I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT WIKIPEDIA and why it is an unreliable source of information about popular music and records. It seems that every time I look up anything about music and records, I find errors. Most are factual errors—titles, dates, catalog numbers, etc.—while some reflect the contributors not understanding the topic under discussion.
The former includes incorrectly noting a record’s release date, its catalog number, its peak chart position, its sales in the marketplace, etc. An example of the latter is the confusion of many contributors about gold and platinum record awards. A common mistake is writers believing the term million-seller is the same thing as having been certified by the RIAA for a Gold Record Award. Other writers are clueless to the many changes in the RIAA’s requirements to qualify for certification for an “official” Gold Record Award. 1
Quora is a “platform to ask questions and connect with people who contribute quality answers”—well, maybe not always.
Now I am making the same warning here about using Quora as a source for reliable data. Quora boasts that it is “a place to gain and share knowledge. It’s a platform to ask questions and connect with people who contribute unique insights and quality answers.” I am a regular user of Quora and contribute an occasional answer, usually about music or records.
My experience as a reader has been that while some Quora “experts” indeed know their stuff or do the requisite research before typing an answer. But many (most?) of the answers appear to come from people who simply assume that what they know to be so is so and never bother to look anything up anywhere.
The question that was submitted to Quora was, “How old was Elvis Presley when he started making records?” That’s a pretty straightforward query and shouldn’t require anyone trying to answer it to navigate any kind of tricky mental gymnastics.
The “best” answer would be simply stating his age at the time he cut his first sides. Nothing else is required to satisfy the question. Yet there were many answers on Quora that gave incorrect age accompanied by extraneous “facts” that were also incorrect. The internet seems to endlessly verify the common understanding of the Dunning-Kruger effect: Many people think they are much better informed—and much smarter—than they are. 2
Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” (RCA Victor 22-2205) was a minor hit on the “race music” charts in 1947. Seven years later, Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” (Sun 209) was a hit on the local Memphis charts in 1954.
The question and the right answer
Here is the requisite information to answer the question How old was Elvis Presley when he started making records? First, Elvis was born on January 8, 1935, so you can do the math on his age when he started making records. Second, there are two reasonable interpretations of the questioner’s intent:
• When did Elvis Presley make his first record?
• When did Elvis Presley make his first commercial record?
I tend to take written statements and questions things literally unless instructed otherwise, so I’d go with the first interpretation above. The answers below go both ways. Many of them wander from Presley’s first visits to Sun Records and mention his first records for RCA Victor in 1956.
So, here is a timeline addressing a few facts about the first few years of Presley’s career as a recording artist. 3
July 18, 1953
Elvis visited the Sun Records studio and paid $3.98 to record two sentimental ballads, My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin. These were cut onto a ten-inch, 78 rpm acetate, a one-of-a-kind record that he took with him.
January 4, 1954
Elvis returned to Sun Records and paid another $3.98 to make another record. He paired two more ballads, I’ll Never Stand In Your Way and It Wouldn’t Be The Same (Without You).
June 26, 1954
Sam Phillips was given Without You, had a newly written song that he thought could be a hit. He brought Elvis into the studio and to give it a try but without success.
July 5, 1954
Phillips brought Presley back into the studio. After laboring over some more ballads (including Harbor Lights and I Love You Because), Elvis recorded the uptempo, blues-based That’s All Right. Sam deemed this worthy of release.
July 7, 1954
In need of a flip-side for That’s All Right, Elvis cut a rollicking version of Blue Moon Of Kentucky.
July 10, 1954
Sam delivered demonstration copies of the two sides to a pair of local disc jockeys. Both Uncle Richard at WPMS and Dewey Phillips at WHBQ played the record with listeners overwhelmingly preferring That’s All Right.
July 19, 1954
Sun Records released the first commercial Elvis Presley record, That’s All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Sun 209).
November 20, 1955
RCA Victor acquired Elvis Presley’s contract from Sun Records and signed the singer to a new, three-year contract. Nothing has been the same since.
This is musician Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup at RCA’s New York studio, probably in the late ’40s. This is actor Billy Crudup, posing for a photo to promote the movie “The Stanford Prison Experiment” in 2015.
For this article, I copied each answer from Quora and then did my usual editorial tweaking to make the text fit the format of my blog. This includes changing song titles to italicized, upper/lowercase letters while changing album titles to all caps and also italicizing them. I also corrected spellings and punctuation errors—of which there were many—and corrected what I perceived as typos (and we all make typos).
This way, you, my reader, are not distracted from focusing on the factual errors. Unfortunately, doing this eliminated the type of gross errors that would call into question a few of these answerers’ claim to being a writer of any sort based on basic writing skills alone. 4
Below, each answer is followed by a comment by me criticizing the answer.
Answer: “I believe he was about 18 when he made his first record. He went into a local place where you could pay to make a record. He recorded ‘That’s Alright Mama’ for his mother.”
This comment was contributed by someone claiming to be a journalist. I hope that any real journalist would not write “I believe he was about 18” when he could use the internet to look up Presley’s birth date (January 8, 1935) and the time he recorded his first sides (July 18, 1953) to arrive at the correct figure.
He could have also looked up where the record was made (Sun Records) and found the correct titles (My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin). He might have also learned that most experts do not believe that Elvis made the record for his mother but for himself. It seems that Presley wanted to hear how he sounded on a record and possibly attract the attention of Sam Phillips. 5
Answer: “ ‘My Happiness’ was the first record he ever made [in] 1953 at Sun Records as a gift for his mother. He was 18 at the time. ‘That’s Alright’ came out in 1954—I think it was a Billy Crudup song—[and] he was 21 at the time.”
This comment was contributed by someone claiming to be a history buff. He recycles the gift legend, misspells the title of his first commercial record, gets the wrong first name for that song’s originator (and as a typo, it’s too funny to correct), and then advances Presley’s age by three years from 1953 to 1954.
Answer: “Elvis was 19 and driving a truck when he drove to Sun Records and [recorded himself and] Sam Phillips’s assistant Marion Keisker saved a copy of the recording for Sam, as she was blown away by Elvis’s voice and presence. He just made that first ten-inch record as a present for his mother Gladys. The first Elvis song commercially recorded and produced was ‘That’s All Right, Mama,’ which went out over local then national radio stations before the record was even cut by Sam Phillips.”
This comment was contributed by someone claiming to be an expert in history. Elvis was 18 when he first paid to record himself in July 1953, he was four days shy of his 19th birthday when he paid to make a record the second time in January 1954, and he was 19 when he got a job driving a truck for Crown Electric in April 1954.
The final sentence may be the most confusing on the entire Quora page: A record could not have “went out” over the radio before it was “cut” (that is, recorded). He probably means that Sam gave either acetates or advance copies of the record to local disc jockeys to play on Memphis radio before any copies of the record were manufactured for sale. (And, yes, the song title is incorrect.)
Answer: “Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935, and his first record, called ELVIS PRESLEY, was released in March 1956, so the math tells us he was 21 years old by the time he started making records. However, this is not exactly when he started recording because his first single, ‘That’s All Right,’ came out in 1954 when he was just 19 years old. . . .”
This answer was made by a contributor who did not make any claims to any kind of background in writing or history. His answer is the most baffling in that he seems to be rather confused as to the terminology of the record industry and record collecting.
He states that Presley’s “first record, called ELVIS PRESLEY, was released in March 1956.” The records that were released in March 1956 were three albums: two seven-inch, 45 rpm EP albums (EPA-747 and EPB-1254) and one twelve-inch, 33⅓ rpm LP album (LPM-1254). Each was titled ELVIS PRESLEY.
The writer may be referring to one or all of these as the “first record” by Elvis. He then writes that Presley’s “first single, That’s All Right, came out in 1954.” As we all should know, That’s All Right was not only Elvis’s first single, it was his first commercially issued record.
The weird wording of the answer could mean that this person believes that the term record is reserved exclusively for albums and that singles are not records. This is a brand new conundrum for an old-timer like me, especially as I still cringe whenever I hear or see some young whippersnapper refer to records as vinyls. 6
There is more to this contributor’s answer, hence the ellipsis following “19 years old.” But to read it and his answers to other questions, readers must pay for a subscription to Quora’s sister platform, Quora+. That is, this individual thinks so highly of his “expertness” that he has decided that we should pay to read his answers! 7
This is the front cover for THE COMPLETE WORKS 1953-1955, released by Memphis Recording Service in 2016. It is a boxed set that compiles 47 recordings that Elvis made during those years, most of them at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Presley’s first recordings—My Happiness, That’s When Your Heartaches Begin, I’ll Never Stand In Your Way, and It Wouldn’t Be The Same (Without You)—open the set.
Another unreliable source
There were ten answers at the time that I found this page on Quora, of which I chose only four. There may be more answers now and they may be even more “interesting” than the four above. To read the other answers on Quora, click here.
The amount of incorrect information on Quora is not confined to this topic or to Elvis. I come across it regularly but usually just walk on by. But this particular question and the answers it inspired seemed in need of addressing and so I did.
And so it goes . . .
Quora is a ‘platform to ask questions and connect with people who contribute quality answers.’ Well, maybe not always as the ignorance and misinformation that is everywhere on the internet is readily available on Quora. Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of Sam Phillips’s now-legendary Sun Records studio and office at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. This is about what it looked like when a young Elvis Presley walked in 1953 with a guitar in his hands and a few dollars in his pockets.
1 I am a bit more forgiving of this one as even the people who compiled the data in the Gold & Platinum section on the RIAA’s own website appear not to be well-versed in the history of the RIAA’s criteria for certification.
2 In psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a “cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.” (Britannica)
3 But leaving them in makes me look kinda petty, if not outright nasty, for “showing up” their ignorance as writers.
4 The timeline is restricted to the so-called “Sun Years” (1953-1955), despite several answers containing mistakes about Presley’s first year and initial releases with RCA Victor.
5 Elvis never presented the record to his mother. Rather, he took it to his friend Ed Leek’s house as his family owned a record player. There, the young singer heard his recorded voice for the first time. For unknown reasons, he left the record with the friend.
6 Hah! Even Grammarly refuses to recognize vinyls as a legitimate word.
7 Quora+ (“QuoraPlus”) is already causing contention among Quora regulars. For one of many reasons, a user could easily end up paying for an answer from an “expert” such as this contributor whose expertise may be a delusion caused by the ol’ Dunning-Kruger effect.