On a hot Saturday in the summer of 1953, Sam Phillips was out of the office, leaving Marion Keisker to manage the studio. She wasn’t running professional sessions, you understand, but if anyone came in to make a personal acetate then she would oblige. As it happened, it was a busy day, and Marion was rushing between the reception and the control booth, keeping the customers satisfied, while also answering the phone, filling-in paperwork, and taking care of business.
Elvis Presley stood outside the distinctive neon-lit windows and took a deep breath. Having read the glowing article in Wednesday’s newspaper, he’d parked his truck nearby — he was a working man now — and was determined to record two songs, hoping that Mr Phillips would notice him. He entered, guitar in hand, and joined the short queue of nervous performers.
Each time Marion re-appeared in the reception to usher a new customer into the studio, she smiled and dabbed the sweat from her brow, apologising to everyone in her perfect radio voice for the unseemly delay. Elvis couldn’t be sure, but he thought her gaze seemed to linger on him a little longer with each visit, which was quite likely bearing in mind the unusual length of his hair and sideburns. This being a working day, he was dressed in overalls, and not his usual spectacular attire.
As the queue shortened, Elvis became acutely aware that Mr Phillips himself was not in the studio that day, and a wave of disappointment washed over him. At that moment, the door opened and in came a young sailor, accompanied by an older woman (his mother), who embraced Marion enthusiastically. A less competent person would have grown agitated by this unexpected intrusion on an already hectic day, but Marion was the original multi-tasker. She ushered her newly-arrived friends into the control booth because it seemed likely that’s where she’d be spending most of the afternoon, and they could chat while Marion worked the machines.
At last it was Elvis’ turn to perform and, sensing his nervousness (his leg never stopped trembling) Marion made small talk while she prepared herself. He told her he was making a record for his mother, and she smiled warmly which seemed to settle his anxiety.
“What kind of singer are you?” she enquired.
“I sing all kinds.”
“Who do you sound like?”
“I don’t sound like nobody.”
“Do you sing hillbilly?”
“Yeah, I sing hillbilly.”
“Who do you sound like in hillbilly?”
He paused a beat, as if considering.
“I don’t sound like nobody.”
At this, she smiled again, and he felt very at ease at the microphone. The singer and the secretary developed an instant bond. She would play the part of enthusiastic audience and he would sing just for her.
He recorded two songs directly to acetate disk: the first was a simple take on Ella Fitzgerald’s hit version of “My Happiness” and the second was a cover of the Inkspots’ weepy ballad, “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. And it was while he was singing the first song that Marion heard something special in his untrained voice. She looked at her friend standing beside her in the studio console, who nodded and agreed that the boy’s singing gave her goose-bumps. Marion quickly threaded an old tape through the Ampex, and made a copy of the remainder of the first song and all of the second. The performances were slow, and perhaps a little fragile, but Marion wanted Sam to hear this voice.
Using the reverse of some spare labels for the Prisonaires' recently-recorded follow-up single, she typed Elvis’ name and the song titles and then pasted them to either side of the disk. Job done, she took a note of his name, his address, and a contact telephone number. She also wrote “Good ballad singer: hold” on the tape, lest Sam should wipe it before listening. The boy took this as a very encouraging sign and, acetate in hand, he left the studio and went back to work. It would surely now just be a matter of time until Mr Phillips called him.
[Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley and Marion Keisker, outside Memphis Recording Service, 1956.]