Elvis Presley’s first number one song is barely recognized today

Elvis at Sun Studio with Sam Phillips (TX Elvis Fan Club archives)

Elvis Presley’s first No. 1 song is barely recognized today. Yet, without it, the world may have been much different. Not many realize this record was the actual song that placed Presley on the national charts for the first time. As of April 9, 2017, Presley continues to set records with more than one billion records sold worldwide. In America alone, Elvis has had 150 different albums and singles that have been certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). More certifications are expected as research into his past record sales continues and as current sales go on. About 40% of his records have been sold outside the United States.

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Elvis Presley receives record awards (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

Of the 150 songs charting Billboard’s Top 100 in the U.S. 114 were in the top forty, 40 were in the top 10, and 18 went to number one. His number one singles spent a total of 80 weeks at number one. More than 90 Elvis Presley records reached the charts, with 10 of them reaching number one. These figures are only for the pop charts and only in America. He was also a leading artist in the American country, R&B, and gospel fields, and his chart success in other countries was substantial.

SAM PHILLIPS, SUN STUDIO

One bit of trivia often overlooked is that the King of Rock and Roll’s first No. 1 record was actually a country music song. Even before his first commerical record, “That’s All Right Mama” was released by Sam Phillips on Sun Records, Presley actually recorded his first country song “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You.” When asked, most people guess his first number one as “That’s All Right Mama,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” or “Don’t Be Cruel.” But those answers are wrong.

Phillips, a high school dropout, opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in 1950. It didn’t take long before he was producing records for B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Ike Turner. Although he began by producing Rhythm and Blues, Phillips found it more profitable to include country, gospel and other artists. As he became more successful regionally, Phillips created Sun Records which emerged as a powerful and influential recording label.

It’s somewhat challenging to realize now that the song was actually the only major Elvis Presley hit produced by Sam Phillips.

The go-getting Phillips recognized that racial segregation would restrict his plans to expand into larger markets. There were only a few stations and record stores that pottered in black music. He told Sun Studio manager Marion Keisker that they needed to find a “white man who sounded black.”

In walked Elvis Presley.

Elvis in the 1950s (Photos by Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

The 19-year-old simply wanted to make a record as a gift to his mother, Gladys Presley. Keisker welcomed him and arranged for the recording with Phillips. During their conversation–prior to Presley entering the actual studio room for the first time in 1954–Keisker had a good impression of him. Presley built a rapport with Phillips too.

”You could look into his eyes ‘and see whirling pools of insanity,” Jim Dickinson, who knew Phillips, said. “You knew that he was looking down into your guts and you think at that moment, ‘That’s how he looked at Howlin’ Wolf. That’s the way he looked at Elvis Presley Something happened. Maybe it can happen to me’. That’s what he does that’s magic”.

”I saw my role as being the facilitated, the man who listened to an artist for his native abilities, then tried to encourage and channel the artist into what would be a proper outlet for his abilities,” Phillips explained. “I wasn’t interested in just a god singer. There had to be something distinctive there for me to want to spend time with an artist.”

 STANLEY KESLER

Under the direction of Phillips, Presley recorded “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartache Begins.” The legendary tale of how Phillips, Keisker, Scott Moore, Bill Black, and Presley produced and recorded six more singles has been told hundreds of times in music history accounts. What most people don’t realize is that the song that put Sun Records and the future King of Rock and Roll on the national map and on the top of the music charts was a country music song. It’s somewhat challenging to realize now that the song was actually the only major Elvis Presley hit produced by Sam Phillips.

Send Lida Keizjer to Graceland 

In 1954, Phillips favored Stanley Kesler as his country music steel guitarist so much, that the picker was hanging around enough to receive some of his mail at Sun Studios. Because Phillips began expanding more into R&B, Kesler developed also by including stand-up bass into his repertoire.

“Besides switching to bass,” Kesler explained years later. “I started writing songs. I thought that if I could write the kind of things Sam was looking for, I could really cash in on this new music Sam was recording.”

He knew that if any of his singers at Sun could break into the national charts, it had to be Presley.

Stanley Kesler (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

During this time period, the music industry had not developed enough to sell many blues records. But Phillips continued by producing songs he knew teenagers enjoyed. The only way he could get Sun Records songs out there was to include Blues on one side and country on the flip-side. This would insure more of his recordings were played on the radio. The few radio stations that played “race” music could spin the R&B-Rock n’ Roll song, leaving something to broadcast for the country broadcasters.

Phillips and Presley were trying to find the right country song to back with “Mystery Train,” which would be destined to be the last record for Sun Records. Phillips was about to reach an agreement with RCA for Presley for a monumental amount of cash at the time, $35,000. Kesler came to Phillips with a popping country-blues style song he co-wrote with another local musician, Charlie Feathers. Phillips liked it and passed it on to Presley. This song would put Presley on the national Billboard charts for the very first time.

Elvis celebrates Marion Keisker’s birthday with Sam Phillips in front of SUN STUDIO on Sept. 23, 1956. (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

Up until then, it was just regional hits, like Kesler’s “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.” Phillips was determined. He knew that if any of his singers at Sun could break into the national charts, it had to be Presley. But he needed just the right songs. “Mystery Train” might be good enough, but a country song was required for the flipside. Kesler tried, but just couldn’t satisfy Phillips, until one day he walked out of Sun Studios and onto Union Street. He overheard two men talking. This conversation would change the music world forever.

“One man was complaining to the other about the other man failing to make an appointment,” Kesler recalled. “The second man apologized by saying, ‘I just forgot to remember.’”

“At the time I was on the kick of catchy titles,” added Kesler. “When I began to think about that phrase, it just expanded into ‘I forgot to remember to forget her.’ From there I just started working on it, and it all fell together.”

Presley liked it, with the small studio and these four men performing a unique sound and style that no one had ever done. They invented it.

Kesler’s song was recorded by Presley, Moore, Black and Johnny Bernero in July 1955. At first Presley didn’t want to record it because he thought it was just too country. Phillips brought in Memphis drummer Bernero to give it a more upbeat feel. Presley liked it, with the small studio and these four men performing a unique sound and style that no one had ever done. They invented it.

Johnny Bernero (TX Chapt. Elvis Fan Club archives)

“I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her” is rarely mentioned with the likes of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Blue Suede Shoes” “In the Ghetto,” or “Burning Love.” But this song holds the distinction that no other Elvis Presley recording can.

”Elvis was one of the nicest people,” drummer Bernero said. “Over at Sun we called Sam Phillips ‘Sam’. Everyone was that way but Elvis. He’d always say, ‘Mr. Phillips this’ and ‘Mr. Phillips that…’. I always got a lot more on Elvis’s sessions than I did on the others because Elvis would pay me a little on the side. I remember one time we had cut one side and started on another. Elvis went up in the control room with Sam and they were up there about 30 minutes. We were just sitting around on the floor chewing the fat. Then Elvis came back down and came over to me and said, ‘John, we’re not going to finish this session but I really appreciate you coming over’. Then he gave me $50. The next thing I heard Sam had sold Elvis’s contract to RCA.” This was probably the November 1955 session that yielded the unfinished versions of ”When It Rains It Really Pours.”

SUN record 234 (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

 

“I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her”was: 

  • Elvis Presley’s first and only No. 1 record for Sun Studios. 
  • A Country music song, not Rock and Roll. 
  • On the Billboard charts for 39 weeks.

The other songs to come even near that was Presley’s “Hound Dog” at 28 weeks, followed by “Don’t Be Cruel” at 27.

“I think the thing that surprises me most,” Kesler said. “Of all the hit songs he had and of all the records he cut, ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget’ stayed on the charts longer than any other.”

Over the course of his career, Presley recorded more Kesler penned songs, including “Playing For Keeps,” “Thrill of Your Love,” and “If I’m a Fool (for Loving You).  Kesler, now 88,  was also associated (writing or producing) with Jerry Lee Lewis songs “One Minute Past Eternity,” “Sometimes a Memory Ain’t Enough,” and Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully.

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