Elvis: Before He Was Famous

Elvis Presley left school in the summer of 1953, aged 18. He started work at Parker Machinists Shop the very next day, and by June he was working at the Precision Tool Company. No one seems to know exactly what he did in either of those jobs, but in June 1954 he took a job with the Crown Electric company as a truck driver. This had been his father's occupation, when he was in work (which he wasn't, a lot of the time).

By this time Elvis had already cut a couple of records at Sam Phillips's Sun Studios. It was on 5 July 1954 that he recorded Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's That's All Right, which became his first single – released on 19 July. Phillips gave copies to a number of local radio DJs; one of them, Dewey Phillips (no relation) played it on his show on a station known as WHBQ. This immediatley generated a huge amount of interest locally: Phillips reportedly received over 40 telephone calls, and played the record 14 times in succession. Presley was persuaded to go to the station for an on–air interview that night. One of Dewey's questions asked which high school he'd attended; this was a roundabout way of informing the audience of Presley's race, without actually asking.

Despite all this local interest, That's All Right failed to make the charts anywhere, except locally in Memphis. Elvis's second single, Good Rockin' Tonight, did no better; but his third, I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine, reached No. 74 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The next single, You're a Heartbreaker, failed to make the charts, but the next three started to make an impression on the Country charts. In November 1955 Elvis was voted the year's most promising male artist by Country DJs, and in the same month he signed a deal with the RCA Victor label. This was his big break.

On 10 January 1956 – two days after his 21st birthday – Elvis recorded what would become his first single for RCA. Heartbreak Hotel was released on 27 January, to mixed reviews. Billboard described it as "a strong blues item wrapped up in his usual powerful style and a great beat", but in Britain the New Musical Express wrote that "If you appreciate good singing, I don't suppose you'll manage to hear this disc all through". The BBC placed it on its "restricted play" list; it wasn't considered fit for general entertainment.

The release of Heartbreak Hotel was timed to coincide with Elvis's first national (US) television appearance, which was on CBS's Stage Show (starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey), on 28 January. Elvis had signed up to make six appearances on the show over a period of two months. But the Dorsey brothers were not impressed with the song at rehearsal, and Elvis was not allowed to perform it. Only on his third appearance, on 11 February, did they relent and Elvis finally performed Heartbreak Hotel on US national television. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 on 22 February, eventually reaching No. 1 and staying there for seven weeks.

In the UK, Heartbreak Hotel entered the charts on 11 May 1956, peaking at No. 2 in June.

The rest is history. But history doesn't seem to record when Elvis stopped driving his truck.

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