The Prodigal Sun

Rolling into West Memphis from Nashville to lay down 3-day roots wasn’t going to be easy. On May 11, the country learned that the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR was shut down after inspectors discovered a critical crack in a 900-foot beam that compromised the bridge’s structural integrity, and it would takes months to complete emergency repairs (oh, infrastructure…wherefore art thou).

All traffic was being rerouted through I-55–a less than desirable 4-lane crossing–that was now backing up for miles in both directions. Leah and I agreed that the only way to avoid traffic mayhem would be to relocate east of the Mississippi.

It was a snap decision with few available options, but we scored a shady site with electricity at F.O Fuller State Park, 2 miles downwind from a sewage processing plant.

We had designs on visiting the National Civil Rights Museum built around the Lorraine Motel,

which was one of only a few hotels that hosted black entertainers of the era, like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside Room 306 on April 4, 1968, making the Lorraine Motel a symbol for the civil rights movement.

We would have liked to tour the museum, but it was closed. So off we went to Sun Studio…

to pay homage to a galaxy of recording stars whose origin stories are etched on acetate discs.

Patrons gathered inside the café waiting for the 45-minute tour to begin. It was a good opportunity to browse the weathered record collection and grab a cold drink.

The tour began on the second floor–at one time a flop house for disadvantaged musicians–where we learned about Sam Phillips’ humble beginnings,

and his role in producing arguably the first rock ‘n roll record in history.

But Sam Phillips was really looking for a white guy, someone who could bridge the gap, someone “with a Negro sound and the Negro feel.”

Fortunately, Marion Keisker, Sam’s business manager/lover was at her desk on July 18, 1953…

when a recent high school grad with long sideburns and a greasy ducktail hairdo walked into the studio with $4 to record My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin as a gift for his mother, Gladys.

Being the only one present at the time, she took a turn at the console to record his demo–her first and only time–and she immediately knew that Elvis Presley was the real McCoy.

Nearly a year later, Sam called Elvis in for an audition supported by upright bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. After a few sessions of Elvis noodling around, singing different genres of music while strumming his guitar, he stumbled upon an up-tempo blues number by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup called That’s All Right (Mama).

The trio eventually worked out a raw arrangement for Sam, and the rest is history.

Next thing, Sam called local DJ Dewey Philips for radio support, and he obliged by playing Elvis’s record 40 consecutive times on WHBQ, at times singing along.

Of course, it was a smash hit…

The tour continued downstairs, inside the fabled studio–where not much has changed–that gave rise to so many legendary careers.

Our guide played refrains of famous tunes recorded at Sun. There was Carl Perkins warbling Blue Suede Shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis belting out Great Balls of Fire, Roy Orbison’s crooning Ooby Dooby, and Johnny Cash intoning I Walk the Line.

Elvis had five hits at Sun Studios: That’s All Right, Mystery Train, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and I’m Left, She’s Right, You’re Gone, and they’re on display.

On November 20, 1955, Colonel Parker brokered a record-breaking deal between Sam Phillips and RCA Records for $35,000, with a signing bonus of $5,000 for Elvis.

A year later, on December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash reunited at Sun Record Studios for a seminal impromptu jam session dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was history in the making, producing 3 reels of tape.

Our guide delights in telling the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Sun Records.

It is widely known that Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis. The day he arrived in Memphis, he had a car drive him to Sun. Without ceremony, Dylan walked into the studio and asked if it was true that Elvis had stood on the mark on the floor during his recording of That’s All Right. Upon confirmation, Dylan knelt over the spot and kissed the ground, paying respects to his long lost hero.

It’s also been rumored that Dylan later licked the microphone once held by Elvis, but I’m probably not the best qualified person advising Leah when it comes to germs.

2 thoughts on “The Prodigal Sun

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