18 Juillet 2014
The King's first single was released 60 years ago, on 19 July 1954. It was the record that – eventually – changed everything.
The yellow label didn't exactly signify an earthquake. Above the cut-out centre of the 7in single ran the word Sun, a drop shadow beneath it. Behind the text lay rays of sunshine, and around the perimeter of the label were staves of music. The bottom half of the label contained the important information: the song title, That's All Right; the writer, Arthur Crudup; and the artist, Elvis Presley, with Scotty and Bill credited in smaller lettering. And at the very bottom, proudly, in yellow text reversed out of black, was the place of origin: Memphis, Tennessee.
Nevertheless, that disc, which arrived in Tennessee record shops 60 years ago, on Monday 19 July, 1954, did cause an earthquake. It was the first commercial release by Elvis Presley, the first tremors of a sensation that would soon transform popular culture and create the modern cult of celebrity. "You'd had teenage music before," says the pop historian Jon Savage, "but Elvis was the first to make music as if it was by teenagers, rather than for teenagers. And he was still a teenager when he made that record. After that, the industry realised they had to make music teenagers liked."
That's All Right had been written and recorded in 1946 by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, a brisk blues with a ramshackle, dusty feel. Presley's recording, made on 5 July 1954, was an accident. Towards the end of an unsuccessful session at Sun Studios, during a break from recording, Presley began to sing the song, joined by Bill Black on upright bass and Scotty Moore on guitar. Struck by the contrast with what had come before, Sam Phillips, who was producing the session, asked the trio to run through the song again, this time with the tape rolling.
The Elvis version, by comparison, is precise and countrified, the up-and-down two-note Sun rockabilly bassline transforming it, with Moore's guitar trills an embellishment rather than the heart of the record, unlike Crudup's original. But the record belongs to Presley; it's his voice – at first urgent, then seductive, then lascivious and lustful – that registers on the Richter scale. "Damn," Bill Black is reputed to have said. "Get that on the radio and they'll run us out of town."
"It was an iconic moment," says Todd Slaughter of the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain. "And you don't get those iconic moments very often. The timing was right – until then music for teenagers had been Frank Sinatra or Perry Como – it wasn't what you'd class as youth music."
"It's warm, it's sexy and it's fun, and it has that first-time sense of discovery," Savage says of That's All Right. "It's three people working out how they can play together and create something – like the first Ramones album, in fact. It's one of the great records of the 20th century."
As Savage points out, it took a while for the shockwaves to spread, because Elvis was a local musician on a local label. "Everything was so regional then," he says. "It was big news in Memphis – there's a wonderful detail of the local kids using Elvis's 'ta-de-da' as a greeting after the record came out. But Sun was very much a regional company, and I don't think Elvis played in the north till mid-1955, when he played in Cleveland." In fact, it was as late as 19 October 1955. Presley only played his first listed show two days before That's All Right was released, and through 1954 his shows took place at a bare handful of venues – Sleepy-Eyed John's Eagle's Nest Club in Memphis, the Louisiana Hayride radio show at the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport, the Palladium Club in Houston, and a handful of others. That year he played only in Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas.
"The reason you forget how regional everything was," Savage says, "is that he created the boom in the music industry that really created pop as we know it now. It was after Elvis's success that people could come through and get national attention, even on small labels."
It wasn't until 1956 that Elvis went truly national, and international, with the release of Heartbreak Hotel, Don't Be Cruel and Hound Dog – just three of a staggering 27 singles put out with Elvis's name on the label that year. That was the year that, on the other side of the Atlantic, the 11-year-old Todd Slaughter first heard Elvis, when his teachers got up and jived to Heartbreak Hotel at his junior school Christmas party. "It was a remarkable moment," he recalls. "The first time you'd heard something you'd never heard before. And then you had to wait to hear it again – we were extremely poor, and we had no record player, though we had a wireless. But it wasn't played much on the radio." Then, a stroke of luck. "The girl next door to me had a Dansette, and she bought it."
So why, 60 years on, is Elvis still a matter of fascination. Why does he still have a UK fan club? Why is his face still known, his music still heard? "Because he is a total icon," Savage says. "Like all the Beatles rolled into one. And he's an icon on so many levels. It begins with that teenage moment, then the extraordinary success in 1956, and then carries on and on and on. And, apart from the personal life and the deified status, you also have a lot of really good music."