In the turbulence and violence of the 1960s, Tennessee's then-largest city would become the infamous site of the racially motivated murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But in the supposedly sleepy 1950s, that border state town was a dynamic confluence where cross-cultural musical influences converged and mixed, producing a lively and verdant form of American music that would span the globe.
Sixty-eight summers ago, a strikingly handsome teenage truck driver rented space at the Sun Records studios in Memphis to record two songs as a birthday present to his mother. With encouragement from his uncles and a pastor, the young man had learned to sing and play the guitar while attending the Assembly of God church in Tupelo, Miss., as a boy. He was, at this point, only 18 years old and his name was Elvis Presley.
Sun Records, in the words of company Vice President Jud Phillips, was then "little more than a glorified barn." As for Presley, those who met him in those days, including Sun owner Sam Phillips, were mainly struck by his shyness. He was also extremely polite. Phillips' initial impression was that Elvis was unsure of himself. His assistant, Marion Keisker, knew better: Although he was a bit bashful, this young man believed in himself.
"While he was waiting, we had a conversation," she recalled later. "He said he was a singer. I said, ‘What kind of singer are you?' He said, ‘I sing all kinds.' I said, ‘Who do you sound like?' He said, ‘I don't sound like nobody.'"
On that day, July 18, 1953, Presley paid $3.98 for the honor of recording two songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." When the session was finished, Keisker wrote in her notes, "Good ballad singer. Hold."
The following July -- on this date in 1954 -- Presley was back in the Sun Records studios. Sam Phillips had a couple of rhythm-and-blues songs he wanted recorded by a white musician, and he thought Elvis might be the one to do it. The sessions started slowly, and Phillips wasn't really getting the sound he wanted so he called for a break.
Instead of stretching his legs or going outside for fresh air, Elvis started jamming on the guitar, He took a number by Mississippi Delta bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and played it much faster than usual. The song was "That's All Right, Mama" and the effect was electric. Phillips had found the crossover sound he was looking for -- and the artist who could carry it off. Together, blacks and whites in this country were collaborating on something new, and great, and not for the last time.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.