1955 Sun RCA Deal
HISTORIC LETTER/CORRESPONDENCE FOR ELVIS' HISTORIC SUN RCA DEAL.
THE DEAL THAT WOULD FOREVER CHANGE AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE.
This historic Radio Corporation of America RCA Victor Record Division letter from Stephen Sholes of the A&R Department of RCA Victor, who wrote this letter to Colonel Tom Parker on October 27, 1955. Hand signed by Steve (Sholes).
From the Archives of Graceland.
The letter written on RCA letterhead discusses the deal between Sun Records and RCA Victor Records. Sholes was sorry that they were so far apart on the matter and hoped that they could agree on one of the previous RCA offers because "these were the best deals we can offer"
Stephen Sholes' department, A&R or Artists & Repertoire, picked the songs, got the producers etc. to make the records. RCA was trying to make a recording deal for Elvis at this time, but the letter shows that they are not close in their negotiations. It took a few more weeks of steady negotiating with shrewd Colonel Parker to make the contract a reality.
Nineteen days later on the 15 November 1955 everything was agreed, Elvis signed the contract on the 21 November and the rest is History..............................
Exactly spelt as follows
October 27th, 1955
Col. Thos. A. Parker,
I have just returned from Toronto and was told by Coly Tily of the Sun Record deal on Elvis Presley. I am very sorry that we are so far apart on this matter and wondered if you think there is any chance of our getting together. I am afraid it would have to be on one of our offers because as we told you on Monday, these were the best deals we can offer.
I am leaving Tuesday morning on a round about motor trip to Nashville. I will be visiting disc jockeys and distributors and do not plan to reach Nashville until November 5th. I will be staying at the Mercury Court on Murfreesboro Road.
HOK STEPHEN H. SHOLES
Artist & Repertoire Dept.
The deal that would forever change American popular culture didn't happen overnight. It's seeds were planted months in advance by the concomitant increase in the intensity of Elvis Presley's success, Col Tom Parker's ambition and Sam Phillips' desperation. On August 15, 1955, after much courting, Elvis signed a contract naming the Colonel as 'special advisor' to Elvis Presley and [then manager] Bob Neal, " in effect giving the Colonel authority to negotiate on his behalf. At the same time Sam Phillips' tiny Sun Records was having difficulty meeting demand for its rising star, and bankruptcy seemed imminent. By the late summer of 1955 a deal of some kind appeared to be inevitable. The Colonel had his sights set on RCA all along. As the only major record company attached to a corporation, RCA had deep pockets, and the Colonel had decade-long ties to the label through his management of RCA artists Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. But, ever the shrewd operator, Colonel Parker didn't want RCA to take anything for granted and continued to have discussions with other labels. In the early fall Sam Phillips sat down with Colonel Parker to talk details. He knew he needed to sell Elvis' contract but was still understandably reluctant to do so. The Colonel asked Phillips to name his price, and he did: $35,000 plus $5,000 to pay back royalties the label owed to Elvis. That number may seem small today, especially given what we know of Elvis' subsequent career, but in 1955 it was more than had ever been paid for a performer's contract. It was an outrageous figure - the Colonel knew it and Sam Phillips didn't think it would be met.
Negotiations progressed well into the fall with the Colonel getting a call from RCA executive WW bullock on October 28 (One day after this letter Steve Sholes wrote) with a "final" offer of $25,000. The Colonel reportedly received the same offer from Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records. The final deal was brokered by the Colonel on November 15 from his Madison Tennessee office. In the end RCA assented and Sam Phillips got every penny he asked for. On November 21 a summit convened at Sun in Memphis to make the historic deal official - Colonel Parker and his assistant Tom Diskin came in from Madison, RCA representatives H. Coleman Tily and Steve Sholes flew down from New York and RCA field representatives Sam Esgro and Jim Crudgington also made their way to Memphis. Awaiting this contingent were Sam Phillips, Bob Neal, Gladys and Vernon Presley and, of course Elvis Presley himself. "DOUBLE DEALS HURL PRESLEY INTO STARDOM" went the Billboard headline.
This contract meant many things to many people. For Sam Phillips, for whom the decision was by far the toughest, it meant financial solvency. His little label was finally back in the black and through the deal had acquired a reputation that promised to draw talent, and the resources to develop and promote that talent. The magnificent array of artists that followed Elvis through the doors of Sun is perhaps the greatest testament to the wisdom of Phillips choice: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich. For RCA it was a tremendous gamble. They had just paid a 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 dented the pop charts.
For Elvis Presley it was a fulfilment of a dream. The poor boy from Tupelo who had watched movies and imagined himself in them, who had read comic books and made himself the hero, was now on the cusp of realizing his every ambition, even if some would later wonder how Faustian price his incredible success was attained. But as much as the ramifications of this document meant for Sam Phillips or RCA or even Elvis Presley himself - and its impact cannot be overstated on each count - it pales in comparison to what it meant for the country 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 and roll performer could become as broad - based a star as Frank Sinatra. Before the RCA deal Elvis had been marketed as a country performer: He had won country music awards, his records had performed best on the country charts and he toured almost exclusively with country performers, such as on the Hank Snow Jamboree. But the sheer size of RCA's investment necessitated that Elvis be promoted as an all market performer - country, pop and rhythm and blues. And at least initially, RCA pushed Elvis into all of these markets without attempting to alter the sound or instrumentation that he used at Sun.
The invisible republic at the heart of Elvis' musical vision (remember the now immortal words spoken by the teenage boy upon first entering Sun Records: "I sing all kinds.") had been an artistic fact from the very beginning - the uniting of black and white city and country, urbane sophistication and proletarian vitality. But the exposure granted by RCA made it a commercial fact as well. The democratic impulse behind rock and roll that had secretly manifested itself in the south for years was becoming a marketplace reality across the country and post - war youth culture with a surfeit of discretionary income had the buying power to turn this subculture into mass, and Elvis into a star. Before it may have seemed unlikely in a nation so divided that the many tributaries of American music, and the cultures they represented, could come together in one music and one man (though Elvis surely wasn't the only one making these connections tangible). It may have seemed unlikely that followers of Jimmie Rodgers and Nat King Cole, of Dean Martin and Ray Charles could so easily find common ground. The rise of Elvis Presley as a pop culture hero, perhaps no less than the Brown v. the Board of Education decision a year earlier, signaled a fundamental turn in American culture. The rest was history, and not just music history. This is its foundation.
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