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 session.

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 eye makeup.

Saturday night Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman
photo courtesy Hillbilly music

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 ghost.”

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 going.

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 broadcast.  Someone 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 know.”

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 for all.

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 pretty waitress…

Scotty, Elvis, Bill and Frank Page at the Louisiana Hayride Oct. 16, 1954
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 the line.

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)
.mp3 68 Kb     .wma 191 Kb

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 single.

(click to hear the actual Introduction)
.mp3 134 Kb     .wma 367 Kb

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 )
.mp3 24 Kb     .wma  71 Kb

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 exploded.”

“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 others could.” 

added March 17, 2003


This article appeared in the L.A. Times Weekly and is adapted from “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, “ ã1994 by Peter Guralnick,  the first volume of a two-volume biography published by Little, Brown and Company.  Reprinted by permission of Peter Guralnick.
Peter Guralnick’s previous books include “Feel Like Going Home,” “Lost Highway” and “Sweet Soul Music.”  

 picture of book
Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

by Peter Guralnick


The Audio Clips used here are from the Complete Louisiana Hayride Archives by permission of J. Kent

Good Rockin' Tonight-The Complete Louisiana Hayride Archives [LIVE]
by Music Mill  

Be sure also to visit Stage of Stars Museum at Shreveports Historical Municpal Memorial Auditorium

Home History Discography Scrapbook Guitars etc... The Studios

The Venues

In the Press Tour Dates Links Search

This site created and managed by James V. Roy for Scotty Moore with the sole intent to help promote the arts and history of American popular music and Scotty's major role in it. Every attempt was made to give credit for any images or text borrowed from the World Wide Web and we greatly appreciate the use of it. Technical difficulties or questions dealing with this Server should be addressed to the Webmaster. Copyright © 2002, 2014