Everything’s All Right at Sun Studio

Photos by Erika Ayn Finch

First, a preface.

I can’t sing. Period. I remember auditioning for a musical production of Alice in Wonderland in the sixth grade (before I realized my vocal limitations) because I thought that my long blonde hair made me a shoo-in for the role of Alice. I got two lines into Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star before the director kindly told me she’d heard enough. I was cast as an iris. My sole line: “What kind of flower are you?”

My freshman year of high school, I was forced into a women’s ensemble choir class after I dropped out of yearbook(long story). When the teacher called me into his studio and asked me to sing in order to figure out my range, he visibly cringed when I attempted an ascending scale. He quickly labeled me a second soprano, most likely because there wasn’t a section in the choir for girls who thought notes were something that you passed, not something that you held. I avoided his gaze for the rest of the year.

The standing joke between my friends and I is that there isn’t enough alcohol in the world to get me to sing karaoke.

But in Sun Studio, I sang my heart out. In front of an audience. All because of Elvis.

The day started with a trip to Graceland. It was one of those sites that I’d always wanted to see but never thought I’d experience, mostly because red-state Tennessee has never been at the top of my travel list. But I digress. There we were, peering past a velvet rope at Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding china in the dining room. Gazing into the living room that vaguely smelled like talcum powder and mothballs. Gawking at green shag carpeting in the jungle room and sequined pant suits on the racquet ball court. Getting emotional in front of the piano Elvis played the morning he died and then shedding actual tears in front of his grave with its flickering eternal flame. Elvis died on my dad’s birthday the year that I was born. I’ve always had a crush on the King.

That afternoon, we made our way to Sun Studio in downtown Memphis. In my mind’s eye, a beacon of light shone down from heaven on its hallowed walls. In reality, we’d driven by it the night before and hadn’t even realized it. The “birthplace of rock ’n’roll” is located in a brick flatiron-style building on a busy street not far from the banks of the Mississippi River, and it’s relatively nondescript save for the giant guitar outside. The iconic yellow logo is painted on the side of the building, and at the sight of it, my pulse began to race like I was getting ready to ride a roller coaster. When we stepped inside the crowded lobby/soda fountain, I couldn’t stop grinning. There was a massive photo of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis hanging above the soda fountain, and on the back wall I found memorabilia from U2’s time at Sun Studio where they recorded tracks for Rattle and Hum in 1988. I was giddy before the tour even began.

Our guide was a lively 20-something who gave us the studio’s history, led us through a tiny museum and told us the story of Sun Studio’s founder, Sam Phillips. The culmination of the tour was the actual studio itself, something I wasn’t expecting. I thought we might get to look through a window and into the recording room, but instead we crept downstairs and were suddenly inside in the tiny space. For a music geek, to be standing on Sun Studio’s concrete floor and breathing the same air that some of my legends breathed was almost too much to bear. The walls are white and adorned with large black-and-white photos of some of Sun’s most illustrious clients (including my Irish lads). There’s wood storage cabinets and a window covered in metal mini blinds. The ceiling is adorned with white 12-by-12 tiles with holes drilled into them. Truthfully, it’s a bit bland. But the atmosphere in the room pulsates with an electricity, history and emotion that’s palpable. The air is thick, dense with all of the music that’s been created there. It’s as if the notes and lyrics are still hanging in the air, the billions of chords clashing into one another to create one cacophonous symphony. If you’re still enough, you can hear it.

Our tour group spread out as best as possible, and our guide brought our attention to strips of duct tape on the floor. “That’s where Scotty Moore played guitar on Elvis’ first Sun Studio single, That’s All Right, in 1954,” she said, gesturing to one piece of tape. “Can you give us your best air guitar?” she asked the poor man standing on the tape. He blushed and half-assed a guitar solo. She pointed to another spot on the floor and informed us that was where Bill Black had played bass. “Give us your best bass line!” she urged the man standing there. He put a bit more effort into it than the first victim.

With some flourish, the perky guide grabbed a rectangular Shure microphone on a metal stand and said, “And this, my friends is the microphone Elvis used to record That’s All Right while he was standing…right…there.” Dramatically, she pointed to a red X on the concrete floor.

A red X directly below my feet.

She smiled a I’ve-won-karaoke-competitions-and-played-Alice-on-Broadway smile, handed me the microphone and said, “Give us your best Elvis impression,” just as That’s All Right begin to play through the speakers in the studio. My husband’s eyes met mine, and he visibly blanched. He could sense my terror. I felt the blood rush to my head, and I looked at the group in front of me, their cameraphones at the ready, their eyes showing no mercy. All of a sudden, I watched my hand reach out of it own volition and accept the microphone. Hubby’s jaw dropped. I pulled the mic close to my mouth, shut my eyes and began to belt out the lyrics to That’s All Right. At one point, I opened my eyes to see the crowd — including my shell-shocked husband — snapping pictures. I quickly closed them again and gave the performance my all. There might even have been some swiveling hips involved. I can’t be certain.

All I knew was that I was singing with Elvis Presley’s microphone in motherf*^%ing Sun Studio.

The song ended, and the tour guide said, “Well folks, that might be the best Elvis impersonation we’ve ever seen.” I got a round of applause. Yes, I’m sure she uses that line on everyone — I’ve known a tour guide or two in my life. And yes, I gave her an extra large tip for that little ego boost. But whether she wanted to ask me to quit after the first two lines of the song or she actually was entertained by the woman with the pink cheeks and skeleton scarf, it didn’t matter to me because I can actually say that I’ve performed in Sun Studio. Later, my husband and I would joke that Elvis must have stepped into my body while I was standing on that red x. Or perhaps he followed us to Sun Studio from Graceland. Those are honestly more logical explanations than my getting over my singing phobia, even for 60 seconds.