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
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).