MEMPHIS, Tenn. – As far as Elvis Presley songs go, “That’s All Right,” his very first record, wasn’t among his biggest hits. In fact, the 1954 song wasn’t a hit at all.
Yet today, 50 years to the day after it was recorded, media and fans will converge on Memphis for a blowout celebration to commemorate the song, which has been labeled by the city as the tune that started the musical and cultural phenomenon known as rock ‘n’ roll.
Some consider it a stretch to anoint Presley the creator of a genre that mixed blues, R&B, country and even a bit of swing – musical styles that were around long before Elvis.
“There was a birth way before – where did Elvis get it from?” asked rocker Lenny Kravitz.
“The thing we think of as rock ‘n’ roll is Elvis,” said rock historian Marc Kirkeby. “But there were records that would be thought of as rock ‘n’ roll before that and they were done by black artists.”
And not just blacks – or even artists – are credited with starting rock ‘n’ roll. Just two years ago, there were commemorations of the 50th anniversary of rock ‘n’ roll pegged to disc jockey Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland. Some rock historians claim the March 21, 1952, show as the first rock concert – the main reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was located there.
Other historians point to “Rocket ‘88,” the 1951 hit written by Ike Turner, as the first rock record because of its distorted electric guitar sound. Still others claim Bill Haley’s 1954 hits “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (the latter a remake of a Big Joe Turner version) helped birth rock.
And, of course, there are those who say the blues and swing recordings of black artists from years earlier were rock tunes.
Presley’s “That’s All Right,” a cover of a blues number by Arthur Crudup, was released in 1954 by the famed Sun Records, then a local blues label in Memphis owned by a relatively unknown Sam Phillips. The record was not a national success, but caused a sensation when played on local radio.
Presley’s upbeat version, mixing in a bit of country twang, gave the song a different sound. It created a buzz for Presley that eventually caught the attention of RCA Records, which bought out Elvis’ contract a year later. Presley wouldn’t get his first pop No. 1 single until 1956 with “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Even folks in Memphis won’t go as far as to say “That’s All Right” was the definitive date rock was created.
“… People look at that date as something that had a dramatic effect on rock ‘n’ roll,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis convention and visitors bureau.
John Schorr, Sun Studio’s current owner, said. “I don’t think anyone is calling this the very first rock ‘n’ roll song ever made, but it is the first time rock ‘n’ roll went global and exploded on the world scene.
“Everyone refers to it as kind of the opening shot of the big bang of rock ‘n’ roll. …”
Others suggest that more so than the music, “That’s All Right” was perhaps the first time American teens – more specifically, white teens – started embracing a new style of edgy, sexy black music as their own.
“The rock ‘n’ roll explosion really starts when white kids were becoming immersed in black music,” historian Kirkeby said. “Elvis was the catalyst for that, you have to give him that credit.”
Soul legend Isaac Hayes puts it more bluntly.
“You’ve got to think about it at a time when black music was looked down upon by whites,” he said “People like Elvis got lambasted for singing that kind of music, It took a white guy to break it. Blacks couldn’t break it.”
More than 1,000 stations around the world are scheduled to play “That’s All Right” at the same time today, and Memphis talent such as Justin Timberlake and Hayes are expected to perform during a concert.
Rolling Stone has agreed that Presley’s debut song marks the birth of rock.
“As a mass phenomenon that changed American culture, Elvis Presley is a legitimate starting point for the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll,” said Joe Levy, a deputy managing editor of the magazine.