The late Sun Records kingpin Sam Phillips often heard that he was crazy to part with Elvis Presley’s contract on November 21, 1955, for a mere $40,000. But at the time, Phillips needed that $40,000, and Presley needed a record label that had a bigger distribution machine than Sun.
The convergence of Presley and Sun began in 1948. That’s when Elvis and his family moved from Tupelo into the Courts housing project in Memphis. Soon, Presley got a guitar and began to practice chords. He founded a little combo that played around the project with two other future rock ’n’ roll pioneers, Dorsey and Johnny Burnette, who would become two-thirds of the Rock ’n’ Roll Trio.
Elvis’ sense of style developed faster than his musical chops. He began sporting his signature sideburns and greasing back his hair during his junior year in high school. His stock rose a notch in 1953 when he competed in an annual spring “minstrel” show sponsored by the Humes department store and was a crowd favorite. Presley also began frequenting Beale Street to absorb the sounds of the Memphis blues scene, which included Rufus Thomas, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf among other important African-American music figures – many of whom were already being recorded by Phillips for labels like Aristocrat (to be renamed Chess) and Modern.
Presley also went to virtually every burger joint and soda shop with a jukebox, where he digested the sounds of contemporary country hitmakers like Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. He also attended the monthly All Night Singings in downtown Memphis, listening to gospel performers. By the time he graduated later that year, Presley had built an impressive musical sensibility and knew that was where his future would lay.
The next year Presley’s fateful first meeting with Phillips occurred, when he came to Phillips’ Sun Recording Service to cut a vanity recording. Phillips liked Presley’s performance of “My Happiness” enough to ask his secretary to jot down the young vocalist’s contact info. There was a second trip to Sun in January 1954, but it took until July of that year for Phillips to audition Presley to see if the cocky but polite youth might be the “white singer with a black sound” that he was looking for. That combination, Phillips was convinced, would make him a million bucks.
It was Phillips who introduced Presley to the guitarist that would become an integral part of Elvis’ early sound: Winfield “Scotty” Moore. Phillips paired Moore and bassist Bill Black with the singer and asked them to work up some songs to record. The results were ultimately magical, after rocky starts and many takes.
Moore, in his Sun recordings with Elvis like their version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and the anthemic “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” would define the sound of rockabilly guitar for the many who came after him. And though those recordings and Elvis’ early hits for RCA, like “Heartbreak Hotel,” Moore became – and remains – the definitive champion of the Gibson ES-295 model. To this day a painstaking special-order-built version of Moore’s distinctively emblazoned hollowbody ES-295 remains available in the Gibson Custom Shop’s catalog.
Before that July, Presley had been to a series of failed auditions for other groups and worked a string of routine jobs. But his fortune changed late in the night of July 5 when the trio’s first real sessions with Phillips resulted in a scalding take of “That’s All Right.” Three days later, the king of Memphis disc jockeys Dewey Phillips spun the tune on his popular Red, Hot and Blue nighttime show, and the caller requests came so hot that he repeatedly played the tune for two hours. In short order, Phillips had Presley, Moore and Black back in his one-car-garage sized studio to cut a B-side, launching Elvis Presley’s career.
Soon the three men were playing clubs and outdoor gigs all over Memphis. Then they jumped to major showcases that were also broadcast over the airwaves, including Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. Adding Hayride house drummer D.J. Fontana to their band, they began crisscrossing the south and west as their recordings with Sun – “Milkcow Boogie Blues,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone,” “Mystery Train” and more – took their sound even further.
In August 1955 Presley added Col. Tom Parker to his payroll as advisor, and the sharp, conniving Parker quickly elbowed Presley’s manager out. By November 1955, when Presley appeared at the country music disc jockey convention, he was voted the nation’s most promising new male artist and three major labels were vying for his contract. Parker and Phillips, whose weak Sun infrastructure was overwhelmed by the demand for Presley’s records and was struggling to barely keep up with demand, extracted an offer of $40,000 from RCA Records and signed the deal on November 21.
Presley was only 20 at the time, so his father had to sign the contract for him. By the end of the end of the year, RCA had reissued many of Presley’s Sun sides and determined to move his recording base to Nashville, where the first session – which included heavy hitters Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer and backing singers the Jordanaires, produced “Heartbreak Hotel,” a riff-driven hit so powerful it propelled Presley to national television and the world, setting him on a path to become both rock’s biggest star and its most pathetic casualty.
As for Phillips, he never found another Presley, or another B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf or Ike Turner, for that matter. But he did use that money to begin building an empire that included radio stations and hotels, and preserved his legacy, ensuring that his former Sun Recording Company on Union Street in Memphis is today one of the most popular tourist attractions in that great American music city.