Elvis, the ‘King’ that Would Have Been 75

The one, the only Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi seventy-five years ago, today, and as far as the history of rock & roll goes, Presley left his musical peers some pretty big footprints to follow. Presley didn’t get his start in the spotlight, though. In fact, he preferred stay away from it — as an abnormally shy child, the young Presley grew up as an ‘average’ student. As he got older, Presley wanted to prove himself to his teachers, and eventually figured  his only opportunity might be through music.

Presley listened nonstop to country and ‘hillbilly’ music, as deemed by his classmates, learning songs on a guitar he’d received for his birthday. Red Foley and Hank Snow were what he was drawn to, also absorbing the music of his home; the southern gospel songs by Jake Hess and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Presley didn’t want to be a mere listener; he wanted to be a singer, too, of his own accord, so in 1953, he traveled to Sun Studio to book a recording session for two songs, and not too long after, two more. Nothing much came of those songs until studio owner/producer Sam Phillips went on the lookout for a youthful, soulful singer, and Presley’s recordings resurfaced. He was called back into the studios, and according to Rolling Stone.com, the rest is history:

“Many believe Rock & Roll was born on July 5th, 1954, at Sun Studios in Memphis. Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black were horsing around with “That’s All Right,” a tune by bluesman Arthur Crudup, when producer Sam Phillips stopped them and asked, “What are you doing?” “We don’t know,” they said. Phillips told them to “back up and do it again.” The A side of Presley’s first single (backed with a version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), “That’s All Right” was issued by Sun, on July 19th. It may or may not be the first rock & roll record. But the man who would be King was officially on wax. Bridging black and white, country and blues, his sound was playful and revolutionary. As Presley biographer Peter Guralnick observed, “This is the most improbable story of all: In a tiny Memphis studio, in 1954 and 1955, Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley created rock & roll.” Presley released four more singles on Sun — including definitive reinventions of Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” – before moving on to immortality at RCA. It took more than twenty years for Presley’s Sun output to be properly collected on this ’76 LP — which has since been superseded by Sunrise, a double-CD chronicle of the King’s beginnings at Sun, released in 1999.”

That was just the beginning — up until his death in August of 1977, Elvis Presley recorded over 800 songs. Presley also won three Grammys in his lifetime, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36. Presley also later delved into film after much success with appearances on television programs such as The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, sealing the deal of his iconic presence from then on after.

Milwaukee is doing its part to celebrate the rock & roll icon some 625 miles shy of Graceland in Memphis. The Harley-Davidson Museum (400 W. Canal Street) will be paying tribute to Presley in grand, motorcycle-centric style, with the King’s red and white 1956 Model KH on display to view and admire. Motorcycle and Elvis enthusiasts, alike, will get a rare chance to see this bike, which is a smaller-scale cycle, meant to be an entry-level bike. Although a basic bike, it was one of Presley’s favorites. See this and also take a peek at an exclusive collection of rarely-seen photographs, taken before his career-changing “Comeback” television special in 1968.

The Harley-Davidson Museum will have both bike and photos on display from Thursday, January 7th until Sunday, January 31st. Visitors who show up in sideburns and sunglasses will get four bucks cut off the normal admission price, and to further celebrate all that is Elvis, the museum will be serving up southern fare in addition to Elvis’ famed and favorite peanut butter and banana sandwich. Complete information on the exhibit and events can be found at http://www.h-dmuseum.com.

In addition to Harley-Davidson, the folks at WMSE plan on a shindig of our own: today, on the Blues Drive, Sonia has been spinning several Elvis recordings during her show, including “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, a waltz written originally in 1946 by bluegrass musician Bill Monroe. This Monday, January 11th, WMSE’s Blues Drive pulls out all the stops with an all-Elvis show from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. Station Manager Tom Crawford will be celebrating the King’s career by playing Elvis’ hits as well as some of his rarer musical moments from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Tune in at 91.7 FM on your radio dial or listen online or in the archives at WMSE.org to an audio collection of one of rock & roll history’s biggest movers and shakers.