Writer Paul Culshaw takes us back to the very beginning of the Hillbilly Cat – the beginning of Elvis’ career.

We travel back to 1935, to a two-room ‘shotgun’ shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, for the start of our story.

Two boys are born to Vernon and Gladys Presley. Jessie Garon is stillborn but the other baby, Elvis Aaron, lives and thrives. Elvis had been born into a close-knit family with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins living close by. He became close to both of his parents but grew particularly close to his Mom.

Elvis, along with his Mom and Dad attended church where gospel music soaked into his soul and greatly influence him in the years to come.  Other music also influenced young Elvis, including the pop music of Dean Martin, Country Music and the black sounds of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues.

In 1938, the Presley family lost their home after Vernon was found guilty of altering a cheque written by their landowner. He was put in jail for eight months during which Gladys and young Elvis had to live with relatives.

Elvis as a child

Elvis as a child

At school, Elvis sang to his teachers during morning prayers, and they were so impressed they pushed him to enter the Mississippi-Alabama Fair on 3rd October 1945. In his first public appearance, dressed as a cowboy, 10 year-old Elvis stood on a chair to reach the microphone and sang country music star Red Foley’s ‘Old Shep’.

In 1948 the family’s life changed once more, they packed all their belongings in a trunk, strapped it to the roof of their 1939 Plymouth and moved out to Memphis, Tennessee.  The Presleys were a poverty stricken family so they ended up living in low-rent homes in the poor neighbourhoods of north Memphis. Elvis attended L.C. Humes High School, while he also continued  to sing and play guitar.

By the start of 1952, he’d started to visit Lansky Brothers clothiers, down Beale Street. His pompadour – kept slick with a mixture of rose oil and Vaseline – along with truck driver style side burns, called for cool threads too and Lansky Bros sold the coolest threads in the world!

In the August of 1953, after graduating from Humes High, Elvis first stepped into the Memphis Recording Service, which later became Sun Records, and paid just $3.98 to record his very first double-sided demo acetates.  Elvis said that these recordings of ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’ were a gift for his mother’s birthday, but the truth is Elvis wanted to impress Sam Phillips who owned Sun.

Sam Phillips was always on the lookout for someone who could mix black and white music together and in so doing appeal to a wider audience. As Sam is said to have said; ‘ If I could find a white kid who had the Negro sound and  the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars ’  and here he was, right there: Elvis Presley!

In April 1954 Elvis began to work for the Crown Electric Company, driving a truck. In June he recorded the ballad ‘Without You’ at Sun but was unable to do any justice to it, so Sam asked Elvis to sing as many numbers as he knew. Phillips was impressed by what he then heard and he asked two local musicians, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass, to work with Elvis for a recording session.

The session took place in the evening of July the 5th, but it seemed unfruitful, it was late and they were about to give in and go home when Elvis picked up his guitar again and started to mess with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudups 1946 song ‘That’s Alright Mama’. He was fooling around and singing but slurring words and drawing out phrases, so Bill Black picked up his bass and he started to mess around and slap it, very soon Scotty Moore joined in on guitar too.

Meanwhile Sam who was in the control booth with the door open stuck his head out and said in an amazed voice ‘What are you doing’?  Someone said back ‘We don’t know’. Sam quickly replied ‘Well, back up, try to find a place to start and do it again’! The air was alive with excitement as Sam began to record the sound he had been looking for, a mixture of white country music and black Rhythm ‘n’ Blues – Rockabilly!

Three days passed and then Memphis Deejay and host of the Red Hot and Blue Radio Show Dewey Phillips started to play the record. Listeners began to phone in and ask about this singer. The interest was huge that Dewey began to play the record repeatedly and non-stop for the next two hours of his show! Elvis was quickly interviewed on show, about what school he went to, and – incredibly –  to talk about his skin colour as most listeners thought he was black.

The gates had been opened and over the next few days Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black recorded a cover of Bill Monroe’s, Blue Grass number ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, Rockabilly style that included echo effects to add an earthy feel. The single was pressed with the A side of ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and on the B side ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’.

A momentous career had launched, the career of the Hillbilly Cat.

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