FOLLOWING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION in June 1953, Elvis Presley set his sights on becoming a recording artist. On July 18, he visited the Sun Records studio on Union Avenue in Memphis. There he paid $4 for the privilege of recording two songs onto one disc. Sixty years later, that disc became the most valuable record in the world.
As a form of secondary income, Sam Phillips ran the Memphis Recording Service out of the Sun offices. Artists could pay a few dollars and walk away with their own records. The day that Elvis came in, Phillips was elsewhere so the transaction was handled by Sam’s assistant, Marion Keisker.
On his first record, Elvis sang in a rather genteel style but still sounded bluesier than most white singers of the time.
The two songs were reasonably well-known ballads, My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin. Both were sung in a rather genteel style, although Elvis sounded bluesier than most white singers of the time. He accompanied himself by gently strumming his guitar.
Both recordings were cut directly onto a ten-inch, 78 rpm acetate disc. It was a one-of-a-kind disc and there were no backups made. For years, it was rumored that he made this record as a gift for his mother but it’s unlikely that Gladys Presley ever heard it.
In fact, for reasons unknown, the singer gave the record to his friend Ed Leek, apparently without playing it for anyone else. Unless Ed listened to his buddy’s record, the only person to hear those two sides over the next few decades was Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’s assistant at Sun Records that oversaw the young singer’s endeavor. 1
This is how the Elvis ten-inch acetate of My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin looks today. The label has dried and turned yellow-brown with age, with a few pieces chipped off.
What is an acetate?
In the record industry, an acetate is usually an intermediate stage in the production of the actual record. Acetates are made after the master tape but before the master disc. They are cut directly from the source and, one at a time. Rarely are more than a handful made for any record.
In the recording business, they are referred to as lacquers. They allow interested parties to check the quality of the tape-to-disc recording process and make any necessary changes to ensure that there are no problems with the final master.
Record collectors refer to these discs as acetates so that is what I call them in this article. Most of these discs never leave the studio and are discarded when no longer needed. Acetates that do survive often find their way into the collectible record market and can fetch a pretty penny from collectors
In the 1950s, Sam Phillips made these one-off discs for local musicians as a side income. His main source of income was recording blues artists and selling the masters to larger, more established record companies. His own Sun Records was so tiny as to be barely noticeable to anyone outside of Memphis.
Like lacquers, Sam’s discs were cut directly from the source, one at a time. Like lacquers, only a few survived through the years and each is collectible.
These are the two labels on the Elvis acetate. As Sun Records pinched every penny it could, the label used for the Presley disc were actually the labels for Sun 189, the Prisonaires’ Softly And Tenderly. Marion simply turned the labels over and typed the song titles and the artist’s name on the back of each. Then she glued them to the disc!
Most valuable record
In January 2015, the My Happiness / That’s When Your Heartaches Begin acetate was auctioned off and rock star Jack White was the winning bidder at $300,000. That was a record high price paid for any record of any kind, making it the most valuable record in the world—a title it retained for almost eleven months!
In December 2015, Ringo Starr’s personal copy of his old band’s 1968 album THE BEATLES was auctioned. It was a mono Parlophone pressing (PMC-7067/7068) and the jacket was numbered “No. 0000001.”
This absurdly low numbered copy of “The White Album” sold for an astoundingly high $790,000. 2
Jack White allowed the acetate to be played and recorded. A limited-edition of facsimile copies of the ten-inch 78 rpm record were made and sold on Record Store Day 2015. A seven-inch, 45 rpm single with a replication of the Sun Records label was also issued. Brand new copies of both records are still available for sale on the internet.
That’s all right
Elvis returned to the Sun studio in January 1954, forked over another $4, and cut another pair of ballads, It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You and I’ll Never Stand In Your Way. Marion remembered the young singer’s earlier attempts and this time she made a back-up tape of him singing. She played this tape for Sam Phillips, who may or may not have been impressed.
When Sam found himself with a good song and no singer a few months later, he remembered Presley and gave him a call. Unfortunately, the young singer wasn’t able to give an acceptable performance of the song. 3
Nonetheless, Sam was intrigued by the young singer and wanted to know if he knew any other songs …Elvis Presley’s first record was a one-of-a-kind acetate disc he cut in 1953; sixty years later, it sold for $300,000—a record price for a record of any kind at the time. Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of Elvis with his high school classmate Rosemary Baracco at Maywood Beach in May 1953. If Elvis was as shy as the official legend says he was, then he was a heck of an actor! At least he was a heck of an actor when posing with members of the opposite sex because this looks like the very opposite of shy! I found this cool photo on Pinterest.
1 According to Ms. Keisker, she asked the young man, “What kind of singer are you?” Elvis responded, “I sing all kinds.” Either intrigued or merely being polite, she then asked, “Who do you sound like?” And Elvis confidently replied, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
2 I did not count the $2,000,000 paid for the Wu-Tang Clan ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHAOLIN compact disc because it was a manufactured collectible. I consider the manufacture of only one copy of the CD and its subsequent sale to be an advertising effort.
3 The song Sam had was a ballad called Without You that had been given Phillips by the song’s publisher, Red Wortham. Elvis never did record the song.