On July 5th, 1954, Elvis Presley was stuck. He was in Sun Studios, the same place where he had cut his first official acetate record nearly a year before, but he had no record contract, no fan base, and no success in the music business. By his side were two musicians he had never met before, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. The three had been working all day to try and cut something that sounded good to no avail. If he didn’t hit on something soon, the teenaged Presley might have lost one of the only breaks that had come his way.
After moving to Memphis as a teenager, Presley knew that he wanted to be a singer. The only problem was that he didn’t know exactly what kind of singer he wanted to be. Upon his first arrival at Sun Studios, Presley annoyed the receptionist by refusing to categorise his singing style. He took influences from gospel, blues, jazz, country, and bluegrass. He also had ferocious energy and the ability to command a room. What he didn’t have was a song that could properly translate all of these abilities.
A full day of recording passed without a satisfying final product, so Presley started simply bash out any song he could remember on his acoustic guitar. Blues tunes and country songs came and went without making a dent, so when the group took a break, Presley began playing a wild version of ‘That’s All Right’ by delta blues musician Arthur Crudup. More untamed and loose than the original, Presley was soon joined on the impromptu jam by Moore and Black, who added lilting licks and driving rhythms to Presley’s jokey cover.
“All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them,” Moore would later recall. “Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.'”
With Black’s slap bass providing and Moore’s simple country licks backing him up, Presley got the perfect opportunity to wail. Although the recording didn’t feature Presley singing in his signature baritone drawl, it quickly became clear that his version of ‘That’s All Right’ was the sound that Presley, and Phillips, had been searching for. This was an electrifying mix of country and blues, taken fast and dangerous. When Presley said he didn’t sound like anybody at the time, he was right: he was one of the first white people to sing rock and roll.
Presley wasn’t the first rock and roll singer, nor was he even the first white rock and roll singer. Just a few months prior, Bill Haley released his version of ‘Rock Around the Clock’, which still treated rock and roll as a dance fad much in the same way that Big Joe Turner’s ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’ did. Little Richard and Chuck Berry had already released records that blues into new, high-energy territory. But what Presley was doing was completely unique and at the forefront of a new cultural movement.
The story of where rock and roll actually starts begins before Elvis was even old enough to enter a bar. Pioneers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley were all making souped-up blues music that sounded completely different from the pure blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Presley was simply an avatar for these influences – the man with the sound, the looks, and the acceptable race to be embraced by the general public and propelled into the mainstream.
Phillips wasn’t shy about his intentions: he wanted a white singer who could play black music. Presley was that man. A few days after the impromptu recording of ‘That’s All Right’, Presley, Moore, and Black returned to Sun Studios to cut a transformed version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’. With more of an emphasis on rhythm, Presley showed that he could cull from both blues and country in own music. Both songs would quickly be compiled onto a single and released only a week later.
‘That’s All Right’ began to gain traction around Memphis and soon migrated down south to the Louisiana Hayride, a country music radio programme that was open to playing blues and R&B. The house drummer at the Hayride was D.J. Fontana, who provided Presley with his first backup of percussion. The pieces of Presley’s initial rock and roll takeover were starting to land in place. Soon, Presley would move beyond Sun Studios and its signature sound, but ‘That’s All Right’ never strayed far from Presley’s life as he continued to refine and redefine rock music over the next 23 years.