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The Hillbilly Cat : Elvis Presley on the Brink of Stardom

September 11, 1994|Peter Guralnick | Peter Guralnick's previous books include "Feel Like Going Home," "Lost Highway" and "Sweet Soul Music." This article is adapted from "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley," the first volume of a two-volume biography, to be published by Little, Brown and Company this month

Elvis Presley's first record ("That's All Right" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky") was recorded on July 5, 1954. It was released on the Sun label two weeks later. Elvis was 19 years old. He had never appeared anywhere professionally. In fact, he had only met the two members of his band, guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, the day before the initial session.

On July 30, Elvis made what amounted to his official debut on a country and western jamboree, headlined by Slim Whitman, at Memphis' Overton Park shell. Even in the midst of a seasoned professional cast and despite a pronounced case of stage fright, he was an immediate sensation. Over the next few weeks, his record proved to be a big hit in Memphis, and he made a number of club appearances. But Sun Records president Sam Phillips had bigger plans. Phillips, who had pioneered in the recording of blues men like B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner and Little Junior Parker over the previous four years, saw an opportunity for Presley to make a national mark. To that end, Phillips approached Grand Ole Opry head Jim Denny, who was less than enthusiastic but agreed to think about it.

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IT WAS A 200-MILE RIDE FROM MEMPHIS TO NASHVILLE, BUT THE FOUR OF THEM WERE COMFORTABLE enough in Sam Phillips' four-door black 1951 Cadillac, with Bill's bass strapped to the roof. It was Saturday, Oct. 2. Elvis, Scotty and Bill had played their regular Friday-night gig at the Eagle's Nest; their record, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was near the top of the charts in Memphis and just beginning to break in Nashville and New Orleans, and they had every reason to feel that they had reached the pinnacle of their musical career--because tonight they were going to play the Opry.

Jim Denny had finally succumbed to Sam's argument that there was no need to think about putting the boy on as a regular, he didn't have to think of this as a normal "tryout," just give the boy a chance . Denny, who had become manager of the Opry in 1947, seemed no more convinced than he had been in the first place--perhaps he was just worn down by Sam's persistence--but he agreed to give the young man a one-time spot on Hank Snow's segment of the show. He could perform a single song with his band, the country number "Blue Moon of Kentucky." If it was worth it to Sam and the boys to drive over just for that, well, then, Denny was willing to give them the shot.

In the meantime, Sam had also heard from the Louisiana Hayride, the Opry's innovative rival in Shreveport, which actually wanted this new act. The Hayride, which Denny referred to derisively as the Opry's farm club because so many of its big acts eventually defected to Nashville, had discovered Hank Williams in 1948 and broken such stars as Slim Whitman, Webb Pierce, and, most recently, Jim Reeves and Faron Young. But Sam put them off because, he explained to Hayride booking agent Pappy Covington, he wanted to play the Opry first. As soon as the boys had fulfilled this prior commitment, he told Pappy, stretching the truth a little, Elvis could appear on the Hayride. There was no doubt in his mind, he said, that Elvis could make a hit with the Hayride audience, and they could set it up for just a week or two after the Opry appearance, but he had committed himself to Jim Denny. Sam was walking a thin line, he knew. He didn't for a minute want to lose the Hayride, but he wasn't going to give up the opportunity to see a new, untried artist get his national debut on the hallowed Grand Ole Opry.

Ryman Auditorium was like a tattered shrine to the three musicians, none of whom had ever even attended a show at the Opry before. They wandered around the dilapidated building, erected as a tabernacle in 1886 and still retaining the old wooden pews for seats, in something of a daze. They were both overwhelmed at the sense of history contained in the room--the music they had been listening to all their lives emanated from this cramped little stage--and somewhat disillusioned, too, that the Grand Ole Opry was not, well, grander. Backstage, the other musicians mingled freely, exchanging small talk and greetings, tuning up, donning makeup and costumes, without any of the formality or protocol you might have expected from stars but with all of the remoteness, whether real or perceived, of big leaguers sniffing at bushers just up from the minors.

Twenty-one-year-old bass player Buddy Killen came up to the obviously out-of-place young singer and introduced himself. "(Elvis) said, 'They're going to hate me.' I said, 'They're not going to hate you. You're going to be fine.' He said, 'If they'd just let me leave, I'd go right now.' " Marty Robbins saw evidence of the same insecurity, but when Elvis spotted Chet Atkins backstage, he introduced himself and then, knowing Scotty's admiration for Atkins' guitar playing, pulled Scotty over, too, saying, "My guitar player wants to meet you." Atkins noted with asperity that the kid appeared to be wearing eye makeup.

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