Jack White Has Elvis Presley's First Recordings Digitally Transferred

Music archivist Alan Stoker takes Rolling Stone Country through the history-making process

On July 18th, 1953, an 18-year-old then-unknown Elvis Presley walked into Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, the home of Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis, where he would record a pair of songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." For just under $4, he walked out with a 10-inch acetate and rewrote rock & roll history.

According to legend (and depending which source is to be believed), the disc was either a belated birthday gift for Presley's mother or a clever way for Presley to get Phillips' attention and jumpstart his singing career. Thanks to Phillips' assistant, Marian Keisker, who ran a tape of the recording at the time and later called it to the attention of her boss, Presley's performance eventually earned him a Sun Records contract, which would later be sold to RCA for an unprecedented $40,000.    

While significant, that amount still pales in comparison to the $300,000 paid at auction by "an undisclosed buyer" in January of this year for the original acetate disc. The buyer was later revealed to be rock musician and Nashville recording studio owner Jack White. The disc was auctioned off at Graceland by the family of the late Ed Leek, a classmate of Presley's who had reportedly given him the cash to make the recording. Presley took the disc to Leek's home and left it with him. After White's purchase, and for the first time ever, the one-of-a-kind disc was painstakingly transferred digitally, and White's Third Man Records label plans to reissue the tracks on a facsimile 78 RPM 10-inch vinyl for Record Store Day this Saturday, April 18th.

To facilitate the digital transfer of the original disc, White hand-delivered the acetate to Alan Stoker, Curator of Recorded Sound Collections, at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It's not the first time Stoker had transferred the disc, however. In 1989, after Leek signed a partnership deal with Sun's then-owner Shelby Singleton, the two songs on the disc were transferred to analog tape and issued for the very first time on CD. Although Stoker has been restoring, transferring and archiving audio recordings in the iconic museum's state-of-the-art audio lab for 35 years, of the tens of thousands he has worked on, the special significance of this one isn't lost on him.

"Certainly I'm aware of how important this is," Stoker tells Rolling Stone Country. "[It's] kind of like the 'Big Bang of rock & roll.' Not this disc necessarily, but that performance because that's where they first heard him. It's a document of that performance. The guy is handing me a disc he paid $300,000 for, so that makes you kind of hold your breath a little. Once he handed it to me, it was pretty much routine. The disc was in pretty good shape; I don't think it had been played that much. They said they thought it had mostly been held in a bank vault. That's a pretty stable environment for these discs. The problem is when they are in somebody's attic or basement. An acetate disc is like a piece of metal with nail polish painted on it. If it's up in your attic, the acetate expands and contracts but the metal doesn't, so eventually that's going to create a crack in the outside."

Stoker, who won a 2005 Best Historical Recording Grammy for engineering the Night Train to Nashville compilation, has also transferred and archived the first recordings of Presley's "Million Dollar Quartet" contemporaries — Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash — and has been charged with prepping never-before-heard recordings by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Lefty Frizzell and Chet Atkins for restoration and/or release. But in addition to his lifelong obsession with music and sound engineering, he shares another unique connection with Presley, as his father, Gordon Stoker, was one of the Jordanaires, the King's longtime backup singers who are heard on hundreds of his recordings and were seen with him on such world-shattering TV appearances as the Ed Sullivan Show. Naturally, Presley comes up in conversation with Stoker often, and the hours he spent in the audio lab working on the disc transfer with White were no exception.

"After we finished it, we talked a little bit about when I met Elvis," says Stoker. "[He] knew my family's history, so we talked about that. I did get to meet Elvis in 1960, when I was five years old. I met him on a train in [Nashville's] Union Station. He was just out of the Army and going from Nashville to Miami to do the Timex Frank Sinatra special. The band took the train down there, so when we took Dad to the train station, he let me go on the train. I remember really well going on the train at five years old. I have vague memories of the guy on the train that everyone was making a big deal of."

White, who walked out of the audio lab with the acetate, a high-definition file of the track and a hard drive, will reissue the disc with the same simple typewritten label that is on the original, which was actually typed onto the back of a leftover Sun label for a recording by the vocal group the Prisonaires.

"Jack's heart is definitely in the right place," Stoker says of the rocker, who also produced Loretta Lynn's 2004 Grammy-winning LP, Van Lear Rose. "I serve on the National Recording Preservation Board and Jack is a big supporter and board member of the National Recording Preservation Foundation, which are both part of the Library of Congress. He gave a lot of money to that foundation, which is going to help encourage and educate young people about how important recordings are in the history of America."

On Record Store Day (Saturday, April 18th), Third Man Records in Nashville will have the original acetate Elvis disc on display in its store.