NOVEMBER 21, 1955


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NOVEMBER 21, 1955

The deal that would forever change American popular culture didn’t happen overnight; The seeds were sown months in advance due to the increasing success of Elvis Presley, the ambition of Colonel Tom Parker, and the desperation of Sam Phillips.

On August 15, 1955, after much back and forth, Elvis signed a contract that named the Colonel as ‘special advisor‘ to Elvis Presley and [then manager] Bob Neal, and gave the Colonel authority to negotiate on his behalf. .

At the same time, Sam Phillips’ tiny Sun Records was struggling to meet demand for its rising star, and bankruptcy seemed imminent.

By the end of the summer of 1955, a deal of some kind seemed inevitable.

The Colonel had his sights set on RCA all along, and as the only major record company tied to a corporation, RCA had a lot of money, and the Colonel had decade-long ties to the label through his management of RCA artists. Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow.

But always, as clever as he was, Colonel Parker did not want RCA to take anything for granted and continued arguing with other labels.

Early in the fall, Sam Phillips sat down with Colonel Parker to discuss the details; He knew he needed to sell Elvis’ contract, but he was still reluctant to do so.

The Colonel asked Phillips to name his price, and he did: $35,000 plus $5,000 to pay royalties Sun owed Elvis.

That number may seem small today ($459,210.45 2023), especially given what we know of Elvis’s later career, but in 1955 it was more than had ever been paid for an artist’s contract.

It was a scandalous figure: the Colonel knew it and Sam Phillips did not believe it would come true.

Negotiations progressed until the Colonel received a call from RCA executive W.W. Bullock with a “final” offer of USD 25,000.

The Colonel reportedly received the same offer from Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. The final agreement was negotiated by the Colonel on November 15 from his office in Madison, Tennessee.

In the end, RCA agreed and Sam Phillips received every penny he asked for.

A summit was convened at Sun in Memphis on November 21 to make the historic agreement official: Colonel Parker and his assistant Tom Diskin arrived from Madison, RCA representatives H. Coleman Tily and Steve Sholes flew from New York, and representatives from RCA Sam Esgro and Jim Crudgington also headed to Memphis.

Waiting for this contingent were Sam Phillips, Bob Neal, Gladys and Vernon Presley and, of course, Elvis Presley himself. “DOUBLE DEALS HURL PRESLEY INTO STARDOM” was the Billboard headline.

This contract meant many things to many people.

For Sam Phillips, for whom the decision was the most difficult, it meant financial solvency. His small label was finally on its feet again and, through the deal, had acquired a reputation that promised to attract talent and the resources to develop and promote that talent.

They had just paid an unprecedented amount of money to sign a twenty-year-old kid (Vernon had to sign the contract because Elvis was still a minor at the time) who had never charted.

For Elvis Presley it was a dream come true.

The poor boy from Tupelo who had seen movies and imagined himself in them, who had read comics and become their hero, was now on the cusp of realizing all his ambitions. But as much as the ramifications of this document were for Sam Phillips or RCA or even Elvis Presley himself, and its impact cannot be denied, it is nothing compared to what it meant for the United States and its culture.

When RCA paid $35,000 for Elvis Presley’s contract, it sent a message: that the largest of all record companies believed that a Rock’n’Roll artist could become as big a star as Frank Sinatra.

Before the deal with RCA, Elvis had been marketed as a Country artist: he had won Country music awards, his albums had top-performed on the Country charts, and he toured almost exclusively with Country artists, such as the Hank Snow Jamboree.

But the size of RCA’s investment required that Elvis be promoted as a performer for the entire market: Country, Pop and Rhythm’n’Blues. And at least initially, RCA pushed Elvis into all of these markets without attempting to alter the sound or instrumentation he used on Sun.

Upon first joining Sun Records, Elvis told Marion Keisker, “…I sing about everything.” It was an artistic fact from the beginning: the union of black and white cultures. And the exposure granted by RCA also made it a commercial fact.

The Rock’n’Roll impulse that had been secretly manifesting in the South for years was becoming a market reality for the entire country and the postwar youth culture with a large amount of discretionary income, now had the purchasing power to turn this subculture into mass, and Elvis into a star.

The rest is history, and not just music history.

This is its basis and foundation.


Information provided by Elvis Shop Argentina

PHOTO: Tom Parker; Gladys, Elvis and Vernon; W.W. Bullock; Bob Neal

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