Elvis Presley: Big Boss Man

The King's sidemen and songwriters remember the Southern legend

Elvis Presley poses with record producer Sam Phillips, Leo Soroka and Robert Johnson at Sun Recording Studios in Memphis, Tennessee on December 4th, 1956. Credit: Colin Escott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

One night in 1955, a ten-year-old named Knox Phillips was hanging out at Sun Records, a small, narrow building next to a parking lot at 706 Union Avenue in downtown Memphis. He hadn't come to audition for Sam Phillips, Sun's proprietor, as hundreds of young hopefuls from all over the South had. Sam Phillips was his father and he had come to see four of his discoveries — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash — make a recording together. The four men had longish, greased-back hair and were wearing loud clothes, but they were singing white country spirituals, looking reverently up in the direction of heaven while Lewis pounded out a sanctified accompaniment on the Sun studio's piano.

Knox had his ducktail Brylcreemed and was dressed to the nines in his cat clothes in emulation of Elvis, his idol. During a break between takes, Presley spotted him, broke into a broad grin, walked over and hugged him. "Stay with me, son, stay with me," the singer said, clasping young Knox close. "And," Phillips added 22 years later, the day after Presley's death, "he meant it. I think he saw me coming up as an embodiment of the Southern rebel thing and the other things he represented."

Presley was largely a Southern phenomenon that night in 1955, but already he was shaping the style and attitude of a younger generation, the first rock 'n' roll generation. He would move on to the movies, to Las Vegas, to an increasingly elaborate musical presentation, but he always came back to Memphis, and onstage he always came back to gospel music and rock 'n' roll. This rooted, self-consciously Southern Elvis Presley was the Elvis many of the music people who worked with him — instrumentalists, singers, producers — remembered in the days following the announcement of his passing. He came, as Knox Phillips said, "from poor, deprived people who were also fundamentally religious people," from a part of the country where poor whites knew intimately and to a great extent shared the lives of poor blacks. Like these people, he was impulsive and shy, self-willed and humble, wild and spiritual, courtly and crude. He was a Southern man.

He was also a Southern musician, not the first and not the last, but surely the most important. He learned to sing in the fundamentalist First Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, Mississippi. In Memphis, with the help and encouragement of Sam Phillips, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, he spent hours, days, weeks and months transforming the white and black gospel, blues, folk and country music of his childhood into something people would call rockabilly, which we recognize today as archetypal rock 'n' roll. And it was largely in Nashville that the raw sound of rockabilly was refined — or emasculated, depending on one's point of view — into songs the whole world could sing.

There can be little doubt that Sam Phillips played the crucial role of midwife in the birth of the new music, that without him there might never have been an Elvis Presley. White boys who sang black were nothing new in the South. Carl Perkins, playing with his brothers in Jackson, Tennessee, and Jerry Lee Lewis down in Ferriday, Louisiana, were making music much like Presley's when Elvis was screwing up his courage to go in and make that first record for his mother. Country boogie groups had been covering black hits in a more or less black style for years; that went back to prewar recordings of people like Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. But white singers who sang very black and also jumped and boogied to the beat were considered low class and disreputable even by hillbilly musicians.

Presley came to Sun with all his musical influences digested, but he was star-struck and tried at first to imitate the popular crooners of the day. Sam Phillips, who is fond of saying,"If you aren't doing something different, you aren't doing anything," tried cutting the country ballad "I Love You Because" with him, then, during a break, Elvis grabbed his guitar and launched into "That's All Right, Mama," a blues by Arthur Crudup. Scotty Moore and Bill Black fell in behind him and Phillips knew immediately that what another producer might have taken for a bit of lighthearted country clowning, a break from the serious work, was in fact one of the most serious cultural events of the 20th century. Presley never forgot this moment. He had tried, and failed, to make the kind of music mainstream Americans accepted. From now on he would make music that came, naturally and instinctively, from his roots.

When RCA's Steve Sholes bought Presley's contract from Sam Phillips his young assistant, guitarist Chet Atkins, was given the responsibility of helping to arrange the singer's first Nashville sessions. "I thought he was a black guy when I heard his Sun records," Atkins recalls. "When I found out he was coming I hired the Jordanaires, Floyd Cramer and some of the other musicians to work with his group. Everybody knew he was going to be the hottest thing in show business, he was already so hot in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana."

Elvis came to Nashville with Moore, Black and D.J. Fontana, who'd been staff drummer for the Louisiana Hayride. Fontana was used to playing conventional country music, and he freely admits that "I didn't understand what they were doing. I had listened to a lot of music but I wasn't that familiar with what was happening in rhythm & blues. When they first played on the Louisiana Hayride — this was when he was on Sun — Elvis was playing rhythm and Bill Black played a drum kind of thing, slapping that bass. Scotty had his thing. They had a feel and a sound all their own and didn't really need me. But somehow it all fell into place."

It didn't always fall into place when Presley recorded with Nashville musicians. Many of the early RCA tracks sound chaotic and clattering compared to the sleek, spare sound of the Sun recordings.

The RCA sessions took place in New York and Los Angeles as well as in Nashville, but always with the touring band as their core. Often they went on all night. Chet Atkins, a family man, stopped playing on them when they no longer took place in the daytime, but as a Nashville RCA executive, he kept track of how they went. "They would begin setting up around eight p.m. and Elvis would come in after nine. He would do karate, swap stories. I remember at the early sessions he would come in with pockets full of press clippings and show them to his friends and laugh. Anyway, they would start cutting around 11 or 12 and then they'd send out for a hundred Krystal burgers or some other kind of fast food. They'd eat, and around two or three a.m. they'd take a little siesta. Then it would be back to work."

The night hours were necessary because of Presley's notoriety; he simply could not go out during the daytime. He kept the same hours when he returned to Memphis, but he always managed to see Sam Phillips nevertheless. "Elvis would call at three in the morning," Knox remembers, "and my mother would get up and cook eggs for him and the 20 or so people he brought with him. It would always be Memphis people with maybe a Hollywood starlet. They would stay up all night shooting pool and listening to records."

Presley toured a great deal during the late Fifties before he was inducted into the Army, and it was hard work. The group, which had fleshed out its spare sound with the vocal harmonies of the Jordanaires, depended on house public-address systems, except for Scotty Moore who had a custom-built amplifier. "We had to do the best with what we had," says D.J. Fontana, "and play hard." Presley was still very much a country musician. Several of his early Sun records — "Milkcow Blues Boogie" in particular — were virtually country blues, with the singer dropping beats and whole bars of music and the band following him like a hound on a possum. These rough edges were smoothed out on the RCA recordings, but not on the road. "As far as dropping beats and things," Fontana recalls, "he would do that all the time. We'd know to change chords by his hand movements."

If Elvis was a natural, instinctive musician, he was also a thorough professional. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote for him frequently after he had a hit with their "Hound Dog," and they had a number of chances to watch him work in the studio. "He was one of the most phenomenally consistent performers," Leiber says. "Rarely did a take flag down or drop in energy. He'd prefer one take because of a certain note he hit or a turn of phrase, but they were all good. He was very fast and seldom made more than four or five takes of any number. And he was very high-strung. He would crack jokes with the boys from Memphis, jump to the piano and play a few bars, pick up a guitar, slap somebody on the back, hit three notes on the bass. But then he'd say, 'Okay, let's make it,' and get in front of that mike and get it in a few takes."

Leiber and Stoller had been writing for and working with black artists almost exclusively since the early Fifties, and they shared with Presley a fascination for and intimate knowledge of black culture. But otherwise they were poles apart. Leiber and Stoller's music was shaped by city blues, and Elvis was brought up on country blues and gospel. They wrote sensitively for him, including some of the music from Jailhouse Rock and King Creole and the delightful "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," but perhaps their most successful song for him, "Love Me," was originally recorded by a black gospel duo they'd persuaded to do secular material.

Colonel Tom Parker had seen to it that Presley was kept away from the public and even insulated from most of the people he worked with, but Elvis seems to have been content, at this point at least, to carry his culture around with him in the person of his Memphis cronies. Leiber and Stoller remember him being polite but standoffish. The Colonel was not as polite. Once, when Stoller went to visit Elvis in a Los Angeles hotel suite, the singer nervously and with some embarrassment told him that the Colonel said he had to leave.

"After Elvis got out of the Army," says D.J. Fontana, "his music changed. He wanted a bigger sound and hired more musicians." This was the period when Presley began to sing the most banal and inappropriate sort of material. It was what the Hollywood studios wanted, it seemed to be what the fans wanted, and it was what the Colonel wanted. But Elvis' musical orientation remained the same.

"Elvis always loved gospel music," says J.D. Sumner, the bass singer who hits the double low C on the current Presley single, "Way Down," and a friend since Elvis was 14. "He would go to the National Quartet Convention almost every year, and he was always showing up at performances in out-of-the-way places. I first met him when I was singing with the Blackwood Brothers quartet and we had to let him come in the back of the auditorium because he couldn't afford to pay to get in. He'd show up after that. We'd sing in Long Beach or Nashville and there he'd be.

"We spent many hours together singing gospel. You know, he wanted to sing with a quartet before he started recording for Sun. He came from a strictly evangelistic bringing-up. I remember he used to like to sing spirituals, and of course those came from the blacks. He would sit there and teach the feeling to me, and it would take me two or three hours to get it. A black singer will jump the beat, get behind the beat, and Elvis would do all that naturally. You know, with black gospel singers it's like wringing a dishrag, getting all the water out of it. They take a word and do the same thing. Elvis could do more with one word than any other man I ever heard sing. He could squeeze the world out of a word."

Presley hired Sumner and the Stamps quartet to sing with him in 1972, and the bass singer found that Elvis still recorded in the old way. "He wouldn't overdub. They tried to get him to do that, or to sing in one section of the studio with us in another one. 'It'll bleed onto the other tracks if you have everything here in the room,' they'd tell him. He didn't care. He had to have his people around him so he could get the feel of it. He needed the assurance of his family being together. He said, 'Let it bleed.'"

Larrie Londin, who filled in for regular Presley drummer Ronnie Tutt on Elvis' final concert tour, had to throw his normal working methods out the window. "His people sent me tapes two weeks in advance of everything he might do," the drummer remembers. "It was like 400 songs! So I sat down at the house and listened to them and wrote out charts for all the ones they said he was most likely to do. Then they flew me to his mansion in Memphis to rehearse. He came down and sang a few bars of this song, a few bars of that song, and had me play along. Then he said, 'Great, it's gonna be all right,' and went back upstairs to bed.

"We went out onstage cold, and I was worried. He started the first number and it didn't go like the tape. He stopped the band and said, 'Larrie, watch me.' Well, it turned out I couldn't read the charts. I just had to watch him. He was liable to stop one song in the middle and start another one. I must have sweated off 20 pounds the first two weeks of that tour, but he sweated as hard as I did. He really worked, and he expected his people to work too. And for what he was paying us, he was right to expect that."

By 1977, Presley's music-by-feel — a feel he kept alive by surrounding himself with Southerners, keeping himself steeped in his Southern roots — was almost an anachronism. But the musicians, songwriters and producers who worked with Elvis nevertheless stand in awe of his contribution to their art. For some, it had its negative side. "Ever since he came along, we've been losing our musical identities," says Chet Atkins. "There used to be pop and gospel and country and so on. Now they're all fusing together. You can hardly tell the difference between a James Taylor record and a Waylon Jennings record." J.D. Sumner sees this process differently: "One day there won't be any more pop or country or rhythm & blues. It'll just be named American music, and Elvis Presley did as much to make it that as anyone who ever lived."