Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sun Studio Tour: Black, White & Blue Suede Shoes

This summer, we were "walking in Memphis," strolling down Beale Street and listening to blues at the home of the "Beale Street Blues Boy" - B. B. King's Blues Bar. As an admitted Elvis fanatic, I had to go to the South's Mecca and so off to Graceland we went. It was a wonderful, albeit bittersweet, experience. However, it was an impromptu stop at Sun Studios and subsequent tour that would make the biggest impression on me from our time in Memphis.

Owner Sam Phillips had worked as a DJ for an Alabama radio station which had an "open format" that broadcasted music from both white and black musicians. Living in the 21st century, it's hard for us to get our minds around the significance of that; however, being allowed to play the music of both white and black musicians in the segregated South was of monumental significance in shaping Sam Phillips as a music producer and, in the larger context, rock-n-roll itself. In fact, the generally accepted first rock-n-roll record, "Rocket 88" was recorded by Phillips. The band was Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by 19-year-old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song.

Sun Studios recorded the "Prisonaires," an African-American blues group made up of prisoners in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. Phillips arranged for the group to be transported under armed guard to Memphis to record. A few weeks later, Just Walkin' in the Rain was released and quickly sold 50,000 copies. Their success was such they were allowed out on day passes to play around the state. The band became a favorite of then Gov. Clement and frequently played at his mansion. The group was reportedly the inspiration for a certain trio of jailbirds famously depicted in O Brother Where Art Thou.

Phillips' had a desire to record the music of the African-American community and did record B. B. King and numerous R & B pioneers. He discovered Johnny Cash, as well as a white boy with a black sound from right there in Memphis named Elvis Presley.

One of the best parts of the Sun Studio tour for me was the realization that Elvis' discovery wasn't by chance. Instead, Elvis fervently pursued a career in music. The story about recording a record for his Mom's birthday? Probably a PR mythology. The Presleys didn't own a record player and he could have recorded it cheaper at a local drug s tore. Elvis was trying to be discovered. Sam Phillips gets the credit, but it was his long-time assistant, Marion Keisker who championed the would-be singer. Elvis had recorded a ballad, My Happiness, but Phillips was looking for something new. Marion thought Elvis had something special and would bring his name up to Phillips at just the right time. She and Elvis had a famous exchange upon meeting: I said, "What kind of singer are you?" He said, "I sing all kinds." I said, "Who do you sound like?" He said, "I don't sound like nobody."

Unlike Graceland, where things are cordoned off and under glass, at Sun Studios you stand in the studio where rock-n-roll greats stood. On the same floor tiles. Under the same ceiling tiles. And you can hold the actual microphone Elvis used. It becomes to real to you.

When you hear That's Alright, Mamma juxtaposed with clips of music from that era, you realize just how revolutionary it was! Phillips gave a copy to a local DJ at WHBQ who had to play it 14 times in a row because of the overwhelming audience response. Elvis was persuaded to go to the radio station for an interview where the DJ made sure to include a question about which high school he attended as a way to let the audience know his race without directly asking the question.

It was providential that Phillips and Sun Studios were in Memphis, the home of the Civil Rights Museum, because they were part of that movement. As Michael Bertrand discusses in his book, Race, Rock, and Elvis, "An unprecedented access to African-American culture challenged Presley's generation to reassess age-old segregationist stereotypes." The recording of Elvis, a white boy with a black sound, the embrace of the music of Ray Charles by a white audience, and the merging of musical styles broke down the barriers of a segregated society. In that sense, in the '50s, there really was a whole lotta shakin' going on!