The history of Memphis is undoubtedly intertwined with the legacy of Elvis Presley. From Graceland to The Arcade Restaurant to Sun Studio, there are Elvis-related landmarks everywhere. In the 46 years since his death, tourists still pour into the city year-round to remember ‘The King of Rock’ n’ Roll.’ Out of all the people who impacted Elvis’s career, there is one lesser-known but incredibly important Memphis figure who deserves recognition in her own right — Marion Keisker.
In the legends of how Elvis Presley rose to fame, Sam Phillips is often credited with discovering him. He was, after all, the owner of Memphis Recording Service — now Sun Studio — where Elvis first recorded. According to Nina Jones, the current Operations Manager at Sun Studio, Marion Keisker was running the studio the first time Elvis walked through the doors. Something about him caught her attention, and thanks to her intuition and perseverance, Elvis would eventually become a household name.
Born in 1917, Marion Keisker MacInnes lived most of her life in Memphis. After distinguishing herself at Southwestern College and earning degrees in English and Medieval French, she went on to be one of the key radio personalities of her era. During that period, she worked at nearly every radio station in Memphis, sometimes all at once, driving back and forth across town to do different shows. She was eventually hired full-time at WREC to host Memphis’s first talk show directed toward women, called Meet Kitty Kelley. Soon, she met Sam Phillips, who was dreaming up Sun Studio and working as an audio engineer for the “Treasury Bandstand” music shows hosted in The Peabody Hotel.
Noting her skill with music and audio productions, Phillips asked her to join as the studio manager when he opened Memphis Recording Services. According to Dr. Charles Hughes, an associate professor of Urban Studies at Rhodes College, Marion did much more than just manage a studio. He says, “To this day, Marion Keisker is still usually presented in the Sun Records story as merely an assistant or helpmeet to Sam Phillips. But she helped guide every aspect of its creative and commercial direction as it developed in the early 1950s. She even helped select the location at 706 Union Avenue and helped re-construct the building as a recording studio.”
All of her work at this point led up to the fateful day in 1954 when Elvis Presley booked a recording session at Memphis Recording Services. According to legend, when she asked him what his music sounded like, he responded, “I don’t sound like nobody.” She remembered the unique voice of this simple Memphis electrician, and about a year after first hearing him, Marion recommended that Phillips consider him for the house band. Phillips quickly understood that Elvis was doing something new and decided to record him.
The story of Marion’s direct connection to Elvis fades after they both leave Sun Records. In November of 1955, Elvis’s Sun contract was sold to RCA Records for a whopping $35,000 plus a $5,000 bonus. Around that same time, Marion transitioned to working for an all-female radio station opened by Phillips called WHER. According to Hughes, the station “boasted the first all-female roster and became a celebrated (and imitated) entry on America’s expanding radio landscape.” After a long professional relationship, Marion grew tired of Phillips’s demanding personality, and she eventually left Memphis to join the United States Air Force in 1967.
It was the military that brought Marion and Elvis together one last time. During his deployment in Germany, Elvis recognized Marion at a press conference alongside a room full of communications and information officers. He allegedly told her, “I don’t know whether to salute you or hug you.” Marion credits this moment as the first and last public acknowledgment Elvis ever gave regarding her influence on his career.
After 14 years in the Air Force, Kesiker returned home to Memphis. It might be easy to assume that her story ends here, but thankfully, for Memphis, it did not. Marion became very involved in the growing feminist movement in Memphis during that period. She became a co-founder and early president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and participated in local feminist events for many years leading up to her death in 1983.
From radio to discovering Elvis Presley to the military and feminist activism, the storied life of Marion Keisker is one worth remembering. Thanks to recent big-budget films, including Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis from 2022 and an upcoming biopic about Pricilla Presley to be released on November 3, Elvis-mania seems to be alive and well. In her Sun Studio role, Nina Jones observed, “More young people are becoming interested [in Elvis]. People kind of realize that he was more than just this flashy character on stage and notice the real human being side of him. He seems more attainable to the average person.”
“I’m waiting for somebody to make a movie about Marion because she’s amazing,” Jones jokes. We can only hope that alongside Elvis Presley’s legacy, Marion Keisker will be remembered for her part in shaping American music and her contributions to the amazing city she called home.
Though she doesn’t often get the credit she deserves, Marion Keisker is the person who discovered Elvis Presley. Acknowledging her legacy gives us an important glimpse of Memphis’s history and Elvis’s story.
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