During a visit to Memphis in early February 2009, I did a quickie tour of four tourist attractions — Graceland, Sun Studios, the Lorraine Motel and Beale Street. I was gratified to find that Sun Records, the small recording studio that was begun by the great Sam Phillips in 1950 and the place where Elvis Presley recorded his first few tunes, is a homey little shrine — an old-time funky studio and souvenir shop that reeks of the mid ’50s.
After tapping out yesterday’s riff about Baz Luhrman‘s Elvis (Warner Bros., 6.4.22), it hit me that I’ve never once visited the former site of Radio Recorders, where Presley recorded “All Shook Up” — easily the coolest and most popular hit single of his career — on 1.19.57.
Radio Recorders was located at 7000 Santa Monica Blvd.. two blocks east of La Brea and a 14-minute drive from my place. (Nine minutes on the rumblehog.) I’ve been living in this cutthroat, dog-eat-dog town for nearly 40 years and it never even occured to me to visit this historic rock ‘no roll site. What’s wrong with me?
Quickly and entirely written by Otis Blackwell and recorded in Los Angeles on 1.19.57, “All Shook Up” was reportedly “the last song in a marathon session in which Elvis and the Jordanaires were recording material for a gospel EP,” writes SF Weekly‘s Andrew Stout. “It came as a respite from the intensity of the gospel sessions, which may be why, even today, the song retains a looser, one might even say cathartic and whimsical, feel relative to the other Elvis hits of his early RCA period.”
Take #10 was reportedly selected for release. It was released on 3.22.57 and became the nation’s #1 song for eight weeks. It also became Presley’s first #1 hit on the UK singles charts, remaining there for seven weeks.
“Surreal ‘All Shook Up’ Lyrics,” 8.14.11: “All my life I’ve been hearing ‘I’m itchin’ like a man on a buzzin’ tree’ and ‘mah friends say I’m actin’ wide as a bug.’ The correct lyrics are ‘I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree’ and ‘my friends say I’m actin wild as a bug.’
“Except Presley doesn’t say ‘wild’ in that song. Wild is a two-syllable word that Presley just flat-out doesn’t pronounce — he says ‘wide.’ Yes, an idiotic interpretation. How exactly does a bug act when he’s ‘wide’? (Or ‘narrow’ for that matter?) But there’s nothing crazy about itching as a result of being in the vicinity of a ‘buzzing’ tree. The tree could be buzzing with mosquitoes or flies or gnats and you could feel itchy from that proximity.”
The laid-back boogie rhythm and rolling bass tones are partly what make “All Shook Up” sound soothing and yet fresh each listening, which has to number in the hundreds if not thousands. But the biggest stand-out element, in my head at least, is the absence of drums. The beat is kept by someone (possibly Elvis) tapping on an acoustic guitar or…I don’t know, a phone book?
Recorded in January 1957 and released two months hence, “All Shook Up” is one of the very few percussion-free cuts of rock’s classic era…just that relaxed, almost slapdash vocal delivery (which Presley reportedly copied phrase for phrase from songwriter Otis Blackwell‘s original demo) and the instruments — piano, lap steel guitar, stand-up bass…what else?