"Without You"

15 Oct 2017

The true saga of "Heartbreak Hotel" is not necessarily the only question mark pertaining to the career of Elvis Presley, and long-term students were thrilled recently to learn of the solving of another small but fascinating mystery.

 

When the young Elvis Presley was trying to get himself noticed by Sam Phillips (owner of Sun Records) in 1953/54, it seemed that his every gambit failed. Even the act of paying $4 to have Mr Phillips listen to him and record a personal disk made little difference.

 

And then, in May 1954, Sam Phillips came across an anonymous 10" demo disk in his office. On the record was a solo black voice singing a plaintive ballad called "Without You" and Sam decided he'd like to release the song on his own Sun label.

 

Unable to identify or track down the singer, he gave some consideration as to which of his artists should tape a new version. After much thought (and lots of encouragement from his secretary Marion Keisker who adored Elvis) Sam called Elvis in to see what he could make of the song on Saturday 26th June 1954.

 

Elvis listened and memorised the performance on the demo and sang through the song several times for Sam who liked what he heard but wasn't sure Elvis was the right voice for this track. It was then that Sam uttered the immortal question, "What else do you sing?" Nine days later Elvis recorded "That's All Right" and racial, musical and cultural walls began to crumble.

 

When Marion Keisker left Sun Records in 1957 she took with her the anonymous demo as a keepsake, realising its huge cultural value. In the early 1980s, just a few brief seconds of the scratchy demo were played in a BBC documentary but even this remained elusive and not many Presley fans or music historians had heard it.

 

Earlier this year, popular music scholar and dedicated r&b expert Chris Kennedy chanced upon the snippet and instantly recognised the voice as that of obscure singer Jimmy Sweeney who had enjoyed a sporadic career in the music business during the 1950s and early 1960s.

 

Having checked and double-checked his theory, he revealed that name to the world in a recent issue of Mojo magazine.

 

Success-wise, Sweeney's career could easily be viewed as a failure, hence his decision to retire in the early 1960s, but the dozen or so records he made were quite superb, and without his beautiful voice gracing that simple demo it could be that Sam Phillips might never have made the call to a nineteen year-old Elvis Presley.

 

And, most intriguingly of all, knowing that Sam loved the mysterious voice on the demo, did the young Elvis try his utmost to sound just like it.

 

Here's Jimmy Sweeney in fine form in 1954 on his self-composed "I Pay With Every Breath".

 

 

 

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