Elvis, and a Woman Named Marion
Marion Keisker MacInnes lived a great life.
She went to college in the 1930s when attending college was very much male-dominated and earned degrees in both English and Medieval French.
She married, had a son, became a radio host along the way at WREC in Memphis, Tennessee, also a greatly male-dominated area at the time.
A few months after her 40th birthday, in 1957, she decided she needed something more exciting in her life, joined the US Air Force, was commissioned a captain and served at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base as an information officer in charge of the Armed Forces television station.
And she was the first person to ever record a young wannabe singer by the name of Elvis Presley.
A few years prior to that Air Force gig, she ran the office at a place called Memphis Recording Service. We all know it now as Sun Studio.
Stop by Sun Studio today and you’ll see the front desk where Marion was sitting on July 18, 1953, screening visitors, when a tall, good looking, kid walked in the door wanting to record a song.
He was just 18 years old, recently graduated from Humes High School a mile-and-a-half down the street and was making a living driving truck for Crown Electric Company, four blocks from his high school. He was thinking he might learn to become an electrician if this music thing didn’t work out.
As one of the more commonly heard stories goes, Marion asked him, “What kind of singer are you?”
“I sing all kinds,” said the kid with the unusual name.
“Who do you sound like?” asked Marion.
“I don’t sound like nobody,” said Elvis.
With that she took him back to the studio and he recorded two songs for $3.25, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”.
That’s also where Marion and Elvis’ story begins.
Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, was into blues music. Well-known black blues singers, including B.B King and Ike Turner recorded at the studio. Elvis wasn't singing blues so Phillips wasn’t especially interested in listening to him.
But Elvis persisted and Marion, who was also a long-time friend of Phillips, pulled him aside and told him he needed to listen to the kid, he had something special.
Finally, one day Phillips consents and tells Elvis he has 15 minutes between meetings, time for one song, so he better make it a good one.
And the rest is history.
Phillips sold Elvis’ contract just two years later with Presley moving onto work for the much larger RCA Victor studios and becoming world famous.
But don’t feel sorry for Phillips. He received $35,000 in the deal, worth 10 times that in today’s dollars. He used it to record and promote other artists through Sun Records. You might have heard of some of them, guys like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and one with a deep voice, dressed all in black, Johnny Cash.
In more recent years a band going by the name U2 recorded such songs there as “Angel of Harlem”, “Love Rescue Me” and “When Love Comes to Town”.
If you take a close look, you’ll see a black curtain behind the drummer. That’s the window separating Marion’s desk and the reception area from the recording studio.
That drum kit, by the way, still sits there in the studio, seen by hundreds of visitors to Sun Studio every year.
True confession time. I’m not a huge Elvis fan. I’ve been to Memphis several times, visited Graceland many years ago, and had never taken the time to visit Sun. A few weeks ago I spent an overnight in Memphis returning from a trip to Alabama and decided it was time to check that off the list.
I’m glad I did. The nostalgia of the place literally envelopes you. I learned a lot about Elvis, about Sun Studios, about the history of music in Memphis and much more.
For instance, legend has it a disk jockey (DJ) for WHBQ radio in Memphis threw records on the floor and broke them up when he didn’t like them. He called it smashing records and that’s where the term “smash record” comes from, though today it's a very good thing to have a smash hit.
By the way, the DJ booth from WHBQ now sits in the upper floor at Sun Studios, complete with smashed records littered around the floor.
Sun Studio continues to operate as a recording studio but is open during the day for tourists. It’s located a little over a mile from Beale Street, the popular entertainment district.
Tours are held every hour, on the hour, and it’s first-come-first-served. I was there on a weekday for the first tour of the day, 10 a.m. I got there about 20 minutes early and was one of the last to get a ticket for that time, so make sure you get there early.
There is parking in back of the building. You have to circle around the street to get to it.
Sam Phillips, WHER and Holiday Inn hotels
A couple of interesting, at least I think they’re interesting, side notes.
Sun Studio owner Sam Phillips used part of the money he made from selling Elvis’ contract to launch WHER radio, probably the first all-female radio station in the United States. Begun in 1955 it continued with its all-female format into the early 1970s.
As for not feeling too sorry for Phillips after selling Elvis’ contract, in addition to signing future stars at Sun, and launching WHER radio, he also was one of the first investors in Holiday Inn hotels, just before it went nationwide, becoming a millionaire in the process.
Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also a member of the Blues Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame and Rockabilly Hall of Fame, among others.
He died in 2003, the day before Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark.
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