Elvis Presley and Dewey Phillips – The Man Rock and Roll Forgot

  • Post category:History

Happy Birthday, Elvis Presley!

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Today, January 8th 2020, marks the 85th Birthday of the King of Rock and Roll.  On July 5th of 2019, the world also celebrated Elvis’ accomplishment of recording his first single. A saying that “The Rest is History” can be deceiving. Sadly, one of the single most important pieces of the puzzle regarding the King and his rise to prominence has been pushed aside, without fanfare, and without recognition.

As I have written in my soon to be published book, Elvis: The King, what happened on the night of July 5th 1954 was like a bolt of lightning that altered the entire landscape of not only the music world, but our entire social and economic world. In a distinct moment of nervousness, Elvis Presley fiddled with his guitar and started to strum a tune that he had heard over the radio. 

The song, “That’s All Right Mama,” by Big Arthur Cruddup, was considered an obscure tune. It was released in 1946, when Elvis Presley was a mere 6 years old. It was not a monumental hit as a Rhythm and Blues song. It only had a specific audience, Black listeners. Rhythm and Blues music was called at the time “Race Music.”

An Influence That Impacted the World

That Elvis had even heard of the song was incredible. But he would not have if not for the local Disc Jockey Dewey Phillips, who played Rhythm and Blues music to a white audience in Memphis Tennessee. His radio platform on WHBQ in Memphis was heard clearly throughout the south. His show even made it to Lubbock Texas to also influence one of Rock’s Legends, Buddy Holly. 

Dewey is possibly one of the most influential people in Rock and Roll history, yet if you hear his name, even if you are a devoted Rock and Roll fan, or a fan of Elvis Presley, you probably have never heard of him. For Dewey Phillips, there is no recognition of his contribution to Rock and Roll. There is no Dewey Phillips day, or even mention of him when it comes to Elvis.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has snubbed him and his family, despite their repeated requests for recognition. Dewey passed away in 1968, long before the first induction of the Legends of Rock and Roll. His legacy and introduction of the most essential artist in the history of not only Rock and Roll but all of our society has gone unacknowledged.

Changing the World: The Birth of a King

As I described in my book, Elvis: The King, the moment Elvis performed that tune for Sam Phillips on a summer’s night, July 5th, 1956, the world was sent on a trajectory that would change it forever. Elvis and Sam would be part of a moment that transformed the country and the world. The effects of that moment would alter every life on our planet.  In the obscure Memphis Recording Studio, in Memphis Tennesse, Elvis started to play a tune that changed the world forever.

When the studio musicians returned from their break to hear the young nervous 19-year-old Elvis Presley strumming that song on his beat-up guitar, they too were intrigued by his sound. As each returned, they started to pick up the rhythm themselves and joining in. As Bill Black was slapping his Bass Guitar, Scotty Moore walked in and added lead guitar. It could be described as a raucous song, because other than Black musicians at the time, no one else played that music before.

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Sam Philips was listening to what these men were playing all evening. Sam, after hours of sitting idly in the control booth, didn’t see much value of what was played for the last 3 hours, other than it was evident that Elvis was a talented singer.  But there were many talented voices in Memphis, and up until this point he was an ordinary teenager (He just dressed funny).

The Birth of Rock and Roll

As they played that raucous song, Sam was startled – possibly awoken –  by what was emanating from his studio. Until that point, Elvis was unremarkable. If not that single moment in time when lightning struck, you probably would have never heard the name Elvis, and he would have been forgotten forever in history.

If any other producer was sitting in that control booth that night, the evening would have ended. But Sam, who was also a lover of Rhythm and Blues and the Black sound, knew what he was hearing. It was a different song than the original, more upbeat and happy. It was not Rhythm and Blues, but it certainly was not anything people were used to hearing.

At that moment Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley would deliver what would become Rock and Roll to the world, that moment in history locked in for the ages.

The Forgotten Icon

Unfortunately, not all of Rock and Roll history has been adequately told.  Because while Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley delivered Rock and Roll to the world, it was Dewey Phillips the local Disc Jockey, who became the midwife of Rock and Roll™. Without him, Elvis would probably never have achieved the greatness and the stature.

While Sam Phillips had a sound, it could only be released to a specific audience that was primed and ready to hear it. Sam Phillips went to his friend Dewey Phillips (No Relation) a local Disc Jockey in Memphis, to invite him to listen to his new recording. Dewey had been playing Rhythm and Blues, as well as hillbilly music, to his audience for years, and had quite a following. As Sam said, Dewy could hear what the people wanted. The next night on July  7th,  Sam invited Dewey to come to the studio to listen to the recording he had made the night before.

“He was a genius” said Sam Phillips, “and I don’t call many people geniuses”

Just How Great Was That Something?

After the show, at 12 a.m. in the early morning of July 8th 1954, Dewey walked the mile and a half over to Sun Recording Studios at Sam’s request. According to legend, Dewey opened a bottle of Falstaff beer, sprinkled some salt into it, and sat back in his chair. At that moment Sam played Dewey the song.

There would be no doubt in Sam’s mind that Dewey would give him an honest opinion of the new song he had. Sam, Scotty and Bill knew they had “something,” just how great was that something… That would be a question that would need an answer. After diagnosing if it was real, would Dewey play the song?  Would Dewey like the song? I do not believe that in the early hours of July 8th 1954, neither Sam nor Dewey had any idea of what was ahead of them.

And The Rest is History

Dewey played the song that night and the rest is Rock and Roll History. Sixty-Five years ago, on July 8th, 1954, Dewey Phillips would introduce the world to a young man who possessed a different sound – a sound not yet defined. A sound and a song that he was convinced was, “gonna be a hit!”

Dewey played the song to his audience 65 years ago and the world would be dramatically altered as a result. After that moment, Elvis became a local celebrity, moving on to greatness. Dewey became a dear friend to Elvis, as he introduced him to the artists and his friends throughout Beale Street. He had an exclusive to play it, and he generated interest in the young artist.   Elvis became accepted in both the new world of Rock and Roll as well as the world of Rhythm and Blues. – with the likes of B.B. King and others.    

Lost in History

Unfortunately drugs and alcohol consumed Dewey (because of a car accident he became hooked on Pain killers).  Dewey died before he could be recognized appropriately. Yet the snub of the Rock and Roll community continues to this day. Despite the proof, and the urging of Dewey’s sons Jerry and David, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has continued to ignore their history. 

Alan Freed – who has been credited with defining the term “Rock and Roll” (debatable)  did not have the influence that Dewey had in the early days of Rock and Roll. Yet Freed has been inducted. History has snubbed Dewey Phillips, and the Rock and Roll community has greatly ignored him. It is a shame! 

Dewey was not a bad person. He had some problems when it came to his addictions, a battle that consumed him. Elvis recognized that, at times assisting him – to no avail. Dewey, despite his problems, never took Payola.  Dewey would never have disrespected his audience. They were dear to him. It was a lesson he taught to Elvis as well. Yet Alan Freed (who was inducted) did take payola. There is no scandal preventing Dewey’s induction – only indifference.

The Right Thing

At this point there is no one to lobby for him. No one of prominence who will get up and do the right thing. Unfortunately the only way to gain credibility for the cause is to use the celebration of Elvis’ life to point out the injustice. Under the circumstances, I do not believe Elvis would mind. Elvis loved Dewey.

I have written letters on behalf of Dewey’s family. They have written many letters themselves as well. Only to hear silence from the very people who could overturn this injustice of history. 

I have cultivated a dear friendship with Dewey’s sons based upon my appreciation of their father’s influence on the career of Elvis Presley. As an author and a historian of Rock and Roll, I have come to admire the simple moments that change the course of history and the world. Dewey was an integral part of that moment. There is much to be said about what happened, and it can only be appropriately documented with the acknowledgment of Dewey’s existence and influence. 

Elvis Presley: Paying Respects

I was given permission to relay this story by Dewey’s Son Jerry. :

After Dewey’s death, Elvis came privately after hours to pay his respects to the family so as not to turn the viewing into a circus, that sometimes him showing up could do. At the viewing late that evening, when everyone had left, Elvis made this comment to a young Jerry Phillips – Dewey’s son: “Son, I owe a lot to your daddy! I may have made it without him, but if it was not for your daddy – I am not sure I would have made it so far – so fast. ”

I guarantee if Sam or Elvis were alive today, they would be lobbying on behalf of Dewey’s sons and grandchildren for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I cannot understand why he has been pushed aside.  History should be accurate, and this is not a plea for money, just for what is owed to their father, and to music history.  

The family has gone on and lived a great life. The boys look back with fondness on the memory of their daddy. The Grandchildren continue his legacy. This is a plea for recognition in one of the greatest moments in American history.  Historians, enthusiasts, Rock and Roll fans the world over, should join our cause.  Please help me right this wrong. 


Frank D'Onofrio
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