Celebrating a Golden Anniversary for Elvis

Current Corporate Hoopla Still Doesn't Undermine Importance of His First Single

Monday (July 5) marks the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s recording session for “That’s All Right” — and the corporate hoopla surrounding the occasion is something his late manager would no doubt appreciate. Too bad Colonel Tom Parker didn’t live long enough to get his slice of the latest pie.

Of course, whoever claimed that music and capitalism don’t mix? Probably somebody who never sold any records in the first place.

The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau’s national advertising campaign is tagged “50 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in an effort to attract affluent baby boomers to the city. RCA Records’ aggressive marketing initiative is getting kicked up another notch with Elvis at Sun, a reissue of his earliest recordings. At No. 37, it’s the highest-debuting album on this week’s Billboard country albums chart. Elvis Presley Enterprises and Sirius satellite radio have partnered to launch an all-Elvis station. To tune in the station, after a weekend preview on the Web, a satellite radio receiver and a monthly subscription are required. Those will be sold at Graceland, the singer’s longtime home that’s operated by, of course, Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Commercial considerations aside, the 50th anniversary of “That’s All Right” is significant — and deserves to be noted.

Presley was just 19 when he gathered with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and producer Sam Phillips at the Sun Studio in Memphis on July 5, 1954. Many point to “That’s All Right,” Presley’s version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s blues song, to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Of course, others claim that Phillips had already achieved that distinction in 1951 when he used Ike Turner’s band to back singer Jackie Brenston on “Rocket 88,” a recording eventually leased to Chicago-based Chess Records. And when the discussion turns to the very first rock ‘n’ roll record, there are those who provide a strong argument for Roy Brown’s 1947 recording of “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a song Presley recorded at Sun in September 1954.

Regardless of who made the first rock ‘n’ roll record, Presley’s session for “That’s All Right” remains an important benchmark in music. As Knox Phillips, Sam Phillips’ son, writes in the liner notes for Elvis at Sun, “everything changed.”

Moore — the only surviving musician from the Sun sessions — has always emphasized that the first session with Presley was merely a rehearsal.

“When we went in with Elvis the first time, it was just an audition,” Moore told the Nashville Banner in 1994. “Sam said, ‘Just you and Bill come in. That’s all we need.’ A little background music — that’s all it amounted to. … We went through several songs. A couple of them Sam put on tape, like ‘Harbor Lights’ and ‘Blue Moon.’ And he kept those things. Then when we stumbled on ‘That’s All Right,’ it was an accident, really.”

Moore quickly dismissed the notion that the Sun sessions are shrouded in some sort of cosmic mystery.

“I don’t know what the mystery would be, to tell you the truth,” he said. “We went in, just searching for something we thought had a good feel.”

Moore will be joining the 50th anniversary celebration this weekend by returning to Memphis when “That’s All Right” will be simultaneously played by radio stations around the world. To launch the moment, Monday at noon (ET), Moore will press the “play” button at the Sun Studio. Later that day, Billy Bob Thornton is scheduled to drop in for a concert and jam session featuring Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, 80-year-old female rockabilly guitarist Cordell Jackson and others.

In addition to Elvis at Sun, RCA has released another CD, Memphis Celebrates 50 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The 21-track compilation begins with “Rocket 88″ and features other classic recordings from Memphis, including material from Presley and Sun labelmates Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. The collection also highlights the legacy of Stax Records, another pioneering Memphis label, with songs such as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” Booker T & the MGs “Green Onions” and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft.”

Sam Phillips sold Presley’s recording contract to RCA in 1955 for $35,000 in a deal orchestrated by Parker. That’s when RCA took control of Presley’s Sun recordings. Even during the ’70s and ’80s, RCA’s caretaking of the catalog left much to be desired. Often, previously unreleased recordings were randomly combined with familiar tracks — apparently for the sole reason of churning out yet another compilation to foist upon the public. Although the company’s custodianship has improved dramatically in recent years, hard-core fans contend the label still hasn’t totally redeemed itself.

To RCA’s credit, Elvis at Sun — one of at least three Sun compilations released by the label — was meticulously remastered to make those early sessions sound better than ever. In addition to “That’s All Right,” it contains essential tracks such as “Mystery Train,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Baby Let’s Play House.”

If your concept of Elvis is a drug-addled, overweight buffoon tossing out sweaty scarves at concerts during the ’70s, you’ve probably never heard him stop the intro to “Milkcow Blues Boogie” with the immortal words, “Hold it, fellas. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.”

That’s the difference between the Sun recordings and, say, the Blue Hawaii soundtrack. It’s the difference between “Trying to Get to You” from the Sun sessions and “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” from the film Fun in Acapulco.

And it’s exactly why “That’s All Right” isn’t just worth remembering. It’s still worth hearing.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.