From: 69th Birthday Tribute Issue, Junuary, 2004
by Phil Arnold
Elvis’ first commercial recording session at Sun Recoerds, on July 5 1954, produced three songs. That’s All Right (Mama) started a musical revolution. What’s the story on the other two songs?
We’ve all heard the tale many times. Elvis and Scotty and Bill were playing a few songs that first night, but nothing really clicked. Then, Elvis started cutting up with That’s All Right (Mama), a blues song released eight years earlier by Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup. Scotty and Bill joined in, and in no time the three musicians were cookin’.
Then, Sam Phillips rushed out of the control room and asked Elvis what he was doing. Sam told them to do it again, this time with the tape player going. A short time later, Elvis had the song for his first 45 RPM release in the can, and the rest is history.
So what were the two songs they did before catching magic in a bottle?
Harbor Lights was the first song put on tape, and Sam Phillips was not happy with it. Elvis’ voice was high and thin, as though the song should have been played at a lower key. The instrumentation is sparse and at a surprisingly low volume. Even Elvis’ chorus of whistling in the middle did nothing to enhance this generally weak ballad.
Sam Phillips filed the tape away as nothing more than a warm-up effort, where the boys got used to working together. When RCA bought Elvis’ contract and his entire Sun catalogue of 19 songs, they apparently saw little value in Harbor Lights. It remained unreleased for the next twenty years.
Even when RCA released “The Sun Sessions” in 1975, Harbor Lights was still in bad favor and was not included. The producers correctly assessed it would distract from the cohesive Rockabilly sound of the rest of the Sun songs. “The Sun Sessions” album was compiled to present a top quality package, so Harbor Lights would have to wait for use as a curiosity item.
And curiosities were exactly what RCA featured in the 1976 double LP, “Elvis – A Legendary Performer, Volume 2.” Even back then, record producers realized the strength of the public’s demand for never-before-heard Elvis songs. This album contained a little bit of everything: an alternate version of I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, in which Elvis reversed the lyrics; unreleased live versions of Blue Suede Shoes and Baby What You Want Me To Do from the “68’ Comeback Special”; an alternate version of Blue Hawaii from the “Aloha from Hawaii” TV special; in addition to the nearly forgotten song from that first Sun recording session.
Harbor Lights was also selected for the six-record boxed set, “A Golden Celebration.” Released in 1984, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Elvis’ birth, this album also tapped into the deep vein of fan yearning for something different in Elvis songs. It contained outtakes from the Sun sessions, as well as songs from “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show”, “The Milton Berle Show”, “The Ed Sullivan Show”, and the ever-popular “Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.”
Harbor Lights also appeared on the four-disk “The Complete Sun Sessions” in 1987 and the five-disc “Elvis, The Complete 50’s Masters” in 1992. It has probably been on several other CD’s since then, but it’s been hard to keep up with everything that’s coming out these days.
Its not surprising Elvis chose this song. It had previously been a popular number for Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, and Ray Anthony. The Platters had a top-ten hit with Harbor Lights in 1960.
The second song recorded on July 5, 1954, was I Love You Because, previously released by Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry, Eddie Fisher, and Patti Page. Although Elvis and the boys improved with their second effort, Sam Phillips wasn’t crazy about this song, either. There still wasn’t any spark in Elvis’ voice, and more whistling certainly didn’t help. At least he instrumentation was better, indicating the three musicians were starting to get comfortable with each other.
Sam had five takes, but he deemed none to be worthy of commercial release. However, when Elvis’ fame skyrocketed, RCA saw it differently. In early 1956, they created a hybrid version using splices of takes #3 and 5 from the Sun tapes and included it in Elvis’ first album, “Elvis Presley.” Later that year, RCA put I Love You Because on the flip side of a 45 record featuring another previously unreleased Sun recording, Trying To get To You.
A different version of I Love You Because showed up in 1974 on “Elvis – A Legendary Performer, Volume I.” This time it was take 2. Both the spliced version (now called the ‘master’) and take 2 appeared on “The Sun Sessions” in 1975. This album was re-released on CD in 1999 and is now considered a must for serious collectors of Elvis music. VH1 named “The Sun Sessions” number 20 in their ranking of the Top 100 Rock & Roll Albums Of All Time.
The most dedicated Elvis collectors were enticed by 1987’s four-disc set, “The Complete Sun Sessions,” which must contain every single minute of tape Sam Phillips recorded when Elvis was singing. It has outtakes galore and a numbing quantity of alternate versions, including all five takes of I Love You Because. If that sounds like overkill, the album contains seven alternate takes of I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.
When Elvis went home the night of July 5, 1954, he must have been excited about the prospects for his first single release. He and Scotty and Bill were back the next night, and they clicked again on Blue Moon of Kentucky.
On July 19, Sun Records released Elvis Presley’s first record, That’s All Right (Mama) with Blue Moon of Kentucky on the flip side. The world was never the same since.
© 2004 Philip R Arnold