‘THAT’S ALL RIGHT’:
AT THE SUN STUDIOS
by ANDREW DARLINGTON
My feet hit the sidewalk. Outside 706 Union Avenue, Memphis.
It was here – ‘Memphis Recording Service’, on the evening of Monday, 5 July 1954 that time began. This was the primal big-bang moment when everything came together, and the second half of the twentieth century was ignited. Before this, there was nothing. This was a day without a yesterday. There was no such thing as a Golden Oldie, a Revive Forty-Five or a Blast From The Past. So gather round all ye Trendies, Groovers, Popstrels, Homies, With-It Birds and Turned-On Guys, ye Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Poppin Daddy-O’s, or whatever this week’s buzz-word is for the young and stylish. Because this tale’s been told and retold so many multiple times detracts nothing. Greasy young Elvis, just nineteen, fooling around with an Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup song he’d memorised from black radio station WDIA – “That’s All Right”, Bill Black catching it and adding slap-slap thump-thump upright bass, then Scotty Moore strumming in on guitar. No drums. No overdubs. No edits. Elvis is more raw, tighter, less smooth than the original. He omits a verse, elides other lines together. Alters the dynamics, steps up the tempo. Of the song, and of the temporal continuum itself…
There’s a couple of rejected takes with false starts that emerge years later. A live version done on the ‘Louisiana Hayride’. ‘Momma she dun tole me, Poppa dun tole me too, son that gal you’re foolin’ with she ain’t no good for you.’ It’s still spine-tingling. It’s still alien. Like nothing else, before or since. Caught live in one-take on one-track machine it became Sun 209, a record that changed history. It didn’t invent Rock ‘n’ Roll. Academic debate goes on about that. Most nods go to Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” under the guise of Jackie Brenston. Also cut here. But Elvis brought all the elements together into the most perfect fusion, and he took it global. Everything that followed, led on from this singular 1:58-minute primordial atom moment. This is the moment that time began…
The ‘New Musical Express’ record chart for that week (3 July 1954) was made up of big clunky easily-breakable 78rpm singles. The Hit Parade best-sellers were headed by the quasi-operatic warbling of Hull-born David Whitfield’s “Cara Mia”, recorded with Mantovani’s cascading strings. It made him the first UK male vocalist to qualify for Gold Disc status. Doris Day was no.2 with “Secret Love” – from her comic-Western musical ‘Calamity Jane’, followed by Johnny Ray’s “Such A Night”, which Elvis himself would later revive for his 1960 ‘Elvis Is Back’ LP. Crooner Perry Como had two titles in the ten – “Idle Gossip” at no.4 and “Wanted” at no.7. While Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean A Lot” was not only the highest entry at no.5, but simultaneously topped the American record sales, radio plays and jukebox charts across the Atlantic. Mellow, sentimental, unthreatening, radio stars were also prominently featured, with both Max Bygraves and the Billy Cotton Band present. It was a staid somnambulistic chart.
For it was a soporific time. Barely nine years after the cessation of global war, with the visible reminder there in every city bombsite. Those who’d lived through the war-years – our parents, had had enough of excitement, uncertainty, anger. It was as though the world was tired, emotionally drained, retreating into itself to lick its wounds. Rationing finally ended only this month. Following the revolutionary post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee, a seriously ailing Winston Churchill was returned as Prime Minister. This month his government published plans for civil defence in the event of H-bomb attack, as they simultaneously announce British troops are to be pulled out of their Suez Canal base. Germany won the World Cup in a final against Hungary. And Jaroslav Drobny, a thirty-two year-old Czech with Egyptian nationality, won the singles title at Wimbledon against Australia’s Ken Rosewall.
The day’s BBC radio Light Programme broadcasts began with Bob Danvers Walker introducing ‘Housewives Choice’, followed – after the religious ‘Five To Ten’ hymn and prayer slot, by Andrew Fenner at the BBC theatre organ, then ‘Music While You Work’ with the Hugh James Orchestra. In the evening there was twenty-minutes of ‘British Jazz’ by the Tony Kinsey Trio, which was about as hip as it got. The fourth series of ‘The Goon Show’ had ended a month earlier – 11 June, with a ‘Special’ “Archie In Goonland” in which the regular crew were joined by radio ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy ‘Archie Andrews’, plus Hattie Jacques, all scripted by Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan. The second series of ‘Meet The Huggetts’ – a cosy radio sit-com with Jack Warner, Kathleen Harrison and Kenneth Connor, had begun in May, overshadowed by the real-life suicide of daughter Joan Dowling, replaced on air by Vera Day.
There was one monochrome TV channel, the day’s programming dominated by the second Test Match from Trent Bridge with England v Pakistan. At 5pm Children’s Television featured ‘Little Ig’ the adventures of a prehistoric boy, followed by the evening’s highlight – ‘The Royal’, a visit to the Great Park at Windsor for a preview of the ‘world’s greatest agricultural show’. This day Richard Baker also fronted Britain’s first TV ‘illustrated summary of the news’ – at 7:30pm, a bulletin broadcast live from the faded Victorian Alexandra Palace on the heights of Muswell Hill. There are tales of housewives refusing to sit down and watch him before primping their hair and make-up first.
Some time – and an eternity later, Elvis announces “That’s All Right Little Mama” in the sit-down section of his 1968 NBC-TV special, with Scotty Moore’s guitar, and still rips it up convincingly.
Stepping back outside onto the Memphis sidewalk, directly across the street, above a Domino’s Pizza take-away, there’s a big billboard announcing ‘Visit Graceland, Only 10 Minutes Away’… For Elvis it was still a little more than ten minutes. But he was on his way.