ELVIS PRESLEY SUN TAPES
When RCA acquired Elvis Presley's contract, they also bought all of the
recordings Sam Phillips had made with Elvis. However, when Sam Phillips handed over the 15 or 16 tapes to RCA, it was obvious that they didn't represent all of the sessions Sam had recorded on Elvis. Sam had sometimes re-used session reels for other sessions,
if he thought nothing worth preserving was on the tapes. This was the case with one of the tapes from the session that produced the master of ''I Don't care If The Sun Don't Shine''.
master was later recovered by John and Shelby Singleton on one of the tapes they received when they bought Sun Records from Sam Phillips. The recording only survived over the original Elvis session didn't last as long as the Elvis session. What is a bit more
surprising, is the fact that RCA never got the masters to titles ''Blue Moon Of Kentucky'', You're A Heartbreaker'', and ''Milkcow Blues Boogie''.
When re-released by
RCA, the company used Sun records to dub from. As Steve Sholes prepared the re-leases of the Sun singles and the first LP, he made new compilation tapes of all the tracks he wanted to use, adjusting the sound as he saw fit. In 1959, RCA cleaned up their vault
in Indianapolis, and in the process, dumped the majority of the Sun tapes.
Apart from the production master for the single ''I Forgot To Remember To Forget''/''Mystery
Train'', RCA has no masters, and only a handful of tapes from the original transaction survived: Tape 5 (or 6), 8, 11, 13, and 15 (See list).
Sunrise A Conclusion
If Elvis Presley had never made another record after his last Sun session in the fall of 1955, there seems little question that his music would have achieved much the same mythic status
as Robert Johnson's blues. The body of his work at Sun is so transcendent, so fresh, and so original that even today you can scarcely listen to it in relation to anything nut itself. Like all great art its sources may be obvious, but its overall impact defies
Just how Elvis Presley came to create this music suggests certain mysteries of its own. Some time in the summer of 1953, shortly after graduating high school
at the age of eighteen, he showed up at the one legitimate recording studio in town and announced that he wanted to make a record. There was nothing particularly surprising in this request. The Memphis Recording Service, which doubled as the home of the fledgling
Sun label, took as its motto ''We Record Anything – Anywhere – Anytime'', offering as one of its service the opportunity for some to just walk in off the street and pay four dollars to make an acetate dub of his own voice. The label, on the other
hand, like the studio under the one-man direction of 31-year-old Sam Phillips, was dedicated to blues recording exclusively and had up to this time released records solely by African-American performers.
It was a Saturday, and the young man fidgeted incessantly as he waited in the tiny outer office, partitioned off by a thin wall from the almost equally tiny studio and crowded with other walk-ins. Phillips' office manager, Marion
Keisker, a leading Memphis radio personality, interrupted her work only because she felt sorry for the boy. They made small talk while he waited his turn, and he was drawn out by her kindly manner, but Marion was puzzled by his seeming mix of boldness and
abject self-effacement and she always remembered his answers to her questions. ''What kind of singer are you''? She asked. ''I sing all kinds''. ''Who do you sound like''? Said Marion. ''I don't sound like nobody''. It was obvious to Keisker that he was trying
to recommend himself to her attention in some way beyond the usual, but she was baffled for the moment as to what could be his motive. In later years he would always say that he went in to make a record for his mother, or simply to hear the sound of his own
voice – but it became plain to Marion Keisker and Sam Phillips over the succeeding weeks and months that what the boy really wanted was to make a commercial record.
was it exactly that could have led so cripplingly shy and limited a musician to conceive of so bold a plan when none of the peers from whom he took his musical cues seems even to have contemplated such a visit? Up until this time Elvis Presley had confined
his music-making almost entirely to private occasions, with his appearance on the Humes high annual talent show, just four months earlier, the first time that many of his classmates even became aware that he sang. He was well known, however, to the residents
of Lauderdale Courts, the housing project where he had lived with his family until January of that year, as one of the group of boys who played their guitars on the leafy, tree-shaded mall between the two-and three story residences – but by no means
one of the more talented ones. Dorsey and Johnny Burnette, Johnny Black, above all Jesse Lee Denson, a Golden Gloves boxer who had created a sensation the previous year by performing Hank Snow's ''Golden Rocket'' between bouts, were the musicians that everyone
remembered. If anyone recalled Elvis Presley, it was for appearance – his long, greasy hair and the outlandish outfits that he wore. Music may have been his deepest passion since being given his first guitar as a small child in Tupelo and singing, with
other schoolchildren, in the children's, or even of the extent of his talents, until he walked in the door of Sun. Why should he alone have made the journey?
may lie in a story that had just appeared in the Memphis Press-Scimitar on July 15, 1953, about a new group making records at Sun. The Prisonaires were the group. They had begun their career inside the walls of the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville,
and when they first came to Sam Phillips' attention, the studio proprietor, according to the Press-Scimitar, ''was skeptical – until he heard the tape''. At that point he was sold. And so on June 1, 1953, ''the five singing prisoners'', accompanied by
an armed guard and a trusty, were transported to 706 Union Avenue to make their first record for Sun. ''They worked from 10:30 a.m. To 8:30 p.m., until the records were cut just right to suit painstaking Mr. Phillips''.
''Just Walkin' In The Rain'' came out at almost the same time as the Press-Scimitar story. The song went on to become something of a hit, as reporter Clark Porteous had predicted, it nowhere near as big a hit
as it was for pop singer, Johnnie Ray years later. It was the song that put Sun Records on the map, though, and, very likely, the item that captured the attention of Elvis Presley as he read about the studio, the label, and the ''painstaking Mr. Phillips'',
who had staked his reputation on a recording by an unknown singer and a song whose plaintive notes Elvis could hear reverberating both in his imagination and on the air. Nor was he the sort to be put off, as many of his contemporaries might have been, by Sun's
status as a blues and ''race'' label – in fact, that may just have added to the allure for someone not only open to the sound of black music but equally open to a democratic dream based on a sense of his own exclusion.
He showed up in any case not long after the article appeared and presented himself to Marion Keisker with a difference she would always remember, cradling his battered, beat-up child's guitar in his arms. From
the first quavering notes of the first song he sang, it was obvious that his mumbled self-description was true – while it might not be difficult to detect his influences, he didn't sound like anyone else. There was a quality of almost unutterable plaintiveness
in his version of ''My Happiness'', a 1948 pop hit for Jon and Sandra Steele that he had sung over and over in the Courts, a sentimental ballad that couldn't have been further from anyone's imagining of rock and roll. There is more than a hint of the pure
tenor of Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots – but mostly the almost keening solo voice conveys a note of yearning that alternates with a crooning fullness of tone and a sharp nasality that fails to sustain its possessor's intent. The guitar, Elvis later said,
''sounded like somebody beating on a bucket lid'', and there is, of course, the added factor of nervousness which cannot be fully assessed – and yet there is a strange sense of calm, an almost unsettling stillness in the midst of great drama, the kind
of poise that comes as both a surprise and a revelation.
When he finished with the first song, he embarked almost immediately upon a second, ''That's When Your Heartaches
Begin'', a smooth pop ballad that the Ink Spots had originally cut in 1941, with a deep spoken part for their baritone singer, Hoppy Jones. Here Elvis was not so successful in his rendition, running out of time, or inspiration, and simply declaring, ''That's
the end'' at the abrupt conclusion of the song. When it was all over, he sat in the outer lobby while Marion Keisker typed out the copy on the blank sides of a Prisonaires label (''Softly And Tenderly'', Sun 189). The singer's names was typed underneath the
title on each side, and he hung around for a while hoping in vain that something might happen. After he left, Marion Keisker made a note of his name, which she misspelled and then editorialized beside it: ''Good ballad singer. Hold''.
He stopped by the office all through the fall, trying to put himself in the way of discovery, and when that failed, he returned in January to cut another acetate, without even the excuse of
surprising his mother by the sound of his voice. His selection this time consisted of a 2953 pop hit by Joni James, ''I'll Never Stand In Your Way'', and a Jimmy Wakely country tune, ''It Wouldn't Be The Same Without You''. This time, however, his lack of
confidence betrayed him, and he sounds more forced, less self-assured than he did the first time he entered the studio. There is still that same feeling of aching tenderness, though, that same sense that he is reaching down deep within and summoning up feelings
not necessarily related to the lyrics and far more ''naked'' than those of the ''heart'' singers like Eddy Arnold, and the smooth pop crooners like Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby, that he so much admired. Perhaps in the end he couldn't help being
different, an outside observer might have been led to conclude. But if he had once again passed through the Sun doorway with the idea, if not of stardom, at the very least of being asked back – once again he was doomed to be disappointed. Because, just
as the last time, there was no follow-up on anyone's part but his own. When he went to work delivering supplies for Crown Electric in the spring, Marion Keisker grew used to seeing his truck regularly pass by, and having its driver stop from time to time to
ask if she knew of a band was looking for a singer.
Finally, on June 26, almost a year after he had first appeared at the studio, he got the call he had been waiting
for. Sam Phillips, transfixed by an acetate he had picked up on his last Nashville trip by a singer whom he was subsequently unable to locate or identity, came up with the idea of trying out ''the kid with the sideburns''. The song was a plaintive lament called
''Without You'', sung in a quavering voice that sounded like a cross between the Ink Spots and a sentimental Irish tenor, and white it was undeniably amateurish, there was something about it – perhaps its very amateurishness, or else just its quality
of yearning – that put him in mind of the boy. When Marion Keisker called, as Elvis recounted the story in later years. ''She said, 'Can you be here by three''? I was there by the time she hung up the phone''.
They worked on the number all afternoon. When it became obvious that the boy was not going to get it right, Phillips had him run down other songs he could barely provide the faltering accompaniment. ''I guess
I must have sat there at least three hours'', Elvis told Press-Scimitar reporter Bob Johnson in 1956. ''I sang everything I knew, pop stuff, spirituals, just a few words of (anything) I remembered''.
When it was over, he was exhausted, but he felt strangely elated, too. ''I was an overnight sensation'', he always told interviewers in later years. ''A year after they heard me the first time. They called me back''! Everyone
caught the boyish modesty, but they may have overlooked the understandable pride. Sam Phillips had called him back – his perseverance had paid off. And while nothing was said about what would happen next, there was little now in Elvis' mind that something
Exactly one week later, it did. This time he got a call from Scotty Moore, a 22-year-old guitarist who had himself made his Sun Records debut with his group, the
Starlite Wranglers, just one month earlier, but who had bigger plans than simply playing in a hillbilly band. When Sam Phillips started telling him about this young singer who had something different about him, Scotty began pestering Phillips for the singer's
name. On Saturday, July 3, Scotty phoned the Presley home, and, identifying himself as a scout for Sun, asked Elvis if he would like to audition – ''and he said guessed so''. The next day they got together at Scotty's house, with Scotty's neighbor, Wranglers'
bass player, Bill Black, stopping by for a few minutes to check him out. The following day, Monday, July 5, 1954, the three of them went into the studio for what was intended to be nothing more that a rehearsal session.
At first nothing seemed to go right. The first few songs they tried were all ballads, various touchingly revealing takes of ''I Love You Because'' are all that is left of this part of the session, and the musicians
seemed to be casting about for a direction, trying out snatches of one song, then another, without ever really hitting on, or even knowing, what it was they were looking for. But Sam Phillips was nothing if not patient, and if he was discouraged, he showed
no sign of it, even as Elvis clearly sensed his chances slipping away. Then, during a break, as the musicians were sipping on Cokes, ''all of a sudden'', said Scotty, ''Elvis just started singing this song and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass
and he started acting the fool too, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open, and he stuck his head out and said, 'What are you doing'? And we said, 'We don't know'. 'Well, back up', he said, 'try to find a
place to start, and do it again'''.
The song was ''That's All Right'', an old blues by Arthur Crudup, and nothing could have surprised Sam Phillips more than that this
boy should know, let alone perform with such uninhibited freshness and zeal, the music for which Sam had crusaded all these years. But if it was a direction he could not have anticipated, it was one that he now wholeheartedly embraced, as he had the trio run
through their new number over and over, until they finally got it right, with Elvis gaining confidence on each try. In the next few nights, they hit upon an almost equally startling transformation of Bill Monroe's bluegrass waltz, ''Blue Moon Of Kentucky'',
which evolved from a slow, bluest lament to a high-spirited declaration of self-discovery in 4/4 time. We thought it was exciting'', said Scotty of the manner in which, almost unwittingly, they had turned the music upside down, ''but what was it? It was just
so completely different. But it just really flipped Sam – he felt it really had something. We just sort of shook our heads and said, 'Well, that's fine, but good God, they'll run us out of town''.
That, in a way, was the story of Elvis Presley's recordings at Sun: not just art as inspired accident (and it's hard to know what can better describe the origins of all art) but the peeling away of layers, psychological and
musical, the uncovering of depths which, if not hitherto unsuspected, had hitherto lain unplumbed. As he had already done with the blues singers for whom he had built his studio (Howlin' Wolf, Little Junior Parker, Ike Turner, B.B. King), and as he would with
each of the rockabilly artists (Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis) who followed, Sam Phillips saw it as his mission to ''open up an area of freedom within the artist himself, to help him to express what he believed his message
to be''. With Elvis Presley he was astonished to discover an individual with a musical curiosity as omnivorous as his own (''It seemed like he had a photographic memory for every damn song he ever heart, and he had the most intuitive ability to hear out that
curiosity, to encourage that area of creative difference, to stifle not even the smallest element of exploration.
For Elvis it was like stumbling upon the unlocking key.
All of a sudden everything that he had been listening to all his life – blues and gospel, hillbilly, semi-classical, and pop – could coalesce into a single sound, and the astonishing thing was that his experience served not just for himself but
for a generation. In Houston, Arkansan Sleepy LaBeef heard Elvis' first Sun sides and recognized their gospel roots, heard Brother Claude Ely and Sister Rossetta Tharpe just beneath the secular veil. Carl Perkins picked up on it in nearby Jackson, Tennessee,
while Jerry Lee Lewis heard the same melding of blues, country, and western swing that he had been groping for in the honky tonks around Ferriday, Louisiana. There was no question that the sound was in the air, but at the same time there was equally little
question that it crystallized in the freshness, innocence, and invention that Elvis Presley brought to the music. Bill Haley and his Comets may have established the potential for a commercial trend (his ''Rock Around The Clock'' was on the charts for the first
time when Elvis cut his first Sun single), but Elvis Presley laid the groundwork for a musical revolution.
In part it was the simplicity of the music, in part it was
the sound, but most of all it was the feel. For Elvis Presley, as much as for Sam Phillips, it was the accidental, the unexpected, the unique that mattered, each placed his full faith in the spontaneity of the moment. And that is exactly how Elvis Presley's
records were made. Listed to ''Good Rockin' Tonight'', ''Mystery Train'', ''Milkcow Blues Boogie'' – each is based on a classic source, each in a way is intended as a kind of homage. And yet each continues to surprise. The laugh with which ''Mystery
Train'' trails off, the bubbling enthusiasm of ''Baby Let's Play House'', the sheer, uninhibited ardor of ''Trying To Get To You'' – this is the gold that Elvis and Sam Phillips were mining for, this is the hard-won inspiration that finally emerged from
At the same time, if you want to look behind the scenes at the kind of creative experimentation that went into the sessions, Elvis' live sides from this
period are almost equally illumination. No recording has yet surfaced of Elvis' early live performance of Martha Carson's gospel rouser, ''Satisfied'', or of his attempt at the same song in the Sun studio. But various examples exist of his and the band's first
stabs at such rhythm and blues classics as the Clovers' ''Fool, Fool, Fool'', Big Joe Turner's ''Shake, Rattle And Roll'', Lavern Baker's 'Tweedlee Dee'', Otis Williams and the Charms' ''Hearts of Stone'', and Chuck Berry's ''Maybellene'' and their presence
on the Sunrise set, along with previously unreleased versions of Elvis' own ''I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine'' and ''I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone'', further expand our sense of the group's capabilities – and of their limitations, when they
stop somewhere short of the finish line. Most of all, though they confirm the impression of pure, vaulting ambition, the sense of almost joyful release that the studio sides proclaim; they convey the same intimation of a deeper emotion underlying even the
most ephemeral of the Sun sides, an emotion that comes across whatever the tempo, whatever the genre, mistakes and all.
It's hard so say what creates such a sense of
high-tension drama in the midst of such assured ease, the conviction that all is right with the world while at the same time an assault is being mounted on every complacent assumption of the culture, social, racial, and not least, musical. Whether or not this
improbable balance could have been maintained is open to question, but even before Elvis ended his stay at Sun, by the summer of 1955 you can already hear it changing, with the last full session that Elvis would have with anyone other than himself as his principal
producer (in 1969 Chips Moman would oversee some of his greatest post-Sun sides, but only take responsibility for about half the session). It is arguably, his greatest moment in the Sun studio, with ''Mystery Train'' defining that peculiar combination of soaring
high spirits and casual insouciance that characterized every one of the released sides. It was ''I Forgot To Remember To Forget'', though, that was the hit, the second song to which Sam Phillips added drums and the first that he had to use his considerable
powers of persuasion to get Elvis to perform (''I thought it was something we needed at that point to show a little more diversification''). The resulting treatment of a composition that Elvis at first considered too conventionally country was far from conventional,
and the last song of the day, ''Trying To Get To You'' with its suggestive combination of the secular and the spiritual, only points to a direction yet to be explored. With his final song at Sun, ''When It Rains, It Really Pours'', never finished because the
session was broken off due to the imminent sale of his contract to RCA, Elvis is back on familiar ground: once again, we hear him confidently singing the blues, though this time, seemingly, with far more knowingness than the innocent nineteen-year-old of just
one year earlier could ever have assumed.
This abrupt ending, little more than the inevitable intrusion of business that all popular art invites, leads to the kind of
what's ifs that are by by-product of both art and commerce – and no more profitably pursued in either. The fact is that when Elvis Presley first came to Sun, he was an inspired amateur; by the time he left, on November 21, 1955, ''I Forgot To Remember
To Forget'' was on the national country and western charts, where it remained for thirty-nine weeks and became his first number 1 national hit. The music that he would make at RCA would clearly reflect the lessons that he had learned at Sun and result almost
immediately in such calculated triumphs of craft and feeling as ''Heartbreak Hotel'', ''Hound Dog'', ''Don't Be Cruel'' and ''All Shook Up''. He fashioned these songs with the same patience, dedication, and spontaneity that he had poured into his earlier work,
but the Sun sides would be forever set aside, perhaps simply by the very innocence of their invention. They were, as Sam Phillips often said in describing Elvis himself, impudent, playful, they almost dare the listener to smile. The music that Elvis created,
as Phillips said of another of his favorite artists, Howlin' Wolf, existed on its own terms only, an unmapped territory ''where the soul of man never dies''.
- Liner notes
by Peter Guralnick, November 1998
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