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LETTERS

Descriptions of some of the letters.


July 29, 1954 Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company letter to Philadelphia, created three days after Elvis signs with Sun, two pages
 
This letter to Sam Hodge of Paramount Record Manufacturing in Philadelphia, PA is devoted entirely to Sun 209.    Phillips fairly pleads with Hodge to “please get on this record up there… both sides are hitting, and in every category: Pop, R&B and Hillbilly… this record has the potential to sell in any territory in the country… it is definitely going to be one of the biggest records of the year, and you know we can use the business.”
 
What’s hilarious and remarkable about this particular letter is that nowhere, not once in this two-page letter, does Phillips mention the words “Elvis,” “Presley,” “That’s All Right” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky”!  That’s because Elvis was a total nobody, an absolute zero at this point, so why bother mentioning him?  Phillips just kept calling it “this record” and “209.” How funny & historic is that?
 
Sun Records office manager Marion Keisker added a customary “SCP:mk” at the very end of this one (meaning, of course, dictated by Sam C. Phillips, typed by Marion Keisker).
 
 
 
August 6, 1954 Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company letter to Chicago, created the week after Elvis signs with Sun.
 
This letter from Sam Phillips to Al Benson of Bronzeville Distributors in Chicago finds Phillips hyping the distributor, after “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” had started to create quite a stir in Memphis: “Al, this Presley thing is tremendous!  In Memphis there was never a record like it for sales, plays and listener-demand.  It hit so hard and so fast and so spontaneously that everybody… is still amazed!  So ride it, Boy, and we’ll have it made!”  Just remarkably colorful language.
 
What’s funny and odd about this particular letter is that nowhere, not once, does Phillips mention the words “Elvis,” “That’s All Right” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky”!  That’s because Elvis was a total nobody, an absolute zero at this point, so why bother mentioning him?  Phillips refers to him twice as just “Presley,” with no hint of the magic the name “Elvis” would someday become. How funny & historic is that?
 
This exact artifact was displayed at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art's “Rock 'N Roll 1939-1959” exhibit in Paris, France in the summer and fall of 2007.  The exhibit was a lavish affair, with a Grand Opening attended by Little Richard, Tina Turner, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lieber of Lieber & Stoller, etc.
 
 
 
August 10, 1954 Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company letter to Miami, created two weeks after Elvis signs with Sun, two pages
 
This letter from Sam Phillips to Marvin Leiber of Pan American Distributors in Miami really delves into the lingo of the day pertaining to radio formats and racial divides in the South, in pleading for people to pay attention to Elvis’s first single: “…please make sure that all the R&B and Hillbilly Jockeys have a copy of the record… also all the pop boys that cater somewhat to the ‘cat’ trend on their pop shows… it is being bought by operators for ALL locations, white and colored… one leading retail store called to tell us, everybody from white teenagers to old colored people are buying it with equal zest.”
 
And: “Here in Memphis… BOTH sides are being played daily on every DJ show on every station.  As soon as they hear it, they buy it.  We’ve got a big one; don’t let it get away!”
 
What’s hilarious and remarkable about this particular letter is that nowhere, not once in this two-page letter, does Phillips mention the words “Elvis,” “Presley” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky”!  That’s because Elvis was a total nobody, an absolute zero at this point, so why bother mentioning him?  Phillips just kept calling it “this record” and “209,” and just once mentions “That’s All Right,” a song that would change the world. How funny & historic is that?
 
This exact artifact was displayed at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art's “Rock 'N Roll 1939-1959” exhibit in Paris, France in the summer and fall of 2007.  The exhibit was a lavish affair, with a Grand Opening attended by Little Richard, Tina Turner, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lieber of Lieber & Stoller, etc. 
 
In addition, Cartier published a large, gorgeous, massively expensive, 400-page coffee-table book, with hardshell slipcase, to commemorate the event.  The book contains many of photographer Alfred Wertheimers’ famous 1956 photos of Elvis (because Alfred was part of the exhibit), and they gave this exact artifact a full-color full page all to itself, on pg. 252.
 
 
 


August 18, 1954 Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company letter to Boston, created just three weeks after Elvis signs with Sun, two pages.
 
This letter from Sam Phillips to Cecil Steen of Records, Inc. in Boston starts off mundane enough, discussing routine business matters, but then takes off with Phillips’ first mention of all the ingredients: “Elvis Presley,” “Sun 209,” “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”  Finally Phillips is plugging his artist by name!  And he gets a little confrontational with the distributor: “We are a little perturbed over the fact that you have not seen fit to order on any of our releases in the past several months.”
 
Calling the Elvis single “a tremendous number that is a two-side, three way hit,” Phillips cites both Billboard and Cashbox magazines in tagging the release “unique and exciting.”  And he utters those great, prescient words, “We hope you will get on this number, because it is a big one, and we ought not to let it get away.”
 
 
 
September 11, 1954 Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company letter to Wichita, created less than two months after Elvis signs with Sun
 
This letter from Sam Phillips to Len Carl of the Campbell-Carl Company of Wichita is entirely about Elvis’s first single, all four paragraphs of it.  At this point, as Elvis was becoming a bit of a local phenomenon, Phillips mentions Presley’s name and both song titles in his first sentence, quite a contrast to letters of the weeks before. 
 
Phillips cites sales figures and radio airplay, the latter accentuated with the description of radio formats as “C&W, R&B and Pop ‘cat’”.  Crazy, man!  We also suspect that Phillips is doing a bit of exaggerating if not outright lying, by naming quite a few cities that “are all doing a big volume on it,” but another letter in this series states unequivocally that sales of Elvis records in Los Angeles “stinks.”  Oh well, just a promo man doing his job…
 
Phillips also has some local track record now that he can start to boast about: “Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Boston, Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Charlotte… and in Memphis more than 6,000 were sold in less than three weeks.  Bill Fitzgerald of Music Sales says never in his experience in the record business has he seen any record hit so hard and so fast.  It is on virtually every Juke location in town and the ops are ordering and re-ordering and re-ordering!”
 
 
 
September 24, 1954 incoming letter to Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company from a Miami record distributor, created two months after the release of “That’s All Right”/“Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
 
An intriguing account of the struggles that Elvis Presley’s seminal first single faced in the marketplace during the summer of 1954.  After covering other business in the first part of the letter, printed on blue Pan Am company stationery with a blue & red letterhead, Marvin Lieber of Pan American Distributing Corp. in Miami describes the problem he’s facing with jukebox operators throughout Florida and their resistance to “That’s All Right” / “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” aka Sun 209.  He writes,
 
“Your record 209 is giving me a little problem in that certain locales throughout the State have operators which have them on every machine, and in other locales, they won’t even touch it.  That is one of the strange things about the record business.  I think it is a great record, my immediate reaction in Miami was good but in the northern part of Florida, they won’t touch it as they consider it too racy.”
 
Once again, Elvis is not known enough to even be mentioned by Lieber; he just refers to the song that later changed the world as “record 209.”
 
This exact artifact was displayed at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art's “Rock 'N Roll 1939-1959” exhibit in Paris, France in the summer and fall of 2007.  The exhibit was a lavish affair, with a Grand Opening attended by Little Richard, Tina Turner, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lieber of Lieber & Stoller, etc. 
 
In addition, Cartier published a large, gorgeous, massively expensive, 400-page coffee-table book, with hardshell slipcase, to commemorate the event.  The book contains many of photographer Alfred Wertheimers’ famous 1956 photos of Elvis (because Alfred was part of the exhibit), and they gave this exact artifact a full-color full page all to itself, on pg. 253.

 
 


November 4, 1954 Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company letter to Philadelphia record distributor
 
This letter from Sam Phillips to Gunter Hauer of Gotham Record Corporation in Philadelphia, PA is the one letter found which discusses both of Elvis’s first two Sun singles, citing all four songs. 
 
After three paragraphs of standard business, Phillips lays out some golden words and chastises this distributor for not jumping on the bandwagon: “…In the past few months Sun has released a new artist who is creating a tremendous excitement in the C&W, R&B and pop ‘cat’ markets.  His name is Elvis Presley, and we sent you samples on 209, his record of ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ and ‘That’s All Right.’  There has been big movement on the number in virtually every market and we regret that nothing has happened on it in your territory.
 
“We have just released a follow up, 210, ‘I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.’  Billboard this week gave it the Spotlight Review, pointing out the triple-potential of it.”  And he closes with: “We know what this artist can do when given air play and promotion.”
 
This exact artifact was displayed at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art's “Rock 'N Roll 1939-1959” exhibit in Paris, France in the summer and fall of 2007.  The exhibit was a lavish affair, with a Grand Opening attended by Little Richard, Tina Turner, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lieber of Lieber & Stoller, etc.
 
 
 
Christmas Week 1954 letter from Sun Record Company' Marion Keisker mentioning Elvis’s third Sun single
 
A straight manufacturing-business letter from Marion Keisker, the woman and Office Manager of Sun Record Company who first encountered the young Elvis Presley several times before owner Sam Phillips became involved.  The first three paragraphs of this letter involve Keisker discussing manufacturing parts with a distributor in Philadelphia for Elvis’s new single “Milk Cow Blues” backed with “You’re a Heartbreaker,” which she hopes “should be the biggest yet.” 
 
Interestingly, in the fourth paragraph she questions the price this distributor charged Sun for pressing a mere 25 copies of Elvis’s second single, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (which she calls “210”).  Paramount had billed Sun 15 cents apiece to make the records, but “shouldn’t the charge have been 14 cents?” Keisker wondered.  “That is what we have been paying for 45’s.”  Wow! How funny & historic is that?
 
This letter mention's Marion Keisker by name (since she wrote it), the woman who played a legendary role in the discovery of Elvis Presley, as she was the first person to ever record him – on July 18, 1953, when the future King recorded an acetate of “My Happiness” for his mother.
 
 
 
March 21, 1955 incoming REJECTION letter to Sam Phillips of Sun Record Company from a Los Angeles record manufacturer
 
Simply put, an Elvis Presley rejection letter from a Los Angeles record distributor who couldn’t have known that a year later, Elvis would change the world with “Heartbreak Hotel.”
 
“Elvis Presley records would not sell in Los Angeles,” Nate Duroff of the Monarch Record Mfg. Co. states flatly in this letter on white Monarch stationery, paraphrasing another record exec.  “I know for a fact that Western and Hillbilly out here ‘stinks’ as far as sales… southern blues are very weak in sales also… a Rock and Roll in western and hillbilly, such as Bill Haley records would move good out here.”  Duroff then signed the letter in blue pen.
 
It reminds me of a letter I once saw in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where in 1978 some record label had written back to the band, “Sorry, but we don’t think U2 is right for us at this time.” (Or something to that effect.)
 
How could the Los Angeles record execs be so wrong?  We can only conjecture and laugh.  Without being too condescending about it, because after all, Elvis was unique when he arrived on the scene.
 
And… two days after this letter was written, Elvis climbs on an airplane for the very first time, flies to New York City for an audition with the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show… and flunks it miserably.  Two days after that, he was back to playing high schools in Arkansas.
 
This exact artifact was displayed at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art's “Rock 'N Roll 1939-1959” exhibit in Paris, France in the summer and fall of 2007.  The exhibit was a lavish affair, with a Grand Opening attended by Little Richard, Tina Turner, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lieber of Lieber & Stoller, etc.


 
Pete Howard: We would like to thank Pete Howard who has contributed to writing a number of parts of these pages pertaining to the Sun letters on elvispresleymuseum.com and sunrecordcompany.com. Pete Howard who is extremely well respected in the music industry, he spent several years as a executive at CBS records and is a music historian and is often called upon by the media as an expert in the field of music. He was contributing editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, and owned published and edited ICE magazine for 19 years and also penned Goldmine magazines 22,000 word cover story on collectible music posters. Pete Howard of PosterCentral.com


Aaron Benneian: We would also like to thank Aaron Benneian for his sincere contribution. Aaron is a former collector of early Elvis Presley memorabilia from the 1953 to 1955 Sun Records era. Originally these historic letters were discovered decades ago, in the 1970s. Aaron realised the historical significance of these letters pertaining to the birth of Elvis' career at Sun and acquired them in the 1990s. Aaron had accumulated one of the finest collections of pre-RCA Presley items anywhere in the world and had travelled extensively throughout Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee researching Elvis' early musical career. Although still a fan, today he deals in antique photographs and historical Americana. Aaron Benneian of PhotosAndAmericana.com