Dewey Phillips and Elvis Presley

By: Elvis Australia
June 28, 2008

Dewey Phillips - Just about every Elvis fan knows the name as that of the disc-jockey who first played Elvis' That's All Right on his 'Red, Hot and Blue' radio programme. 'Daddy-O' Dewey Phillips was born on May 13, 1926 - Dewey was one of rock 'n' roll's pioneering disk jockeys, along the lines of Cleveland's Alan Freed, before Alan Freed. Starting his radio career in 1949 on WHBQ-AM in Memphis, he was the city's leading radio personality for nine years and was the first to simulcast his 'Red, Hot & Blue' show on radio and television.

Dewey Phillips & Elvis Presley at 'Pop Tunes' music store
Dewey Phillips & Elvis Presley at 'Pop Tunes' music store

Above, Poplar Tunes (also known as Pop Tunes) is record store located just a short distance from Elvis' Lauderdale Courts apartment. As a teenager, Elvis spent a great deal of time in the store, immersing himself in the Memphis music scene. As Elvis became a successful artist in his own right, it is reported that he would stop in Pop Tunes to find out how well his records were selling. The store is still in business today.

Dewey Phillips, Wink Martindale and Elvis Presley at WHBQ in Memphis - June 16, 1956
Dewey Phillips, Wink Martindale and Elvis Presley at WHBQ in Memphis - June 16, 1956

Phillips' on-air persona was a speed-crazed hillbilly, with a frantic delivery and entertaining sense of humor. However, he also had a keen ear for music the listening public would enjoy, and he embraced both black and white music, which was abundant in post-World War II Memphis, a booming river city which attracted large numbers of rural blacks and whites (along with their musical traditions). He played a great deal of rhythm and blues, country music, boogie-woogie, and jazz as well as Sun Records artists. In July 1954, he was the first DJ to broadcast the young Elvis Presley's debut record, That's All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Sun 209), and got Presley to reveal his race in an interview by asking which high school the 19-year-old singer attended (knowing that, because of segregation, his audience would readily know what race attended which schools).

Though Phillips was not involved in the payola scandals of the time (as was Freed), he was fired in late 1958 when the station adopted a Top 40 format, phasing out his freeform style. He spent the last decade of his life working at smaller radio stations, seldom lasting long at any. A heavy drinker and longtime drug user (mainly painkillers and amphetamines, which contributed to his manic on-air behavior), Phillips died of heart failure at age 42 onSeptember 28, 1968.

Dewey Phillips & Elvis Presley Ellis Auditorium, Memphis February 6, 1955
Dewey Phillips & Elvis Presley Ellis Auditorium, Memphis February 6, 1955

Jerry Schilling: I had been listening to Dewey Phillips on the radio since I was 10 years old. Before Dewey came onto the scene, I was hearing what my parents listened to, the hit parade. It was good, but it didn't connect with me. But, around that time, there was a group of white kids who were starting to listen to the rhythm and blues that Dewey Phillips was playing. He'd play everything - R&B, Dean Martin, Little Richard, The Platters. All that stuff was a big influence on Elvis, too.

When you think of how diverse Elvis was, I mean, look at the first album. You've got country, rhythm and blues, rockabilly ... everything. But, rock and roll was the music that was dangerous.

We can never forget that rock and roll was born out of segregation. It was dangerous for us to go down to Beale Street to buy our records. Our parents would have grounded us forever if they found out. It was a totally segregated society. Beale Street was black. Main Street was white. In the middle of all of that, Dewey Phillips played a record called 'That's All Right Mama' by a boy from Humes High School. He had to say Humes High School, because the audience would then know that he was white. Dewey played predominately black music. When 'That's All Right Mama' came on the radio, it was so exciting. It rolled it into something to be a part of.

Dewey Phillips & Elvis Presley
Dewey Phillips & Elvis Presley

The first time I heard Elvis was in the second week of July 1954. That Sunday, July 11, 1954, I go over to my local playground in North Memphis - a very poor neighborhood. There were five older boys in and out of high school trying to get up a football game. That's how unpopular Elvis Presley was at that point. Elvis was just starting out, and nobody knew who he was yet.

Dewey Phillips
Dewey Phillips
Elvis Cut His First Record (Q magazine, July 2000 issue)

18 July 1953: It was the best $4 investment anyone ever made. That was how much Elvis Presley paid to invent rock'n'roll.

Elvis Presley: I was drivin' a truck and I was studying to be an electrician too, you see. Well, I went in to Sun Records.

Jack Clement (assistant to Sun Records owner Sam Phillips): Sun was just a place that was a lot more experimental than most. I think that is the main thing that made it happen. It was just the only place them weirdo could go.

Jud Phillips (Vice president, Sun Records): He was just a long-haired kid who used to hang around the corner drug store. When Elvis came into our studio, It was little more than a glorified barn, he wanted to cut a private disc for his mother's birthday.

Marion Keisker (secretary, Memphis Recording Service): It was a busy Saturday afternoon. The office was full of people wanting to make personal records. He came in, said he wanted to make a record. I told him he'd have to wait and he said OK. He sat down.

While he was waiting, we had a conversation. 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'.

Jud Phillips: My brother Sam met him and was quite impressed with his performance, although with that long hair and old blue jeans he looked pretty wild.

Sam Phillips (co-owner Memphis Recording Service): I was in the control room. The only two thing I heard Elvis do when he came in was My Happiness and this Ink Spots thing [That's When Your Heartaches Begin].

Elvis Presley: There was a guy there that took down my name and told me he might call me sometime.

Jud Phillips: After he'd sung his song, for which we charge $4 for recording, we said maybe we'd call him over sometime to cut a commercial disc. He didn't seem too enthusiastic, but I think that was because he wasn't at all sure of his own ability.

Sam Phillips: I wrote his name down, how to get hold on him, and put it on the little old spindle upfront as we were going out of the door.

26 June 1954: Sam Phillips rings Presley and invites him to Sun Studio to make a professional recording.

Marion Keisker (secretary, Memphis Recording Service): Almost a year after Elvis recorded My Happiness, Sam got all excited about a new song he'd found, but couldn't find anyone to sing.

Sam Phillips: I'd run across a ballad [Without You] written by a prisoner in the Tennessee state pen and I wanted a crooner.

Marion Keisker: I mentioned Elvis to him again.

Elvis Presley: 'You want to make some blues?' he suggested over the phone, knowing I'd always been a sucker for that kind of jive. He mentioned Big Boy Crudup's name, and maybe others too/ All I know is, I hung up and ran 15 blocks to Mr. Phillips' office before he'd gotten off the line.

4 July 1954: Presley rehearses at Sun Studios with Scotty Moore and Bill Black.

Marion Keisker: We got Elvis to come in, but he couldn't do the song to satisfy Sam. That might have been the end of it, but something stirred Sam's interest.

Jud Phillips (co-owner, San Records): That session turned out to be a mighty frustrating business. He wasn't happy with any of the songs we suggested. Nothing we tried seemed to fit his style.

Sam Phillips: Elvis toyed around with it. I decided he needed a couple pf good rhythm men back of him so I called Scotty [Moore, guitarist] and told him to get hold of Bill [Black, bassist]. And I said, 'Now, I've got a young man and he's different,' I told him and Bill to go by and work with Elvis a little. I said, 'Now, he's really nervous and timid and extremely polite'.

5 July 1954: Presley records That's All Right, Mama, at Sun Records.

Scotty Moore (guitarist): It was just an audition. That's the only reason there was just Bill Black and myself in the studio. We just needed enough music to see what Elvis sounded like on tape, 'cause the first recording he did was on acetate. Sam was trying to get a line on his voice. Did he sing this kind of song or tempo better?

We tried four songs. I Love You Because was the first thing we put on tape. We were used to playing with more musicians involved, y'know. Whether it was country, pop or whatever - you had a piano player, a sax, a fiddle and so on. When we lucked in on that, I realized I was putting everything I knew into practically every song, trying to play some rhythm, some lead, fill notes, y'know. The first two or three things were put on tape when we were strictly just doodling, looking for a sound.

Elvis Presley: This song popped into my mind that I had heard years ago, and I started kidding around with it.

Jud Phillips: It was an old rhythm and blues number called That's All Right, Mama, and at once things started going right.

Scotty Moore: We were taking a break and, all of sudden, Elvis started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool. Then Bill Black picked up his bass and began acting the fool too, and I started playing with them. Sam had the door to the control room open, and stuck his head out and said, 'What are you doing?' We said, 'We don't know'. He said, 'Well, back up. Try to find a place to start, and do it again'.

So we kinda talked it over and figured out a little bit what we were doin'. We ran it again, and of course Sam is listenin'. 'Bout the third or fourth time through, we just cut it. It was basically a rhythm record. It wasn't any great thing. It wasn't Sam tellin' him what to do. Elvis was joking around, just doing what come naturally, what he felt.

Sam Phillips: I said, 'Right then, that's it!' I knew we had it.

Scotty Moore: When we heard a playback, we knew we had some kind of rhythm, a little different rhythm, but none of us knew what to call it, so we didn't call it anything at that time. Y'know, the stories say Sam was lookin' for a white man who could sing black music. Well, he never mentioned anything like that to us. I understand what Elvis was doin' and he didn't sound black to me. But he did have that feel that some black singers had.

We got excited, but we just shook our heads. I said, 'Good God! They'll run us out of town when they hear this. 'Sam said he'd take it down to [WHBQ DJ] Dewey Phillips and play it for him.

6 July 1954: Sam Phillips takes two Elvis Presley acetates to DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) at WHBQ.

George Klein (WHBQ staff): Back in those days, the disc jockeys picked their own music. Dewey had a very good ear and that's why all those record guys used to bring him new product. Dewey had a way of telling you right off the bat whether he liked it or not. If you were a good friend, he'd let you down easy.

Sam Phillips: We were up a gum stump, so to speak. The white disc jockeys wouldn't touch what they regarded as a Negro's music, and the Negro DJs didn't want anything to do with a record made by a white man.

Wink Martindale (Memphis DJ): Dewey called me in after Sam brought the record down to get my opinion. He played it for me. I thought the guy was black. Sam said, 'No, he's not black. He's white'.

George Klein: He said, 'Who's that singing?' I said, 'I don't know'.He said, 'You should know because you went to high school with him'. I said, 'Man, it's got tobe Elvis,' because Elvis was the only guy in high school who could sing.

10 July 1954: Dewey Philllips plays That's All Right, Mama on WHBQ radio, Memphis Tennessee.

Gladys Presley (Elvis' mother): Elvis fixed the radio and told us to leave it on that station, and then he went to the movies, I guess he was just too nervous to listen.

Wink Martindale: Dewey had some hesitancy about playing the record because he played nothing but race music. Finally, around 9.15 or 9.30, he put it on the air. The results were incredible.

Eddie Bond (WHBQ DJ): Dewey didn't call him Elvis, though. He called him Elton Preston. He didn't know his name or maybe couldn't pronounce his name. 'Elton Preston's got a new record here'.

Marty Lacker: We were driving down Vollintine Avenue in Memphis listening to the Dewey Phillips radio show. Dewey was saying, 'We got this boy here from Humes High School, and this is his first record, and the first time we're playing it. I want to see what y'all like about it'.

Eddie Bond: Dewey played Elvis' record six times straight. Dewey says, 'It's gonna be a hit! It's gonna be a hit! Elvis, if you're out there listening, come on down here, I want to talk to you'.

Dewey Phillips: When the phone calls started to come in I got hold of Elvis' daddy, Vernon. Before long, Elvis came running in. 'I'm going to interview you,' I said, 'Just don't say nothing dirty'.

Elvis Presley: I was scared to death. I was shaking all over, I just couldn't believe it.

Dewey Phillips: He sat down and I said I'd let him know when we were ready to start. I had a couple of records cued up and, while they played, we talked. I asked him where he went to school. I wanted to get that out, because a lot of people had thought he was coloured. Finally, I said, 'All right Elvis, thank you very much'. 'Aren't you going to interview me?' he asked. 'I already have,' I said. 'The mike's been open the whole time'. He broke out in a cold sweat.

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