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Music

The unknown mystery singer who Elvis Presley stole his voice from

@TomTaylorFO

There are some things in music that we don’t even think about people writing, they just seem to be there. Christmas Carols, for instance, you can’t really picture anyone actually sitting down and penning them as you hum out a timeless tune amid a flurry. And it isn’t just the old stuff either, certain songs and sounds just seem to hold as natural a place in culture as spring blooming into summer.

This notion was hinted at when Hoagy Carmichael declared of the songwriting process, “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’

In a meta sense that seems to even truer. The notion of Elvis Presley not coming along and hip-snaking the pop culture revolution into motion is unfathomable—where the hell would music be without him? And beyond that question, there is a tale that renders the whole thing rather mystic and resides with a mystery that took more than a lifetime to solve.  

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On June 26th, 1954, an 18-year-old Elvis Presley received a phone call from Sun Records. His previous encounter with Sun Records was when he paid $4 to record the song ‘My Happiness’ as a gift for his mother, Gladys. This was a standard way for a studio to earn a bit of extra cash back in the day, but when Elvis rolled in, he sent a few eyebrows rocketing. Thus, producer Sam Phillips thought he might be a good fit for a track titled ‘Without You’, which came into his possession in the May of 1954.

However, the unusual thing about the ‘Without You’ demo is that nobody knew who the original singer was. Adding to the mystery is that he was so good that a young Elvis apparently exclaimed, “I hate him. Why can’t I sing like that?” He tried his best to do so for the rest of his career and his own style was spawned, even if ‘Without You’ was abandoned for songs that suited his pipes better. 

However, the influence of the ‘Without You’ mystery man would reverberate in history forevermore, as Greil Marcus said in the 1975 book Mystery Train of the demo that came from nowhere: “Most of all, anyone who listens hears Elvis… The unnamed singer’s voice is full of pain and full of acceptance; gliding along the stately lines of the song, reaching for solace, falling short, reaching again.”

Producer Phillips said that he got the track from Nashville’s Peer-Southern Music, but the authors of the song, Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, claimed he must’ve got it from Nashville State Penitentiary, where he had been recording with a group of inmates called The Prisonaries. And that was that, there was a road block in the case and it seemed that the future of pop culture had simply crept down from the ether to fatefully land on Mr Presley’s young shoulders and leave nothing in its wake and everything ahead of it.

The most obvious conclusion was that it must’ve been an inmate and that’s why nobody stepped forward in the interim years to say that they kicked off the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. After all, a lot of people tell a lot of stories in prison so an inmate claiming he launched Elvis’ career was probably taken with the same pinch of salt as when he said he was ‘totally innocent, y’know’. 

Alas, a prisoner was the most promising lead but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until very recently that music producer Chris Kennedy finally made the discovery that it was Nashville singer Jimmy Sweeney. Sweeney passed in 1992 and quit the music industry thirty years before that, but his daughter Eugenia confirmed Kennedy’s suspicion that it was her father singing on the demo.

She commented: “He would’ve loved it quietly. He wouldn’t have made a big deal out of it, you know? But he was very modest – I think modest to a fault. But he would have really enjoyed knowing that finally, somebody is giving him some credit.”

In a MOJO interview, she said: “I would learn that the applause, accolades and positive reviews had not been enough to make him feel secure. I learned that my father never believed in himself. He never felt worthy of success. He quit the business to devote himself to his family.

Continuing: “He could have done so much more and when I asked him whether there were any regrets, he quietly said, ‘No.'” Perhaps that’s not surprising when he seems to have ushered the king towards his rocking throne after all. 

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