Currently I am on a road trip with a friend in Memphis, Tennessee. Today we traveled to Graceland and saw some really cool excess, discovered some things about Elvis Presley via touring his mansion and viewing all of the different memorabilia on display.
Elvis had some pretty cool threads.
However, our trip to Sun Studios, the recording studio where Elvis Presley recorded his first hit song “That’s All Right” was indeed the most inspiring experience I’ve had in a while.
Sun Studios is a little building on a nondescript corner dear downtown Memphis, and upon approach to the building (we walked to it from the hotel in the Memphis heat) the outside seems very unimportant and unassuming, but this is the birthplace of rock and roll.
We entered the shop which is a small t-shirt gift shop and soda fountain, and I purchased a Sun City coffee mug for a souvenir, but then we also booked a tour of the studio given by a very knowledgable tour guide who told us some amazing stories.
One of the best stories was the fact that Elvis Presley spent a year trying to get audience with the owner of Sun City, Sam Phillips, to record a single. He had enamored himself with Phillips secretary, Marion Keisker, who manned the engineer booth the day Presley arrived to record a song. He had saved four dollars to do so (a month’s wages for him). The fact is that Phillips didn’t like Presley, didn’t think he was very good, and thought that he didn’t know a thing about rhythm and blues, and probably if it had not been Phillips’s day off, he would have turned Elvis down when he came in to record a song, as he said, for his mother’s birthday (which was a lie). After all, Phillips had recorded Chester Arthur Burnett “Howlin’ Wolf” and thought that he had found that blues sound that he wanted to record so badly. Most of these amazing artists like B.B. King had been found a few blocks away on Beale Street.
Elvis was persistent, though. He kept coming around the studio, trying to get Marion to get him into a meeting with Phillips. Three days ago Memphis celebrated the 60th anniversary of the day Elvis recorded his first single “That’s All Right”. However, it almost wasn’t made. Phillips had two session musicians to record something else, an old blues song. These musicians were Scotty Moore and Bill Black. The problem was that they needed a lead singer for the song, and Marion suggested Elvis Presley. Reluctantly, Phillips caved, and when Marion called Elvis on the phone she could hear the screen door slam because he didn’t even hang up the phone before running out the door to dash down to the studio.
Presley, Moore and Black were messing around in the studio, and Elvis recorded a song for Phillips, but wouldn’t even look at the producer while he sang because he was so nervous. He didn’t want to fail. After the song was recorded, Phillips asked Elvis to go into the other room and grab something to drink (next door was a diner). This was Phillips’s way of brushing Elvis off, because when Elvis came back into the studio they were putting their instruments away.
However, Elvis was singing an Arthur C. Crudup tune “That’s All Right”, except that he was singing it at a little faster tempo than usual. This impressed Phillips so much that he asked “What’s that song you’re humming,” even though Phillips knew the song well. Phillips was impressed that Elvis would know such an obscure blues tune, but he also was interested in the upbeat tempo that Elvis used while singing the song. Phillips told Black and Moore to get out their instruments and record the song with Elvis, and history was made. Rock and roll was born.
My only thought while hearing this story was that Elvis Aaron Presley was born into generational poverty, his twin brother dying in child birth (one became Elvis, the other buried in a graveyard). He saved a months wages ($4) to record a song that didn’t get played anywhere originally, was persistent for a year trying to get recorded, was rejected outright when he recorded at his first meeting with Phillips, and because of a song he sung on a whim (probably to cheer himself up) on his way back into the studio, he is now seen as the King of Rock and Roll.
The walls of Sun Studios are decorated with the pictures of great musicians from Bono to Beck who have made a trip to Memphis just to record there. When Bob Dillon came to Sun Studios for the first time he kissed the spot on the floor where Elvis recorded his first hit.
I got chills listening to that original recording in the very spot where it was recorded, the cracks in Elvis’s voice in the first verse, the resonance of the room. I got chills again when they played another song by a horrible appliance salesman who was sitting out on the front steps one day when Phillips came to work, a man dressed all in black, a man named Cash.
I started thinking about all the work I have put into writing and all the rejection letters I’ve received, and all the time and effort and money I have spent working toward my dream of reaching millions with my books. I am in no way as talented as Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash, but to think that success is so fleeting and so strangely lucky at times is something that overwhelms me at times.
If only Elvis would have given up, or if he had been the one who had died at birth instead of his brother, or if he had been singing a hymn or some other song when he went back into that studio, we would not have the incredible music of Elvis Presley. This is extremely encouraging for me, and I hope, dear writer, that this encourages you as well. Elvis, humble and self-conscious, a 19 year old kid, found success because he just wanted to sing and knew that he didn’t “sound like nobody.”
So get to writing, get to submitting your work to publishers and agents and magazines, and perhaps you too will sing the right song.