Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sun Studios & Graceland

Sam Phillips opened the doors to the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Ave in 1949. In that small, 3 room studio next to Taylor's Restaurant musical history was made several times over. Sam Phillips had the ingenuity, confidence and receptiveness to become one of the most important producers in popular music. He started out recording the blues and rhythm and blues, tapping into the vast talent pool of the local area. Memphis was strategically located and got its rock 'n roll roots from the jazz of New Orleans, the delta blues of the Mississippi, country from Nashville and the folk heritage of the deep south. Musicians like Ike Turner, Howlin' Wolf and BB King walked through the door of Memphis Recording Service to cut their original tunes, many of which for the first time.

My particular favorite story is that of Ike Turner with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Legend has it he wrote the song in Clarksdale, Mississippi and as he and his band drove up Highway 61 to record at Sam Phillips' studio the guitar amp fell off the roof of the car, breaking the speaker cone. Not having time to fix the amp, Sam Phillips stuffed newspaper into the cracks to make it functional. However, he liked the new distorted sound it produced and wound up leaving it high in the mix creating what some people call the first rock 'n roll song ever.

Elvis Presley came to the studio in 1953 (when only 18) to meet Sam Phillips and record a demo on acetate. However, Sam wasn't there and Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like, from which he replied, "I don't sound like nobody." He recorded two songs, but nothing came of it. Elvis was persistant, and returned to the studio several times over the next year, until he was finally able to persuade Mr. Phillips to give him a chance with some studio time. The song that culminated from that July '54 recording session was 'That's All Right Mama', made with the help of guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. The Elvis legend pretty much started there, and continued to explode until he was an international star by 1956 on RCA Victor records.

Elvis with Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker

My experience at Sun Studios started off somewhat flustered. I had just flown into Memphis and it was getting late. I really wanted to see the birthplace of rock 'n roll that day and I thought it closed at 5pm, and it was already 4. As I left my hotel I realized I couldn't find my rental car keys. I panicked, calling the rental office, searching around the sidewalk, looking inside the car. Not knowing how far the studio was I started walking, practically running down Union Ave toward the studio. It was cold and my ears were ringing. As I was feeling around my winter coat I found them, buried deep inside a hidden pocket that I had forgotten the coat even had. I turned and ran back to the car and drove off. To my relief, I discovered the studio-turned-museum didn't close until 6:30. I had plenty of time! Although it was super crowded which made it difficult to see inside the cramped studios where Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins recorded. The guide, Lydia, was awfully cute and let me go back into the studio after everyone left to better appreciate the vibe.

There, in the asbestos tile covered room where Elvis made history, I saw a guitar with my name on it. Literally. This beautiful red Gretsch had the name "James" printed on its body. I've been wanting to buy an electric hollow bodied Gretsch for a few years now, and it was pretty remarkeable to stumble upon this at Sun Studios. I grabbed it and bolted out of there; rocketing down Union Ave, not looking back. Just kidding. But I am thinking more seriously about buying that Gretsch, once I have the money.

I went to Graceland the next day with my friend Sara, who popped up from Jackson the night before to hang out. We were in our Sunday best, just back from the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, lead by the Bishop Al Green (yes, the Al Green). More on that experience later. The house was preserved just as it was in the mid-'70's, which means tacky textiles and colors all over. Carpeting everywere (including walls & ceilings in some rooms), mirrored walls, eye-crossing paisley patterns, and tiki furniture abound. Of course the state of the art kitchen was not so state of the art anymore, and reminded me of the crappy one I had when I lived in Williamsburg. However, it was great for me to see the place that Elvis loved so dearly and occupied his entire adult life.

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