Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

The King Finds His Voice

July 5, 1954

It was only an audition. That's why there were no drums, no backup singers and no expectations. Sam Phillips had heard about a good-looking local kid who favored ballads, knew a few guitar chords and was blessed with the ostentatiously original name Elvis Presley. In his search for a new sound, Phillips had run nearly every singer in Memphis through his Sun Records studio; on that Monday summer evening, Elvis, 19, was merely next in line.

Phillips asked two trusted session musicians—guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black — to provide backup, and at 7 p.m., after a few minutes of small talk and nervous laughter, Phillips arranged the trio in a circle. Then he asked Elvis what he wanted to play. There was more nervous laughter; Elvis knew only a few songs, and most of those he couldn't play from start to finish. Somehow, the group fumbled through the mawkish "Harbor Lights," which had been a 1950 hit for Bing Crosby. From the control room, Phillips drawled, "That's pretty good," although it wasn't. Elvis sounded boring, mechanical. Phillips called for a break.

With the formalities suspended, Elvis picked up a guitar and started goofing around, playing an old blues song by Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup called "That's All Right". Except Elvis wasn't singing the blues. He sounded almost euphoric, and the rhythm was all wrong—far too frenetic. There were no drums, so Black was slapping his bass to keep time while Moore's guitar leaped in and out of the melody line. Phillips knew immediately. He stuck his head out of the control room and told the threesome to pick a place to start and keep playing. Two nights later, "That's All Right" was played on Memphis radio, and the era of rock 'n' roll roared into being.