That's All Right Now, Mama
Polkadate: July 2018. Sixty-four years ago, this month, the world changed. It was not immediately noticed; no mushroom clouds, or little green men landing on the White House lawn. It happened in an incident born out of frustration and lasted a minute and fifty-eight seconds. And it all began with a young man wanting to something special for his mother.
706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee was a small non-descript building. The matching neon signs flanking the front door identified it as “Memphis Recording Services.” The owner, an intense, handsome, likeable, no-nonsense young white man, Sam Phillips, gave out business cards that read: WE RECORD ANYTHING-ANYWHERE-ANYTIME.
Sam Phillips was obsessed with quality, in physical objects and a person’s ability to perform what is in his soul; no imitations allowed.
This led him to seek out and record true pioneer musicians. Sam grew up in Florence, Alabama and was raised in a poor, open-minded family, that went against the stereotypes of rural white Southerners. When Silas, a local blind, black share-cropper became homeless, Sam’s parents moved him in with them. In the sixth grade, Sam was struck with back-to-back cases of double pneumonia. Sam’s mother and “Uncle Silas” nursed him back to health. Uncle Silas would tell him that he was going to get better and grow to be a great man and achieve things that were undreamable. Uncle Silas figured heavily in Sam’s lack of racism in 1940s Alabama.
Sam was also obsessed with communication between people through sound. At first, it was the heartfelt, lively, preaching and singing coming through the windows of the local black church. The Phillips were Methodist (this editor can vouch for the boring services). In his youth, Sam was interested in the use of electronics in communicating. He rigged up public address systems for his school and town. Sam graduated, and like most young men and women of the post war generation, headed straight to the nearest big city, in this case, Memphis. The sounds that Sam heard emanating from street corner musicians and the Blues clubs on Beale street (Home of the Blues) reminded him of the purity of the music he heard at churches and front porches back in Alabama. He had to get involved. Over the years Sam worked as a disc jockey and music promoter broadcasting nightly from the rooftop dance garden of a major hotel.
During the days, he began working on his dream, a recording studio where he could realize his goal of recording genuine unheard music and sharing it with the world. Through frugalness and networking with the right Memphis citizens, he purchased the building at 706 Union Avenue to convert into a recording studio.
Another American institution had recently been born in Memphis. Kemmons Wilson had founded the Holiday Inn motel chain in Memphis and was immediately successful ($4.00 single $6.oo double in 1952). The name was chosen from the Bing Crosby musical in the 1940s. Mr. Wilson was one of the major investors in the future Memphis Recording Studios, without him this story might not have unfolded.
Sam knew exactly what he wanted to do. When he made his proposals for funding, he gave lofty ideas on “bold experiments in human communication.” What he didn’t mention in his proposals was that he wanted to record black musicians who did not have a place to record their music. The beer joints in the cotton fields surrounding Memphis generated dozens of musicians. At this time, it was called “race” music. Most race music was recorded in faraway Chicago. Sam got his funding and personally converted the building and finagled the recording equipment that he personally installed. He hired a secretary, and he was ready to begin his experiment. This was in 1950. As you might imagine, business was initially slow, really slow. True to his business card, Sam began picking up some recording sessions, except they were weddings, funerals, and conventions, no music. He started offering anyone a chance to make a record. This started a trickle of definitely non-musicians and aspiring musicians to rent his studio for 15 minutes. Of course, breaking the race barrier in reverse was tough, why would a black musician trust a white man to understand his music. One day, a bluesman, Joe Hill Louis, who had experience playing on the radio and in the clubs, came in wanting to record. Sam set him down and recorded him.
CUTTING A RECORD
At this time, tape machines had yet to be invented. In the studio, the microphones, led to the sound board, which then led to the record-cutting machine. A smooth, acetate disc was placed on a turntable with an electrically charged blade simultaneously cutting the grooves in the vinyl and implanting the electrical charges that represented the sound (magic).
No one cuts a record nowadays, back then, they really did. The acetate was a kind of “draft” and could only be played several times, but you got an idea of what the musician sounded like and could be replayed in the studio for critique. When the recording session was deemed complete, the final acetate was sent to the pressing plant to be duplicated on vinyl for sale to the public.
Joe Hill Louis was a one-man band. He played a drum kit, guitar, harmonica, and sang during the song. Sam was so impressed by Louis’ sincerity and originality that he decided to promote him. He became a minor local music star, and Sam was encouraged in his experiment.
The next major step towards unknowingly changing the world, happened when Dewey Phillips (no relation), began DJing in Memphis. Sam found a kindred spirit. He would play anything and LOVE it as long as it was different and real. He was the super-hyper, fast-talking, full of hepcat phrases, radio personality that would make Wolfman Jack seem like a funeral preacher. In the early 50s, most radio stations went off the air at sunset. A few powerhouses, like WSM Nashville would broadcast into the night, and a few would switch from “modern” music to race music. The musical tastes of the youth of America were restless (as with most generations) and was looking to break away from their parent’s button-down mellow Bing Crosby style. Race music was new and exciting to their ears, plus publicly it was unacceptable; what more could a teenager want. (Editor’s personal experience). Dewey Phillips was a young white man who filled their speakers full of jive and race music.
When word got out that this white guy, Sam, only wanted the best you could provide, musicians started walking through the door. Sam would always brag that he never discovered anyone, they discovered him (True statement). One day, a guy named Ike Turner showed up with his band, and had this song called Rocket 88. Sam liked it, recorded it, Dewey plugged it relentlessly. It hit nationally and is generally acknowledged as one of the songs that started the rock-n-roll sound.
A little later, another local black singer and guitarist struggling in the cotton patch beer joints and part-time DJing came in. Sam recorded him and spread his music to the local airwaves, where it continued across America for decades. His name was Riley King, he later changed it to B.B. King. Sam was instrumental in launching the careers of many Bluesmen. A few of them were Howlin’ Wolf, (see TPN February 2018), Long John Hunter, Rufus Thomas, and Little Milton.
Sam was a small (4 employees) independent studio. He recorded the musician, made the masters, sent them to the pressing plants, but could not distribute them very efficiently, thus limiting his star’s potential. In what became a sad cycle, after their contract expired (if there was one) larger companies (RCA, Chess, Columbia) would sign these musicians to big money up-front contracts and bigger promises, leaving Sam with little income.
During a desperate financial time, a novel idea fitting his original human experiment pitch actually, against all odds, worked. Sam’s contacts had told him about a black quintet that could sing like birds. Interesting, Sam thought, but there was only one hitch, the five were serving time at Tennessee State Prison owing the state a total of 850 years. To Sam Phillips, obstacles to his goal were to be overcome.
He got permission from the governor and other necessary officials, visited the prison, heard them sing, liked them, and arranged the group to come under heavy guard to Memphis Recording where they cut a record, Just Walking in the Rain. The Prisonaires became the new stars with that first song selling 30,000 records in the first two months. Sam’s coffers were refilled.
The next year was filled with contract disputes, IRS issues, family issues (his family worked there), and he was slowly plodding along waiting for the next big thing.
The music industry always watched the demographics of every record produced and was vigilant for trends so they could hopefully produce a record that would hit at the right time to become the monster money-maker for them, as that’s what the industry focused on, the money, not the music.
Surveys saw that teenagers were really enjoying race music. However, most major labels would not cross the racial barrier to promote beat-driven black artists, because the wholesalers wouldn’t carry them, and major radio stations wouldn’t play race music during the day. Billboard Magazine’s headline in early 1954 was “Teen-Agers Demand Music with a Beat…”. Sam was quoted as “If I could find a white man with a Negro sound and the Negro feel I could make a billion dollars.”
SINGING FOR MOTHER
Sam had always derived a small income from individuals coming into the studio to make a personal record. The previous year a young man had come into the studio and paid $4 to record a song for his mother. Several months later, he came in again for another “present” for his mother. On these one-off recordings, Sam’s secretary, Marion, generally handled that: “Please step in the booth, push record, and one take only.” She liked what she heard from this one guy and kept bugging Sam to give him a real tryout. Money was getting in short supply so Sam said, he’d try anything for a hit.
Elvis Aaron Presley came into the little studio on June 26. Elvis liked to later say that he was so eager, that he was there before Marion hung up the phone. He was a good-looking boy with acne on his neck, long sideburns, and long greasy hair combed into a ducktail. Sam didn’t care, but he was impressed with the young man’s humility mixed with intense determination.
Elvis was one of the most introverted and insecure people he ever had in the studio. The song, Without You, Sam was hoping to be the breakthrough just didn’t sound right from Elvis. Sensing there was something in this young man Sam spent three hours listening to different songs that Elvis knew. The session ended with no recording. Several weeks later, Marion kept after Sam to give this nice Elvis kid another chance.
Sam called two of his session musicians, Bill Black and Scotty Moore to tell them that a kid was coming to their house to try out with them as backing musicians. That really didn’t work out too well: “He was OK, nothing special.” Sam said, "Well, let’s try one more time in the studio, maybe on tape he will sound better." So, they tried for several hours with different styles of sounds, having no luck finding that elusive sound. Both Sam and Elvis were disappointed. Sam signaled a break to consider whether his hunch was wrong or keep trying.
Elvis thought of an up-tempo song he had heard before, and just started goofing around singing it. The bass player, Bill Black, jumped up with his bass fiddle and started clowning around with the beat, then Scotty Moore began hitting some guitar licks. As he said “We were acting like fools.” Sam stuck his head out of the control room and asked what they were doing. “We don’t know” came the reply. He said: “Try to find a place and start over.” All four of them seemed to be one musician as they worked on the song. Finally, they reached the pinnacle.
Elvis’s cheap guitar kicked it off, then Black’s bass playing rhythm came in, and then Elvis’s voice with the echo-like sound of Sun Studios comes in rather intimately to the mike, Well, that’s all right, mama… Scotty began some simple guitar licks and for the next one minute and fifty something seconds Sam was ecstatic. This was the different sound that he had been looking for! Upon playback the three musicians couldn’t believe it was them and couldn’t figure out what type of music they had just created. At this time the charts were dominated by Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Doris Day, and this definitely wasn’t that style of music. Sam rushed home and woke his wife, telling her that he had just recorded a record that will change their lives, a classic understatement.
Dewey Phillips played the acetate the very next night on his show and the phones lit up, telegrams were sent to him that night on how great the song was. He played the song seven times in a row. Dewey called Elvis’ parents and they said he had gone to a movie. They tracked him down and brought him to the station, and Dewey interviewed Elvis. Elvis later said he was scared to death. Dewey pointed out that Elvis had gone to Humes High School, to subtly let the listeners know he was white. The song was obviously an instant hit and possibly the monster record Sam had been waiting on.
Except for one problem, it was only one song and there needed to be two sides for a record to sell, no matter what. So, the next evening they went into the studio, and tried, and tried, and tried to come up with a decent song that would complement That’s All Right, Mama.
During a break, Bill Black began clowning around with Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky, a popular bluegrass/ waltz song of the times. Elvis jumped in singing and then Scotty’s guitar began picking away, all in a completely different arrangement of the hit. After several takes, Sam declared it different and almost a “pop” song. It became the flip side to That’s All Right Mama.
On July 16, 1954 the complete record (45 rpm) hit the air waves and went ballistic. The side with That’s All Right, Mama went over big with the Blues crowd, and Blue Moon Over Kentucky appealed to the Hillbilly or Country & Western set. Country music was still generally referred to as Hillbilly music. In Memphis alone, 4,000 copies were sold the first week. Sam rushed Elvis into his first public performance within two weeks, appearing with Slim Whitman and The Louvin Brothers. Elvis got his first taste of screaming crowds. Elvis said he was so scared his knees were knocking, contributing to the image of shaking with passion in his loose britches. He quickly capitalized on that image.
For some reason, the song was first listed on the C & W charts, and then took over the other two charts. With the lag between release and jobbers (wholesalers) paying him quarterly Sam Phillips was nearly broke. He spent the last of his money on an advertisement promoting the record as a three-way hit: Pop, Hillbilly, and R & B (Rhythm & Blues). Sam loaded his Cadillac with records and took to the highways to meet DJs, jukebox distributors, and record stores to convince them to play the record. He visited Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, Shreveport, Houston, Dallas, and anywhere in between wherever he saw a radio transmitter tower.
One DJ told him that if he played the Blue Moon side, he would get run out of town. In Houston, the top DJ Paul Berlin turned him down citing “the music is so ragged, he couldn’t play it (soft pop was their bread and butter). Upon heading to Dallas, Sam encountered the Dust Storm of 1954, turned around and slept in the Rice Hotel lobby. Reaching Dallas, he found that the record had preceded him, and Dallas was going crazy wanting more Elvis. While the record entered all three charts in the top five of sales, there was still the negativity towards the record. His Miami distributor said it was “too racy” to which Sam acknowledged that it was different, but they should play it and let the public decide.
TALK ABOUT GOOD
Working his various contacts, Sam got Elvis a spot on Hank Snow’s show at the Grand Ole Opry and then at the Louisiana Hayride (in Shreveport), which is opposite of the normal rise to country fame. At the Opry, the star performers were extremely polite and Elvis sang only one song (of the two he really knew), but the Opry basically said thank you and good-bye.
Enroute to the Hayride, disaster was narrowly averted by Bill Black almost hitting a team of mules in the road (how country is that!). The Shreveport audience loved Elvis and had him back for five encores and offered him a contract to regularly perform there. Sam was overwhelmed with the standing ovation by everyone, including a rotund lady sitting next to him, who struggled to stand up, turned to Sam and said: “Have you ever heard anything that good?”
The previous problem reared its head again, Sam’s jobbers were saying they needed a follow-up hit for their sales to improve and then they will pay him. The trio went into the studio and after much sweat trying to “accidently” discover their next two hits, they settled on The Milk Cow Boogie and You’re a Heartbreaker. Both sold well but were rather uninspiring musically. And Elvis Presley, the young man who wanted to please his mother with his voice became Elvis and the rest is history.
After the craziness subsided created by a truck-driver who had never played professionally rocketed, within two months, to the Opry and Hayride, Sam Phillips finally had money in his pocket and was beginning to wonder what to do next, so he would not be known as a “one artist” record producer. The door at 706 Union in Memphis darkened once more and some guy claiming to be as good as Elvis walked in, his name was Carl Perkins, then Johnny Cash, then Roy Orbison, then Charlie Rich, then Jerry Lee Lewis, and a whole flock of others kept Sam and his associates communicating through sound for years.
Elvismania finally engulfed Texas. By late 1956, a store in Austin encouraged fans to "Lay a dollar down towards a thirty-five dollar portable RCA Victor 'Victrola' phonograph that came with Elvis records and an 8x10 Colored Autographed Picture of Elvis with Elvis’ Signature in Gold!" The following year, there was an Elvis imitator in Austin and the real Elvis played Austin twice, six weeks apart. He was billed as the Western Bopster. Three years later, he was billed as Private Presley when he was stationed at Fort Hood.
That one record’s two sides brought different cultures closer and inspired a whole new direction of established music, be it Rockabilly, R & B, Pop, or Country. It inspired thousands of budding musicians to take the leap to try something different and to follow their musical path.