The History of 'That's All Right Mama'
This stonker of a song was written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and originally recorded by him in Chicago on September 6, 1946, as “That’s All Right“. Some of the lyrics are traditional blues verses first recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1926. Crudup’s recording was released as a single on RCA Victor 20-2205, but was less successful than some of his previous recordings. At the same session, he recorded a virtually identical tune with different lyrics, “I Don’t Know It“, which was also released as a single (RCA Victor 20-2307). In early March 1949, the song was rereleased under the title, “That’s All Right, Mama” (RCA Victor 50-0000), which was issued as RCA’s first rhythm and blues record on their new 45 rpm single format, on bright orange vinyl.
Elvis Presley’s version was recorded in July 1954. Its catalogue number was Sun 209. The label reads “That’s All Right” (omitting “Mama” from the original title), and names the performers as Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill. Arthur Crudup was credited as the composer on the label of Presley’s single, but Crudup had to wait until the 1960s when he received an estimated $60,000 in back royalties. Crudup used lines in his song that had been present in earlier blues recordings, including Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 song “That Black Snake Moan“.
A country music version by Marty Robbins peaked at number seven on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1955.
During an uneventful recording session at Sun Studios on the evening of July 5, 1954, Presley, Scotty Moore (guitar) and Bill Black (string bass) were taking a break between recordings when Presley started fooling around with an up-tempo version of Arthur Crudup’s song “That’s All Right, Mama“. Black began joining in on his upright bass, and soon they were joined by Moore on guitar. Producer Sam Phillips, taken aback by this sudden upbeat atmosphere, asked the three of them to start again so he could record it.
Black’s bass and guitars from Presley and Moore provided the instrumentation. The recording contains no drums or additional instruments. The song was produced in the style of a “live” recording (all parts performed at once and recorded on a single track). The following evening the trio recorded “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in a similar style, and it was selected as the B-side to “That’s All Right“.
The recording session was Presley’s fifth visit to the Sun Studio. His first two visits, the summer of 1953 and January 1954, had been private recordings, followed by two more visits in the summer of 1954.
Upon finishing the recording session, according to Scotty Moore, Bill Black remarked, “Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town.”
Sam Phillips gave copies of the record to local disc jockeys Dewey Phillips (no relation) of WHBQ, Uncle Richard of WMPS, and Sleepy Eyed John Lepley of WHHM. On July 7, 1954, Dewey Phillips played “That’s All Right” on his popular radio show “Red, Hot & Blue“. On hearing the news that Dewey was going to play his record, Presley went to the local movie theater to calm his nerves.
Interest in the record was so intense that Dewey reportedly played the record 14 times and received over 40 telephone calls. Presley was persuaded to go to the station for an on-air interview that night. Unaware that the microphone was live at the time, Presley answered Dewey’s questions, including one about which high school he attended: a roundabout way of informing the audience of Presley’s race without actually asking the question.
“That’s All Right” was officially released on July 19, 1954, and sold around 20,000 copies. This number was not enough to chart nationally, but the single reached number four on the local Memphis charts.
In July 2004, exactly 50 years after its first release, the song was finally released as a single in the United Kingdom, and entered the UK Singles Chart at Number 3. It also became a minor hit outside the UK, debuting and peaking at Number 31 in Australia and Number 33 in Ireland.