It is now known that Elvis Presley did not simply graduate from Humes High School and then was consequently discovered by Sam Phillips at SUN Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The Elvis journey was assisted by a local Memphis radio station, KWEM Radio, actually broadcasting from West Memphis, Arkansas just across the Mississippi River and a KWEM Radio personality by the name of Joe Manuel.
KWEM Radio 990, one of only 6 radio stations in the Memphis area in 1947, was no stranger to Sam Phillips. KWEM had already supplied Memphis Recording Service and later SUN Records with almost every artist that Sam ever recorded. B.B. King, Howlin Wolf, Ike Turner, Jackie Breston, James Cotton, Junior Parker, Albert King and many other blues artists all came to Sam straight from KWEM.
Soon to come, KWEM would launch Elvis, Johnny Cash, Reggie Young, Carl Perkins, Charlie Feathers, Billy Lee Riley, Barbara Pittman, Johnny and Dorsey Burnett, Marcus Van Story, the Starlight Wranglers (with Scotty Moore and Bill Black), the Snearly Ranch Boys, and many more artists who would become the future of SUN Rockabilly and Rock & Roll.
But it was Joe Manuel who opened the doors for Elvis. After all, Joe Manuel lived at Lauderdale Courts with Elvis. Joe, already established as one of the biggest country music stars in the Memphis area, was an immediate draw for Elvis. Not to mention that Elvis’ friends from the Courts: Johnny and Dorsey Burnett, Paul Burlison, Marcus Van Story, Charlie Feathers, Albert Vescova, the Lazenby Twins, and others were already performing at KWEM. Many performed on Joe Manual’s weekly KWEM Talent Show, broadcast from the Avon Theater in West Memphis.
According to Larry Manuel, Joe’s son, “Elvis was always coming by the house and turning up wherever Joe happened to be, including the barber shop frequented by Joe on Main Street in Memphis”. Larry laughed, “Elvis was a regular nuisance.”
Elvis was soon performing at KWEM and got his first live public exposure at the Saturday Night Jamboree in front of a audience of 900 people. The show was headed by Joe Manuel and sponsored and broadcast on KWEM.
Even though Joe Manuel dominated the Memphis radio scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s, it was thought that he had made no recordings. The record business was not nearly as important as it would later become and radio provided Joe with all of the music venues that he could handle. The money was in performing live and radio made you a star. In those days there was more “live” radio and much less record spinning by DJ’s.
However, a rare, unmarked box of reel to reel tapes discovered by Bear Records has now put a voice to Joe Manual. Joe did indeed record. He recorded at SUN Records. He recorded commercials for the Lewis Bakery Company in Ana, Illinois and he recorded his own songs. The recordings will be released in a new box set to be released by Bear Records in September.
“This is exciting news,” reports Dominique “Imperial” Anglares of France, one of the foremost authorities on Rockabilly music. “Joe Manuel has been overlooked for his contributions to the birth of Rock & Roll”, he added.
Upon hearing the recordings, many are considering some of Joe Manuel’s recordings to be the first Rockabilly records ever recorded, especially “Sweetheart Boogie”, a bread commercial writted and recorded by Joe at SUN. Indeed these recording give us a great insight into the music and musicians that Elvis was listening to before his discovery at SUN Records. The rest is history so they say.