Almost immediately, Sam Phillips played our a similar scene with the young Elvis Presley who also transformed an older blues song into a new Sun record that
summer. The release of ''Drinking Wine'' was delayed several months, but Yelvington was adamant: "Our 'Drinking Wine' was cut and ready to go by the time Elvis' first record was made''.
The Star Rhythm Boys eventually saw their disc issued on 10 November 1954. Drinking Wine
sold to a local market and was not heavily promoted due to the efforts Phillips was putting behind Presley. The flipside of the disc was ''Just Rolling Along'', a song Reece Fleming had written years earlier and which the Tennesseans had used
as a show opener and signature tune. It was closer to Yelvington's day-to-day style, and it sounds like the sort of thing recorded in pre-War Texas.
Up to this point, Fleming had been the Star Rhythm Boys' main songwriter and musical director, but he
took less of a role in the band through 1955 and 1956 as the band gradually broke up. He did remain involved in recordings while the band, eager to record more of their large repertoire, pressed Sam Phillips for a second Sun release.
Early in 1955 they cut master versions of ''Yakety Yak'', a band favourite written by Fleming and guitarist Mashburn, with a clever lyric, and the atmospheric ''Blues In The Bottom Of My Shoes'', which Fleming had adapted from one
of his 1930s recordings. Sam Phillips remained preoccupied with Presley, though, and the second Star Rhythm Boys disc never materialised.
Eventually the waiting became too much and the enthusiastic band, now without steel player Miles Winn and known as the Warmed Over Four, engineered themselves
an invitation to record ''Yakety Yak'' for a rival label. Meteor Records was owned by Lester Bihari and based on Chelsea Avenue in the black part of Memphis. The disc appeared in the summer of 1955 under the name Mac and Jake
and the Esquire Trio, on one side, and Mac Sales and the trio on the other. Sales was Malcolm's middle name, and its connotations amused Bihari who decided to use it on the label to sidestep any argument Sam Phillips may have had
about holding a contract on Yelvington. The Meteor disc sold steadily on a local basis but Meteor's distribution system was geared mainly to rhythm & blues. It was a really excellent honky-tonk country record, and deserved a for better
Early in 1956, with
Presley making a big splash on RCA and with Sun and Carl Perkins breaking through in a big way with sales of ''Blue Suede Shoes'', the Yelvington band decided to take a more focused tilt at the emerging rock and roll market. They got together
in a house in Ripley owned by the mother of their friend, Russell Crawford, and gathered round Russell's tape recorder and one microphone. They demoed ''Rockin' With My Baby'' and ''It's Me Baby'' to take down to Sam Phillips to try out
one more time for that elusive second Sun release. Phillips was impressed with Yelvington's song Rockin', with its references to popular song titles, and with the bluesy feeling of Fleming's ''It's Me Baby'', and that spring Phillips
recut the songs as Sun 246 along with ''Gonna Have Myself A Ball'', a song that used the catchphrases of several local disc jockeys.
Up to now, Malcolm Yelvington had been in the habit of placing paper between his guitar strings to deaden the sound and produce a drum effect. The Sun 246
session was the first time that the band used a drummer, but Yelvington did not remember who he was. Evidence from Sun's files indicates that it was Billy Weir. Certainly the drums underlined the shift in thinking towards the new
rocking music. So did the change in Gordon Mashburn's lead guitar style. Mashburn had been a classy and hot guitarist all along, but now he was clearly trying to take on board the style of another Tipton County neighbour, Carl
Perkins. Yelvington told me: "My boys had sat in with his band some nights and Carl was very unusual with a style all his own. He picked guitar very clean, one note at a time, no chords, like a blues guitarist''. The trade paper, 'Billboard,'
described Yelvington as a talented rockabilly and his song as a 'jumper' while it found the swinging, bluesy flipside "a good enough warble." The disc made healthy local sales but it was not the big hit Yelvington longed for.
Gradually, the original band was breaking up as
its members found other pressures more important than pursuing the recording dream. Frank Tolley replaced the Flemings on piano, and Reece Fleming dropped out of the band completely. He died during the 1960s. However, in 1957,
Malcolm Yelvington was back at Sun hustling for another release. He made at least two sessions that year, now working not with Sam Phillips but with Bill Justis, a new producer Phillips had taken on. Justis was a trained musician who
saw the future for a smoother kind or rock and roll than Phillips had. He encouraged Malcolm to use a different band and a different musical formula.
For a session in July 1957, which produced three songs, Yelvington brought in Frank Tolley on piano
and Bubba Winn on guitar, brother of the departed steel player, Miles. Justis augmented this group with members of Phillips' studio bands. For a second session in October that year, which produced two more songs, the hesitant Bubba Winn
was apparently replaced by Sun's star session guitarist, Roland Janes, and the guitarist's spacey, ringing sound comes to the fore. It is just possible that Gordon Mashburn was back on this session, but the union payments went to
The songs Yelvington
cut in 1957 were mostly upbeat ballads written by Louie Moore, a young man from Alabama, who turned up at the Sun studio with a file full of good unpublished songs. The first session worked up three rockaballads, ''Mr. Blues'', ''Did
I Ask You To Stay'', and ''First And Last Love''. A brooding, reflective mood was created on this session but none of the songs was quite developed to final release standard. Yelvington became particularly enthusiastic about
''Mr. Blues'', but its progress was blocked by Bill Justis, who persuaded Phillips that this was not the song to go with. Maybe Justis preferred songs he had some commercial interest in, or maybe it was the lack of an authoritative
guitar solo that made the difference. In any case, Yelvington's contract expired before the matter could be resolved and Phillips decided to drop Malcolm in favour of his younger artists. This was despite the July session producing wonderful
takes of two memorable Louie Moore songs, the clever ''It's My Trumpet (I'm Going To Blow It)'', and ''Goodbye Marie'', where Yelvington really sings his heart out.
"I didn't try to imitate Elvis," Yelvington declared defiantly. "That's the one thing I didn't do that
all the younger guys came in and did. I had been playing music my way for years. I couldn't have done it if I'd wanted to. I wanted to be on Sun Records. I was trying to do something upbeat that would be new to Sam Phillips. I called it boogie-woogie.
Later, they called it rockabilly."
Yelvington started to accept that he wasn't going to be a recording star: "Carl Perkins was the big artist at Sun in 1956. That style was very successful for him. Then in 1957, the big artist at Sun was Jerry Lee Lewis. First time I saw
him, I was down at the studio one day and Sam wasn't cutting anything, he was just listening to Lewis. As soon as I saw Lewis singing and playing piano the way he was and carrying on and going up and down the keyboard, right then
I knew my days as a recording artist were numbered."
Malcolm Yelvington continued to play his music through the later 1950s at Memphis area clubs like the Wayside Inn, the Wagon Wheel, and the Gay Duck. As he moved into the 1960s, the opportunities started to dry
up for his band and he eventually quit in 1961 to concentrate on his regular job as a welder, on his developing passion for ten-pin bowling, and on his family of five. Just before he gave up, he had been working on a song called ''Disappointed''
- written years before by Reece Fleming - that was recorded in a local studio but not released. When first met him, he joked that the title summed up his career
It was in the frying
heat of the west Tennessee August of 1971 that Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins went to Malcolm Yelvington's house on Creston in Memphis. When we'd finished talking about his career in music he got out his 1948 Martin acoustic, sat on
his sofa, and played all his songs. It was wonderful. ''Drinkin' Wine'', ''Rockin' With My Baby'', ''It's Me Baby'', and the rest. We were straight out of University, writing our first book, and here was a genuine legend of
Sun Records playing a concert directly for us. He sounded the some as on his records, and as he wormed up his voice became stronger and more fervent. He kept the rhythm strongly, like a one-man western-swing band. He played ''Yakety Yak'', ''A
Gal Named Jo'', and then he went into unknown territory - ''Blues In The Bottom Of My Shoes'', ''It's My Trumpet (I'm Going To Blow It)'', songs we'd never heard. They could have been hits, he explained, if events had turned out differently.
If Sam Phillips hadn't dropped him in favour of promoting the music of younger men, and if his great cut on ''Trumpet'' had actually been issued.
Then he changed the subject. He hadn't played his music for almost a decade, he said, but he was ready to make a come-back. He'd get a stage suit and a hat
or a wig and he'd be there, if any promoter wanted to employ him. We smiled, reassuringly, nervously. Weren't quite sure what to say to this living legend, this obviously deluded old guy (he was only 53 but we were 21) sitting there
sweating and smoking and playing guitar in his old white tee shirt, with his thinning hair and lined face. We knew he was great. We'd just heard it. But we knew that the music we liked was very far off the mainstream. We didn't know any promoters,
and we didn't think there was much call in the pop music world of 1971 for the likes of Malcolm Yelvington. That moment has often haunted me. I really wish we had known how to do something for him, but we didn't.
There is a happy post script to the Yelvington
story, though. While he was apparently out of music, in fact Malcolm kept his hand in all along, in gospel music. He joined a group called the Carpenter's Crew at his local church, and even made some cassettes of their performances
in 1993. He was also in a gospel group called the Dempsey's with Jimmy Van Eaton and Mark Bell.
Then, in 1988, six months before his seventieth birthday, on the back of a decade of Sun reissues, he was invited to play some rockabilly revival shows in England and Holland. These
were performed with Dave Travis's fine band to great acclaim from European fans of the Sun sound, most of whom were young enough to be Malcolm's grandchildren. The music was captured by Collector Records in Holland and issued three years
later on the CD, ''A Tennessee Saturday Night''. The disc enabled Malcolm to record Disappointed, at last.
This kick-started something of a Yelvington revival, and when the old Sun Records studio was revamped and opened to tourists, Malcolm took his turn with others
at showing people round, hanging out, and generally being revered. He continued to play special revival shows and local events. For instance, in July 1998, when he appeared at the Lauderdale County Tomato Festival, headlining
with blues singer Little Milton, another veteran of Sun and Meteor Records.
That year saw a Malcolm Yelvington CD album, '''There's A Little Life Left In This Old Boy Yet'', appear on Freedonia Records. It was recorded in the old Sun studio and included a country
song, ''One Rose'', that Yelvington had been performing since his days at the Gem Theater in 1943, a proper studio performance of ''Disappointed'', a number of Yelvington's own songs and favourites, and some new songs written especially
by Billy Swan and Billy Lee Riley.
Billy Swan, of ''I Can Help'' fame, said: "Malcolm Yelvington was one of the sweetest, kindest men I knew. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He loved singing and performing, and he talked a lot about the old days and about
died at Memphis Baptist Hospital on February 21, 2001, press reports variously blaming cancer, heart failure, or pneumonia but in truth it was all three. His funeral service in Bartlett, Tennessee, included recordings of Malcolm's Christian
songs, and was attended by his five children, eleven grandchildren, and two great grandchildren as well as friends and fellow musicians.
Remarkably, and pleasingly, there is still an audience out there for Malcolm's music, rooted in Southern country styles and recorded over half a century ago
by a local band trying to tailor their style to the popular demands of the moment. Malcolm Yelvington and the Star Rhythm Boys created an effortless blend of western-swing and country blues that was badged under rock and roll
at the time, and is still well worth reviving today.