Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: A Rockin’ Day

What July 4th is for Americans; what Bastille Day on July 14th is for the French; what St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th is for the Irish, and what the Black-Necked Crane Festival on November 11th is for the Bhutanese, so January 4th is for fans of rock ‘n’ roll: a day when so much stuff happened as to enshrine it as a major, rock ‘n’ roll holiday!

What, pray tell, happened on this day? Thank you for asking.

Sam Phillips, Elvis Prestley, and Marion Keisker in 1956
Left-to-right: Sam Phillips (1923-2003), Elvis Presley (1935-1977), and Marion Keisker (1917-1989), Sept. 23, 1956

Elvis Presley and Sam Philips

It was on January 4, 1954 – 67 years ago today – that Elvis Presley, four days short of his 20th birthday (on January 8), came to the attention of the record producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (1923-2003). It was the singular event that vaulted Elvis to stardom. Here’s what happened.

On this day in 1954, Elvis made his second visit to the studios of the Memphis Recording Studio, which shared an office with Sun Records. On his first visit – six months before, on July 18, 1953 – Presley had recorded two songs (at his expense) on a two-sided, 10-inch acetate disc, claiming that the recording was a “gift for his mother.” (That session cost Elvis the king’s-ransom amount of $3.25. The receptionist Marion Keisker recalled talking to Elvis:

“I said, ‘What kind of singer are you?’ He said, ‘I sing all kinds.’ I said, ‘Who do you sound like?’ He said, ‘I don’t sound like nobody.’”)

A gift for his mother? Nah: the truth is, Elvis wanted to be “discovered”. Discovered he was not, so he went back to the Memphis Recording Studio on January 4, 1954 and made another two-sided acetate, recording the songs Casual Love Affair and I’ll Never Stand in Your Way.

This time around, Sam Phillips heard what was going on in the studio and asked Marion Keisker to get Elvis’ phone number. Little did Presley know that he had indeed just been “discovered”.

That “discovery” took some time to play out. In the meantime, the now 20-year-old Elvis auditioned for a vocal quartet called the “Songfellows”. He failed the audition, later telling his father that: “they told me I couldn’t sing.” Then the rockabilly singer and bandleader Eddie Bond (1933-2013) had an opening for a vocalist in his band. Elvis auditioned and was told by Bond to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.”

Back to Sam Phillips. Rhythm and Blues, as performed by black musicians and recorded on these new-fangled 45-rpm discs, was becoming increasingly popular with white American teenagers. Phillips was constantly on the lookout for a white R&B singer with the black “sound”, someone who could widen the audience for R&B, what soon enough would come to be called “rock ‘n’ roll.” The receptionist Marion Keisker recalled: “Over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.’”

And then Phillips thought of that Presley guy. He brought Elvis back to the Sun Records studio on July 5, 1954. Deep into that session, almost on a lark, Elvis performed/recorded Arthur Crudup’s 1946 blues song That’s All Right. Bingo. That was the sound that Phillips was looking for, and just like that, the Elvis revolution was poised to begin.

The Beatles, circa 1961
The Beatles, circa 1961; left-to-right: John Lennon (1940-1980), George Harrison (1943-2001), Paul McCartney (born 1942), Pete Best” (born 1941)

Their First “Number One”

On July 6, 1961, a brand-new music periodical hit the newsstands in Liverpool, England. Called Mersey Beat, the avowed mission of the paper was to feature news about the local bands there in Liverpool and established bands that came to Liverpool to perform. The former – local bands – might not sound like a big deal, but in fact the Merseyside area of Liverpool had some 500 different bands, of which some 350 were regularly gigging.

That’s a lot of bands.

On this date in 1962 – 59 years ago today – the thirteenth issue of Mersey Beat published its first Liverpool band popularity poll. Coming in at number one was The Beatles (still with Pete Best on drums; Ringo Starr would replace him only later that year). It was the band’s first such “number one.” For our information, coming in second was Gerry and the Pacemakers (“pacemaker” as in “taking the lead or setting standards of achievement for others”, and not as in “artificial cardiac pacemaker” for regulating the heart.) A moment of silence please, for the band’s front man Gerry Marsden, who died yesterday, on January 3, 2021, age 78.…

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