I have been creating Youtube Tours for my newsletter subscribers for several years. In each one I choose a theme, pull together a bunch of videos, and weave them into interesting stories. This was one of my early ones, and little did I realize what a big can of worms I was opening. Elvis made a lot of music over the years, and it was a challenge to figure out what to include- and how to keep it from becoming a whole book. I ultimately decided to take it up to the point when he left Sun Records, the tiny recording studio in Memphis that broke Elvis’ first recordings, along with the likes of Howling’ Wolf, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. One day, I’ll do another installment starting with his move to RCA, but for this tour, I ask the questions “who did Elvis listen to in his early life, and throughout the time when he was starting out as a singer and performer?” I am always interested in the roots of the great music I hear. Understanding what music and artists came together in Elvis’s formative years, is a big step in the direction of understanding what rockabilly music is all about.
Elvis was born in 1935, in Tupelo, MS. He lived there until he was 13. On the radio during that period, he heard a range of styles that have many common threads. In country, western swing bands were filling dance halls, and mixing old country and fiddle tunes with boogie woogie and blues to sew the seeds of honky tonk. The stars during that time included Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell. The billboard chart label of this style was Hillbilly, and changed to Country and Western in 1949. On the black radio stations, the seeds of rhythm and blues could be found in the swinging dance music of Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Cab Calloway, and Lonnie Johnson. (The term Rhythm and Blues was coined to replace “race music” around 1948, and adopted by Billboard in 1949, replacing “Harlem’s Hit Parade”) It was these two branches, together with southern gospel, that formed the foundation of a sound that would fuel Elvis’s rise to stardom beginning in 1956, when he was still in high school.
Elvis’s family started his teen years by moving to Memphis in 1948. By that time R&B was getting a good foothold, mostly in urban areas (in particular, Beale Street, in the heart of downtown Memphis). Boogie grooves figured prominently, and stars like Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Big Mama Thornton and Clyde McPhatter provided some of Elvis’s early songs, as did the late 40s and early 50s country stars, including bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. One of the first songs that used the term Honky Tonk in it’s name was Meade Lux Lewis’ Honky Tonk Train Blues. If you listen to his left hand, you can say the words honky tonk a honky tonk a honky tonk along with the rhythm. It is full of cool train sounds laid over the groove, which is solid boogie woogie.
Close To Home-
Some of the music that was close to home for Elvis included the hometown country star of WELO Radio in Tupelo, Mississippi Slim. Elvis was also a huge fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was an excellent singer and guitar player fluent in both gospel and rocking R&B. He used to go to all night gospel sings in Memphis featuring the Statesman Quartet led by bass singer Jim Wetherington, aka Big Chief. The rhythm section, along with the percussive vocal “m-bop,m-bop-m-bop” make it nearly impossible to listen without at least bopping your head. Combined with rich vocals and totally cool harmonies, and the effect it had on crowds, it’s easy to hear how much this music inspired Elvis throughout the years. (he would later have the excellent Jordanaires sing on many of his recordings and at shows). There is one more thing about the Statesmen Quartet that got Elvis’s attention. Their clothes were fine, silky fabrics, which, when the Big Chief would wiggle his leg to the rhythm, attracted a crowd of women to gather near the stage. Clearly, Elvis took note.
In the public housing complex that he and his family occupied in Memphis, he had a few friends that he used to play music with. They each made records and had some commercial success. Jesse James Lee Denson was a couple years older and was a guitar mentor to Elvis. Johnny and Dorsey Burnette (guitar and bass) hung out and jammed with Elvis and Jesse, and got a recording contract and some regular bookings while Elvis was still searching for a hit, and working after school jobs.
Coming Into His Own-
During his junior year, Elvis started styling his hair with rose oil and vaseline, and heading to Beale Street to catch the great music and dream of dressing in sharp clothes like those in the windows of Lansky Brothers. As soon as he started making money from his gigs, he began his collection of fancy clothes- like the pink sport coat and matching shoes- that usually only black men could pull off. This video has a slide show with several photos of Elvis dressed in these silky suits, with audio of the trio (Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black) at their first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. It was one of their first out of town bookings. They perform both sides of their first single- That’s Alright Mama and Blue Moon Of Kentucky.
Before long, the guys were playing pretty regularly. Their rockin music, combined with showmanship and Elvis’s stylin’ look, made a big splash- particularly with the girls and women. His shaking started out partly as stage fright, but he quickly noticed it’s effect and repeated the moves that got the most reaction. Their show repertoire included covers linked above, along with Ray Charles’ I Got A Woman, Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, Lonnie Johnson’s Tomorrow Night, Chuck Berry’s Mabelline and Little Junior’s Blue Flames’ Mystery Train. TV appearances, high profile shows, and the meteoric rise of the Sun recordings up the charts led RCA Records to offer Sam Phillips an unprecedented $40,000. for Elvis’s contract.
So, there you have it- a window into what Elvis was listening to as he developed the style, sound and look that would sweep the country and forever change music. I hope you have enjoyed the ride, and that you checked out at least some the video links. If so, let me know by leaving a comment, and/or share this with your favorite roots music kindred spirits. Thanks for following me down this rabbit hole!