While it can’t be argued that Memphis is the birthplace of Rock and Roll, the labor pains began at KWEM with studios in both West Memphis and Memphis.
Elvis Presley was much more experienced in performing than we were led to believe. He didn’t just go to Sun Records (aka Memphis Recording Service) to record a song for his mother’s birthday. In my opinion, he was much smarter than he has been given credit for. He did want Sam Phillips to hear him sing, but it was easier to go in and pay a small amount and record a song than to get an audition for a recording contract.
According to legend, Elvis was a talented but inexperienced singer who simply wanted to make a record for his mother’s birthday gift. Because his mother, Gladys’ birthday was in April, the timing in this version of the story can’t be correct, because Elvis cut that first song in late summer of 1953.
Elvis Presley was close friends with Texas Bill Strength, a DJ at KWEM Radio and a national recording artist who recorded with SUN and Capitol records. Elvis appeared live on KWEM Radio twice in 1954 before signing with Sam Phillips at SUN records and becoming the “King of Rock and Roll.” In one of those performances, he sang with Johnny Burnette and the Rock n Roll Trio, which also included Johnny’s brother Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison. Elvis and Johnny met when he and the Burnette brothers all hung out in the Lauderdale Courts apartments in Memphis. Johnny went on to become a teen idol in the early 60’s and have hits with “You’re Sixteen” and “Dreamin’.”
Scotty Moore and Bill Black who played on Elvis’ Sun releases also appeared live on KWEM in 1954 with their first band, the Starlite Wranglers. Elvis performed with the Starlite Wranglers, who also released their own record on the SUN label. They were going to be the backup band for Elvis’ first audition at SUN records. The audition ended up not being with the full band, just Scotty and Bill. They quit the Starlite Wranglers to become partners and the official backup band for Elvis. They went on to record “That’s All Right,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Baby Let’s Play House,” and “Mystery Train” with Elvis.
Elvis’ high school friend, George Klein, started working at KWEM at about the same time that Elvis released his first SUN record in 1954. George started at KWEM doing part-time before moving into mornings and seeing his first ratings success there, before moving on to WMC and then WHBQ in Memphis.
It was while doing his part-time shift at KWEM that George engineered Johnny Cash’s radio show there. Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two had their own weekly show at KWEM and were there when discovered by Sam Phillips. In fact, it was a tape that Johnny Cash had made of his first radio appearance with George Klein on KWEM that became the demo tape that Johnny used to secure an audition with Sam Phillips at SUN records.
Johnny Cash also recorded a demo at KWEM studios entitled “Rock n Roll Ruby”, which was recorded by Warren Smith, yet another KWEM artist.
KWEM station manager, Dick “Poor Richard” Stuart was not only the manager for Johnny Cash but Carl Perkins as well. After playing a show in Norfolk, Virginia Carl Perkins and the band were headed to New York City for an appearance on NBC-TV’s Perry Como Show. Stuart was at the wheel when the car ran into the rear of a pickup truck, injuring Carl and other band members and killing Carl’s brother Stewart.
KWEM not only was involved in the early stages Rock and Roll. It was also a factor in Country music and Blues as well. Two Kings of the Blues, B.B. and Albert also got their start at KWEM. B.B. King got his first break playing live there on the Sonny Boy Williamson Show in 1949. That opened the door for his show on WDIA in Memphis.
B.B. King made 2 records for Bullet Records in 1950 and 2 records for Sam Phillips in 1951 using another band that appeared and recorded on KWEM, the Plantation Inn Band with Phineas Newborn and Calvin Newborn.
In addition to all the future SUN Records artist that performed on KWEM, so did the future owner of STAX Records, Jim Stewart. Jim was a fiddle player in a country group called the Snearly Ranch Boys which also included Jerry Lee Lewis, Reggie Young and Ace Cannon.
While some claim that Rock and Roll didn’t get its start in Memphis, but in West Memphis, Ark. The only artists that got their start in the KWEM studios in West Memphis were the blues artist such as Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. The rest performed in the Memphis studios on Flicker Street in Memphis.