Last weekend was the 60th anniversary of Elvis Presley's most famous early recordings in Memphis, including the Arthur Crudup cover "That's All Right." July 5, 1954 was an important moment in American musical history—and it's also one of the most consistently overhyped dates in rock. The latest example: Variety’s article that went up with a headline declaring that Elvis "invented rock n' roll." That headline was eventually changed, and the text is a bit more sober, but still claims that "That's All Right" touched off "the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural force."
Elvis was innovative, popular, influential, and a great performer. But he didn't invent anything. By the time Elvis showed up at Sun Records, numerous other performers like Ike Turner, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, and Fats Domino had already released early rock songs.
Nor did Elvis make the music popular. While rock initially was black music, with a limited profile among white audiences, by the early 1950s it was achieving widespread success. The vocal group the Dominoes, led by the prodigiously talented Clyde McPhatter, scored a major pop crossover hit when "Sixty Minute Man" went #1 in R&B and #17 pop in 1951. The song used the phrase "rock and roll", which was often used in R&B and jump blues to describe sex, dancing, music, and/or some combination of all three. "Sixty Minute Man" probably inspired DJ Alan Freed to call his popular radio show Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party, where he played songs by black artists for a large mixed audience. The show began in 1951; by 1954 it was a smash success. Elvis and Sam Phillips didn't have to guess that rock and roll by black artists had crossover potential. They just needed to look at what the kids, of every race, were already listening to. So Presley wasn't an innovator, he was simply chasing a trend.