From the Signature Pages: “The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records” by Barbara Barnes Sims

Recently, a friend and I saw Baz Luhrmann’s opulent Elvis biofilm. Unless you’ve been living in caves for the past 65 years, you know Elvis Presley as a Mississippi rags-to-riches gospel story for every rock and roll you want to be. The film shows Elvis as an entertainment trifecta: Elvis gave the radios frenetic tunes for teenagers to dance against their angst, his concerts added pelvic gyrations and had fathers of teenage girls wishing for chastity belts, and his films have offered audiences around the world a full sensory experience. Luhrmann also shows pre-King Elvis on stage in “Louisiana Hayride” just before leaving Sun Records and signing with RCA. This scene piqued my interest: how did Sam Phillips, with his tiny studio in Memphis, play the kingmaker of the best-selling individual recording artist of all time? Why would he let his meal ticket skip the tags?

Luckily for me, Mississippi native Barbara Barnes Sims answered this and other questions in 2014 when LSU Press published “The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records.” Her book, part story, part memoir, serves as a telescope to bridge the 50-year gap between her experience and her storytelling. The Sims’ writing style combines academic precision with conversational fluency. I met Sims in 1980 during his 36 years of service in the English department at Louisiana State University. Sims seemed the stereotypical English educator, overwhelmed by endless first-year essays. Once she showed me a postcard of Walker Percy, and I thought it was cool to have such a famous pen pal. Reading “The Next Elvis”, however, proved that I had underestimated his level of cool.

“The Next Elvis” opened at Sun Records in 1957. Elvis had already left the building. Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins (those of the “Million Dollar Quartet”), Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, among others, continued to come through the door. Sims had worked in broadcasting during his college years in Alabama. Although she has experience, the recording industry has very few women. Luckily for the Sims, she met Sam Phillips, who deliberately employed women. Its commercial fleet boasted WHER and WLIZ, all-female radio stations, and Sun Records often had an evenly divided administrative staff.

Among Sims’ first assignments at Sun was writing jacket notes, followed by nationwide marketing of new artists and songs to disc jockeys, encouraging them to play the records during prime time. For many DJs, Sims was a novelty, as they had never talked business with a woman.

Soon she became familiar with distributors in New York and Chicago, and even shared lunch with Wink Martindale before he became a game show host.

Musicians often sat in the Sims office between recording sessions or tried out new songs. From his desk, Sims could hear several versions and takes of songs that would become staples in the Sun catalog. One day, Sims needed to be taken to the printer’s office, and Roy Orbison wheeled her around in his white Cadillac. After the near career-ending scandal of Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage to his cousin Myra, Sims worked to restore his marketability. She flew to Mobile, got a room at The Battle House, then went boating in the Gulf of Mexico with Lewis and some investors.

After his military discharge, Elvis returned for a visit to Sun Records where he met Sims. They talked while he toured the renovated studio. Most people remember “Blue Suede Shoes” as an Elvis hit, but Carl Perkins wrote the song. One of Sims’ last works helped Perkins successfully update his own version.

As Sims and Phillips were talking about Sun Records, recording and Elvis, she basically asked my question: why did Sam Phillips abandon Elvis? According to Sims, Phillips said the decision was a no-brainer. Selling Elvis to RCA for $40,000 allowed Elvis to reach a wider audience, an expense Sun Records could not afford. The proceeds, in turn, gave Sun the means to promote a young Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Rodgers, Charlie Rich, numerous session musicians and independent songwriters. What she didn’t mention: The sale of Elvis funded a Mississippi girl’s front row seat in the Rock and Roll maternity ward that was Sun Records.

It’s really cool.

Dr. Allison Chestnut is a professor of English at William Carey University and co-owner of The Author Shoppe in downtown Hattiesburg.

Calvin W. Soper