In the early 1950s there was a small recording studio in Memphis, called Sun Records.
The owner was Sam Phillips.
Around that part of America, nearly all music was country music.
Played by white guys in cowboy shirts on acoustic guitars.
But there was an undercurrent.
Rhythm and Blues.
This was black music, much more intense and rhythmic.
This was music that made you want to get up and dance.
Sam Phillips was intrigued by these phenomena.
He knew the black sound was younger, more vibrant, more exciting than the country music.
But he knew he couldn’t get airplay on the white stations with black singers.
He thought if he could get a white singer who could sing like those black singers, he’d have a Trojan horse.
Around that time Sam Phillips had two young singers signed to his label.
Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.
Carl Perkins was the really talented one.
Carl could write songs.
He could write lyrics.
And he could play guitar really, really well.
Elvis Presley couldn’t do any of that.
But he had something else.
Elvis Presley was a young, good-looking white guy.
But he sang and performed like a black guy.
He was what Sam Phillips had been looking for.
Carl Perkins had all the talent, the content.
But he didn’t have any of the execution.
Elvis didn’t have any of Carl’s talent.
But he had all the execution.
Carl would write great tunes with great lyrics.
But he’d simply stand there and sing them, and let the songs do the work.
Elvis would come onstage in a pink shirt with the collar turned up, a white sports’ jacket, black peg-topped trousers, dark eyes, long eyelashes, huge quiff with one strand loose.
Then he’d start to move his legs.
Not in the stiff, white country music way.
In the rubbery, seductive black-performer’s way.
He was openly sexual in dress, movement, expression, and voice.
Now Sam Phillips could get the music he wanted aired on white radio stations.
And Elvis took off.
And left Carl Perkins behind.
Carl Perkins couldn’t understand it.
He had the talent, not Elvis.
He wrote the songs, he played great guitar, not Elvis.
Carl Perkins even had to listen to Elvis Presley cover one of his songs on The Ed Sullivan Show.
A show Carl Perkins couldn’t even get on.
Carl originally had a number one hit with Blue Suede Shoes before Elvis ever sang it.
But no one remembers that now.
Everyone thinks Elvis did the original.
They think Carl’s version is, at best, a so-so cover.
Every gig he did for the rest of his life he’d sing Blue Suede Shoes.
To make sure he got credit.
Meanwhile, for Elvis, Blue Suede shoes was just one of whole load of songs he sang in the course of revolutionising popular culture.
Roy Orbison said “When I first heard and saw Elvis it was like nothing I’d ever heard or seen. It’s hard to imagine now just how different it was to everything that had gone before.”
And that’s what Carl Perkins couldn’t understand.
He thought he wrote and played better than Elvis did, why didn’t he have the same success?
Judge simple content against execution.
As any of us who ever worked with John Webster know, it’s not just about content.
John could take our scripts and turn them into something we hadn’t even seen.
We were Carl Perkins, John was Elvis.
We had the content, but he had the execution.
That’s what Bill Bernbach meant when he said “Execution can become content, in a work of genius.”