I RECENTLY DISCOVERED QUORA, a sorta social media website with a mission: “To share and grow the world’s knowledge.” They do this by allowing registered members (it’s free and easy) to ask questions and other members to offer answers. When I signed up, I ticked off a number of categories of interest to me, and these are the questions that Quora sends me via email every day. One of the first questions on one of my first emails concerned Elvis Presley’s “musicianship.”
Of course, I had to answer. But it took me more than a week to compose the answer (I am a slow writer), and by then other answers had been posted. As mine was the most comprehensive, I posted it anyway.
In my answer, I explained that the “question” consisted of two parts: a question concerning Presley’s “musicianship,” and a somewhat jumbled version of music history. I addressed both.
Below find a slightly altered version of my answer to the question “Was Elvis Presley a great musician?”
Keep in mind that this is not intended for informed Presley fans or historians. It’s a very general answer intended for an audience with little knowledge of Elvis or rock & roll.
Sam Phillips at his control board and lathe at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, where he recorded and cut records for local musicians. (Date unknown.)
Sam Phillips and Sun Records
Sun Records was a tiny, obscure company in Memphis owned by Sam Phillips. On paper, it was a one-man operation, but he had the assistance of Marion Keisker, technically his secretary but involved in running many aspects of the operation. Sam recorded local musicians in his minuscule studio, mostly black bluesmen.
The better sides were sold or leased to bigger labels, some of which were decent R&B hits. Other sides were released on Sun, few of which sold outside of Memphis, hence their rarity as collectables.
Sam had recorded a few white artists, most of them straight country. It is part of the legend that he said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” While it’s a great anecdote, there is no evidence that he ever actually said it then—aside from his and Marion’s memories.
There is also no evidence that he actively sought such a talent and he certainly never sent anyone to a black church to hear a young white singer named Elvis Presley.
Little Richard recorded his first single for RCA Victor in 1951 but didn’t find his style for almost four more years when Tutti Frutti rocked the rhythm & blues and pop charts! This photo was taken in the studio in late 1955. (Ooh, my soul!)
Elvis and Sun Records
In 1953, Elvis visited the Memphis Recording Service, a side operation of Sun that allowed anyone to make a record. The company claimed, “We record anything—anywhere—anytime. A complete service to fill every recording need.”
Elvis paid to record two cut sides, which were pressed as a one-of-a-kind 78 rpm single. Both sides were ballads, featuring Presley singing painfully slow a high, somewhat soulful, crooning manner.
In 1954, he cut a second, similar record at Sun. This second session caught Marion’s attention and she taped part of the recordings. When Sam needed a local artist for a song he thought had potential, she suggested the young singer. Elvis was summoned to the studio and worked on the song but never got it right.
This is a general answer for an audience with little knowledge of Elvis or rock & roll history—meaning most people.
But it was obvious the kid with the guitar had some talent, so Sam hooked him up with a local musician, Scotty Moore, a proficient electric guitar player. He brought along Bill Black on standup bass.
The three worked on their sound, with things finally coming together in June or July 1954, when Elvis, Scotty, and Bill cut an uptempo version of Bill Monroe’s western swing classic Blue Moon Of Kentucky. With this number—legendarily achieved while Elvis and the guys were goofing around between takes on various ballads—Sam knew the guys were onto something. It was followed by the more earthy, more rhythmic That’s All Right.
The first single, Sun 209, That’s All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky, was released in July, credited to Elvis Presley with Scotty and Bill. Both sides created a stir and became local hits, especially in Memphis. But very few people outside of a few states in the South heard the record at the time.
Clowning around on stage was part of Bill Haley and His Comets’ regular routine, here at the Dominion Theatre in London, England, in February 1957. It was things such as this that prevented many second-generation fans and critics to underestimate his accomplishments and importance in the history of rock & roll.
The state of rock & roll in 1954-1955
At the time Elvis recorded that first single, rock & roll hardly existed as a form or genre. It was a term applied by a few disc jockeys in Northern states to whatever black records they chose to play for their growing audience of white listeners, mostly urban teenagers.
Certainly, there had been records that were referred to as rock & roll, but few had made the national pop charts. While Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle And Roll had been #1 on the rhythm & blues charts in June 1954, white radio stations did not play it. Consequently, it did not make either the Billboard or Cash Box Top 100 pop charts.
Bill Haley & His Comets then cut Shake, Rattle And Roll in June 1954, while Turner’s was still on the charts. Haley’s reading was cruder but more “fun” and was a Top 10 smash on both the Billboard and Cash Box pop charts!
The 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle featured Rock Around The Clock, helping it become the rock & roll hit heard ’round the world!
The Crew Cuts took Sh-Boom to the top of the pop charts in August 1954. But their reading was a very homogenized version of the Chords’ original, a hit in the R&B market.
Otherwise, 1954 was fairly barren in terms of big hits that could be argued to be rock & roll. A few other white “cover versions” (a term that did not mean then what it means now) of black songs made it to the Top 40 in 1954 and later in ’55.
Then came Blackboard Jungle, a movie about juvenile delinquency in an integrated, inner-city high school. Released in March 1955, the film was an immediate hit with the kids. The producers chose Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock to play behind the film’s opening and closing credits, giving Haley the big break he had been looking for.
Rock Around The Clock spent all of July and August 1955 as the #1 record in the country and went on to be a major hit (and social catalyst) in England. It may not have been the first rock & roll hit, but it was the rock & roll hit heard ’round the world and the one that got things all shook up.
Chuck Berry posed (rather awkwardly) for this publicity still some time in 1956, when he was riding high on the R&B charts but still not connecting in a big way on the pop charts.
About Little Richard and Chuck Berry
There has long been some confusion about who did what first with many people crediting Chuck Berry and Little Richard with making the charts before Elvis. That’s not quite the way it happened. Here is an outline for 1955:
Sun released Presley’s fourth record, Baby, Let’s Play House / I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone. The A-side was his first single to reach a major survey, making it to the Top 10 on Billboard’s national C&W charts.
Chess released Chuck Berry’s first single, Wee Wee Hours / Maybellene. It flopped. Then DJs turned the record over and played the B-side, which reached #1 on the R&B charts and was a Top 10 hit on both Billboard and Cash Box’s pop charts in August and September.
Sun released Elvis’s fifth single, Mystery Train / I Forgot To Remember To Forget. The record was a double-sided Top 10 hit on Billboard and Cash Box’s national C&W charts for Sun Records. When RCA Victor took over manufacturing and promoting the record in late 1955, they pushed it to #1 in February 1956!
Little Richard had released six earlier singles (1951 and 1954) for RCA Victor and Peacock reminiscent of the jump-blues style of Louis Jordan. None of these sides were heard by more than a few people and none made any national chart. In October, Specialty released Richard’s Tutti Frutti / I’m Just A Lonely Guy. The A-side was a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts and eventually reached the Top 10 of the national pop charts in February 1956.
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and his righthand-man Marion Keisker with Elvis in front of the studio at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee. (Date unknown, but probably 1955.)
The state of rock & roll in early 1956
Despite the international success of Rock Around The Clock, the only record that followed it between September 1955 and March 1956 that reached #1 on either Cash Box or Billboard’s Top 100 that could even be considered to be “rock & roll music” was the Pretenders’ The Great Pretender.
Then, in January 1956, Sun released Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes and RCA Victor released Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel and all Hell broke loose!
Elvis in RCA Victor’s New York studios in November 1955, posing for his first official publicity shots for his new record company.
Except for some diehard fans, I don’t think anyone has ever argued that Presley was a “great” musician. He was a fine rhythm guitar player: see two hours of taped performances from June 27, 1968, that were used for his NBC-TV special that year. He played on most of his recordings through 1960, then stepped aside for more accomplished players.
One of my favorite stories took place during the soundtrack sessions for the Jailhouse Rock movie in May 1957. Bill Black was using a Fender bass for the first time, instead of his usual standup bass. While cutting (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care, Black threw the instrument to the floor in frustration at the difficulty in playing his part and left the studio. Whereupon Elvis walked over, picked up the Fender, and then recorded one of the most memorable bass lines of the ’50s!
He was a good keyboardist who played occasional piano on his recordings and was known to pick at Beethoven when alone. He also played drums and, apparently, a little saxophone, although never on record.
He was essentially self-taught on all these instruments, which would seem to indicate a “natural” ability with music and instruments. That is, we can argue that he had the potential for greatness as a“musician.” Had he devoted the time to practice one or two instruments, he may have become a great guitarist or pianist.
But he was too busy being Elvis Presley …