History credits Sam Phillips, the owner and operator of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, with the discovery of Elvis Presley, which is perfectly fair, though it fails to account for the roles of four others in making that discovery possible: The business partner who first spotted something special in Elvis, the two session men who vouched for his musical talent and the blues figure who wrote the song he was playing when Sam Phillips realized what he had on his hands. The song in question was “That’s All Right” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Elvis’ unrehearsed performance of it—recorded by Sam Phillips on this day in 1954—is a moment some regard as the true beginning of the rock-and-roll revolution.
The sequence of events that led to this moment began when a young truck driver walked into the offices of Sun Records and the Memphis Recording Service on a Saturday night in the summer of 1953 and paid $3.98 plus tax to make an acetate record as a birthday present to his mother. Sam Phillips recorded Elvis singing “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” and he told his business partner Marion Kreisler something that made her write down “Good ballad singer. Hold” in her notes. It was Kreisler who was impressed enough by the incredibly shy young singer that she repeatedly brought his name up to Phillips over the next year and mentioned that he seemed worth following up with. In early July 1954, Phillips finally sent two of his favorite session musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, to go meet with Elvis and report back to him with their assessment. After talking and jamming a bit with Presley, Moore and Black gave Phillips a report that was hardly enthusiastic. “He didn’t knock me out,” Moore told Phillips, “[but] the boy’s got a good voice.” Phillips decided to take a flyer and schedule a recording session with Presley for July 5.
Phillips knew that something was brewing in the music world of 1954, and he had a pretty good idea what it would take to make the pot boil: A white singer who could sing “black” rhythm and blues. However, the first several hours of the July 5 session did nothing to convince Sam Phillips that Elvis was the one he’d been looking for. Elvis’s renditions of “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because” were stiff and uninspired, and after numerous takes and re-takes, Phillips called for a break. Rather than shoot the breeze with his fellow musicians or step outside for a breath of fresh air, Elvis began to mess around on the guitar, playing and singing “That’s All Right,” but at least twice as fast as the original.
Through an open door in the control room, Sam Phillips heard this unfamiliar rendition of a familiar blues number and knew he’d found the sound he’d been looking for. “[Phillips] stuck his head out and said ‘What are you doing?'” Scotty Moore later recalled. “And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ Sam said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.'”
Phillips continued recording with Elvis over the next two evenings, but he never captured anything as thrilling as he did that first night. Released to Memphis radio station WHBQ just two days after it was recorded, and then as a single two weeks later, Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” became an instant regional hit and set him on his path toward stardom.