‘That’s All Right, (Mama)’

On July 5 1954, Elvis Presley was halfway through his first recording session with Sun Records, when, during a break, he started playing a fast, lusty new version of blues number ‘That’s All Right’, and the world changed. Heard through an open door from the control room, owner Sam Phillips quickly realised he’d found something special: a white singer who could perform ‘black’ rhythm & blues.

My mama, she done told me, papa done told me too
“Son, that gal you’re foolin’ with
She ain’t no good for you”
But that’s all right now, that’s all right
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do

[‘That’s All Right‘]

Recorded that night, the single was broadcast by Memphis radio station WDIA two days later. The phone rang off the hook; callers loved the song, and they all asked the same question: ‘Is this a white singer or a colored singer?’… In a still-segregated and racist American society, what they were really asking was, ‘am I allowed to like this song?’. 

The announcer came on and said, “Here’s a guy who, when he appears on stage in the South, the girls scream and rush the stage.” Then he played “That’s All Right, Mama.”… I thought for sure he was a black guy.

[Paul Simon]

Elvis himself was deeply attached to African American culture. He was encouraged by Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King while living in Memphis. He shopped at Mr. B’s, the city’s leading store for African American fashion. He admired and absorbed the style and stagecraft of black singers such as Jackie Wilson and Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup – the man who wrote and first recorded ‘That’s All Right’ in 1946. In Elvis’ own words:

If I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.

[Elvis Presley]

As a white singer, Elvis gave Americans cultural permission to love African American music. ‘That’s All Right, (Mama)’ was the rupture in the fabric, regarded by some as the ‘big bang’ moment when race and hillbilly music collided to become rock & roll… For the few weeks following its radio broadcast, Memphis teenagers greeted each other with Elvis’ scat singing from the song – ‘dee dee-duh dee dee de-lee-dee’ – as if it was a generational call to arms.

When I first heard Elvis’ voice,
I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody;
and nobody was going to be my boss.
He is the deity supreme of rock and roll religion
as it exists in today’s form.
Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.

[Bob Dylan, 1977]


Well, that’s all right now mama
That’s all right with you
That’s all right now mama, just anyway you do
That’s all right, that’s all right
That’s all right now mama, anyway you do


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