In 1953 an unknown 18-year-old electrician's helper named Elvis Presley walked into Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, put his money down to record two sides, and changed the course of music history forever. Forty-two years later a 35-year-old Memphis security guard named Fetzer Mills Jr. walked into Sam Phillips' studios, put his money down, and recorded two sides. This time, nobody noticed. That security guard was me.
In early 1985 I went a little crazy and blew up my life. Disillusioned and burned out, I quit my job as a political consultant, left my wife and moved to Memphis. I was homeless, jobless, friendless and broke in a strange city. But I was free to be whatever I wanted. It was an exhilarating feeling. The only thing I knew about Memphis was its music. The music I loved best was the rockabilly recorded for Sam Phillips' Sun label in Memphis: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Malcolm Yelvington, Johnny Cash, Warren Smith, Billy Riley. I was also enamoured of Stax/Volt R&B and the Delta Blues of Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King. I spent money I couldn't afford on records and tapes, read everything I could, and eventually found myself working as a security guard at Graceland.
Elvis played constantly. Speakers were everywhere, even set into the ground in the landscaping. Elvis beamed from every surface; Elvis memorabilia abounded. Already a little crazy, I went a whole lot crazier. Reading Peter Guralnick's Elvis biography, Last Train to Memphis, I began to count off the parallels. Elvis had always loved music and so had I. Elvis had been poor and I was poor. Elvis lived in Memphis and so did I. Elvis had an unusual first name and so did I. Elvis played guitar (poorly) and I knew that if I ever learned, I'd play poorly too. The coincidences were overwhelming!
I became possessed by the idea of doing a session. I was convinced that I was born to be a rockabilly rebel. Memphis always had plenty of Elvis impersonators. I didn't want to be those guys. Besides, I liked a lot of rockabilly more than Elvis. In a corner of my mind I wondered if there was much demand for Warren Smith Impersonators.
I started hanging out at 706 Union Avenue, the site of Sam Phillips' original operation and called Sun Studio, though no longer owned by him. I'd become friends with most of the employees there and was addicted to the fried banana pies served at the cafe. It was the only place in town where anybody knew my name.
I broached the idea of recording with Joel Burnell at Sun. Though I had no idea of how to go about it and had never recorded before, Joel put me in touch with Malcolm Yelvington, one of the original Sun rockabillies. Malcolm wasn't fazed by my complete lack of experience and signed onto the project as adviser and musical consultant. Sam Phillips' Recording Service was about a block away from Sun. I described my project to a representative, who made a booking and told me he'd be engineering. His name, he said, was Roland Janes. Roland Janes! Jerry Lee Lewis' guitar player on everything up until 1964! Billy Riley's guitarist - check out that classic whammy bar opening riff on Flying Saucer Rock'n'Roll!
Roland had played and recorded with most of the original Sun artists - Cash, Orbison, Warren Smith. I was going into Sam Phillips' studio with two of my heroes. I was getting close to the authentic experience as possible. I was more than a little excited. With two weeks to go I visited a karoke club because I'd never sung into a microphone before and thought I'd get some experience. I figured to wow the audience with Mack The Knife, a tune I'd always found easy to sing in the shower. The MC called my name. I bounded up to the front and took the mic.
I lost my voice. I blew the first couple of lines, despite the fact the words were flashing up on the screen in front of me. I was a deer caught by headlights. Eventually, I croaked out the lyrics but had no control at all over my voice. I slunk out of the club in mortification, and actually had nightmares about it the next few nights. I was doing a great job of psyching myself out.
On the morning of September 22, 1995 we gathered at the studio. James Lott on guitar, Ray Sanders on upright bass and Pete Sully from London on drums. I talked my estranged wife, Becky, into coming to sing backing vocals. I'd also persuaded Malcolm to sing an old Benny Spellman New Orleans R&B tune, Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette), just because I wanted to own such a recording.
The session came out beyond my wildest expectations. Ray said it was the nearest thing to real rockabilly that he'd ever done. The next day I took a cassette to the Sun Studio cafe. They put it on the stereo. Three of the patrons visibly rocked. After paying the musicians I had my telephone and electricity turned off for non-payment. Was it worth it Need you ask?