My Memphis Music Challenge: Elvis and Memphis by way of, click-click, 8-track tape

The publisher recalls his first brush with Elvis and Sun, through his father’s eight-tracks

By Mark Fleischer

Growing up in Southern California, I don’t have those direct Memphis music connections that so many Memphians can count on more than one hand. I can’t share that Elvis sighting on his motorcycle on Union Avenue. I can’t tell you about the time I saw Al Green walking out of The Arcade. No, my Memphis music story started peripherally (er, remotely, something all of us have dealt with all year).

It was the summer of 1979. I was thirteen and mostly alone for that summer, diving in to my hobbies of model-building and drawing buildings, cityscapes, and maps – that was the summer I imagined being an architect or a city planner. Like any kid in the 70s, my hobbies had to have a soundtrack. And dad’s record and eight-track tape collection included among others The Beatles, Paul McCartney, and Elvis.

Dad’s copy of Elvis’ The Sun Sessions was on eight-track (a rarity now). 8-tracks were mainstays of any record buyer from the late ’60s into the ’70s, and preceded the smaller cassette tapes with recorded, portable audio (read this Wikipedia post for an explanation of how they worked). And as 8-tracks go, each of the 4 programs within the tape cartridge contained just over 11 minutes of audio that – click-click – switched to the next program at the end of the 11 minutes. At 2+ minutes each, 4 or 5 songs of the Sun recordings were squeezed into each of the 4 programs, click-clicking to the next program, 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and switching back to 1 to start the entire set of tracks all over again.

I listened to those Sun Session recordings over and over and over again. They are burned in my brain against the visuals of my pencil-drawn skyscrapers and the model house I built that summer, as though the licks, rhythms and beats of Elvis’ and Scotty Moore’s guitars, Bill Black’s bass, Johnny Bernero’s drums and the click-clicks of the 8-track programs had their hands in my work.

At 13 I didn’t really know at the time of a place called Memphis. Nor did I yet know its impact on Rock ‘n’ Roll. And I never heard of the Blues.

But I knew every lick of that album. I knew that I’ve been traveling over miles “Trying To Get To You” followed “Mystery Train.” I knew exactly which songs were interrupted by the click-click of tape going to the next program.

And I knew that these were songs they never played on Southern California top-40 or Rock ‘n’ Roll radio stations. DJs would play “Jailhouse Rock,” but not “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.” You’d hear “Suspicious Minds,” but not “That’s All Right.” Even then, they were rare. And going into the late 1980s, when the recordings were re-issued yet again on Compact Disc, I would learn why: that these recordings were first issued as The Sun Sessions compilation album by RCA Records in 1976.

Exactly thirty-three years after my first listens to the Sun recordings, I would hear them again in the summer of 2012, on my first visit through the hallowed floors and acoustic tiles of Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee. Chills went through me as those same tracks echoed through the building, during the tour, on the very same studio floor where they recorded, and I was thirteen again.

Mark Fleischer publishes StoryBoard Memphis

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.