Ten years ago on July 23, 2003, The U.S. Registry of National Historic Places declared Sun Studios a historic landmark. Sam Phillips, a former radio disc jockey, established his Sun Record Company in Memphis in 1952. He had a keen ear for talent, discovering many important post-War musicians singing blues, gospel, country, and a new sound that merged them all together called rock n’ roll.
Thanks to NPR, you can take an audio tour of the studio where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, and Howlin’ Wolf cut their first records. Find out how Sam Phillips’ trademark slapback echo was created. There’s no fancy, modern multi-tracking here–just a bunch of guys getting together in a studio, playing their hearts out to get the magic down on tape.
In 1955, Johnny Cash recorded one of his best-known records, “Folsom Prison Blues,” at Sun Studio.
He was originally inspired to write the song while stationed at a U.S. Air Force base in West Germany when he saw the 1951 movie “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” In an interview, Cash said how he wrote line “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”: “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind.”
Every year the Levitt Shell hosts more than 50 free concerts and events and this year’s line-up includes Rosanne Cash, Davina & The Vagabonds, Chubby Carrier, and the Old 97’s. Here is a video by Mississippi blues piano player Eden Brent, live at the Levitt Shell.
As a visitor, you may not know the Levitt Shell isn’t just any other bandstand. It was built in 1933 as an outdoor performing arts pavilion in Overton Park in the heart of Midtown. Over the years the venue, originally called the Overton Park Shell, has hosted many great performances of light opera, ballet, and musicals.
The most significant concert in the shell’s history was on July 30, 1954 when a young Elvis Presley opened for headliner Slim Whitman and caused a sensation. Music historians regard it as the first rock n’ roll show!
Designed by architect Max Furbringer, the City of Memphis and the Works Progress Administration built the shell for $11,935, and modeled it after similar structures in St. Louis, Chicago, and New York. Over the years it fell into disrepair but was saved from demolition three times–in the mid-sixties, in 1973, and in 1984–by a group of dedicated people passionate to keep it. Extensively renovated and re-opened in 2008, the venue is one of the few remaining band shells of the original 27 built during the WPA era. All that history helps to appreciate this art deco gem while you spread out your blanket, unpack your cooler, and sit back to listen to some great music in the twilight.
I put together an Elvis Covers Project, trying to find a recent (ten years or less) cover for each of his best songs. I thought it would be interesting to hear what artists would create–some are nearly note-for-note copies; others used the original song as a launch pad for their own interpretation. All the musicians have one thing in common–a sincere appreciation for Elvis Presley’s music.
It’s taken about three years to collect all the material needed and here’s what I came up with:
Disc 1 – Various Artists: “Blue Suede Shoes”
1. Mystery Train / Joey Figgiani
2. Return to Sender / Dave Edmunds
3. Blue Suede Shoes / Citizen’s
4. Fool, Fool, Fool / Jamie Aaron Kelley & The Dempseys
5. Little Sister/ Hamburger James
6. Just Because / Fat Cat Trio
7. It’s Now or Never / Chris Isaak
8. Poor Boy / Carlos & The Bandidos
9. Tiger Man / Junior Marvel
10. So Glad You’re Mine / Rusty & The Dragstrip Trio
11. Devil in Disguise / Trisha Yearwood
12. Don’t Be Cruel / Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding
13. Maria’s the Name (Of His Latest Flame) / Two Tons of Steel
14. G.I. Blues / Steven Pitman
15. I Need Your Love Tonight / Mark Keeley’s Good Rockin’ Tonight
16. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You / Keith Sykes
17. Baby, Let’s Play House / Velton Ray Bunch
18. Love Me / Reid Jamieson
19. Big Boss Man / Ben Wasson
20. She’s Not You / The Mike Eldred Trio
21. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck / Paris
22. Pocketful of Rainbows / Ray Condo & His Hardrock Goners
23. Heartbreak Hotel / Jill Johnson
24. US Male / Mystique
25. Mean Woman Blues / Bill Hurley
26. Treat Me Nice / Larry and the Handjive
27. Can’t Help Falling in Love / King Memphis
28. Viva Las Vegas / James Reyne
Disc 2 – Various Artists: “Last Plane to Memphis”
1. My Baby Left Me / Rusty & The Dragstrip Trio
2. I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone / The Thunderbirds
3. I Got Stung / Miss Mary Ann & Her Ragtime Wranglers
4. A Mess of Blues / Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding
5. Frankfurt Special / Pete Hutton & The Beyonders
6. That’s Alright Mama / Hamburger James
7. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry / Chris Isaak
8. Good Rockin’ Tonight / Wanda Jackson
9. One Night / Reid Jamieson
10. You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care) / Joey Figgiani
11. Don’t Forbid Me / Jamie Aaron Kelley & The Dempseys
12. Shoppin’ Around / Mark Keeley’s Good Rockin’ Tonight
13. A Fool Such As I / Steven Pitman
14. I Got a Woman / Blurt Blanca
15. Too Much / Willie and The Poor Boys
16. Jailhouse Rock / Nicholas Louw
17. Stuck on You / Baggio
18. Too Much Monkey Business / Rockin’ Rebels
19. Good Luck Charm / James Reyne
20. A Big Hunk of Love / The Refreshments
21. All Shook Up / Tony Pantano
22. Such an Easy Question / Tyronne Davis
23. Guitar Man / Dennis Schutze
24. I Want You With Me / Hampa & The Charms
25. The Girl of My Best Friend / Claudio Araya
26. Paralyzed / Steve Webb
27. Blue Moon / Lightnin’ Jay
28. Girls, Girls, Girls / The Mike Eldred Trio
And here’s one more, “Bossa Nova Baby” from The Mike Eldred Trio for an encore!
Legendary soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples turns 75 today and she is truly an inspiration. She began her career in 1950 with her father, Pops Staples, and her siblings Cleotha, Yvonne, and Pervis in the Staple Singers. Called “God’s Greatest Hitmakers,” the group was very popular with gospel audiences and became more high-profile as their songs became the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement with “Long Walk to D.C.” and “When Will We Be Paid?” Mavis often tells first-hand stories about her father’s friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and choosing the right songs to precede his inspiring speeches. In 1968, The Staple Singers signed with Stax and their spiritual-based music was backed by Booker T. & the M.G.s to create many top-selling singles like “Let’s Do It Again” and ” I’ll Take You There.”
In recent years, Mavis released a series of well-received solo albums and collaborated with producers such as Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Between tours with her live band, she has found time to record with a variety of artists like John Scofield, Patty Griffin, Win Butler and her friend Bob Dylan. (He once proposed to her!) Gospel great Mahalia Jackson was a close family friend and you can hear her influence in Mavis’ music.
In April, 2003, Staples performed in Memphis at the historic Orpheum Theater for “Soul Comes Home,” a concert celebrating the grand opening of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. She shared the stage with many of her long-time Stax collaborators and the event was filmed for a DVD release.
She’s a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee. Rolling Stone magazine rated her one of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Now in her seventies, Mavis’ powerful voice still rings with joy and conviction every time she sings.
A young truck driver from Tupelo, MS walked into Sun Studio on the evening of July 5th, 1954 to record three songs and one of them, “That’s All Right,” changed music history. He and his band mates, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, recorded the less-inspiring “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because” before launching into Mississippi bluesman Arthur Crudup’s 1954 song. Producer Sam Phillips knew a hit when he heard one and released the single 14 days later (with the B-side “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) and it went on to launch Elvis Presley’s career.
To mark that important milestone in music history, British actor and musician Sam Palladio will host a special program “That’s All Right: 60 Years On,” live from Sun Studio on July 5th on BBC Radio. Artists including Laura Bell Bundy, Candi Staton, and The Pierces will perform the songs Presley cut that hot night in Memphis along with other classic Elvis tracks.
The historic Levitt Shell (then called the Overton Park Shell) was the site of Elvis Presley’s first professional performance on July 30, 1954. He opened for Slim Whitman and the young audience was more in tune with Presley’s hip-shaking than Slim’s yodeling abilities. Somebody had the presence of mind to shoot home movies of Presley’s first concert.
This weekend, Levitt Shell is hosting a free concert to commemorate what music historians now regard as the first live rock ‘n’ roll show.
If you want to learn more about Elvis Presley’s upbringing, his musical influences, and what brought him to the studio that fateful day, this documentary features interviews with childhood friends, first girlfriends, and early band mates to build a complete picture. It’s the story of Elvis’s dirt-poor upbringing in Tupelo, MS, his job as a Memphis truck driver with musical aspirations, and his rapid rise to stardom in 1956. Even if you know a lot about Elvis, this 2008 documentary is still full of surprises. (He was actually blonde!)
The exhilarating moment when 19-year-old Elvis started improvising with Bill and Scotty in the studio and impressed Sam Phillips with their rendition of “That’s All Right” is dramatized in the 2005 CBS mini-series “Elvis.” Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers portrays Presley–from his shy, polite demeanor off stage to his confident, sexy swagger on stage. The biopic dramatizes the rise of Elvis to superstardom, using his original recordings and real Graceland locations.
(Meyers beat out 300 others who auditioned for the lead and he ultimately won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor for his performance as Elvis Presley.)
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The landmark law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended discrimination in schools, in the workplace, and at public facilities (restaurants, swimming pools, theaters), and prohibited unequal voter registration requirements. The bill was proposed by President John F. Kennedy but since his assassination, it was signed into law by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson who called it a memorial to Kennedy
Martin and Malcolm met! Despite their political differences, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X both came to Washington in March, 1964 to hear the Senate debate the bill. After one of King’s press conferences, the two men briefly exchanged respectful pleasantries. It would be the only time the two leaders ever met face-to-face and their meeting barely lasted a minute. As they parted, Malcolm X reportedly joked, “Now you’re going to get investigated.”
Among those present at the signing were: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover. This History channel documentary gives an overview of the historic bill and its far-reaching implications for all Americans.