Sam Phillips: ‘The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll’

There are many important players in Elvis Presley’s life story, but one of the most important is Sam Phillips. At Sun Studio in Memphis, Sam discovered and helped launch the careers of not just Elvis, but Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and more. He is, according to Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, “the man who invented rock ‘n’ roll.” And with Record Store Day coming up this weekend, on Saturday, April 22, we feel it’s fitting to honor a man who brought so much great music to record stores across the world. Here at Graceland, we recently opened a new exhibit in coordination with Sam’s family, called Mystery Train: Celebrating Sam Phillips. The exhibit tells the story of Sam’s life and career, and includes artifacts from Sam’s early life and his work at Sun Studio. But more on that later – for now, let’s meet Sam Phillips. Sam Phillips was born in Florence, Alabama, on January 5, 1923. He was the youngest of eight, and he and his siblings would work on their parents’ farm, singing songs to pass the time. In 1939, he and his family traveled to Memphis, and it was then that he experienced Beale Street for the first time. He was thrilled, and it wouldn’t be long before he would return to the Bluff City to make a mark of his own. Sam worked as a DJ and radio engineer at WLAY in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, during the ‘40s. The station had an “open format,” meaning it broadcasted music from both black and white musicians. Sam eventually traveled back to Memphis, and in 1950, he opened Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue. The business recorded amateur performers (like a young B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf), as well as special events like weddings. Sam launched his Sun Studio label at Memphis Recording Service in 1952. It was at Memphis Recording Studio that Sam recorded what is often considered the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll song, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88.” That song was released on the Chess/Checker label, and Sam went on to record more artists like Bobby Blue Bland, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton and more at the studio. More rock ‘n’ roll music was made at Sun Studio than any other label at the time. During Sun’s 16-year run, 226 singles were produced there. Many Elvis fans already know the story of...
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Following That Dream with Elvis Presley

Look out – here come the Kwimpers! Did you know that “Here Come the Kwimpers” was almost the title of Elvis’ ninth movie, “Follow That Dream”? The movie premiered in April 1962, followed by a nationwide release on May 23 – so this year marks the movie’s 55th anniversary. In “Follow That Dream,” Elvis plays Toby, a member of the rag-tag Kwimper family. There’s his dad, Pop (Arthur O’Connell), and several kids they’ve taken in – the wise-beyond-her-years Holly (Anne Helm), the adorable twins, Eddy and Teddy (Gavin and Robin Koon, respectively), and the baby, Adriane. The Kwimpers find success when they start their own business on a roadside in Florida, but trouble arises when the mob sets up a gambling business next door and a social worker threatens to take away the youngest Kwimpers. “Follow That Dream” is based on the 1957 novel “Pioneer, Go Home,” by Richard Powell. The original title of the film was the same as the novel, but composers couldn’t come up with a rhyme for “Pioneer” for the title song. The movie’s title was then changed to “What a Wonderful Life.” Producers also considered the “Here Come the Kwimpers” title, as well as “It’s a Beautiful Life,” but “Follow That Dream” won in the end. Elvis and the crew filmed “Follow That Dream” from July 11-August 28, 1961. They filmed the movie in Florida and Hollywood. The film was directed by Gordon Douglas, who also directed movies such as “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” and “Them!,” as well as the TV show “The Little Rascals.” Douglas is the only director who worked with both Elvis and Frank Sinatra, as Sinatra starred in “Robin and the 7 Hoods.” During filming, gambling was illegal in Florida. The gambling equipment needed for filming was brought in by a member of the Chamber of Commerce of a Florida city and a few anonymous gamblers. If you’ve seen “Follow That Dream,” you’ve seen a few actors who also starred in other Elvis films. The judge was played by Roland Winters, who also played Elvis’ father in “Blue Hawaii.” Actor Howard McNear starred in “Follow That Dream” as the bank loan officer, George, and he also starred in “Blue Hawaii.”   During the 2017 Elvis’ Birthday Celebration, twins Gavin and Robin Koon spoke to fans about their work with Elvis in the movie. Check out a part of their interview...
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50th Anniversary: Elvis Presley’s ‘Double Trouble’

Double the Elvis movies, double the fun! Just a few weeks after “Easy Come, Easy Go,” was released, Elvis Presley’s next movie, the musical comedy “Double Trouble,” followed. Like “Easy Come, Easy Go,” “Double Trouble” doesn’t top many fans’ lists of favorite Elvis films, and it performed well – but not great – at the box office. Still, fans enjoy the laughs, the music and, of course, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, in this romp about a rock star who gets mixed up with an heiress, jewel thieves and detectives. “Double Trouble” is Elvis’ 24th film. He actually filmed it before he filmed his 23rd film, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” although “Easy Come, Easy Go” was released just before “Double Trouble.” Elvis filmed “Double Trouble” in July – August 1966, and it was released April 5, 1967. The original working title of the film was “You’re Killing Me,” but “Double Trouble” worked better. It was directed by Norman Taurog, who directed nine of Elvis’ films, more than any other director. He directed “Double Trouble,” “G.I. Blues,” “Blue Hawaii,” “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” “Spinout,” “Tickle Me,” “Speedway,” “Live a Little, Love a Little” and “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Norman also directed “Skippy,” “Boys Town” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and he worked with many of Hollywood’s biggest starts, including Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Dean Martin, Donna Reed and more. Elvis’ “Double Trouble” co-star Annette Day made her film debut in this movie. She was working at an antique shop when she was discovered by a producer. “Double Trouble” is the only movie she ever made. John Williams, who stars in “Double Trouble,” also starred in “Sabrina” and “To Catch a Thief.” While the movie took place in Belgium and Britain, it wasn’t filmed there. Elvis made the movie entirely on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. While Elvis was filming this movie, he went to a Jackie Wilson concert and met the singer backstage. Elvis invited him to the set of “Double Trouble.” At the Jackie Wilson show, Elvis also met singer James Brown. Elvis was good friends with both Jackie and James for the rest of his life. Speaking of James Brown, you can check out a suit James sported on stage at our new exhibit, Icons: The Influence of Elvis Presley. The exhibit features artifacts from artists who were inspired by Elvis, like John...
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Elvis Presley’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ Turns 50

Romance, comedy and an underwater treasure – what more do you need? It’s the 50th anniversary of Elvis’ 23rd movie, “Easy Come, Easy Go.” The movie premiered in March 1967. While it didn’t make a huge impression at the box office, Elvis fans were happy with the colorful, adventurous plotline, Elvis tunes and, of course, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself. In “Easy Come, Easy Go,” Elvis stars as Ted, a former U.S. Navy frogman and singer. He discovers a treasure in a sunken ship and sets out to get it for himself. Standing in his way are Gil (Skip Ward) and Dina (Pat Priest), who aim to claim the treasure for themselves. The movie was filmed in September and October 1966. “Easy Come, Easy Go” was directed by John Rich, who also directed “Roustabout.” This musical comedy was the last movie he directed; he went on to gain fame as a comedy TV director. He directed shows like “All in the Family,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Gilligan’s Island” and many more. Speaking of folks Elvis worked with previously, Dodie Marshall played Jo in “Easy Come, Easy Go,” and she also starred in “Spinout.” Pat Priest starred as Marilyn Munster in “The Munsters,” and she’s the daughter of Ivy Baker Priest, the former Treasurer of the United States. Madame Neherina was played by Elsa Lanchester, who enjoyed an extensive career in film. She’s most famous for starring in the title role of “Bride of Frankenstein.” If you want to learn even more about Elvis’ movies, visit Graceland. Our new exhibit and entertainment complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, houses Presley Motors, which is home to many of Elvis’ cars – including vehicles used in movies, like the colorful “Mongrel T” seen in “Easy Come, Easy Go.” You can also see movie costumes, props and more at the Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum, the world’s largest Elvis museum, at the complex. Make your plans today to see all of this for...
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Elvis Presley’s Graceland

Sixty years ago this month, Elvis made one of his most important purchases: Graceland. In the spring of 1957, Elvis was filming his second movie, “Loving You,” and his home address was on Audubon Drive in Memphis, Tennessee. He’d had a slew of hits on the charts, and he’d appeared on many national television shows – including, most recently, his third and final “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance. Elvis had outgrown the nice home he enjoyed on Audubon. It was a good home, but his neighbors complained about the seemingly constant stream of fans and the family’s chickens, which lived in the yard (things that never bothered Elvis). Elvis considered buying every neighboring house, but instead, he and his parents decided to find a larger home out in the country. On Saturday, March 16, 1957, Elvis’ parents, Gladys and Vernon, took a tour of Graceland, which was a bit more secluded than the Audubon home. It sat high up on a hill off Highway 51, not far from the Mississippi-Tennessee State line. The Presleys fell in love with the home, which had been built in 1939 by the Toof family. Named Graceland after the owners’ aunt, Grace, the beautiful, two-story home was exactly what they were looking for in a home for their family. They called Elvis, who was filming in Hollywood, and told him the good news. Elvis arrived in Memphis on March 18, and the next day, he put a $1,000 down payment on the home. The purchase was finalized on March 25 for $102,500. Elvis paid $10,000 in cash, received $55,000 from the realty company for the Audubon Drive home and got a 25-year mortgage for the remainder. Elvis purchased the home as well as 13.8 acres of the surrounding farm land. The Presley family had Graceland renovated before moving in, so Vernon, Gladys and Elvis’ grandmother didn’t move in until May 16. Elvis was filming “Jailhouse Rock” by this time, so he didn’t spend the first night there until June 26. Before owning and living in Graceland, Elvis and his parents had lived in several homes and apartments. But with the purchase of Graceland, Elvis found his home. He lived there for the remainder of his life – another 22 years – and made it his own. He redecorated and expanded – Graceland was 10,266 square feet when he moved in, and it’s 17,552 square feet now –...
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