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 explanation.
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
What 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 threestory 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?
The answer 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 would.
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 selfdiscovery
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 each sessions.
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