By NEKESA MUMBI MOODY, AP Music Writer
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - As far as Elvis Presley (news) songs go, "That's All Right," his very first record, wasn't among his biggest hits. In fact, the 1954 song wasn't even a hit at all.
Yet on July 5, 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.
But while Elvis may be universally known as the King of Rock 'n' Roll, some consider it a stretch to anoint him 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 (news).
"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 have claimed 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 (news), 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 the rock explosion.
And of course, there are those who say that the blues and swing recordings of black artists from years earlier were rock tunes.
"That's like one of those things that's so contested. I always thought it was when Big Joe Turner did `Shake, Rattle and Roll,'" said guitarist Vernon Reid, formerly of the rock group Living Colour. "Everyone makes a claim and it's contentious."
Probably only die-hard Elvis fans or music historians are familiar with "That's All Right," a cover of a blues number by Arthur Crudup. Released in 1954 by the famed Sun Records, then a local blues label in Memphis owned by a relatively unknown Sam Phillips (news), it 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."
When pressed, even folks in Memphis won't go as far as to say "That's All Right" was the definitive date rock was created.
"I think if you look at the annals of history, people look at that date as something that had a dramatic effect on rock 'n' roll," said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis convention and visitors bureau.
Even during a tour of Sun Studio, still the tiny structure it was in 1954, the tour guide points to "Rocket 88" — also recorded there before Phillips started Sun Records — as the first rock record.
Sitting in the small gift shop and cafe that serves as a greeting point for visitors — many of them Elvis faithful on their way to Graceland — John Schorr, Sun Studio's owner, acknowledges that.
"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," says Schorr, who purchased Sun more than a decade ago (it remains a recording studio).
"Everyone refers to it as kind of the opening shot of the big bang of rock 'n' roll that occurred in rock 'n' roll, which the other ones hadn't done yet."
Others also suggest that more so than the music, "That's All Right" was perhaps the first time that 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," said Kirkeby. "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. People like Elvis got lambasted for singing that kind of music," he said. "It took a white guy to break it. Blacks couldn't break it."
More than 1,000 stations around the globe are scheduled to play "That's All Right" at the same time on that date, and Memphis talent such as Justin Timberlake (news) and Hayes are expected to perform during a concert. Throughout the year, there have been dozens of promotional tie-ins celebrating "That's All Right" as the start of rock 'n' roll, from Rolling Stone magazine covers to DVD and CD releases.
The "50 Years of Rock 'n' Roll" in Memphis was Kane's brainchild. Besides its blues heritage, the city's rich musical history includes the Stax soul music label (home to Otis Redding, Hayes, The Staples Singers and others) as well as Sun (which started the careers of Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis (news), Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison (news), just to name a few), among other contributions.
Though it's been touting itself as the birthplace of rock for years, it wasn't until two years ago that Memphis thought it should put together a worldwide anniversary campaign to draw attention to Memphis as a music center.
"We feel the more exposure that we can generate for Memphis for events through various things that we do, and tying it to our musical legacy can only help encourage people who are motivated by music that Memphis is a place you really want to visit," Kane said.
Rolling Stone has also agreed that Presley's debut song marks the birth of rock. But Joe Levy, a deputy managing editor of the magazine, says it wasn't jumping on the Memphis bandwagon.
"We've been talking for several years about when to mark the anniversary of rock 'n' roll, and in the end it seemed pretty natural," Levy said.
"As a mass phenomenon that changed American culture, Elvis Presley is a legitimate starting point for the beginning of rock 'n' roll. That's where the music became a phenomenon, and the phenomenon grew into a culture that would change the culture and the rest of the world."
Reid, who is black, says that's partly because white culture made that determination.
"Elvis was crowned the `King of Rock 'n' Roll' not by black people. That's really what it comes down to — who had the power to make the definitions stick?" he asks. "The 300-pound gorilla in the room is that this is when white people started paying attention to it."
Still, Kirkeby says Presley — who never claimed to have invented the genre — transformed not only black music, but white music as well.
"The seeds were present well before Elvis, but the thing we call rock 'n' roll was an explosion of black culture meeting white culture that was embodied in him."
Kravitz says the true creators of rock will likely never get their due.
"The guys who invented rock 'n' roll, we probably don't even know who they are," he said. "We can talk about all the Bo Diddleys and the Fats Dominos and all the great guys and Chuck Berrys who were the pioneers, but I'm sure there were a bunch of guys sitting on porches somewhere in the backwoods — we don't even know who they are."
BTW, for further reading:
Hey this could be a fun debate maybe
Elvis is the King, no question, and there's little doubt that if not for him the phenomenon wouldn't have grown the way it did, etc, etc. BUT, IMO it seems innacurate to peg Thats All Right, Mama as the first rock song that reached white kids/America on a mass scale. Key point- according to the article it wasn't even a hit! so apparently it didn't reach anything on a mass scale. What about Rock Around the Clock?! wasn't that a #1 hit? or is was at least a hit.
i think That's All Right's place in Rock history is similar to that of the Beatles cover of Buddy Holly's That'll Be the Day (their first recording). At the time it didn't mean squat to anyone but the people in the room but in Retrospect those recordings are huge. maybe that's how they're trying to argue it here. My vote still goes to Bill Haley's tune. Even before that though, you have Alan Freed's Rock radio shows which predate Elvis and Rock 'round the Clock! a side-note, Freed was also white, so its not like Elvis was the first one to attach his name to what was considered to be "black music" at the time (and he is also credited with having given Rock'n'Roll its name).
It seems that what this comes down to, really, is that Memphis much bigger PR machine than where-ever Rock Around the Clock was recorded. and Elvis, even though he's dead, has better PR than Bill Haley or Alan Freed. so the unsubstantiated credit (self-credit, really) goes to Memphis.
As far as the real first rock song: its a debate without end, there is no right answer.
Using the About.com link above i tried to download most of the songs and i think you could argue that all of them have of a 50's/Rock 'n' Roll sound. Though Rocket 88 is a personal favorite (can't convince me that that ain't early Rock!)
What take do you guys have?