Flush with the success of their first top-ten single, “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas, the focus of Jim Stewart and the folks at Satellite Records was on cashing in with a follow-up album. Carla was off attending Tennessee State, so there was much back-and-forth between Memphis and Nashville as Carla learned to juggle Freshman English 1010 with a non-credit hands-on lab in applied pop star studies. In the background of this flurry of activity lurked the single which would not only set the direction of the emerging label’s sound, but also force it to change its name.
As 1961 dawned, It was back to the ballads for Elvis Presley. Since his return from the Army, Elvis had topped the charts with a song based on the late 19th century melody “O Sole Mio,” transliterated into “It’s Now Or Never.” The same session revived a 1920’s love song, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” So when Presley went to RCA’s Nashville studio in late October, 1960, along with the gospel tunes lined up for his first religious-themed album, His Hand In Mine, he brought a new treatment of another Italian classic.
In 1960, America was on the verge of exploring the new frontier, getting ready to pass the torch to a new generation. Who would imagine that two of the year’s biggest hit melodies would be written in 1898 and 1926? And, who would imagine that they would both be recorded in the same session?
Memphis was the summit of success for many singers, and a jumping-off point for others. Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, and grew up in Wink. He went to North Texas State to study geology, but after seeing Elvis in concert in Dallas, it was another type of rock altogether that had his attention. He left behind the country and western swing direction of his first band, the Wink Westerners, and started another called the Teen Kings. Johnny Cash shared a bill with that band, and suggested Roy contact Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
A couple of hundred miles can sometimes make all the difference in the world. When you look at it, even among the members of the million dollar quartet, Elvis came from Tupelo, Jerry Lee Lewis from Ferriday, Carl Perkins from Jackson, and Johnny Cash from Dyess, Arkansas, to make it big in Memphis. So it stands to reason some Memphians would find their place in the sun by moving on down the line. Two transplants in particular helped shape and define Nashville’s Music City reputation.