the concert, Wammack took a call from legendary WLS DJ Art Roberts. Art wanted to make sure that Travis would play his song, called “Scratchy,” that night.

In 1964, as the nation’s record charts were awash with British product ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, the Memphis recording scene was hanging in there. When you look at the Billboard chart from April 4, 1964, The Beatles had the top five songs in the US. The following week, the 11th, 14 of the 100 spots were taken up with Beatle songs released on five different labels. But a closer look at that chart brings up some old familiar names.

The Patty Duke Show premiered on TV in September of 1963, in which the actress played the dual role of twin-like “identical” cousins. At the same time, Elvis Presley was working on Kissin’ Cousins, a movie with a similar plot twist. In order to keep a lid on expenses, Colonel Tom Parker ordered the soundtrack work to be recorded in Nashville this time, instead of Hollywood. The title track to the film would be Presley’s next single, making it to number 12 in early ‘64, as Elvis waded ankle-deep into the rising tide of what would be known as the British Invasion.

Elvis Presley spent September of 1962 in Seattle, working on his 12th movie, It Happened At The World’s Fair. Probably the most memorable scene from this movie involved Presley’s character bribing a kid to kick him in the shins.

From early on Memphis musicians have had no problem making a statement without the encumbrance of words. As a young  man, W.C. Handy found music in the wordless sounds of the tapping of shovels, as his co-workers wove complicated rhythms to pass the time on the shovel brigade at a Florence, Alabama iron furnace. His musical genius allowed him to distil the sounds he discovered while touring the rural south. The essence he extracted enabled Handy to refine the music he described as “not really annoying or unpleasant…” but “perhaps haunting,” into a palatable form which found appeal to new audiences. If not the actual birth of the blues, it was at least the assignment of a birth certificate.

As Luck Would Have It

Jan 24, 2012

It’s easy to say Elvis Presley had a career run of good luck as he headed into the sixties. From his first Sun Records single, he created a stir, and fostered a following that would set records and inspire a new youthful direction in the whole sphere of entertainment. But any carny worth his salt can read people like a book, and Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker was perhaps the greatest since Barnum. In the new decade, he set new course was based on making movies that made money, fulfilling the RCA Records contract, and keeping Elvis off the TV and tour bus.