It was 50 years ago today, at 7 pm at a small recording studio on 706 Union Street in Memphis, that the rock and roll era began. The occasion was the first planned, formal recording session for Elvis Presley--a 19 year old dirt-poor, white-trash, part-time truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Some time in 1953, and then again in January of 1954, Presley had gone into Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service studio to record a few demonstration sides--sweet, tender, cooing ballads and lilting pop songs softly sung that were notable only as historical curiosities years later when Elvis had already become the big bang.
Despite the mediocrity of those kiddie performances, Phillips, who had already recorded the likes of Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf, and Rufus Thomas, thought he heard something in Presley and decided to record the kid with a pair of musicians--bassist Bill Black, a mediocre player who could keep time and slap a walking bass just enough to push a record forward; and guitarist Scotty Moore, a versatile player who could play like Chet Atkins or Cal Tjader.
For the first session, Presley and Moore worked up another couple of light love numbers---a cover of Leon Payne's "I Love You Because" (which had been a hit for honky tonk giant Ernest Tubb in 1949), and "Harbor Lights", a Hawaiian-themed novelty ballad in the Rudy Valee mold that had been a hit for Der Bingle.
Both were yawns. But in the studio Presley and Black began clowning, playing an old R&B number--"That's All Right" which had been a hit race record for Arthur "Bigboy" Crudup. The trio played the jump number at a high octane tempo for its time. It was positively joyous, exuberant, frighteningly confident, bursting at the seams with reckless energy, with Presley singing in a vaguely bluesy honey hiccup like Clyde McPhatter that somehow also maintained the lyricism and melodic croon of the ballad singer he was trying to be.
"We thought it was exciting, but what was it? It was just so completely different. But it just really flipped Sam--he felt it really had something. We just sort of shook our heads and said, 'Well, that's fine, but god God, they'll run us out of town!'" Moore told Elvis biographer Peter Guaralnick.
The trio knew even then that they were crossing not only genre boundaries but also crucial social boundaries of race, and musical boundaries of good taste. But pushed by Phillips they went a step further that night remaking Bill Monroe's classic waltz-time nostalgic bluegrass chestnut "Blue Moon of Kentucky" into a 4-on-the floor, pounding number that can only be described as a rocker. "Hell, that's different," Phillips famously said after waxing the master take. "That's a pop song now...."
And so the first rock record was born, Sun 209, with "That's All Right" on the A-side: a blues song played fast but sung as if Bing Crosby came from Tupelo; and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the B-side, a hillbilly number sung like it was the rawest gutbucket Saturday night fish fry jukejoint soundtrack music for a Beale Street razor fight.
50 years later rock and roll barely exists. It's rawness and invention long since polished to an inoffensive sheen, the rebellion it occasioned fermented into a kind of smelly, gooey nostalgia that helps marketers sell cars to aging Baby Boomers.
But for the generation that came of age between Sun 209 and Elvis' sad, bloated death on his toilet in 1977, Rock and Roll was a force that shaped the world, that gave voice to the lust, rage, and ambitions of a burgeoning throng of young people who were otherwise supposed to be seen and not heard, and Sun 209 stands as a kind of declaration of independence.
Elvis' brilliant Sun recordings—one of a half dozen of the most important recordings in American musical history—have been definitively collected on a two CD set called Sunrise which includes not only the master takes of “That's All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (as well as all the Sun master takes) but also two surviving earlier takes as well as the pre-July 1954 demos.