"The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and juke joints and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."
Elvis Presley, Charlotte Observer, 26th June 1956
This extract from an interview that Elvis gave as his fame approached its early peak, gives us a fascinating and rare glimpse of the boyhood Elvis and his listening habits. The Presley family moved from Tupelo to Memphis in November 1948 when Elvis was aged 13, so, if we take Elvis’ statement at face value, he started listening to Arthur Crudup’s blues music during his own pre-teen years.
Crudup’s first single, “If I Get Lucky”, was released in late 1941 and he issued records on a regular basis throughout the rest of the decade and beyond. As such, the Tupelo-based Elvis could possibly have been listening to the Mississippi bluesman from the age of 7 onwards. There is no evidence of the Presley family owning a record player during their Tupelo years so it would seem likely that young Elvis heard Crudup solely over the radio. During his teens, Elvis became more serious about his own singing but his professional ambitions and hopes remained a personal secret.
He would occasionally play with and for his friends but his repertoire seemed to be drawn almost exclusively from the white side of the fence: gentle ballads, country songs, and the occasional acceptable “race” track like Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night”. Friend and fellow musician, Johnny Black, does remember the pre-fame Elvis singing Crudup's 1947 release, “That’s All Right”, for him and declaring that he (Elvis) had written the song. Putting to one side for a moment the odd lie that Elvis seems to have told, it is interesting to note that Black (a white boy) was not familiar with the Crudup song. For the most part then, before turning professional, Elvis’ self-professed love for Crudup’s music and the blues in general seems to have remained a secret passion within a secret ambition.
It has long since been established that Elvis’ retrospective humility regarding his early music was a cover story: Elvis did not stumble into the music business -- he planned his approach to Sun Records by recording demos and hanging around the studio. And yet, his assault was undeniably cautious. He rarely put himself on the line, perhaps for fear of being rejected. Many of us will recognise this scenario. Rather than announce that he was “auditioning” for Mr Phillips when he made his first demo disc, "My Happiness", Elvis suggested that he was making a record for his mother. There were cheaper studios in Memphis where Elvis could have recorded his gift record. Six months later he gently pushed his case again by recording a second Sun demo. Was he perhaps hoping that Sam Phillips would burst out of the control room and announce that Elvis was a real talent? If so, this did not happen. Sam probably heard the recordings but it seems there was little interest as far as Phillips was concerned.
As the anniversary of Elvis’ first demo record approached, Phillips made an unusual move. He had recently received an acetate of an anonymous young black singer crooning a plain ballad, “Without You”. Unable to release the record with an unknown singer, he decided (at Marion Keisker’s suggestion) to offer the track to Elvis. Why Phillips displayed any interest in this particular song is not clear. In some ways, it seems to represent the antithesis of Sam’s musical ideal: there was nothing novel or different about the song, indeed it was very ordinary. It would have been odd for Phillips to release such a song. Perhaps he heard something in the recorded voice, something he hoped the side-burned young truck driver could replicate.
When invited by Phillips to come into the studio for a tryout, Elvis apparently showed Sam a little bit of everything he knew: some pop, some country, perhaps some Gospel. But did he play any blues or Crudup? It would seem not. Perhaps unsure of how Mr Phillips would react (a white boy plays the blues?), Elvis seems to have kept his secret passion buried. Sam dropped the song but persisted with the singer.
On Sam’s suggestion, Elvis met up with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, two hillbilly musicians. Perhaps in the pre-amble, Elvis sounded the guys out: What kind of music do you fellows like? Scotty and Bill probably kept their answers on the more predictable side of the musical fence. As such, they likely played though some country and pop covers together. Scotty and Bill both felt that Elvis could hold a tune but there was nothing special about the guy, other than his flashy clothes and attention-seeking hair and side-burns.
When the three men met up again it was with Sam Phillips on a Monday evening in the Sun studio with the intention of conducting a proper rehearsal, an audition for Elvis: they were going to put something on tape to see how it sounded. Scotty and Bill were there simply to provide a little musical background colour for the nervous vocalist. They worked for maybe two, three, maybe four hours, running over the same type of slow songs again and again. The results were pleasant enough but Mr Phillips remained somewhat underwhelmed.
As the session began to run out of steam, Elvis picked up his guitar and –- according to popular legend -– for no particular reason whatsoever, launched into an off-the-cuff rendition of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”. Scotty was not familiar with the song but joined in. Bill, despite presumably also not knowing the track, was already thumping his bass. Both musicians were happy to go along with Elvis’ apparent tomfoolery to relieve some of the frustration and tension. Sam Phillips, however, was certainly familiar with the song.
What he couldn’t figure out was
a) How this white boy knew Crudup’s material, and
b) Why he hadn’t already shared this knowledge with Sam.
Stepping onto the studio floor, an excited Phillips stopped the musicians mid-song and told them to work out an introduction to the track so they could record it properly. The embarrassed trio did exactly that and within two or three takes the finished master was in the can. And so, Elvis’ whole career kicked off with an inspired, unprepared moment of magic. Elvis, dredging up a memory of an old Crudup blues song, began to break down the musical barriers that had plagued American music for decades. It was an unconscious moment of genius. As with so many key moments throughout Elvis’ career, there was no planning, there was no deliberate intention. It was just luck, as Elvis himself claimed on more than one occasion.
And yet … knowing now that Elvis’ early forays into the “record-your-own-voice” booth were very likely definite attempts to kick-start his career in the entertainment business and catch Mr Phillips’ attention, should we not also revisit that magic night of Monday 5th July 1954 and reconsider the situation?
We have seen that the young Elvis was understandably afraid of rejection. It took a lot of courage for him to publicly reveal any side of his talent, to open up his ambitions and dreams to possible ridicule. So far, he had carefully sounded out the ground with each small step:
1) The first demo consisted of two simple ballads with Elvis imitating two black singers (Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots).
2) The second demo focused on white pop songs.
3) Mr Phillips played Elvis a plain ballad; Elvis responded with pop songs and country tracks.
4) Elvis spoke to Scotty and Bill: they probably suggested pop and country numbers during their first casual jam session together, just looking for songs they all knew how to play.
5) In the studio, Elvis continued singing bland and predictable pop and country. He was hesitant about revealing even this much about himself: you can hear that in his voice.
By late evening on 5th July 1954, Elvis had pretty much sung through all the safe stuff he had in his arsenal: he’d used up almost everything in that particular bag of tricks. He’d crooned, he’d whistled, he’d tried a narration, and still Mr Phillips was encouraging but unmoved. As the session drew to a close, Elvis maybe saw his big chance slipping away. It was late, it was hot, all three musicians had work the next day. This was it: maybe Elvis’ final opportunity to impress Mr Phillips. Elvis had searched in vain for any sign that Scotty, Bill and Sam might have been interested in hearing something a little more exciting, but now he threw caution to the wind and, without warning, he picked up his guitar and started singing. The history books will tell you that Elvis performed a spontaneous cover of Crudup’s “That’s All Right”, but the history books are wrong.
What Elvis actually did was to leap into a medley of at least five different Crudup hits. This was a medley that could only have been assembled and performed by a connoisseur of the blues and of Arthur Crudup’s blues in particular. Crudup has often been described as a one-trick-pony. This somewhat unfair tag comes from the fact that several of his recordings follow a similar structure, melody and lyric. There are admittedly many songs within Crudup’s catalogue that could easily be put into one medley (Crudup himself sort of did this anyway). Let’s look in detail at what Elvis was actually singing compared to Crudup’s original single, while keeping one careful eye on Crudup’s other recordings
Verse one and chorus
Elvis follows Crudup’s first verse very closely and there are no real differences. Crudup uses these particular lyrics several times throughout different songs. Until Elvis hits the chorus, it could easily be argued that he’s singing Crudup’s first single, “If I Get Lucky”, which starts in exactly the same fashion, or maybe mixing some verses from “Dirt Road Blues” or “I Want My Loving”. When Elvis reaches the first chorus, we finally establish which song he’s probably covering.
Verse two and chorus
Elvis follows the general line of Crudup’s second verse. Again, this is a verse that Crudup often used, albeit with occasional variations. Whenever Crudup used this verse it followed the same pattern: the first two lines tell of the singer’s parents’ concern for his well-being, and the third and fourth lines show that their concerns focus on his relationship(s) with the opposite sex. On Elvis’ take, apart from an extra “done” in line two, Elvis follows Crudup’s first two lines verbatim. The third and fourth lines, however, show how Elvis softened the message. Crudup would sometimes sing a line like “The life you’re living, son, now, women be the death of you” or “This woman you’ve got, son, she ain’t no friend to you”, but Elvis came up with “That girl you’re fooling with she ain’t no good for you.” There is no known Crudup precedent for this exact lyric so what we have is Elvis’ own take on the original sentiment mixed in with a selection of Crudup-esque words from a number of different Crudup songs.
Verse three / four and chorus
Elvis completely ignores Crudup’s third verse and re-interprets the fourth by dropping in a line from “If I Get Lucky”. This is followed by a few words from “Dirt Road Blues” mixed together with Crudup’s original “That’s All Right” lyric. Also during this verse, Elvis throws in his own rhyme of “sure / door” which can’t be found in any other Crudup song.
Scat verse and chorus
Crudup’s “Dee-Dee” scat verse was something of a trademark (akin to the Beatles’ “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”), so it’s no surprise that Elvis decided to include it here. But the real delight is his nod to Crudup’s “I Want My Loving” as he slides into the final chorus (Elvis actually sings, “I need your loving”) which is a final tip of the hat from the young pretender to the old master. Beautiful.
As noted earlier, Johnny Black remembered Elvis (in his pre-fame years) singing and claiming authorship of (some version of) “That’s All Right” on their housing estate and Johnny believed him. By conventional standards, of course, Elvis did not write the song that he played for Johnny, but the following extract from Scotty Moore’s website makes interesting reading:
One day, a white man asked Arthur (Crudup) if he’d like to hear himself on a record and get paid for it, too. The man, Lester Melrose, A&R rep for the RCA Bluebird label, took Arthur to record and to meet Tampa Red. Melrose told (Crudup) to bring at least four “original” songs to the recording session. After Melrose left, Crudup asked Tampa for some advice on how to write songs. Tampa told him, “It’s easy. Just take the third or fourth verse of some old record and make that your title verse. Then add other verses from other songs or anything that you can make up that fits the tune.”So it was that Arthur Crudup lifted the fourth verse from a Texas bluesman’s 1926 recording, “Black Snake Moan,” and in September 1946 recorded:“That’s all right, mamaThat’s all right for youThat’s all right, mamaAny way you do…”Elvis didn’t know it, but in 1954 he was singing lines first recorded by Country Blues’ first major star, Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Using Tampa Red’s criteria, Elvis could indeed be listed as the writer of his version of “That’s All Right”, but this is by and large an irrelevant and academic point. What is relevant and interesting, however, is to ponder the question: Did Elvis simply throw together his medley on the spot at 706 Union Avenue, or was it a “new song” that he’d already assembled knowing full well that in doing so he was actually paying homage to Crudup’s own style of composition? Had Elvis previously cherry-picked a selection of great lines and put them together with a few of his own lyrics to make up his own Crudup-medley? It is clear that on many subsequent occasions in the Sun and RCA studios, Elvis partly remembered songs and threw stuff together in a very ramshackle (but very successful and often brilliant) fashion. To me, though, this seems like a different situation.
What makes “That’s All Right” very interesting is this: Sam Phillips remembers that the song was nailed in just two or three takes, and we have two of these -- the master and one complete outtake. These two existing takes are absolutely identical as far as Elvis’ performances are concerned. Every word, every casual “mama”, every conjunction is identical. If this was something that Elvis just came up with on the spur of the moment (as is always suggested) then it really is quite remarkable that the two extant takes are literally identical. There’s not a word or inflection out of place. Could you do this? I’m sure I couldn’t, particularly when aware of the fact that Elvis was not simply copying an existing much-loved, well-played Crudup single but was, in fact, working his way through a “spontaneous” medley of at least five Crudup songs. It could easily be argued that Elvis was singing on-the-hoof, that he was grabbing Crudup lyrics out of his memory and hoping they fitted together: so far so good. Maybe he could do this once: but to do it twice, to duplicate his improvisation without a single syllable out of place? It seems unlikely to me.
It has been said that Elvis was musically colour-blind (“I just loved music: music, period.”). This may be so but he was no fool. He knew that in singing a “black” song he was messing with the colour barrier. The young Elvis very rarely revealed his love of the blues. Dixie Locke, for example, his girlfriend, knew nothing about it. Johnny Black seems to have the only person who heard the pre-fame Elvis performing an uptempo blues, and it was a song that Johnny had never heard before. This demonstrates just how odd and special Elvis was in his love of black culture and black music. And yet he revealed none of this passion to Sam, Scotty or Bill before the magic moment. But the music was there all along, inside him, just waiting to be released and revealed. And it’s the word “revealed” which is the key. To bring a Crudup song to the studio or to Sam was a huge gamble on Elvis’ part and it opened him up to the risk of great abuse and ridicule. Scotty and Bill acknowledged the risk once they’d nailed the master (“They’ll run us out of town”). Elvis came to Sun partly because he knew it was a place in which black music was respected and celebrated by Phillips. It was Presley's (understandable) fear and inhibitions that held him back. Did Sam sense the passion within the socially awkward young man? Was this Sam’s greatest talent, the recognition of the passions and abilities of others? Or was it his gift to release those passions and abilities.
It is my belief that Elvis came to 706 Union on Monday 5th July 1954 with his own “new song” ready to sing and play, his own “new” Arthur Crudup song. What he needed was an opening, a reason to use the song. Perhaps he was waiting for an invitation from Mr Phillips: “Do you know any blues, son?” When the invitation was not forthcoming, Elvis gathered his courage and, as the session ran down and his great opportunity prepared to walk out of the door, he strummed his guitar and started singing with such release and joy that his fellow musicians were astonished and felt obliged to join in, even though they didn’t recognise the song. The record was nailed within 15 minutes because Elvis knew the song inside out. Listen to the outtake: it’s Scotty and Bill who are looking for direction. Elvis is immaculate. One could almost compare the moment to a “coming out”: Elvis was finally able to publicly acknowledge his love of the blues, and it’s that sense of love and playfulness that pervades the song.
It would not have escaped Elvis’ attention (he was a blues obsessive) that Arthur Crudup’s first single, “If I Get Lucky”, kicked off with the lyric, “That’s all right, mama, that’s all right for you, that’s all right, mama, anyway you do” and I don’t consider it beyond the realms of possibility that Elvis wanted his own first record to have the same opening as his beloved Arthur Crudup.It’s also of note that before almost every guitar solo in Crudup’s catalogue, he shouts “Play the blues!” or “Play it one time!” or some other exhortation, a habit Elvis himself would continue until his own death.
It is only relatively recently that we have begun to understand the nature of Elvis’ artistic control during the 1950’s, including his insistence on the right of veto. It was Elvis, for example, who went back into the studio to personally overdub instruments on “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”. It was Elvis who insisted that “Heartbreak Hotel” was the right record to release as his RCA debut single. Too often we fall in with Elvis’ modesty regarding his early career.
However, slowly but surely, we are opening doors and finding actual evidence of his huge ambition and talent. There is enough evidence here for us to at least consider the possibility that Elvis may have brought his “new” Crudup song with him to Union Avenue on 5th July 1954 with an intention / desire to record it. His decision to reveal the song near the end of the evening may have been spontaneous but could just as easily have been part of a plan. To deny this possibility is to ignore Presley’s creative ability and to suppress his artistic vision.