Marion Keisker MacInnes:
A look at Elvis's Sun Records days, in this the 50th Anniversary year, would not be complete without featuring another key person in the beginning of Elvis's career - the late Marion Keisker.
Marion was a native Memphian, born there on September 23, 1917. She made her radio debut in 1929 at the age of 12, appearing on WREC's weekly children's hour “Wynken, Blynken & Nod.” She graduated from Southwestern College, majoring in English and Medieval French. She married in 1939 and moved to Illinois where she lived until her divorce in 1943. She and her son moved back to Memphis and she got a secretarial job. By 1946, she joined radio station WREC, where she became a popular radio personality with her daily “Kitty Kelly” talk show. She wrote, produced and directed fourteen other programs as well.
It was at WREC that Marion met and fell in love with Sam Phillips. They worked closely together, broadcasting big bands from the Peabody Hotel's Skyway Room. Marion also helped Sam set up and operate his own recording studio on Union Avenue. They did all the work themselves - laying the tile, painting the acoustic boards and setting up the limited amount of equipment Sam had. The studio, named The Memphis Recording Service, opened in January 1950 with Marion working as office manager while still working part-time at WREC to make ends meet. Marion was the organizer while Sam was the creative force. She kept track of the musicians and contacted them for sessions. She kept a log of the sessions, paid the musicians and was contact person for the pressing plants and distributors.
It was Marion who first laid eyes on Elvis as he came shyly in the door looking to self-record his voice for the very first time. There was something about this boy that both she and Sam recognized. She wrote next to his name “Good Ballad Singer - Hold”.
By 1955, Marion resigned from WREC and helped Sam to develop his idea of an “all girl” radio station. “WHER - 1000 Beautiful Watts” started its seventeen-year run on October 29, 1955. It was the first all-girl radio station in the world. All the announcers, sales staff, management, record librarians, copy writers - all the jobs were done by women.
Marion and Sam's relationship ended in 1957 and she joined the U.S. Air Force. Elvis hadn't seen her since then when he looked up at his March 1, 1960 “on his way home” press conference in Germany and spotted her. Captain Marion (Keisker) MacInnes was stationed in Germany. Elvis told her, “I don't know whether to kiss you or salute!” She responded, “In that order.” She was reprimanded by an army captain for over-familiarity with a noncom. Elvis defended her and said, …“we wouldn't be having a press conference if it weren't for this lady.”
Elvis spotted her in another crowd in January 1971. It was at a luncheon in Memphis honoring the U.S. Jaycees' Ten Outstanding Young Men of America of 1970 - one of several activities leading up to an evening awards banquet. Elvis was one of the ten. This time. he grabbed Marion and took her to his table and introduced her to his wife Priscilla and the guys in his entourage, telling them, “…she's the one who made it all possible. Without her I wouldn't even be here.”
Marion lost a long battle with cancer and died on December 29, 1989. She had been a successful radio personality, actress and military service person - a hard worker and innovator in her own career endeavors. And, lest anyone forget, she was there the very first day in the career of Elvis Presley.
News Article from Elvisly Yours.
There is no doubt that Sam Phillips will be remembered as a giant in music history. He founded the legendary “Sun Records” in Memphis and recorded, mostly in the 1950's, music legends such as B. B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner and Rufus Thomas in blues and R&B, and Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and Roy Orbison in rock and country. But, it is for Elvis Presley that he has received the greatest recognition and fame. But, others are just as deserving and as the new biographies are written about Sam Phillips perhaps the truth will emerge and that his brother Judd Phillips and 'partner' Marion Keisker will finally get the real recognition they are entitled to and history will be amended.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marion Keisker in Memphis in the late 1980's and spent many hours in conversation with her. I found her a very bright, charming, articulate and a true Southern Lady but inside she was a very bitter woman because of the way she had been treated by Sam Phillips. She discovered Elvis Presley and it was Sam's brother Judd who did all the hard work persuading radio stations to play Elvis' music and record stores to buy the Sun singles. Judd was out day and night, on the road, doing all the donkey work, all the hard-selling while Sam stayed at the Studio and took all the glory.
Marion had told me she was a partner of Sam but as Elvis became more famous she was pushed aside and Sam took control so that history has relegated her to just being Sam's 'secretary' or assistant but it was Marion who had recorded Elvis that June day in 1953 when Elvis first came into Sun records to record “My Happiness” for his mother's birthday (Gladys' birthday was in April?).
According to Bill Burk, author of “Early Elvis, the Sun Years” the exact date Marion had recorded Elvis cannot be verified because the log for Sun Records for June 1953 was stolen and has never re-emerged but it would have been a Saturday after Elvis received his pay cheque (paid bi-weekly) and more likely the 13th June 1953. Also, Bill Burk discovered that it was Marion who had Elvis first played on the radio and not Sam Phillips. She offered the song on July 7th 1954 to the Radio Station WREC where she worked as a DJ and only 30 seconds were played by a DJ, Fred Cook, who took it off the turntable saying these immortal words “ Marion, that's the worst piece of shit I have ever heard”. WREC were just playing wimp music by Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Dean Martin and Elvis was just too much for poor, old Fred who has since been relegated to a footnote in Bill Burk's book while Elvis is a bit more famous. After he left Sun Elvis hardly had anything to do with Sam Phillips even though Sam has often said he was like a father to Elvis. Apparently, according to Bill Burk none of Sam's famous recording artists renewed their contract with Sun records.
My first lawyer in Memphis, Harold Streibich, was also Sam Phillips lawyer and had told me how Sam would call him 2 or 3am in the morning asking for legal advice. I met Sam Phillips and found him very strange indeed. He had become a born again Christian and had this manner of speaking as if he was an Evangelist talking to masses of people. He had very piercing, penetrating eyes and you did not feel comfortable in his presence. I just hope that now Marion will get the full recognition she deserves for discovering Elvis Presley and Judd Phillips for the contribution he made to music although Sam Phillips took the glory he still had a great gift to spot musical talent and Sun was the catalyst for the true birth of rock 'n' roll. Of course, 2004 is the 50th Anniversary of Elvis' first Sun recording that is arguably the 50th Anniversary of rock n' roll.
Sam Phillips will go down in history as the Father of Rock 'n' Roll but Judd Phillips was an unsung hero who also gave birth to this new kind of music and maybe Marion Keisker will eventually be remembered as the Mother of Rock 'n' Roll.