YOU AT SUN STU­DIOS IN WHEN ELVIS PRES­LEY SANG WITH­OUT THE VOICE ON THE RECORD­ING JUNE 1954 A LEG­END WAS BORN, BUT NEVER BEEN IDEN­TI­FIED. HE WAS DESPERATE TO EM­U­LATE HAS CHRISTO­PHER KENNEDY THAT IS, UN­TIL MU­SI­CIAN AND WRITER HE’S CON­VINCED PRES­LEY’S HEARD

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On Satur­day, June 26, 1954, the Shrill ring of the tele­phone at 462 alabama Street, Mem­phis, ten­nessee must have stirred the op­pres­sive 100-de­gree sum­mer af­ter­noon. a 19-year-old ap­pren­tice elec­tri­cian and aspir­ing singer an­swered the call from Sam Phillips’ Sun stu­dio busi­ness as­so­ciate Mar­ion Keisker, who told him Mr Phillips would like to hear him sing a song called With­out you. leg­end has it that a breath­less elvis Pres­ley burst into the stu­dio be­fore Mar­ion had hung up the phone. it’s likely Pres­ley felt this was his last chance to win over Phillips. he had made per­sonal records at Sun in 1953 and ear­lier in 1954, hop­ing to be no­ticed. it was Keisker who had first heard some­thing spe­cial in the young man’s voice, jot­ting down on a piece of scrap paper, “elvis Pres­ley – Good bal­lad singer” and the boy’s phone num­ber. But Phillips seemed am­biva­lent, sens­ing the kid had po­ten­tial, but needed nur­tur­ing that he hadn’t time for. Pres­ley would have been anx­ious to really nail With­out you for Phillips, and ful­fil his dream of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional singer. the pro­ducer had re­turned from a trip to nashville in May of 1954 with a demo of the song. the pu­rity of the singer’s voice had cap­ti­vated him but ac­cord­ing to Keisker, “Sam couldn’t find out

who the singer was. He was told it was just a Ne­gro kid hang­ing around a Nashville stu­dio when the song came in.” Phillips con­sid­ered re­leas­ing the demo as it was, but at Mar­ion’s sug­ges­tion, he agreed to let Elvis try the song. The story goes that Pres­ley lis­tened in­tently to the demo, but when he tack­led With­out You he couldn’t ri­val the record­ing’s yearn­ing and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Phillips was not im­pressed. Dur­ing a break, Keisker said Elvis pounded on the ta­ble, say­ing, “I hate him! I hate him! Why can’t I sing like that?” Af­ter a break, Phillips set With­out You aside and en­cour­aged Elvis to just sing, be him­self. He re­laxed and sang frag­ments of songs in all styles, long syn­the­sized in his subconscious. In the next few days, Phillips put Elvis to­gether with gui­tarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black for a proper au­di­tion. That’s All Right was re­leased in July 1954 and shortly af­ter­wards, Elvis be­came ELVIS, for better and for worse.

FoR oVER 60 YEARS, THE SToRY of an un­known singer and the role his song played in the ori­gins of the Elvis Pres­ley phe­nom­e­non has be­come rock’n’roll folk­lore. Nu­mer­ous bi­ogra­phies and doc­u­men­taries have an­a­lysed how this mys­tery singer’s unique voice chal­lenged and in­spired the fledg­ling fu­ture King of Rock’n’Roll. But who was he? Sam Phillips told his bi­og­ra­pher Peter Gu­ral­nick that the singer was an in­mate at Ten­nessee State Pen­i­ten­tiary – in­di­cat­ing the then-in­car­cer­ated Johnny Bragg of The Prison­aires fame. Gu­ral­nick him­self heard in the vo­cal “a cross be­tween The Ink Spots and a sen­ti­men­tal Ir­ish tenor”. In his 1975 book Mys­tery Train, Greil Mar­cus said of it: “I hear the gospel tones of Johnny Bragg and The Prison­aires, Sonny Til of The ori­oles, Bill Ken­ney of The Ink Spots. But most of all, any­one who lis­tens hears Elvis… To lis­ten now, is to be trans­formed back to the very instant be­fore the be­gin­ning of the present age. The un­named singer’s voice is full of pain and full of ac­cep­tance; glid­ing along the stately lines of the song, reach­ing for so­lace, fall­ing short, reach­ing again.” The With­out You ac­etate left Sun in 1957 with Mar­ion Keisker, one of only a few me­men­tos that rep­re­sented her pro­fes­sional and emo­tional in­vest­ment in Sun and Elvis. In 1978, she gave it to her friend, Univer­sity of Mem­phis Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, John P. Bakke, whom she’d met in 1975. Bakke shared Keisker’s em­pa­thy for this un­known artist, who had made this ex­traor­di­nar y anony­mous con­tri­bu­tion to the birth of rock’n’roll but had ul­ti­mately lost out and faded away. As a life­long Elvis fan, I was fa­mil­iar with the leg­end of With­out You and its phan­tom singer but it wasn’t un­til early 2017 that I had the op­por­tu­nity to hear a frag­ment of the ac­etate. The song’s open­ing line – “Al­ways at twi­light, I wish on a star…” – left me thun­der­struck. I im­me­di­ately recog­nised the ob­scure R&B singer whose records I’ve been col­lect­ing for over 20 years, af­ter find­ing a copy of Sick, Sick, Sick/Gonna find My Sweet­heart (Columbia, 1958) in a box of ran­dom 45s in a Nashville record shop. The singer’s voice was ethe­real and un­pre­dictable, kin­dred to Elvis or Roy or­bi­son at their best. It was Jimmy Sweeney.

IN fE­BRU­ARY of 1954, JAMES SWEENEY JR was 31 years old and a veteran of Nashville’s African-Amer­i­can mu­sic scene. An ac­com­plished singer-song­writer, he had recorded for Bul­let Records as early as 1947 with his group, The 5 Bars. His ex­pres­sive voice was well suited to doo wop, pop and ev­ery­thing in be­tween, but main­stream suc­cess al­ways eluded him. Stu­dio ses­sion files from fe­bru­ary 1954 place Sweeney and his vo­cal group The Va­ri­eteers at Bradley’s Stu­dio in Nashville, record­ing songs for the Hick­ory la­bel. It is pos­si­ble that Jimmy cut the demo of With­out You at this ses­sion. Born in Nashville, Ten­nessee on March 15, 1922 the sec­ond-el­dest of 13 chil­dren (seven boys and six girls), Sweeney was of West In­dian de­scent. In adult­hood he stood 5 feet 8 inches in height, had been a gifted ath­lete (foot­ball) and was a self-taught gui­tarist. Like Elvis, he was also re­puted to pos­sess a pho­to­graphic memor y. In Jan­uar y 1941, he mar­ried Elsie Eu­ge­nia Bell and they had five chil­dren, Jimmy mak­ing ends meet by work­ing part-time as a car­pen­ter. Some lis­ten­ers who hear Sweeney’s records mis­take him at first for Elvis Pres­ley. But in 1954, it was Elvis who was draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from African-Amer­i­can artists. Sweeney’s voice al­ready pos­sessed the fu­sion of gen­res that Sam Phillips cov­eted, but in the seg­re­gated south of 1950s Amer­ica a black artist would never be af­forded the same op­por­tu­ni­ties of na­tional air­play and ac­cep­tance that a white artist would. As Phillips fa­mously noted, “If I could find a white man who has the Ne­gro sound and the Ne­gro feel, I could make a bil­lion dol­lars.” Sweeney would record for nu­mer­ous la­bels, re­leas­ing records un­der pseu­do­nyms in­clud­ing Jimmy Bell and Jimmy Destry: bril­liant records such as Deep Blues (1954), Afraid (1958) and She Wears My Ring (1960), where Sweeney sends chills up the spine with soar­ing high notes and im­pec­ca­ble ac­ro­batic phras­ing. In 2011, long fix­ated, I con­tacted his only daugh­ter, Eu­ge­nia Sweeney. She let me know that her fa­ther, or “Bah-Bah”, as she re­ferred to him, re­tired from the mu­sic busi­ness in 1962. “I would learn that the ap­plause, ac­co­lades and pos­i­tive re­views had not been enough to make him feel se­cure,” she told me. “I learned that my fa­ther never be­lieved in him­self. He never felt wor­thy of suc­cess. He quit the busi­ness to de­vote him­self to his fam­ily. He could have done so much more and when I asked him whether there were any re­grets, he qui­etly said, ‘No.’” Jimmy Sweeney died on oc­to­ber 6, 1992, of

can­cer, at the age of 69. If he’d ever heard ru­mour of the role played by a song he sang in the cre­ation story of rock’n’roll, he never let on.

So Is JImmy sweeney un­equIv­o­cally the singer of with­out you, pos­si­bly the most im­por­tant demo record­ing in his­tory? I spent the early part of 2017 re­search­ing mu­sic pub­lish­ing, record­ing ses­sion and copy­right ar­chives, try­ing to es­tab­lish a paper trail link be­tween Jimmy and with­out you, but I could find noth­ing de­fin­i­tive. Then I played a dub of the ac­etate to eu­ge­nia. “That’s my dad singing, ab­so­lutely!” she in­sisted. “His voice was so crisp, clean and pure.” Their at­ten­tion drawn to sweeney’s record­ings and asked to lis­ten again to with­out you, Greil mar­cus and elvis bi­og­ra­pher Jerry Hop­kins reached the same ver­dict: with­out you was sweeney. John Bakke, who has lit­er­ally lived with the demo for 30 years, said on first lis­ten it was so ob­vi­ously sweeney that he needed no more con­vinc­ing: “I never thought we would ever find the guy!” with­out sweeney and with­out you, it’s very pos­si­ble that elvis would have missed his chance; af­ter all, it was Keisker’s sug­ges­tion that Pres­ley try the song that per­suaded Phillips to give him an­other look. al­though elvis drew on the phras­ing and man­ner­isms of clyde mcPhat­ter, Roy Hamil­ton and oth­ers, those artists don’t “sound” like elvis like sweeney does. lis­ten on you Tube to Jimmy’s won­der­ful 1954 record­ing of Deep Blues with The va­ri­eteers. There are mo­ments you’d swear you’re hear­ing the sure­footed, ex­u­ber­ant Pres­ley of Don’t Be cruel or the sin­cere in­car­na­tion of any­way you want me. “I don’t sing like no­body,” elvis had told Keisker on July 18, 1953. But the Pres­ley who even­tu­ally emerged had a prece­dent; sweeney sounded like elvis be­fore elvis sounded like elvis. ul­ti­mately, sweeney mer­ited more than a walk-on part in some­one else’s movie. His records were the equal of many by es­tab­lished names – Jackie wil­son, Gene Pit­ney – and with his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as the voice of with­out you, we can imag­ine a time when he is more widely known. Be­yond the stun­ning song­writ­ing skills and vo­cal chops, he carved out a ca­reer record­ing rock­a­billy, pop and coun­try songs in nashville, as a per­son of colour, in what’s of­ten per­ceived as the white mu­sic cap­i­tal of amer­ica, long be­fore charley Pride’s 1966 break­through. If he had lived to ex­pe­ri­ence the ac­claim, what might it have meant? “modesty was one of his qual­i­ties,” eu­ge­nia says. ”I sin­cerely be­lieve it would have been enough for him to know his con­tri­bu­tion had not been over­looked. He wanted his work to be ap­pre­ci­ated.”

Christo­pher Kennedy is a song­writer and mu­si­cian with the band Ruth Ruth. His 2011 book, 1950s Ra­dio In Color – The Lost Pho­to­graphs Of Dee­jay Tommy Ed­wards was nom­i­nated for an IBPA/Ben Franklin Award.

The be­gin­ning of rock’n’roll time: the ac­etate of Jimmy Sweeney’s With­out You that Elvis Pres­ley (be­low left in ’56) tried to echo; (op­po­site) Sweeney in Bradley’s Stu­dio, Nashville, circa 1958. “He sounded like Elvis be­fore Elvis sounded like Elvis.”

Pres­ley’s pre­de­ces­sors: Sick, Sick, Sick, the Sweeney sin­gle that started the au­thor’s ad­mi­ra­tion, plus (from top) Sam Phillips, Elvis, Mar­ion Keisker; The Prison­aires, with Johnny Bragg (centre); The Ori­oles with Sonny Til (back row, far right); The Ink Spots fea­tur­ing Bill Ken­ney (sec­ond from right).

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