Elvis song marks the birth of The King
It was a song that even today is widely misunderstood, yet its importance to rock and roll history is something that made a king.
Today is the 50th anniversary of “That’s All Right,” the very first record made by Elvis Presley. It is the song that took him from a young guitar-toting shy Tennessee man to arguably the greatest entertainment icon in American history.
As far as Elvis songs go, “That’s All Right” wasn’t among his biggest hits. In fact, the 1954 song wasn’t even a hit at all.
“But its significance is important to the history of Elvis and of rock and roll,” said Chic DiFrancia, a history buff from Virginia City, whose collection of Elvis memorabilia – including valuable mint pressings of records – proves The King lives on.
Today, 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.”
Mainly, 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, 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.”
“That’s All Right” was misunderstood because many thought the song was written by Elvis and that he wrote it for his mother, DiFrancia said.
Really, Crudup’s song is about a man who is playing suitor to a woman about which his mother has grave concerns, DiFrancia said.
The recording really came together when Elvis’ friend Scotty Moore and others were messing around in the Sun Records studio one day and played the song, he said.
“He got to fooling around on July 5 in a studio, just playing, and the song came out,” DiFrancia said. “Sam Phillips, who owned Sun Records, got on the studio intercom and told them ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing, but keep doing it.'”
There were about three or four takes, and Phillips made an acetate of the recording, instead of a record pressing. He took the acetate to Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey, where it was first heard on the air on July 7.
“Phones just melted at the studio. They wanted to know who this guy was. This was the song that really launched Elvis,” DiFrancia said.
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Elvis didn’t play in Carson City, but he did play at Lake Tahoe at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel, now Horizon Casino Resort. He played on five different occasions for a total of 98 shows, DiFrancia said.
His first appearance was July 20 through Aug. 2, 1971, when he played 28 shows. He appeared again from May 4-16, 1973, when he played 25 shows, but had to cancel the last because of illness.
Elvis came to Tahoe again May 16-26 1974, when he did 22 shows; in August 1974; from Oct. 11-14, when he did eight shows; and finally April 30-May 9, 1976, when he performed 15 shows at the Sahara Tahoe.
DiFrancia said he’s not sure why Elvis played Tahoe more than he did Reno, but suggested that it was likely a decision by his manager, Tom “Colonel” Parker, to bring him here as often as time permitted.
Elvis is known for doing hundreds of shows in Las Vegas, where it is said that when his career went from peaks to valleys, Elvis played there to peak again.
But it is somewhat of an anomaly as to why Elvis chose to play Tahoe over Reno. The only history that is known of the Tahoe appearances was included in the book “Elvis: His Life from A to Z” by Fred L. Worth and Steve D. Tamerius. But the account is really just the dates of the appearances.
What is known is that Parker made his living off of Elvis, taking as much as 50 percent from all of his show appearances. In fact, much of the money Parker made, he would gamble with when he was in Tahoe and Vegas.
“He’d be at the roulette wheel (while Elvis was performing),” DiFrancia said.
People can now request the Elvis suite in Horizon Casino Resort where he would stay. The showroom where Elvis played is where the Horizon Stadium Cinemas now stands.
Besides the room, one of the last remnants of the Elvis-Tahoe connection is a Sahara Tahoe menu on which Elvis is on the front. DiFrancia bought the autographed menu about five years ago for $12 from a collector in Reno, where he bought it It is now worth about $75.
Since Elvis made five Saraha Tahoe appearances, the hotel casino used the same menu, recycling it every time he came to town.
“They did not date these. They used them over and over again. They pressed a bazillion of them and handed them out show after show after show,” DiFrancia said.
In the menu is a list of the chef’s specialties, including a $16 prime rib special.
“You get a prime rib and see the Elvis show for $16 bucks,” DiFrancia said. “Not bad for seeing The King.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.