When 18-year-old Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studio for the first time, he was asked who he sounded like. His reply, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
When he sang, “That’s all right, momma,” listeners agreed. Sun Studio became known as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It was phenomenal,” said studio tour guide Jayne White. “You’re walking on hallowed ground when you come in here.”
On July 5, 1954, Elvis recorded his first single, “That’s All Right,” at Sun Studio in his hometown of Memphis.
Sun Studio has changed little through the years. It has the same acoustic ceiling, the original lights and the old floor that so many legends once trod — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, among others.
Radio engineer Sam Phillips started the Sun Label in 1952 and shared his tiny office with his secretary Marion Keisker. Legend has it that Keisker is the one who was working when a young Presley plopped down $4 to make his first recording.
On a hot summer day in 1953, a shy Presley stopped by the studio to make a recording of “My Happiness.” Local lore says the recording was intended as a birthday present for his mother. But, perhaps, the teen also was hoping to be discovered. He was yearning for stardom.
And that’s exactly what he found — more than anyone could ever dream.
So impressed was Keisker that she kept a back-up tape of Presley’s singing. In the studio log, Keisker noted Presley was a “good ballad singer.” The story goes that Keisker pestered Phillips until he gave a listen to the unpolished Presley tape. It took a year for Phillips to call Elvis. The rest was history.
In the small studio, you can peek into the control room and stand behind the same microphone Presley used. A big black X painted on the floor is where Elvis stood when he sang.
“Bob Dylan walked in here one day, bent down and kissed that X where Elvis stood and then walked back out,” White said.
Playing in the background on an old Ampex tape deck are bits of songs recorded at Sun. Old instruments are scattered around the room. A guitar with a dollar bill stuffed between the strings is how Cash produced the “chuffing” sound to imitate trains and a drum sound on his recordings.
“Johnny Cash wanted to be able to sing ‘Ring of Fire’ on the Grand Ole Opry and the Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow drums,” White said. “So he did this to make it sound like percussion without using drums.
Ringo Starr has been quoted as saying, “If it hadn’t been for what happened at Sun Studio, there wouldn’t have been a Beatles.”
There also might not have been an Elvis.
At the time, Presley was delivering electrical appliances for Crown Electric. “He probably stopped by here while he was out delivering or maybe after work,” White said. “Crown Electric was less than a mile from here so it was easy for Elvis to come by.”
Without Sun Studio, would Presley have made that first recording? Would someone have noticed his talent and given him a chance?
That’s something we’ll never know. As White says, “What happened at Sun Studio was history.”
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch