Good Rockin'

The kid from Memphis put "Elvis' on his guitar in stick-on letters and took his turn driving to gigs. It was the best time. It couldn't last.

HE SEEMS MOST LIKE OUR Contemporary when he was most remote from us - back in the early days, a kid just out of high school, with his first band and a little indie-label record, driving all night to nickel-and-dime gigs with the bass lashed to the roof of the car. The young Elvis Presley wouldn't look out of place today in Seattle, or L.A., or Austin, Texas, with his cheap, flashy clothes and his ambivalent come-on: sullen sexiness meets hunted vulnerability. Don't bet that it was all naive and uncalculated; he studied James Dean movies, too. On the other hand, he'd wanted to be a gospel singer - in addition to everything else he wanted.

In the summer of 1953, the boy nerved himself up to come into Sam Phillips's Memphis Recording Service and pay $3.98 (plus tax) to cut a two-song vanity record - a surprise for his mother, he claimed. Except the Presleys didn't own a record player. It seems hard to reconcile this Elvis, mumbling ""yes, sir'' and ""no, ma'am'' and staring at his feet, with the master showman of 1956, who, ordered by a Florida judge to tone down his infamous ""gyrations,'' whipped the crowd into a frenzy by wiggling his little finger. ""That soft exterior,'' says Phillips, now 74, ""covered a mighty bone.''

His musical tastes were virtually indiscriminate and wholly passionate. ""He just thought Dean Martin was out of this damn world,'' Phillips says. Memphis, Tenn., where the Presleys moved from Tupelo, Miss., when Elvis was 13, must have seemed like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Black blues singers, white hillbilly singers and gospel singers of both races all rubbed elbows, sometimes in the flesh, often over the airwaves; a white disc jockey, Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), ran the best R&B show in town. Years af- terward, B. B. King recalled seeing young Elvis in blues hangouts on Beale Street. He would've been hard to miss: he wore loud clothes from Lansky Brothers on Beale, which catered to a black clientele, and he had a slicked-down duck's-ass haircut and sideburns, hoping (as he later explained) to look like a long-haul trucker.

If Elvis had consciously sought to synthesize and alchemize blues, gospel, R&B and white country music, he couldn't have chosen a better mentor. Sam Phillips was the first to record both King and Howlin' Wolf; in 1951 he cut singer Jackie Brenston, with Ike Turner's band, doing ""Rocket "88','' sometimes reckoned the prototypical rock-and-roll record. Yet it was a heartbreakingly small-time enterprise; Sam recalls erasing what would now be priceless Howlin' Wolf outtakes so he could reuse the tape. He was both a purist documentarian of working-class Southern music and an entrepreneur hungry for a hit record; his Sun label's zanily optimistic slogan was ""Consistently Better Records for Higher Profits.''

To work with the green young Elvis, says Phillips, he deputized an ambitious, phlegmatic guitarist named Scotty Moore, who'd organized a country band called the Starlite Wranglers. Scotty, now 65, remembers it a little differently. He was scouting around for new musicians, he says, and Sam's secretary and right hand, Marion Keisker, thought of Elvis. ""She said, "What about that boy that was in here a year ago?' And Sam said, "Yeah, best I remember, he had a pretty good voice.' I called Elvis and asked would he be interested in auditioning, and he said, "Yeah, I guess so.' Just a kid, you know. Died a kid, really.''

The next afternoon the kid showed up at Scotty's house with his greasy hair, his Lansky Brothers finery and his guitar, on which he'd spelled his name in little silver stick-on letters. ""I thought he was gonna be pretty wild, but he called me Mr. Moore.'' Scotty got hold of the Starlite Wranglers' bass player, Bill Black, who lived down the street, and Elvis sat down to sing. Bill wasn't much impressed, but Scotty reported to Sam that ""he knows a lot of songs, and his timing is good.'' Phillips suggested that the three of them come to the studio - the next night, as Scotty recalls.

Bill Black died in 1965, so there's no third account that might reconcile Scotty's and Sam's stories of what's arguably the single most important moment in American popular music. But they both agree that Elvis's transmutation of an obscure blues song by Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup was one of those lucky accidents for which Phillips provided space and time. And we do know the date: July 5, 1954.

Scotty's story goes like this: ""That first night we were takin' a break, I think Bill was sittin' on his bass, Sam was in the control room putterin' around. Elvis all of a sudden jumped up - nervous energy is what it was - and started frailin' guitar and singin' "That's All Right, Mama.' I'd never heard it. Bill got up and started whackin' on the bass, and I found out what key they were in and started doin' some kind of rhythm. Sam stuck his head in and said, "What are y'all doin'?' We said, "Just goofin' around.' And he said, "Well, it sounded pretty good. Y'all figure out what you're doin' and let's put it on tape.' We ran it down three or four times - Sam got Elvis to lean in with his gui- tar, 'cause we just had three mikes. That was it.''

As Sam recalls it, Elvis, Scotty and Bill had come in for several nights, working on pop ballads with indifferent results. ""I said, "Well, there's no use in wearin' our ass out again tonight.' But when I went back to the control room, Elvis started cuttin' up on "That's All Right, Mama,' just with his damn old flattop Martin, and he beat the hell out of it. I walked in and I said, "Man, you mean all these months we've wasted your time, my time and everybody's, and you had this in you?' '' Sam's story is about perseverance and an instant of grace; Scotty's is about dumb luck. They both ring true.

When Elvis, Scotty and Bill went home, Sam called Dewey Phillips and played him the tape. That night Dewey couldn't sleep; the next day he demanded an acetate dub and played it on his show - seven times in a row, some say. In 24 hours they had a hit record, though it was unreleased and didn't have a B side. Hastily they worked up such current hits as Chuck Berry's ""Maybelline'' and some archaic comedy routines. Bill: Did you know Scotty played checkers? Elvis: Nope. Bill: Well, I come through the parking lot a while ago and I heard this gal tell him, ""It's your move.'' And they began playing weekend gigs. ""Bill and I still had jobs,'' says Scotty. ""We'd get off work Friday and go. I had just bought a '54 four-door Chevy Bel-Air - of course, my wife was workin' at Sears makin' the payments. Most of these places, you just had one microphone. When we'd hit a place with two, so Bill could put one on his bass - man, we thought we was uptown.''

Over the next year, the band - always under the name ""Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill'' - continued to record what became touchstones of rock and roll. The countryish ""I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone,'' from which John Fogerty appropriated Scotty's guitar part for ""Bad Moon Rising.'' The swaggering- ly suggestive ""Baby Let's Play House,'' from which the Beatles appropriated the line ""I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.'' The subtly ominous ""Good Rockin' Tonight,'' which Elvis appropriated from the R&B singers Roy Brown and Wyno- nie Harris. Maybe best of all, the exuberant, inexorable ""Mystery Train,'' reworked from a slinkier, more elegant 1953 Sun recording by Little Junior Parker.

They mostly did without drums - that rhythmic clacking is Bill slapping the strings of his bass against the neck - until they played the ""Louisiana Hayride'' radio show in Shreveport, La., and met the underutilized house drummer D. J. Fontana, now 64. ""Most of the stars didn't like drums,'' D.J. recalls. ""I'd just stand backstage until somebody asked. Scotty came over and said, "Hey, you want to work with us?' I said, "Well, yeah, that's why I'm here'.'' After taking D.J. on some jobs in nearby East Texas, Elvis asked, ""Would you go with us if we got any more dates?''

Soon Elvis bought a modest two-bedroom brick house in Memphis, at 2414 Lamar, for himself and his parents, and a Cadillac sedan with jump seats. The four-piece band drove six or seven hundred miles a night, taking turns at the wheel, with a carton of their records in the trunk in case they saw a radio tower in the distance. ""Nowadays they'd run you out,'' says D.J. ""But back then the jocks would be happy, because they were way out in the country somewhere and nobody ever stopped to see 'em.'' The band performed on flatbed trucks and in high-school gyms - tickets: 50 cents - and played country package shows headlined by Webb Pierce and Hank Snow. Before long, the crowds were following the warm-up act outside. ""Hank and those guys would say, "We ain't got nobody to sing to. We're gonna have to let him close the show.' Elvis hated it. Those guys were like heroes to him.''

The bigger Elvis got, the fewer people heard him - they were screaming too loud. Scotty, six feet away from Elvis, could hear only D.J.'s drums; D.J., who'd played behind strippers in Shreveport dives, took cues from Elvis's body movements. Still, the band was slow to realize that something uncanny was going on; even their now historic network-TV appearances in '55 and '56 were just gigs like all the rest. ""We'd work going up, Richmond, Norfolk, the Carolinas,'' says D.J., ""shoot in and do what we had to do in New York, and we was gone down the road somewhere.''

BY THE END OF 1956, ELVIS was on what June Juanico, his girlfriend at the time, calls ""the rocket ride of his life - and mine, too.'' RCA bought his contract from Sun, paying the most money to date for any singer, $40,000, which they got back many times just on ""Heartbreak Hotel'' alone. He'd made his first film and had signed a seven-year movie deal. He was whisked to shows in a limousine, hooked up with Scotty, Bill and D.J. only after they'd taken the stage, and whisked away with the crowd still screaming and loudspeakers announcing that he'd left the building. ""One day,'' recalls June, ""just joking around, he said, "Do you realize I'm worth a million dollars? I could probably go pick up a million dollars in cash, and we could just sit in the middle of the floor and throw it up in the air. Would you like to do that?' I said, "No, not really'.'' He was 21 years old.

John Lennon once said that Elvis died in 1958, the day he went into the army; true purists say it was still earlier. ""He did his best work at Sun,'' says Billy Lee Riley, Sun rockabilly singer and session player. ""The first couple of songs at RCA might have been pretty good, but I never did like what they were doing with him after that. He wouldn't have gone as far with Sam Phillips. But he wasn't expecting to go that far. He was thrilled to death when he bought that little old house out on Lamar. If he could've kept that, that status right there, he would've been happy.'' But nothing we know about Elvis suggests that moderation was ever part of the program.

And '56 was just the beginning. It was before all those movies for which James Dean would have had contempt. Before his stage act travestied its own grandiosity. Before he drugged himself into diapered incontinence and took to yanking the caps off his teeth with pliers to scam more painkillers out of his doctors. But you know what? Let's not go there.

Let's leave him traveling again late at night on those two-lane highways, through Alabama or Texas or Mississippi, with the bass fiddle on the roof. The guys listen to the radio until Bill, curled up in the back seat with his coat over his head as usual, complains about all the racket. Elvis is wide awake. ""He was like a young bull,'' says Scotty Moore. ""Never seen the like of energy in one human being. We'd do a show, then get out of town a ways before we'd stop to eat. One of us would tell Elvis, "Come on, let's walk.' We'd start walkin' with him down the road and the car would catch up with us later. Just tryin' to get him where he'd pass out. He'd stay up all night talkin' and drivin' - he was a good driver, too. But somebody had to stay up with him 'cause he had no sense of direction. He wouldn't read a road sign or nothin'. Just drive.''

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