Sam Phillips died this week. The water of pop culture we all swim in would taste noticeably different were it not for Sam’s work. But he’s most remembered, obviously, for the tracks he cut with Elvis Presley in 1954-55. Herewith a few remarks on Elvis’ music, Memphis tourism, and the sweaty end of the business.

Elvis · Elvis was past his prime by the time I tuned into pop music in the heyday of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, so I never really paid any attention to this fat loathsome has-been while he was still alive.

Today, the handful of recordings that I just couldn’t possibly live without includes two with Elvis’ name on the front: The Sun Sessions CD (RCA 6414-2-R), and Known Only to Him: Elvis Gospel 1957-1971 (RCA 9586-2-R). The first is of course the legacy of those months in ’54-’55 when four guys in a little room in Memphis changed the musical landscape, and it’s about as close to a perfect pop record as you can get. There are 16 songs, 8 out-takes, and 4 alternate takes.

Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and Sam Phillips at Sun studios in 1954
Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1954

The music is (mostly) astounding. I was in Japan last year and in every subway car there was an ad for an Elvis compilation: Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything. Which is coming it a bit high, but is not entirely false; you have to look pretty hard to find any important flavor of the rock and roll stew that isn’t prefigured (very nicely) here. I’m not going to go into details (many others have), but a few points stand out to me: the first few tracks have no drummer at all, but still manage to be rock & roll; other bands should try this. Second, the story goes that Elvis was failing to get a start as a crooner then they discovered he could rock. That’s nuts on the evidence here: the versions of Harbor Lights, Tomorrow Night, and of course Blue Moon are about as croonful as you can get.

Finally, the liner notes by Peter Guralnick, author of the definitive Elvis explanation Last Train to Memphis, are very good.

The Known Only to Him record collects Elvis’ best gospel outings; he won two Grammies in his lifetime for gospel music, none for pop, and while on one hand that’s crazy, the gospel is awfully good. Elvis was clearly the best white gospel singer ever. Once again I won’t thrash through the songs one by one, but I can’t imagine anyone who likes fine singing not liking this record.

At Graceland · Here’s how I found out about that record. Many years ago, I went to a Usenix conference in Nashville, and since Tennessee’s a long way from home, I took my wife and we touristed down to Memphis; something which I highly recommend. We visited Sun Records (more later) and of course Graceland, which while plenty weird and in some ways twisted, is worth the price of admission, if only for the baroque early-sixties-nuclear decor.

Anyhow, across the street is the Elvis visitors’ center, which was pretty lame, except they had this video clip you could watch of Elvis and a couple other guys leaning on a piano (maybe Elvis was playing, I forget), joking around and then tearing into an absolutely nuclear version of some gospel rave-up. I’d never seen anything like it, and bought the tape of this CD right there and then to play in the rental car. Among other things, Elvis was always a little bit ironic and self-mocking in his pop performances, but the Gospel seems to exhibit 100% committment and, so to speak, soul.

Anyhow, if you go to Memphis, do check out Graceland, and spend some time on Beale street; it may have changed, but last time I was there it was kind of tacky and trashy and touristy, but in an authentically-greasy bluesy sort of way.

And of course, visit Sun. It’s still occasionally used for recording. It’s one room, not big, with a weirdly undulating ceiling; the tour guide explained that Sam wanted it to look like a musical wave, but I suspect that Sam was no dummy and knew about resonances and standing waves. When I was there, they had a piano with Jerry Lee Lewis’ boot-heel marks, and lots of other musical memorabilia, and they played a set of Sun recordings comprising (I thought) an erudite and entertaining look at the roots of early rock. There was a joint next door where you can get a decent burger or milk-shake or beer, so the trip was definitely worth it. I hope they haven’t screwed it up in the decade since I was there.

Mythology and Hard Work · There’s a fascinating moment on one of the out-takes on the Sun Session CD that for me ties up a bunch of important threads. Here’s how the story goes: Sam brought the young Elvis in, a year after Elvis had started trying to get his attention, to try singing some ballads. They spent hours, and it wasn’t going very well, then the band started playing an insanely-fast version of That’s All Right, Mama, a simple Arthur Crudup country blues. Sam said “What are you doing?” They said “Huh?” He said “Go on doing it.” and in a flash of spontaneous genius Rock & Roll was born.

Wrong. Listen to the out-take on the CD. It’s terrible; Sam could hear that there was magic lurking in there, but I’m not sure that I could have. Obviously they did take after take, and reworked the instrumental breaks, and put in a lot of time and effort to achieve the effect on the record, which is of a light-hearted, effortless, spontaneous romp. After the out-take you can hear Sam saying “That’s a pop song now, nearly ’bout.”

There’s no cheap easy spontaneous path to a masterpiece, and there never has been. Talent and luck are real important, but to do great work you gotta put in the hours and grind away till you get it right.


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August 02, 2003
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