Elvis may have been the king, but was he first?

Sunday, July 04, 2004, Ed Masley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It was 50 years ago tomorrow, the Fifth of July, that a young Elvis Presley, a truck-driving R&B scholar from Tupelo, Miss., took his first step down the road to being crowned the king of rock 'n' roll in his first night of sessions at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service.

Elvis Presley, stationed with a U.S. Army unit near Frankfurt, Germany, visited Bill Haley backstage during Haley's concert on Oct. 24, 1958. Presley wanted to attend the concert, but Frankfurt police asked that he stay backstage for fear his appearance might cause a crush of his admirers. Click photo for larger image. It hadn't been going especially well, and by Phillips' account, after hours of fruitless recording, he'd stopped the session, telling Elvis they should maybe try again some other day.

And that's about the time it happened. As Phillips recalled in an A&E "Biography" three years before his death in July 2003, "I turned around and walked back into the control room and was getting ready to close the door when I heard Elvis doing 'That's All Right.'" And Elvis doing "That's All Right" was even better than the different sound Phillips was hoping to capture -- making good on the promise he thought he'd seen in Presley the previous summer when the kid had cut a melancholy version of "My Happiness," a promise that haunted the veteran producer enough that he'd called Elvis back for an audition months later.

As intrigued as Phillips was by the unchecked, gospel-fueled emotion in his vocals, nothing had prepared him for the sound of the 19-year-old with a soft spot for ballads "acting the fool," as the session's guitarist Scotty Moore would later describe it in the liner notes to one of several Elvis box sets, on an Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup blues. As Phillips would recall in that same A&E "Biography" telecast, "I turned around, walked back in there and I said, 'Elvis, we've been working on this thing for two or three months. You've been holding out on me. You had this all the time.' And he said, 'Mr. Phillips, I really didn't know. I've just loved Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup ever since I heard his first hit.'"

It was early 1956 before he'd top the pop charts for an eight-week run with that first RCA release, "Heartbreak Hotel," but Elvis clearly found his sound that day -- July 5, 1954 -- at the Memphis Recording Service with Phillips, Moore and bassist Bill Black. Had he never found that sound, it's hard to say whether or not we'd still be celebrating 50 years of rock 'n' roll. Is it fair to celebrate July 5, 2004, as the golden anniversary of rock 'n' roll, as the folks at the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Rolling Stone and the Hard Rock Cafe have decided to do? As Little Steven, E Street Band guitarist, "Sopranos" star and host of "Little Steven's Underground Garage" sees it, "There are a lot of dates that you could use, but that's a legitimate one. I got no problem with people using that if they want to use it. But a whole lot happened before that. OK? Like a lot.

"Most people take it back to Jackie Brenston's 'Rocket "88" ' in 1951. Some people use doo-wop. You've got very early stuff from Lloyd Price. People point to Louis Jordan. People point to Howlin' Wolf, who Sam Phillips also produced, which makes Sam Phillips extraordinarily important before he even got to Elvis Presley. But that's cool, you know. Whatever." Just don't pin the anniversary on Elvis, Little Steven says, without including Moore and Black, "without whom," he insists, "there would not be an important Elvis Presley moment. Those supposed sidemen were extremely important. Essential. OK? They created something that was legitimately a turning point in history, no doubt about it. They were the rockabilly archetype."

Colin Escott, a music historian whose books include "Hank Williams: The Biography" and "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll," says he prefers to think of tomorrow as "the 50th anniversary of Elvis recording 'That's All Right, Mama.' " Not that Escott's knocking Elvis. "Elvis was so important," he says. "There's no getting around it. It just kind of seems to imply that there was nothing before Elvis. And I know John Lennon said there wasn't, but, you know, there was. There really was.

There was Bill Haley. I mean Bill Haley, God bless him, he was in the charts with 'Crazy Man Crazy' in 1953, which is rock 'n' roll by any definition I can think of. And you know, he was recording 'Rocket "88" ' back in 1951." Seminal moments in early rock history Regardless of whether you consider Elvis recording "That's All Right" the birth of rock 'n' roll, it's worth considering these other key moments in pre-Presley rock 'n' roll history: July 1, 1946 -- The Ravens, the first black vocal group to make continuous use of a bass vocalist and a falsetto tenor on lead, not to mention the first R&B group known to incorporate dance steps into the act, hit the streets with a "race music" 78 called "Honey," their debut.

April, 1948 -- Muddy Waters, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, cuts his breakthrough single for Chess' Aristocrat imprint, "I Can't Be Satisfied/I Feel Like Going Home." It climbs the R&B charts. Aug. 11, 1948 -- Often cited as the first R&B vocal group, The Orioles enter the R&B charts with "It's Too Soon to Know." Their debut single, it tops the R&B charts and becomes the first "race music" record to crack the Top 15 on the pop charts.

January 1950 -- Sam Phillips opens the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, also the future address of Sun Records. March 5, 1951 -- Saxophonist Jackie Brenston takes the mike to lead Ike Turner's band through "Rocket '88' " at the Memphis Recording Service. Released on Chess, it's often cited, with good reason, as the first true rock 'n' roll song. Before the year is out, it's "motorvated" all the way to No. 1 on the R&B charts and been covered by Bill Haley with his pre-Comets Saddlemen.

Oct. 16, 1951 -- Little Richard makes his first recordings in Atlanta for RCA Camden. The sessions were arranged by a heavily made-up, pompadoured singer, Billy Wright, of whom Little Richard later told the Post-Gazette, "I copied the way he dressed and the way he looked, his demeanor. I copied it, you know."

March, 1952 -- Sun Records is launched with "Drivin' Slow" by Johnny London, a black 17-year-old saxophone player.

March 21, 1952 -- The Moondog Coronation Ball, thrown by DJ Alan Freed, draws more than 20,000 R&B fans to the 10,000-seat Cleveland Arena, causing a riot.

July 12, 1952 -- New Orleans' Lloyd Price spends the first of seven weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts with "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (with Fats Domino on piano) on Specialty Records, later home to Little Richard.

Sept. 11, 1952 -- Ray Charles cuts his first Atlantic sides, including the soulful, gospel-flavored "The Sun's Gonna Shine Again," a Charles original and a blueprint for soul. Dec. 31, 1952 -- When Johnnie Johnson's saxophonist calls in sick on New Year's Eve, he hires a fill-in guitarist, Chuck Berry, a reform-school graduate who could play the guitar just like a-ringin' a bell. With Johnson on piano, Berry would emerge with "Too Much Monkey Business," "Maybellene" and other three-chord treasures as the poet laureate of pre-Bob Dylan rock 'n' roll.

March 8, 1953 -- Phillips cuts his first Sun Records hit, Rufus Thomas's "Bear Cat," whose resemblance to Big Mama's Thornton's "Hound Dog" gets him sued. He loses.

May 23, 1953 -- Bill Haley and his newly christened Comets land the Top debut in Cash Box (No. 19) with a rocker called "Crazy Man Crazy." It's the first rock 'n' roll song to enter the Billboard pop charts, where it's also a Top 20 entry.

April 12, 1954 -- Haley and His Comets cut "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock," the first chart-topping rock 'n' roll song. -- Ed Masley Ike Turner's "Rocket '88,' " a 1951 recording with Turner saxophonist Jackie Brenston on lead vocals, is often cited as the first true rock 'n' roll recording. (It's worth noting, however, that at least two people, authors Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, prefer to trace the music back as far as 1944's "Jazz at the Philharmonic: Blues, Part 2" in their book, "What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?")

Even Phillips, who cut the Brenston record at his Memphis Studio, has said he'd go with "Rocket '88' " as the earliest rock 'n' roll record. The difference between the Brenston original and Haley's cover with the Saddlemen, says Escott, is that "Brenston's record was an R&B record. Haley did a white cover version that was kind of true to the spirit of the original but was really aimed at teens." And rock 'n' roll, as Escott notes, was all about the kids. "Haley had figured that out," he says. "Wynonie Harris [who scored a hit with a cover of Roy Brown's classic "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1948, years before Elvis would cover it] hadn't. R&B and country music were by, for and about adults."

Richard Aquila, producer, host and writer of NPR's "Rock & Roll America," says of Haley, "For me, the defining question is: When did the music become something 'different'? In other words, something that was no longer just rhythm & blues or just a cover of a rhythm & blues song by white artists. That moment probably happens for the first time when [Haley] had a hit on the pop charts called 'Crazy Man Crazy' in 1953. Haley wrote it; it blended R&B Beats with country & western stylings and had pop lyrics aimed at white teenagers. It wasn't R&B, wasn't country, and wasn't just pop. It truly was a new sound."

One reason Haley doesn't get his due, as Escott and Aquila see it, is the way he looked. Says Escott, "He just doesn't fit into the designer history of rock 'n' roll because he doesn't look cool. "He was a goofy-looking, middle-aged guy with a stupid kiss curl. But he was doing what I and anyone who's really thought about it would consider rock 'n' roll years earlier.

The thing about Haley and Presley is that kids wanted to be Elvis. They didn't want to be Bill Haley." An evolution of sound Howard Kramer, curatorial director for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, sees a deeper problem in tying the birth of rock 'n' roll to those first Elvis sessions at Sun, although he doesn't hesitate to hail the singer's take on "That All Right" as "revolutionary." The premise of nailing it down to a date is wrong, he says. "That's like asking what day jazz was born. Like any movement in music, it developed over a period of time. But it wasn't commercially solidified in 1954."

There were some scattered hits, though. Haley and His Comets took a Big Joe Turner cover, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" to No. 7. The Penguins, an R&B group, went Top 40 in December with "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)." And the R&B charts were alive with such classics as The Midniters' "Roll With Me Annie," The Chords' "Sh-Boom," The Robins' "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" and "Framed," Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters' "Honey Love" and Turner's original take on "Shake, Rattle and Roll." But Kramer's right when he suggests that things picked up in 1955, the year Bill Haley and his Comets spent eight weeks at No. 1 with the monster hit "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock." Recorded three months earlier than "That's All Right," it didn't click until it turned up in the Glenn Ford youth-gone-wild film "The Blackboard Jungle."

"If we're gonna be technical about the breaking of rock 'n' roll as a new member of the commercial mainstream," Little Steven says, "then you would have to use 'Rock Around the Clock,' the first No. 1 rock 'n' roll record, OK? That's what officially broke rock 'n' roll. Until then, it was very much an underground thing, a teenage thing. It wasn't considered a serious part of the mainstream until 'Rock Around the Clock.' "

As Kramer notes, though, by the time the Comets hit the top that summer, rock 'n' roll had already arrived in the industry's eyes with Alan Freed's surprisingly successful Easter shows at the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn. When he hit the New York airwaves in September 1954, the Cleveland DJ had already secured himself at least a footnote in rock history books on the strength of his "Moondog Coronation Ball," a 1952 concert that drew 25,000 loyal listeners, mostly black, to the Cleveland Arena for a show that featured Paul Williams, the Dominoes and other early R&B stars. There were plenty of DJs spinning R&B in New York City at the time, but Freed had the power of WINS, a major station, behind him.

"In January of '55, he promoted a show that was very successful that shook up the music establishment because it was so successful," Kramer says. "But when he did the Paramount shows, if you go back and look at the press of the time -- and we actually did the research -- the music press, Cashbox and Billboard and even contemporary news accounts said that rock 'n' roll clearly is not a fad. It's here to stay. Because the buzz at the time was, how long will this last? Six months? A year?" Johnnie Johnson, who played piano on Chuck Berry's greatest hits, was on a Freed bill at the Paramount the first time he heard anybody mention rock 'n' roll. It was the night his bandmate introduced his legendary duck walk to the stage show. "The kids were just having a ball," he says.

"And Alan Freed said, 'Well, look at 'em rockin' and rollin'." And right in the middle of his statement, he said, 'Hey, why don't we call this music rock 'n' roll music?' And that to me, was the birth of rock 'n' roll music." Or if not the birth, the naming. The race issue "Rock 'n' Roll," says Little Steven, "was a name that Alan Freed put on rhythm and blues. 'Rhythm and blues,' when it became a smaller band type of situation, right around the Louis Jordan era, when they couldn't afford to have the big bands anymore, after World War II, ... was a word that meant black. So Alan Freed very cleverly said, 'I need to call it something else 'cause I'm playing black records for white kids and I'm gonna get assassinated.'" Instead, he was run out of town on charges of payola.

Or as Little Steven likes to see it, "He did get assassinated in a sense. He was eventually punished for his sins." The role of black American musicians in the birth of rock 'n' roll has been the source of heated anti-Elvis sentiment for decades, much of it positioning the singer as a cultural imperialist ripping off black music for a racist demographic. Rapper Chuck D. famously dismissed him as a "straight up racist" in one of the angrier verses of Public Enemy's incendiary "Fight the Power" back in 1989. Even Elvis himself was quoted in 1958 as saying, "Rock 'n' roll has been around for many years. It used to be called rhythm and blues."

But Johnson doesn't see the harm in tying a celebration of rock 'n' roll's 50th anniversary to something Elvis did. "Back in that era," he says, "it was Carl Perkins with 'Blue Suede Shoes' and Chuck Berry with 'Maybellene,' coming up with the rock 'n' roll. Any one of those could be used as a rock 'n' roll beginning." As fond as Little Richard is of proclaiming himself "the architect, the originator, the emancipator of rock 'n' roll," even he could see that Elvis was a "very different" breed.

In 1998 he told the Post-Gazette, "I think Elvis was one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived. He was very electrifying, very good-looking and a very beautiful person, a very sweet person, very tender and gentle. I think he died much too early." Even Chuck D. came around in time to qualify his statements on the 25th anniversary of the singer's death in 2002, telling Newsday, "As a musicologist -- and I consider myself one -- there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all knew that. My whole thing was the one-sidedness -- like, Elvis' icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. ... "My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being 'The King,' I couldn't buy that."

If Chuck D. has mellowed on Elvis with age, there are others still fighting the power. Earlier this year, Bo Diddley told the Bergen County (N.J.) Record, "They jumped up and said that Elvis Presley started rock 'n' roll and changed the face of music. That's the biggest lie ever told. I don't care nothin' about Elvis doin' what he did. He was good. I hate that he's gone. But he didn't do what everybody said. He had [Col. Tom Parker] behind him pushing. "I've found out that whoever has the money makes the rules. And Parker had a few bucks behind him, and he shoved [Elvis] down people's throats till they decided to go ahead and swallow him." It didn't hurt, of course, that Elvis wasn't black.

"The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll" quotes Phillips' secretary, Marion Keisker, as recalling, "I remember Sam saying, 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.' " And that's exactly what he found in Elvis -- well, except the billion dollars. But in many ways, that only underscores Elvis' crucial role in the development of rock 'n' roll. As Kramer says, "There's no question that Elvis Presley was not the first artist performing this music. But there's just no way, in 1955 and '56, that a massive amount of popular white radio stations were gonna be playing black artists. They just weren't doing it.

Racism was even more endemic in the country then than it is now. Black artists were marginalized by the music industry and the broadcast industry. "The fact was white artists were playing to a larger audience. It was economics. If rock 'n' roll had swept the African-American population, it still would have represented less than 20 percent of the record-buying public. That would not make it a huge national sensation." But Elvis was handed the keys to the kingdom, which opened a lot of doors for black musicians while at the same time overshadowing their contributions. And a lot of black artists admired what Elvis was doing, says Aquila.

"In the '50s, black artists in Memphis like Rufus Thomas and BB King admired Elvis' music, and Elvis looked up to them as legendary R&B singers. Elvis was no mere impersonator or minstrel in blackface who appropriated African-American music. He was the real thing -- an authentic artist who created his own blend of R&B, white pop, gospel and country & western. There was no racial agenda at work here. "Obviously, the reaction of many white Americans to the new music in the 1950s reflects the racism of the day, but that doesn't mean that Elvis' success was the result of racism. Just the opposite in fact. Elvis transcended the racism of the day; he was a harbinger of cultural integration."

And cultural change in general. When Elvis exploded in 1956, it really was what Kramer calls the "knockout punch" for rock 'n' roll -- commercially at least. "When his success blew up," he says, "it was game over. There was no question of whether it was gonna stay." As for how old the music was the day he threw that knockout punch, that's something even Elvis couldn't tell you. Party time Still, there's no real harm, as Kramer sees it, in throwing a party tomorrow. "If the Memphis CVB, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, sees this as a way to help raise their profile, then more power to them," Kramer says, with a laugh. "They're entitled. If you can line up Justin Timberlake and Scotty Moore and Isaac Hayes to talk about it, great, phenomenal. Get more people to come visit Memphis. It's a great city. Eat some barbecue."

Would we be celebrating anything if Elvis had never played that Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup song that night at the Memphis Recording Service? That depends on whom you ask. Aquila says, of course we would. "Had Elvis not appeared," he says, "some other similar figure would have emerged. The time was right. All the ingredients were in place. The music was already established; the media were ready; the teenagers were ready. All that was needed was an Elvis-type cat to emerge as the personification of the sound, someone with talent, good looks and who could appeal to the young generation."

Would Gene Vincent have been telegenic enough? Did he have good enough management? "Presley was fortunate. He had the shrewdest, most cunning and vicious manager that you could possibly have, and the guy did everything right for the first few years of his Elvis' career."

Kramer thinks it's trickier than that. "I think for rock 'n' roll to be as big as it was 50 years ago, you needed a rallying point. And Presley was that guy. I don't know if there would have been another guy like him because Sam Phillips wouldn't have had the money to make Carl Perkins that guy had he not found Presley in the first place. Rick Nelson wouldn't have been playing rock 'n' roll had it not been for Elvis.

And while he may seem tame compared to 50 Cent or G.G. Allin, it's important to remember, Little Steven says, that Elvis was considered fairly dangerous when he first hit, his image presenting an archetype for a long line of rock 'n' roll wild men, from Gene Vincent through the Stones and Iggy Pop to classic punk and metal, even hip-hop. "It's hard to discuss these things," Little Steven admits, with a laugh, "You listen to Elvis now and he sounds like an opera singer. But back then, he was completely crude and primitive and like an animal to them. And that was new for white audiences, man. It really, really was. They had no context.

And then, on top of that, he performed like a black guy. And this was really extremely important and dramatic and frightening to people. He was the first. And it was looked on like, 'My God, this guy is completely obscene. He's crazy. He's out of control.' " And what could be more rock 'n' roll than that? --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(Pop music critic Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com)