In this essay about the origins of rock and roll music focuses on Sam Phillips in Memphis, TN. Unfortunately, the essay recounts all of the early rock music who recorded music with Sam Phillips and leaves the reader with the impression that Memphis was the only place that was rockin' in the 1950s. Far to the west of Memphis, another record producer was discovering talent and introducing a different style of rock and roll: Norman Petty of Clovis, NM. Sam Phillips may have launched the careers of Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Menand includes Roy Orbison in the early Sun Music roster of rockers, however, Roy Orbison recorded with Norman Petty in March 1956, well before Orbison made contact with Sam Phillips. This blogger may not know much, but Roy Orbison was in the vanguard of West Texas/Eastern New Mexico rock and roll: Roy Orbison, Buddy Knox, Waylon Jennings, Charlie "Sugartime" Phillips, Sonny West, Carolyn Hester, Terry Noland, Jimmy & Cliff Blakley, and Buddy Holly. If this is (fair & balanced) musical revisionism, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Elvis Oracle
By Louis Menand
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
In 1968, when Patti Smith was twenty-one and working in a Manhattan bookstore, she went to a Doors concert at the old Fillmore East. She loved the Doors. As she described the concert in her memoir Just Kids (2010), everyone was transfixed by Jim Morrison, except for her. She found herself making a cold appraisal of his performance. “I felt,” she concluded, “that I could do that.” For many people, that response is the essence of rock and roll.
To this way of thinking, rock and roll—the music associated with performers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles—is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to. The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords. You can add horns and strings and backup singers, and you can add a lot more chords, but the important thing is the feeling. Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun. There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing. No one contributed more to the job than Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, in Memphis, and the man who discovered Elvis Presley.
In twenty-first-century terms, Phillips was an industry disrupter. He had a regional business, little access to capital, and no reliable distribution system for his product. He recorded a style of music that the major record companies—there were six of them when he started out, and they dominated the national market—had deemed unprofitable. But he helped identify an audience, and that audience transformed the industry and the nature of popular music.
In the beginning, Phillips had not planned to run a record company. He was born, in 1923, in a small place in Alabama called Lovelace Community, not far from Muscle Shoals. His father was a flagman on a railroad bridge over the Tennessee River. Phillips got his start in radio, working in Decatur and Nashville, and, finally, in 1945, making it to Memphis, his version of what Paris was for Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. In January, 1950, he opened the Memphis Recording Service, in a tiny space on Union Avenue, just a block away from Beale Street, the heart of the Memphis music scene. (The building still stands, now a National Historic Landmark.)
“We Record Anything—Anywhere—Anytime” was the slogan. This meant a lot of church services, weddings, and funerals, but Phillips’s dream, the reason that he set up the studio, was to have a place where any aspiring musician could come in and try out, no questions asked. Phillips would listen and offer suggestions and encouragement. If he liked what he heard, he would record it. For a fee, the performer could cut his or her own record.
Phillips was extremely good at this. He was patient with the musicians; he was adept with the technology; above all, he was supportive. He hated formulas. He thought that music was about self-expression, and he liked songs that were different. The pop sound in 1950 was smooth and harmonic. Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic. Word got around, and musicians no one else would record started turning up at the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips got them to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.
To have the recordings pressed and distributed, he relied on small independent labels like Modern Records, in Los Angeles, and Chess, in Chicago. But he found the men who ran those outfits untrustworthy—he felt that they were always trying to poach his artists or cheat him on royalties—and so, in 1952, he started up his own label, Sun Records.
Phillips rarely scouted for artists. Sun was designed as a walk-in business. And amazing performers walked in, some on their own, some referred by other musicians. By 1958, Phillips had produced sides by a major-league roster of talent. He was the first to record, besides Elvis, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. He produced and released songs that people born decades afterward still play in their heads while doing the dishes: “Mystery Train,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Ooby-Dooby,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire.” That’s a plausible soundtrack at Starbucks more than half a century later.
Still, despite commercial success, Phillips continued to lose his artists, this time to major record labels, like Columbia and RCA Victor, and, around 1960, he more or less gave up producing. A wealthy man, he disappeared from the music scene for almost twenty years. When he reëmerged, he devoted some of his time to creating new radio stations but most of it—he died in 2003—to burnishing his legend. Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll (2015) is an interesting contribution to the self-promotion project.
The book is a labor of love. Guralnick is an eminent authority on rock and roll and related musical styles. He is passionate about the music, but he doesn’t let his passion overinflate his prose, and he seems to know everything about everyone who was part of the Southern music world. He is best known as the author of a classic and probably unsurpassable two-volume biography of Presley, Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999). He spent many years trying to get an interview with Phillips. Finally, in 1979, the year Phillips decided to come out of hibernation, he succeeded. It turned out to be worth the wait, and not only professionally. “Meeting Sam for me was a life-changing event,” Guralnick says.
Phillips and Guralnick became friends, although it was a Yoda-Luke sort of relationship, which appears to have been the sort of relationship Phillips was most comfortable with. He was always a great talker. In his later years, and with a glass of vodka in hand, he seems to have been a verbal Niagara. He told Guralnick how it was, and Guralnick wrote it down (or taped it).
In some respects, therefore, Sam Phillips is the memoir that Phillips never wrote. The book adopts a down-home slash mythomaniacal voice that is presumably meant to capture Phillips at his most loquacious:
And it came to him in that moment that this could be his calling: not just the righting of wrongs but the study of humanity, in all its diversity, in all of the multitude of its manifestations.
In the opening pages, Phillips is equated with Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Michelangelo. Even in a eulogy, it would seem a little much. When our hero’s patronage of the local brothel is described as a humanitarian act in support of women down on their luck—women who, if not for such patronage, might have had to turn to . . . what? cleaning houses?—you know you are not reading a conventional biography.
But Guralnick understands his subject, and, after a while, you pick up on the subtext. Phillips had a genuine feel for a kind of music that was, in a Southern context, slightly asymmetrical to his own race and class. He liked the blues, and his liking of the blues was bound up with progressive views on race relations. He really did believe that by recording B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf—and many other African-American musicians, most of them now largely forgotten—he was doing God’s work. He respected his musicians as artists and as people; he identified with their travails; and he threw himself into the job of getting their music out.
Personally, as becomes clear in the course of the biography, he could be self-centered to the point of coldness. He made it a principle never to let other people’s feelings stand in his way. As a number of witnesses explained the deal to Guralnick, Sam was Sam; he did what he wanted to do. He was a good-looking man. Women fell for him, and he did not demur. He had several long-term mistresses with whom he lived publicly, though he remained married to the same woman his whole life. At some point, he simply moved her into a house of her own, so that he could live with his girlfriend. That girlfriend had to wait out other public affairs later on. All the women seem to have remained loyal, including his wife.
Phillips was also not a very good businessman. Other independent labels, like Atlantic, managed to keep their artists and to thrive well into the nineteen-sixties. Phillips got out of the business just as the pop-music revolution that he helped make happen was starting to cash out in a big way. Even if he had just kept running the studio, he would have had plenty of work. FAME Studios, which was founded in Florence, Alabama, in 1959 and moved to Muscle Shoals in 1961, recorded huge hits by artists like Arthur Conley (“Sweet Soul Music”), Wilson Pickett (“Mustang Sally”), Percy Sledge (“When a Man Loves a Woman”), and Aretha Franklin (“Chain of Fools”). But Phillips, after losing virtually all of his original hit-makers, was convinced that the majors would always stick it to the little guy, and had largely dropped out. A sound he did much to develop conquered the world through work done by other hands.
As for the mythomania: it seems that, basically, you just gotta love it. Phillips could be petty about insisting on credit for various things, but he was an outsized personality. Putting up with a little grandiosity, and some occasional cornball wisdom, came with the territory. He was one of those people with whom, if you are willing to play by their rules when you are in their house, everything is better than good.
The subtitle of Guralnick’s book should probably be read in quotation marks. “The man who invented rock and roll” is a phrase that Phillips wanted to be remembered by, and the label has stuck. Guralnick suggests that it might be more accurate to call him “the man who discovered rock and roll.” But even that seems misplaced, not because Phillips wasn’t in the yolk of the egg, which he was, but because how the egg got hatched is still a mystery.
Rock and roll is usually explained as rhythm-and-blues music—that is, music performed by black artists for black listeners—repurposed by mostly white artists for a mostly white audience. How do we know this? Because that’s the way the industry trade magazine Billboard represented it.
Billboard started charting songs in 1940. By 1949, it was publishing charts in three categories: pop, country-and-Western, and (a new term, replacing “race music”) rhythm and blues. Every week, in each category, there were lists of the songs most frequently sold in record shops, most frequently requested in jukeboxes, and most frequently played by disk jockeys. (These rankings were all relative; actual sales figures were proprietary.)
The charting system was predicated on a segregated market. How did Billboard know when a song was a rhythm-and-blues hit, and not a pop hit? Because its sales were reported by stores that catered to an African-American clientele, its on-air plays were reported by radio stations that programmed for African-American listeners, and its jukebox requests were made in venues with African-American customers. Black artists could have pop hits. The Ink Spots, a black quartet, had fourteen songs in the Top Five on the pop chart between 1939 and 1947. That was because their songs were marketed to whites.
The foundation on which this scheme rested was obviously extremely shaky, and several industry developments made it even shakier. One was the rise of the local radio station. Before the nineteen-forties, radio was dominated by national broadcast networks like CBS, NBC, and Mutual. As a consequence of an FCC policy designed to break up this oligopoly, the licensing of local stations increased from around eight hundred in 1940 to more than two thousand in 1949. By 1950, the radio stations most people were listening to were local. And everyone listened. Ninety-six per cent of homes in the United States had a radio.
One article of faith in the music business is that repetition is a key to sales. The more often people hear a song, the more they feel the need to buy it, and radio was one way to lodge a song in people’s heads. Jukeboxes were another. By 1940, there were close to half a million jukeboxes in the United States. This is why DJ and jukebox plays were charted in Billboard: they were market indicators. A song that was played a lot could be predicted to sell a lot, so distributors and retailers took notice.
Jukeboxes and local radio stations allowed the music audience to segment—a key development in a racially divided society. A third of the population of Memphis was African-American, for example, and so a small local station could survive profitably with programming for African-American listeners. In fact, the first station with all-black programming in the United States (it was owned by whites) was in Memphis: WDIA, which began broadcasting, at two hundred and fifty watts, in 1949. B. B. King started his career there, as a disk jockey and on-air performer.
The major record companies got out of the “race music” business in the nineteen-forties. But the spread of jukeboxes and the success of local radio showed that the market, though small, was still there. As if on cue, a swarm of independent labels arose to manufacture and sell rhythm-and-blues records: Specialty, Aladdin, Modern, Swingtime, and Imperial (all in Los Angeles—for a time, oddly, the capital of R&B), King (Cincinnati), Peacock (Houston), Chess (Chicago), Savoy (Newark), Atlantic (New York), and many more. All those labels were established between 1940 and 1950. Phillips actually came late to the party.
Rock and roll became possible when it started to dawn on people that not everyone buying R&B records or listening to R&B songs on the radio was African-American. In 1952, the year Phillips launched Sun, forty per cent of R&B record buyers at the Dolphin Record Store, in Los Angeles, were white. The year before, a classical-music DJ in Cleveland, Alan Freed, had been astonished to see white teen-agers eagerly buying R&B records at a local record shop, and he started following his “quality music” program with a show devoted to R&B In 1954, Freed moved to WINS, in New York. He was one of the first people to call R&B music listened to by white kids rock and roll—a key move in repositioning the product.
By the time Sun opened for business, it was obvious that many white teen-agers wanted to listen to R&B. Sam Phillips knew it, but, as Guralnick says, everybody knew it. The problem was not how to create the market but how to exploit it. Phillips is supposed to have gone around saying, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” In an unsympathetic biography of Presley, published in 1981, Albert Goldman has Phillips referring to “the nigger sound”; Guralnick makes it clear that Phillips didn’t talk or think that way. And Guralnick is confident that Phillips didn’t talk about the music in terms of getting rich, either.
Still, it raises an interesting question. Phillips had had success in 1951 with a song called “Rocket 88” (the title refers to a model of automobile), performed by Ike Turner’s band and sung by Jackie Brenston, who became the headliner (much to Turner’s annoyance). The band had damaged an amplifier on the way to the studio, so it buzzed when music was played. Phillips considered this a delicious imperfection, and he kept it. That is the sound that makes the record, and many people have called “Rocket 88” the first rock-and-roll song. (I guess some song has to be the first.) But “Rocket 88” was performed by a black group. Why, if white kids were already buying records by black musicians, did the breakthrough performer have to be white?
The answer is television. In 1948, less than two per cent of American households had a television set. By 1955, more than two-thirds did. Prime time in those years was dominated by variety shows—hosted by people like Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Perry Como—that booked musical acts. Since most television viewers got only three or four channels, the audience for those shows was enormous. Television exposure became the best way to sell a record.
On television, unlike on radio, the performer’s race is apparent. And sponsors avoided mixed-race shows, since they were advertising on national networks and did not want to alienate viewers in certain regions of the country. Nat King Cole’s television show, which went on the air in 1956, could never get regular sponsors. Cole had to quit after a year. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” he said.
The stage was thus set for Elvis Presley. Presley was a walk-in. He showed up at the Memphis Recording Service in the summer of 1953, when he was eighteen, to make a record for his mother. (At least, that’s the legend.) He paid four dollars to record two songs, “My Happiness,” which had been a hit for several artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, a few years earlier, and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” an old Ink Spots song. Whether Phillips was in the booth that day or not later became a matter of acrimonious dispute (he insisted that he was), but someone wrote next to Presley’s name, “Good ballad singer. Hold.”
A year later, Phillips invited Presley back to try out a ballad he’d discovered. The song didn’t seem to work, and Phillips had Presley run through all the material he knew, any song he could remember. After three hours, they gave up. But Phillips thought of putting Presley together with a couple of country-and-Western musicians—Scotty Moore, an electric guitarist, and Bill Black, who played standup bass—and invited the three of them to come to the studio.
They began their session with a Bing Crosby song called “Harbor Lights,” then tried a ballad, then a hillbilly (or country) song. They did multiple takes; nothing seemed to click. Everyone was ready to quit for the night when, as Elvis told the story later, “this song popped into my mind that I had heard years ago and I started kidding around.”
The song was “That’s All Right,” an old R&B number, written and recorded by Arthur Crudup. “Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them,” Scotty Moore recalled. Phillips stuck his head out of the booth and told them to start from the beginning. After many takes, they had a record.
Phillips had become friendly with a white disk jockey, Dewey Phillips, who played some R&B on his show, on WHBQ, in Memphis. (Becoming friendly with DJs who played the kind of music you recorded was basic industry practice. Leonard Chess, of Chess Records, used to have a trunk full of alligator shoes when he drove around visiting local DJs. He’d ask for their shoe size and gift them a pair.) Sam gave the recording to Dewey, and Dewey played it repeatedly on his broadcast. It was an overnight sensation.
To make a record that people could buy, they needed a B-side. So, the next day, Presley, Moore, and Black recorded an up-tempo cover of a bluegrass song called “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and, in July, 1954, Elvis Presley’s first single came on the market. In Sun’s promotional campaign, Phillips emphasized the record’s “three-way” appeal: to pop, hillbilly, and rhythm-and-blues listeners.
The point was that Elvis was not a pop singer who covered R&B and country songs. Plenty of pop singers did that. Elvis was a crossover artist. “Operators have placed [“That’s All Right”] on nearly all locations (white and colored) and are reporting plays seldom encountered on a record in recent years,” Phillips announced in a press release. “According to local sales analysis, the apparent reason for its tremendous sales is because of its appeal to all classes of record buyers.” The press bought the theory that Elvis was unclassifiable in conventional terms. “He has a white voice, sings with a Negro rhythm, which borrows in mood and emphasis from country styles,” a Memphis paper explained.
Presley’s next two singles on Sun didn’t have much success. He finally made it onto the national country-and-Western chart in July, 1955, with “Baby Let’s Play House.” In September, his cover of “Mystery Train,” a song that Phillips had recorded two years earlier with Junior Parker, the black singer who wrote it, made the Top Ten on Billboard’s country-and-Western chart. Guralnick says it was Phillips who persuaded Junior Parker that the train should have sixteen coaches. “Mystery Train,” Phillips told Guralnick, was “the greatest thing I ever did on Elvis. I’m sorry. It was a fucking masterpiece.” Two months later, he sold Presley’s contract to RCA Victor for thirty-five thousand dollars.
Presley was made for television. Offstage, he was bashful and polite, but, with a microphone and in front of an audience, he was a gyrating fireball with an unbelievably sexy sneer. He loved to perform. He made his first national television appearance on Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey’s “Stage Show,” on CBS, in January, 1956. His big television moment came a few months later, though, when he sang back-to-back versions of “Hound Dog,” the second time with full range of pelvic motion, on Milton Berle. Forty million people watched his performance, and that summer “Hound Dog” and its flip side, “Don’t Be Cruel,” went to No. 1 on all three Billboard charts. The rest is history.
But let’s rewind the tape. Originally, Phillips never had any idea of using Presley to cover an R&B song. He called him in as a ballad singer, and that is what Presley always believed he essentially was. Presley’s favorite among his own songs was “It’s Now or Never.” The song is not bluesy, and it’s not rock and roll. It’s Neapolitan. Musically, “It’s Now or Never” is a cover of “O Sole Mio.”
When Phillips decided to bring in two white musicians, Moore and Black, to back Presley, he had them try pop and country songs. “That’s All Right” began as a joke. Moore and Black thought the song was a joke, too. It worked, but it seems to have been completely unpremeditated.
“That’s All Right” did not make the national charts. It was a regional hit. Its reception sent a signal that “a white man singing black” excited listeners, but Presley didn’t make it to the big time for another year. By then, as Elijah Wald points out in his recent revisionist history of popular music, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll (2009), white performers and producers had stopped recasting R&B songs in a pop style and had started imitating them. Producers knew where the new sound was headed.
Rhythm and blues was hot. By 1954, the all-black-programming WDIA had become a fifty-thousand-watt station reaching the entire mid-South. A year later, there were more than six hundred stations, in thirty-nine states, that programmed for black listeners. When the young Pat Boone walked into the studio at Dot Records, in Gallatin, Tennessee, in the summer of 1955, he was shocked to be asked to sing an R&B song. Like Presley, Boone saw himself as a ballad singer. But he recorded Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and it went to No. 1 on the pop chart. The same summer, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” became a No. 1 song after it was heard in the movie “Blackboard Jungle.”
African-American performers began to benefit from the popularity of the new sound. In May, 1955, Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” for Chess Records; Chess rushed the record to Alan Freed, in New York, and it went to No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 5 on the pop chart. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was released a few months later. By January, when Presley was beginning to appear on television, it had reached No. 17 on the pop chart. In 1954, only three per cent of songs on the pop retail chart were by African-American artists; in 1957, it was nearly thirty per cent. That was unprecedented.
Presley quickly covered “Tutti Frutti.” So did Pat Boone, who, in the nineteen-fifties, was second in record sales only to Presley. An aspiring English teacher, Boone insisted on announcing his first big hit onstage as “Isn’t That a Shame.” He did not, even remotely, “sound black.” But, from an industry point of view, he brought respectability to the material. He helped makeR&B the new pop. In 1956, seventy-six per cent of top R&B songs also made the pop chart; in 1957, eighty-seven per cent made the pop chart; in 1958, it was ninety-four per cent. The marginal market had become the main market, and the majors had got into the act.
When we look back at this history, the best conclusion seems to be the one reached by the sociologist Philip Ennis in his valuable analysis of popular music, The Seventh Stream (1992). “Did the music industry force-feed teenagers into the acceptance of rock and roll?” Ennis asked. “To the contrary, it was almost the reverse.” White listeners began consuming a style of music that had not been manufactured for or marketed to them. The DJs and the record companies were only scrambling to meet the demand. That demand seems to have sprung up everywhere—in Cleveland and Memphis, in Los Angeles and New York—and all at once. If advertising and promotion didn’t bring about this phenomenon, what did?
It’s tempting to interpret it as a generational rebellion against a buttoned-up, conservative domestic culture, but this is almost certainly a retrospective reading, created by looking at the period through the lens of the nineteen-sixties. Folk songs had a message, and some sixties rock songs had a message. Rock and roll did not have a message, unless it was: “Let’s party (and if you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair).” Or maybe, at its most polemical, “Roll over, Beethoven.” But it was music intended for young people, and this was the distinctive thing.
In order for a music for young people to come into being, young people have to have a way to play it. The jukebox was one delivery mode: kids could listen to the music in a diner or an ice-cream shop, someplace outside the home and in the company of other kids. More significant, as Ennis points out, were several inventions. The 45-RPM record—the single—was developed by RCA and marketed in 1949. Soon, RCA introduced a cheap plastic record player, which played only 45s and sold for twelve ninety-five. This meant that teen-agers could play “their” music out of their parents’ hearing. They did not have to listen in the living room on the family phonograph.
In 1954, transistor radios came on the market. Kids could now carry the music anywhere, including to school. A robust national economy in the United States after 1950 meant that teen-agers were staying in school longer than they had in the nineteen-thirties or during the war years. High school became an important social space. Material conditions therefore existed for a quasi-autonomous “teen culture,” and rock and roll beautifully fit the bill.
It has also been tempting to make sense of the rise of rock and roll as somehow related to the civil-rights movement, whose origins date from the same period. White enthusiasm for R&B music looks like a cultural indicator of future changes in race relations. This, too, seems largely a retrospective reading. The music of the movement was gospel, not pop or rhythm and blues.
In fact, the racialization of the rock-and-roll story, which continued after the nineteen-fifties in the form of charges that white artists had appropriated an African-American art form, is a simplification. It’s based on the idea that there is or was a “black” sound or a “black” musical style. That idea is an artifact of the old Billboard charting system, which was premised on just such an assumption. When you get down to cases, the racial elements become complicated very quickly.
Take “Hound Dog,” one of Presley’s biggest hits. It was originally released by a black R&B singer named Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton, in 1953, and went to No. 1 on the national R&B chart. But Thornton didn’t write the song. It was written by a couple of Jewish teen-agers living in Los Angeles, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, on commission from the producer Johnny Otis, who was recording Thornton for Peacock Records. It took them about fifteen minutes to compose it.
Leiber and Stoller thought they had written a raunchy blues number, but when they brought it into the studio Thornton insisted on crooning it. Leiber had to sing it for her so she could hear how it was supposed to go. When she was ready to record it, the drummer wasn’t making the right sound, so Otis played the drums himself (and also took co-writing credit). Otis always considered himself part of the African-American community, but in fact he was the son of Greek immigrants; his real name was John Veliotes.
Presley needed thirty-one takes to record “Hound Dog.” He didn’t cover Big Mama Thornton’s version, though. He had decided to record the song after hearing it performed by an all-white Las Vegas lounge act called Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, who had rewritten the lyrics to turn “Hound Dog” from a song about a lover who won’t go away to a song about, actually, a dog. It was a gag number, and that’s how Elvis performed it. When he sang it on “The Steve Allen Show,” Allen brought a basset hound onstage and Presley sang to the dog. Whatever sexual innuendo a couple of white songwriters had invented and had managed to persuade an African-American singer was in the lyrics had been completely erased.
The flip side of Presley’s “Hound Dog” single, “Don’t Be Cruel,” is completely different, a doo-woppy, country-sounding song. “Don’t Be Cruel” was written by Otis Blackwell, who later gave Presley two more songs with the same sound, “Return to Sender” and “All Shook Up.” Blackwell was African-American.
All history is retrospective. We’re always looking at the past through the lens of later developments. How else could we see it? We are ourselves, as subjects, among those later developments. It’s natural for us to take events that were to a significant extent the product of guesswork, accident, short-term opportunism, and good luck, and of demographic and technological changes whose consequences no one could have foreseen, and shape them into a heroic narrative about artistic breakthrough and social progress. But a legend is just one of the forms that history takes—which is why it’s good to have Guralnick’s book. Ω
[Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001. His book The Metaphysical Club (2001) was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. Additional books by Menand are shown here. Menand also is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University. Menand received a BA (English) from Pomona College and a PhD (English) from Columbia University.]
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