The Hillbilly Cat
Elvis Presley on the brink of stardom
By Peter Guralnick
Elvis Presley’s first record (“That’s All
Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) was recorded July 5, 1954.
It was released on the Sun label two weeks later.
Elvis was 19 years old. He
had never appeared anywhere professionally.
In fact, he had only met the two members of his band, guitarist
Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, the day before the initial
On July 30, Elvis made what amounted to his
official debut on a country and western jamboree, headlined by Slim
Whitman, at Memphis’ Overton Park shell.
Even in the midst of a seasoned professional cast and despite a
pronounced case of stage fright, he was an immediate sensation.
Over the next few weeks, his record proved to be a big hit in
Memphis, and he made a number of club appearances.
But Sun Records president Sam Phillips had bigger plans.
Phillips, who had pioneered in the recording of blues
men like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner and Little Junior Parker
over the previous four years, saw an opportunity for Presley to make a
national mark. To that end,
Phillips approached Grand Ole Opry head Jim Denny, who was less than
enthusiastic but agreed to think about it.
It was a 200-mile ride from Memphis to Nashville,
but the four of them were comfortable enough in Sam Phillips'
four-door black 1951 Cadillac, with Bill’s bass strapped to the roof. It was Saturday, Oct. 2.
Elvis, Scotty and Bill had played their regular Friday-night gig
at the Eagle’s Nest; their record, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” was
near the top of the charts in Memphis and just beginning to break in
Nashville and New Orleans, and they had every reason to feel that they
had reached the pinnacle of their musical career—because tonight they
were going to play the Opry.
Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN
(home of the Grand Ole
Opry 1943 - 1974)
Jim Denny had finally succumbed to Sam’s argument
that there was no need to think about putting the boy on as a regular,
he didn’t have to think of this as a normal “tryout,” just give
the boy a chance. Denny,
who had become manager of the Opry in 1947, seemed no more convinced
than he had been in the first place—perhaps he was just worn down by
Sam’s persistence—but he agreed to give the young man a one-time
spot on Hank Snow’s segment of the show. He could perform a single song with his band, the country
number “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
If it was worth it to Sam and the boys to drive over just for
that, well, then Denny was willing to give them the shot.
In the meantime, Sam had also heard from the
Louisiana Hayride, the Opry’s innovative rival in Shreveport, which
actually wanted this new act. The
Hayride, which Denny referred to derisively as the Opry’s farm club
because so many of its big acts eventually defected to Nashville, had
discovered Hank Williams in 1948 and broken such stars as Slim Whitman,
Webb Pierce, and, most recently, Jim Reeves and Faron Young.
But Sam put them off because he explained to Hayride booking
agent Pappy Covington, he wanted to play the Opry first.
As soon as the boys had fulfilled this prior commitment, he told
Pappy, stretching the truth a little, Elvis could appear on the Hayride.
There was no doubt in his mind, he said, that Elvis could make a
hit with the Hayride audience, and they could set it up for just a week
or two after the Opry appearance, but he had committed himself to Denny.
Sam was walking a thin line, he knew.
He didn’t for a minute want to lose the Hayride, but he
wasn’t going to give up the opportunity to see a new, untried artist
get his national debut on the hallowed Grand Ole Opry.
Ryman auditorium was like a tattered shrine to the
three musicians, none of whom had ever even attended a show at the Opry
before. They wandered
around the dilapidated building, erected as a tabernacle in 1886 and
still retaining the old wooden pews for seats, in something of a daze.
They were both overwhelmed at the sense of history contained in
the room—the music they had been listening to all of their lives
emanated from this cramped little stage—and somewhat disillusioned,
too, that the Grand ole Opry was not, well, grander.
Backstage, the other musicians mingled freely, exchanging small
talk and greeting, tuning up, donning makeup and costumes, without any
of the formality or protocol you might have expected from stars but with
all of the remoteness, whether real or perceived, of big leaguers
sniffing at bushers just up from the minors.
Twenty-one-year-old bass player Buddy Killen came
up to the obviously out-of-place young singer and introduced himself.
“[Elvis] said, ‘They’re going to hate me.’ I said,
‘They’re not going to hate you.
You’re going to be fine.’
He said, ‘If they’d just let me leave, I’d go right
now.’” Marty Robbins
saw evidence of the same insecurity, but when Elvis spotted Chet Atkins
backstage, he introduced himself and then knowing Scotty’s admiration
for Atkins’ guitar playing, pulled Scotty over, too, saying, “My
guitar player wants to meet you.”
Atkins noted with asperity that the kid appeared to be wearing
Saturday night Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman
photo courtesy Hillbilly
Probably of all the Opry legends, the one they were
most leery of running into was Bill Monroe.
Many in the country field continued to view the Sun version of
“Blue moon of Kentucky” as a desecration, and even Sam had heard
that Monroe was going to take their head off for their untrammeled
interpretation of his stately lament.
But when they met Monroe, conservatively dressed in dark suit and
tie and trademark white hat and at 43 already an elder statesman
possessed a dignity that permitted neither insincerity nor informality,
he came right out and complimented them.
As a matter of fact, he told them, he had cut a new version of
the song for Decca, due out next week, that followed their pattern.
There were two additional surprises.
Sam Phillips’ assistant, Marion Keisker, left behind in Memphis
to keep the studio doors open, abandoned her post and caught a bus to
Nashville, where she thought at first she would just stay out in the
audience so as not to spook them but before long found her way
backstage. Then Bill peeked
out at the audience and, to his surprise, discovered his wife Evelyn and
Scotty’s wife, Bobbie, in the front row.
“I think he was kind of glad to see us,” said Bobbie,
“’cause they were wanting to come back to Memphis that night.
But when Scotty saw me backstage, it was like he’d seen a
At 10:15 Grant Turner announced the Hank Snow
segment of the show, sponsored by Royal Crown Cola, and Snow got lost in
his introduction of a young man from Memphis who has just made a hit
record, let’s give him a nice round of applause, to the point that he
forgot the young singer’s name. Elvis
bounced out the same way that he always did, as if he had just fallen
off a fast-moving train, and did his one number.
Scotty and Bill were more nervous than he was; to them, it
seemed, there was nowhere to go but down from here, and they could sense
the polite, but tepid reception that this was exactly where they were
Afterward they were like a boxing management team
trying to rationalize defeat. Everyone
was nice to them as they gawked and huddled; they’d gotten a good
reception, Bobbie and Evelyn insisted, and Bill introduced himself to
everyone, laughing and cracking jokes, while Scotty stood off to one
side a little stiffly, waiting to be introduced.
Before leaving, Sam conferred briefly with Mr. Denny, who
confirmed that Elvis Presley did not fit the Opry mold, but, he told
Sam, “’This boy is not bad.’ He didn’t give me any great
accolades, he just grabbed me by my skinny arm and said, ‘This boy is
not bad.’ Well people put down Jim Denny , nobody much liked Jim, he
was a damn tough man, but he did me a favor.”
They left not long afterward and wandered down the
hill to 417 Broadway, the location of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, where
they were scheduled to play the famous Midnight Jamboree (which went on
the air live from the record store at the conclusion of the Opry
introduced Elvis to Ernest Tubb, and Tubb, the most gracious and
courteous of entertainers, listened patiently as the 19-year-old poured
out his love for Tubb’s music and told him that it was his real
ambition to sing country music. “He
said, ‘They tell me if I’m going to make any money, though, I’ve
got to sing [this other kind of music].
What should I do?’ I
said, ‘Elvis, you ever have any money?’
He said, ‘No, sir.’ I said, ‘Well, you just go ahead and do
what they tell you to do. Make
your money. Then you can do
what you want to do.’”
Ernest Tubb Record Shop Nashville, TN
Scotty and Bill headed back to
Memphis with their wives after the broadcast.
They felt simultaneously elated and depressed (they had made it
to the big time, even if they were now in all likelihood on the road
to oblivion), but for Sam Phillips the evening was an unmitigated
triumph. To play the Opry—and
then to get approval, however grudging, from Jim Denny and Bill
Monroe! Even the
criticism would not hurt. It
could be used, Sam was firmly convinced, to further the boy’s
appeal—if he could just turn around some of this damn rejection he
was getting, if he could just straighten out some of the wrongheaded
thinking he was encountering, the blind could be made to see, the lame
could be made to walk. “I
needed the attention I got from the people that hated what I
was doing, that acted like” ‘Here is somebody trying to thrust
junk on us and classify it as our music.’
Well, f--- them, let them do the classifying.
I just had to peak that damn pyramid, or else the damn son of a
bitch would have fallen down.”
And with Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips was sure he had the means
to peak the pyramid.
Elvis Presley’s second single was released six
days before his Opry appearance. It
was, if anything, an even bolder declaration of intent “That’s All
Right,” especially the strident blues number “Good Rockin’
Tonight,” which rocked more confidently than anything they could have
imagined in those first, uncertain days in the studio.
Maybe Sam still couldn’t diagram the path, but, he felt, they
were finally beginning to find their way to “that damn row that
hadn’t been plowed.”
They had seized every opportunity they could get
into the studio all through August, but Sam was on the road so much, and
the band was working so many weekends (while still holding down
full-time jobs), that this was easier said than accomplished.
On Aug. 19 they spent hours doing take after take of “Blue
Moon,” in an eerie, clippity-clop version that resembled a cross
between Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” and some of the falsetto
flights of rhythm-and-blues “bird” groups (the Orioles, the Ravens,
the Larks). After it was
all over, Sam wasn’t satisfied that they had anything worth releasing,
but he never uttered a word of demurral for fear of discouraging the
unfettered freshness and enthusiasm of the singer. “The sessions would go on and on,” said Marion Keisker.
“Each record was sweated out.
Sam showed patience beyond belief—in a personality that’s not
really given to patience.”
The problem did not appear to have so much to do
with time, in any case, as with confidence and direction.
They had captured the ring once, seemingly by accident, but now
no one appeared to have a clear vision of how to capture it again, and
Sam was reluctant to impose his own.
“I had a mental picture, as sure as God is on His throne, I had
a mental picture of what I wanted to hear, certainly not note for note,
but I knew the essence of what we were trying to do.
But I also knew that the worst thing I could do was to be
impatient, try to force the issue—sometimes you can make a suggestion
just [to change] one bar and you kill the whole song.
And sometimes you can be too cocky around people who are insecure
and just intimidate them. I
mean, as far as actually saying, ‘Hey, man, don’t be scared,’
I’ve never told anybody in my life not to be scared of the
microphone—don’t go calling attention to the thing you know they are
already scared of. I was
never a real forward person, because I didn’t give a damn about
jumping out in front to be seen, but I tried to envelop them in my
feelings of security.”
Over the course of the next few weeks they made
several attempts at “Satisfied,” Martha Carson’s rousing spiritual
hit from 1951, and “Tomorrow Night,” the Lonnie Johnson blues ballad
that Elvis had crooned so often to his girlfriend Dixie.
They made any number
of false starts on other tunes, all of them erased because tape was
expensive, after all, and they weren’t going anywhere.
The slow numbers, Sam said, “would hang you out to dry,” but
he was determined to give Elvis’ creative imagination free play.
He was equally determined, said Marion, not to release anything
even a jot below the standard they had already set; he wanted to be sure
he had done all that he could to make every record as good as it was
“humanly possible to make it.”
From Sam’s point of view: “I wanted simplicity, where we
could look at what we were hearing mentally and say, ‘Man, this guy
has just got it.’ But I wanted some biting bulls---, too.
Everything had to be a stinger.
To me every one of those sessions was like I was filming ‘Gone
With the Wind.’”
Finally, starting on Sept. 10, they hit a
streak—once again it seemed almost as if they stumbled onto it by
accident, but when they did, it was, as Sam Phillips said, as if it had
been waiting for them all along. They
cut “Just Because,” a rollicking, honky-tonk blues that the Shelton
Brothers had originally recorded as the Lone Star Cowboys in 1933.
The great good humor and burbling effervescence of the new trio
version can be traced in equal parts to Elvis’ confident exploitation
of his gospel-learned technique (here for the first time we hear the
characteristic Presley drop to a slurred lower register), Bill Black’s
almost comically thumping bass and Scotty’s increasingly rhythm-driven
guitar. “It was almost a
total rhythm thing,” Scotty said.
“With only the three of us, we had to make every note count.”
Although Sam never released this cut or the next one either, a
weepy version of Jimmy Wakely’s 1941 “I’ll Never Let You Go
(Little Darlin’)” with a tagged-on double-time ending, both are
characterized by the kind of playfulness and adventurousness of Spirit
that Sam was looking for, the fresh, almost “impudent” attitude that
he was seeking to unlock.
Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips
With “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine,”
an even more unlikely transformation took place.
Originally written for the Disney animated feature
“Cinderella” by Mack David (brother of the celebrated pop composer
Hal David), the song didn’t make the film scores final cut, but it was
popularized in 1950 by both Patti Page and Dean Martin.
The rhythmic approach couldn’t have been more different, but it
was Martin’s version on which Elvis’ is clearly based; for all the
energy that Elvis, Scotty and Bill impart to the song, and for all the
high spirits of Elvis’ vocalizing, it is Martin’s lazily insouciant
spirit that comes through. It's
as if Dennis the Menace met the drawling English character actor George
Sanders. “That’s what
he heard in Dean,” said Sam, “that little bit of mischievousness
that he had in his soul when he cut up a little bit—[that’s why] he
loved Dean Martin’s singing.”
With the last song of the session, Wynonie
Harris’ R&B classic “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” everything
finally fell into place. By
this time, everyone may have been getting a little testy, and no one was
really sure whether they had anything, but as Scotty said, “Sam had an
uncanny knack for pulling stuff out of you.
Once you got a direction, he’d work you so hard you’d work
your butt off, he’d make you so mad you’d want to kill him, but he
wouldn’t let go until he got that little something extra sometimes you
didn’t even know you had.” Sam
would insist that they play nothing but rhythm, he would have them
change keys just when they finally got used to the one they were in, and
he called for tempos so slow sometimes that everyone was ready to
scream. “A lot of times it was a tempo that I absolutely knew they
weren’t going to like, but we were in a situation where we just
weren’t getting anywhere, and when they came back [to the original
tempo], it was like they’d hit a home run.”
To Marion Keisker it was like a puzzle to which
only Sam had the key. “I still remember the times when everyone would
be so tired, and then some little funny thing would set us off—I’d
see Elvis literally rolling around on the floor, and Bill Black just
stretched out with his old broken-down bass fiddle, just laughing and
goofing off. It was a great
spirit of—I don’t know, everyone was trying very hard, but everyone
was trying to hang very loose through the whole thing.
[Sometimes] if Elvis would do something absolutely extraordinary
and somebody would hit a clinker or something would go wrong before the
tape was completed, Sam would say, “Well, let’s go back, and you
hold on to what you did there. I want that.’ And Elvis would say, ‘What did I do? What did I do?’
Because it was all so instinctive that he simply didn’t
Sam’s one organizing principle was that it had to
be fun. “I could tolerate
anything, we could have tensions as long as I knew that we all had
confidence in what we were trying to do, and I could get everybody
relaxed to the point where they could hear and react to something
without the threshold of apprehension where you almost get to a point
where you can’t do anything right.
Every time we did a number, I wanted to make sure… that
everybody enjoyed it.”
In the case of this final number, that sense of
enjoyment comes through from the very first note, as Elvis’ voice
takes on a burr of aggression that is missing from the previous
recordings, the band for the first time becomes the fused rhythm
instrument that Sam had been seeking all along, and there is a sense of
driving, high-flying good times almost in defiance of societal norms.
“Have you heard the news?” is the opening declaration, drawn
out and dramatic. “There’s
good rocking tonight.”
The other dramatic element to declare itself was
the quality that Sam thought he had sensed in Elvis from the start, that
strange, unexpected impulse that had led the boy to launch himself into
“That’s All right” in the first place—it seemed to come out of
nowhere, and yet, Sam felt, he heard something of the same feeling in
the sentimental ballads, too. He
equated the insecurity that came through so unmistakably in the boy’s
stance and demeanor with the sense of inferiority—social,
psychological, perceptual—that was projected by the great Negro
talents he had sought out and recorded.
Sam couldn’t be sure, he thought he sensed in Elvis a kindred
spirit, someone who shared with him a secret, almost subversive
attraction not just to black music but to black culture, to an inchoate
striving, a belief in the equality of man.
This was something that Sam felt could never be articulated; each
man doomed to stumble in his own darkness, if only because the stakes
were so high.
“I had to keep my nose clean. They could have said, “This goddamn rebel down here is
gonna turn his back on us. Why
should we give this nigger-loving son of a bitch a break?”
It took some subtle thinking on my part—I’m telling you
[some] resolute facts here. But
I had the ability to be patient. I
was able to hold on almost with a religious fervor, but definitely
subdued—I wasn’t looking for no tall stumps to preach from.
And I sensed in him the same kind of empathy.
I don’t think he was aware of my motivation for doing what I
was trying to do—not consciously anyway—but intuitively he
felt it. I never discussed
it—I don’t think it would have been very wise to talk about it, for
me to say, ‘Hey, man, we’re going against …’ Or, ‘We’re
trying to put pop music down and bring in black …’
The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis had to be one of the
biggest things that ever could have happen to us, though.
It was almost subversive, sneaking around through the music—but
we hit things a little bit, don’t you think?
I went out into this no-mans land, and I knocked the s--- out of
the color line.”
Sam knew that he had found a kindred spirit in other
ways as well. Over the
course of the next month, as he worked at trying to set up the Opry
appearance, as he took around an acetate of the new single and
encountered the same resistance in Nashville from old friends like WLAC
deejay Gene Nobles and one-stop record distributors Randy Wodd and Ernie
Young, all strictly rhythm-and-blues men, he nevertheless knew that his
instincts had not been wrong. Getting
to know the boy a little better, getting him to open up a little more,
having the chance to talk to him not just about music but about life and
love and women, he sensed a potential that even he had not fully
anticipated. “I was
amazed. Here I am 12 years
older than him, I’m 31 and he’s 19, and I’ve been exposed to all
kinds of music and lived through the damn Depression, and yet he had the
most intuitive ability to hear songs without ever having to classify
them, or himself, of anyone I’ve ever known outside of Jerry
Lee Lewis and myself. It seemed like he had a photographic memory for every damn
song he ever heard—and he was one of the most introspective human
beings that I’ve ever met. You
see, Elvis Presley knew what it was like to be poor, but that didn’t
make him prejudiced. He
didn’t draw any lines. And
like [Billboard editor] Paul Ackerman said, you have to be an awful
smart person or dumb as hell (and you know he wasn’t dumb) to
put out that kind of thinking.”
Sam called Pappy Covington, the talent booker for
The Hayride, on the Monday after the Opry appearance and settled on a
date less than two weeks away. The
Hayride was a little more than 6 years old.
It had been predated by a similar program, the KWKH Saturday
Night Roundup, before the war and was probably the second-most popular
hillbilly program on the air, with a 50,000 watt clear-channel signal
that rivaled the Opry’s, reaching up to 28 states, and a CBS hookup
that enabled it to reach 198 stations for an hour on the third Saturday
of every month.
Shreveport's Municipal Auditorium - home of the Hayride
Photo© courtesy of Louisiana
Hayride Archives - J. Kent
The hallmark of the Hayride was innovation, and it
was as the Opry’s brash younger cousin that the Hayride really made
its mark. Hank Williams,
Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, the Carlisles, David Houston, Jim
Reeves—all debuted on the Hayride before eventually lighting out for
Nashville, and under the leadership of Horace Logan, it continued to be
a haven for new talent and fast paced variety.
The Hayride audiences in the 3,800-seat Municipal Auditorium
showed the same kind of enthusiasm as the performers, and Logan placed
microphones out among the crowd to register its reaction, whether to
something that was going out over the air or to longtime announcer Ray
Bartlett (who broadcast during the day as rhythm-and-blues deejay
Groovey Boy) doing unrestrained somersaults and back flips onstage.
Shreveport was a lively music town, just on the cusp of oil
influence and with the kind of unassuming racial mix (nothing like
desegregation, of course, but with two populations living cheek by jowel,
locked in an inescapable cultural alliance) that gave Memphis its own
musical flavor. The Hayride
had everything, in fact, except for an aggressive booking agency to
support its acts (Pappy Covington had the job only because he had a
lease on the building) and record companies to sign them.
This was the principle reason for the one-way migration to
Nashville, but in the fall of 1954 it looked as if the supply of new
talent might be inexhaustible and the Hayride had grown accustomed to
thumbing its nose at the Opry, which Horace Logan referred to frequently
as “the Tennessee branch
of the Hayride.”
Sam, Elvis, Scotty and Bill set out for Shreveport,
a good seven- or eight-hour ride from Memphis, not long after the boys
got off work at their regular Friday-night gig at the Eagle’s
Nest. They missed the turnoff at Greenville Miss., because Bill had
everyone laughing so hard at one of his jokes, and then Scotty almost
hit a team of mules as they struggled to make up time. When they finally got to Shreveport, they checked into the
Captain Shreve Hotel downtown, but then they had to wait forever while
Elvis combed his hair. Sam
took the boys around to meet Pappy, who made them feel “like four
hundred million dollars, just this kindly, fatherly old man who made you
feel like you were the greatest thing that could ever walk into his
office. I thought that was
the best thing that could happen for these young men and even myself.”
From there, he and Elvis went and paid their
respects to disc jockey T. Tommy Cutrer, who had broken “That’s All
Right” on KCIJ. Elvis
wearing a typical black and pink outfit and according to T. Tommy “his
hair was long and greasy and he didn’t look clean.
My wife commented afterwards; she said, ‘That boy needs to wash
his neck.’” T. Tommy, a highly astute, charming and capable man who
kept a little band of his own at the time and went on to become a
Tennessee sate senator and a top Teamsters official, still had doubts
about how far this boy was going to go, and Elvis scarcely opened his
mouth the whole time. But
Sam was such a believer, and T, Tommy was nothing if not a pragmatist,
so he figured, Well, let’s just see where it goes.
From there Sam made the rest of his rounds.
He stopped by Stan’s Record shop at 728 Texas St., just around
the corner from the auditorium, where they chatted with Stan Lewis, a
prematurely white-haired 27-year-old veteran of the music business who
had started out supplying five jukeboxes from the back of his parents’
Italian grocery store. Stan
had known Sam Phillips ever since Sam first went into the business.
As the principal independent distributor in the area, he was
without question interested in this new artist—but not too
interested, because not only was the artist unknown, the genre was
untried. Still, Stan was
always open to new talent, he told Sam; what was good for one was good
The stage and seating in the auditorium- from the balcony
Photo© courtesy of Louisiana
Hayride Archives - J. Kent
Elvis meanwhile drifted over to the auditorium.
It was bigger than the Opry, with spacious dressing rooms for the
stars and a large common dressing room on the second floor.
The folding chairs on the floor could be taken up for dances or
basketball exhibitions, and the balcony curved around on either side of
the stage, giving the room a natural echo.
He walked out on the stage with his eyes fixed on the floor,
looked up once briefly as if measuring the crowd, and then walked back
to the hotel. The Negro
shacks in the Bottoms, just a few blocks from the grand auditorium
entrance, were not much different than the ram shackle structures of
Shake Rag, the poor black neighborhood in Tupelo, or the primitive
shotguns of South Memphis; Shreveport’s bustling downtown just a
couple of blocks away was busy and full of life, and when he ran into
Scotty and Bill in the hotel coffee shop, Bill already had his eye on a
Scotty, Elvis, Bill and Frank Page at the Louisiana Hayride Oct. 16,
Photo© courtesy of Louisiana
Hayride Archives - J. Kent
When Elvis arrived back at the auditorium that
night it was completely different, transformed by the presence not just
of an audience and musicians in colorful Western outfits but by the
almost palpable anticipation that something was going to happen.
He was wearing a pink jacket, white pants, a black shirt, a
brightly colored clip-on bow tie and the kind of two-tone shoes that
were known as co-respondent shoes, because they were the kind that a
snappy salesman or a co-respondent in a divorce case might be expected
to wear. Scotty and Bill
were wearing matching Western shirts with decorative bibs and dark ties.
Bill’s battered bass looked as if it were held together with
baling wire, Elvis cradled his child-size guitar, and only Scotty’s
handsome Gibson ES 295 lent a touch of professional class to the trio.
But everyone was taken with the boy.
Pappy Covington greeted Sam and the boys warmly, as if he
hadn’t seen them in months. Even
Horace Logan, renowned not just for his impresario’s instincts but for
his frosty air of self-congratulation, seemed to take to the boy—there
was something about him that brought out almost a protective quality,
even in seasoned professionals.
Sam left to take his seat in the audience.
Although he had put up a brave front all day, he really didn’t
know how it was going to come out, and he felt like he should do his
best to at least try to cue up a sympathetic response from the crowd.
He had to admit that he was worried; the boy looked as if he was
scared to death, and even though you could rationalize that they were
all experienced veterans by now—all those nights at the Eagle’s
Nest, the original triumph at the Overland Park and of course their Opry
appearance—in another way everyone knew that this could be the end of
Horace Logan was out onstage. “Is there anyone from Mississippi? Anyone from Arkansas? Let’s
hear it from the folks from Oklahoma. Now
who here’s from Louisiana? Now
how many of y’all are from the great state of Texas?”
A mighty roar went up as the Western Union clock on the wall
registered 8 o’clock precisely and the band struck up the familiar
Hayride theme, based on the old Negro “mistrel” song, “Raise a
Ruckus Tonight.” “Come
along, everybody come along,” the audience all joined in, “while the
moon is shining bright/We’re going to have a wonderful time/At the
Louisiana Hayride tonight.”
(click to hear the actual Hayride theme)
A tall, skinny singer from Shreveport with a
television show in Monroe sidled up to the new sensation—he was barely
20 himself and had been knocked out by Elvis Presley ever since hearing
the first record at Jiffy Fowler’s Twin City Amusements, a jukebox
operation in West Monroe. “I
said, ‘Hello, Elvis, my name is Merle Kilgore.’
He turned around and
said, ‘Oh, you worked with Hank Williams.’
I said, ‘Yeah.’ He
said, ‘You wrote “More and More” [a No. 1 hit for Webb Pierce in
the fall of 1954].’ I
said, ‘Yeah.’ He said,
‘I want to meet Tibby Edwards.’
It was the first thing he said to me.
Tibby recorded for Mercury, and he was a star.
I said, ‘He’s my
buddy, we room together here in Shreveport.’ And I went and got Tibby
and introduced him to Elvis. That’s
how we got to be friends.”
“JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO,” intoned announcer Frank
Page’s impressively measured radio voice, “ a young man from
Memphis, Tenn., recorded a song on the Sun label, and in just a matter
of a few weeks that record skyrocketed right up the charts.
It’s really doing good all over the country.
He’s only 19 years old. He
has a new, distinctive style. Elvis
Presley. Let’s give him a
nice hand … Elvis, how are you doing this evening?”
“Just fine, How are you, sir?”
“You all geared up with your band—“
“I’m all geared up!”
“To let us hear your songs?”
“Well, I’d like to say how happy we are to be
out here. It’s a real
honor for us to hav—get a chance to appear on the Louisiana Hayride.
And we’re going to do a song for you.
You got anything else to say, sir?”
“No, I’m ready.”
“We’re going to do a song for you we got on the
Sun record, it goes something like this…”
And with that he launched into the first side of his first Sun
(click to hear the actual Introduction)
The cheers that went up from the audience were
encouraged by Frank Page and Horace Logan as they stood to the side of
the Lucky Strike backdrop. The
microphones hanging out over the floor were turned up when Scotty took a
somewhat uncertain solo, and the audience politely responded.
Elvis was visibly nervous, his knees were practically knocking
together, and the jackknife action of his legs was about all, Sam
Phillips was convinced, that was preventing him from blowing his brains
out. The reaction was not all that different from the one he had
gotten on the Opry—he was so ill at ease it was hard for the audience
to really like him, even though it was clear to Sam that they might want
to do just that, that they were ready, like Memphis audiences, to
respond to the boy’s charm.
(click to hear the audience during solo )
In between shows Sam went backstage to talk to
Elvis. Merle Kilgore
noticed them off in a corner huddled together as Sam exhorted Elvis to
just relax: The people were there to see him, just let them see what you
got, put on your kind of show, if it didn’t work, well, the hell with
it, at least we can say we tried. Elvis,
Merle noted, looked like he was scared stiff.
Sam Phillips went to take his seat among the audience; after a
little while the trio came out to do their two numbers, but this time it
was entirely different. Much of the younger audience from the first show had stayed
for the second, and now they were ready for what the new singer had to
offer. For Sam it was a
moment never to be forgotten.
View from the stage at the Louisiana Hayride
Photo© courtesy of Louisiana
Hayride Archives - J. Kent
“There was a college up in Texarkana where Elvis
records had gotten hot, and some of the young people from that college
had turned up. Well, when
he got through that first number, they were on their feet—and not just
them either. Some big fat lady—I mean, it took an effort for her to get
up, and she got up and didn’t stop talking, right in the middle of the
next number, she didn’t know who I was, she just said, ‘Man, have
you ever heard anything that good?’
And, honestly, the tonal impact couldn’t have compared with the
Maddox Brothers and Rose, or the Carlisles, who had been on the week
before—I mean, they were pros.
But Elvis had this factor of communication, I think the audience
saw in him the desire to please, he had that little innocence about him,
and yet he had something about him that was almost impudent in a way,
that was his crutch. He
certainly didn’t mean to be impudent, but he had enough of that along
with what he could convey that was just beautiful and lovely—and
I’m not talking about his physical beauty, because he didn’t look
that pretty then or that good looking, by conventional standards he
should’ve been thrown off that stage.
But I calculated that stuff in my mind: Are they going to resent
him with his long sideburns—that could be a plus or a minus.
But when he came through like he did, it was neither.
He stood on his own.”
He did the same two numbers that he had the first
show—there were no encores, because Mr. Logan was very strict about
encores, you didn’t take one unless there was e genuine eruption of
the sort that overwhelmed Hank Williams when he sang “Lovesick
Blues” seven times in a row and could have kept going all night.
For Elvis and Scotty and Bill it wasn’t anything like that, but
all three grew visibly more confident, and Elvis, for all the terror
that had just engulfed him, responded warmly to the crowd’s enthusiasm
for him. Some of the
Hayride veterans, like 27 year old Jimmy “C” Newman, who had just
had his big hit with “Cry, Cry Darling,” regarded the proceedings
with a certain amount of suspicion.
“I’d never seen anything like it before.
Here comes this guy, I guess you could almost call him an
amateur, rings of dirt on his neck, but he had it all right from the
start. He didn’t work into it, he just knew what he was going to
do. We’d just stand in
the wings and shake our heads. ‘It
can’t be, it can’t last, it’s got to be a fad.’”
“I think he scared them a little [in the first
show],” said Merle Kilgore. “He
was really on the toes of his feet singing, I think they thought he was
going to jump off the stage. But
when he came back out, he destroyed them—by now they knew he wasn’t
going to jump off the stage and beat them, and they absolutely
“What he did,” said Jimmy “C” Newman,
“was he changed it all around. After
that we had to go to Texas to work, there wasn’t any work anywhere
else, because all they wanted was someone to imitate Elvis, to jump up
and down on the stage and make a fool of themselves.
It was embarrassing to me to see it—Elvis could do it, but few
added March 17, 2003