An 18-year-old Elvis Presley walked through the doors of the Memphis Recording Service at 708 Union Ave. in the summer of 1953. He carried a beat-up guitar that he’d had since the age of 11 and enough money to make a $3.98 record of his own voice.
He sang two ’30s ballads — “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” — hoping to catch the attention of Sam Phillips, who had started his own label, Sun. When he was done, Marion Keisker, who helped run the place with Phillips, typed his name on the back of a label for Sun act The Prisonaires, and Presley left with his acetate.
For more than six decades, that record of Elvis singing “My Happiness” was kept by the family of the high-school friend Presley left it with, Ed Leek. As part of an auction at Graceland on Jan. 8 — which would have been Presley’s 80th birthday — it was valued at approximately $100,000. It sold to an unknown Internet bidder for $300,000.
That bidder was Jack White.
I know this because I delivered the acetate from Memphis to White at his Third Man Records in Nashville. White, 39, is one of the last true rock stars — a guitar hero who fills arenas with high-volume rewirings of blues-based music, classic pop and country. He has sold more than 7 million albums with The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs and on his own, and earned the ability to do things his way. “He’s one of the handful of giants that’s around now,” says producer and Blue Note Records president Don Was, who played bass on White’s cover of Bob Dylan‘s “One More Cup of Coffee” at the Feb. 6 MusiCares fundraiser in Los Angeles honoring Dylan. “There are just a handful of those people who can dig in underneath the music and get to the essence of it. Keith Richards comes to mind. Bruce Springsteen comes to mind. Muddy Waters comes to mind.”
Was also notes White’s eye for design, calling the Third Man offices “a Leonardo da Vinci, steampunk, surreal world.” White is an exacting conceptualist who painted the walls of Third Man based on the direction they faced (red for west, blue for east) and who has a red-and-white house set on seven acres in southwestern Nashville. He delights in creating “scenarios” (a favorite word) that reframe his interests — from early-20th-century music to vintage ’70s electric cars — in the present.
For me, that meant something between a wild goose chase and a film-noir homage. I had turned up in Memphis expecting to meet White, only to be asked to wait on a street corner, then be given a sealed black briefcase by a man in a black suit. A text from a Detroit number instructed me to drop the package at Third Man Records at 5 p.m. It’s a little more than three hours from Memphis to Nashville. I made it with 15 minutes to spare.
Twenty-six men and women work at Third Man. The men wear black suits with yellow-and-black ties. The women wear yellow dresses. When I got there, most of them were gathered in the lounge, with its taxidermied animals and high-end McIntosh tube-amp audio equipment, applauding.
Elvis was on the stereo. Jack White — his hair buzzed short on the sides and swept up into a pompadour in the middle — stood grinning. He took the briefcase, dropped to one knee and produced a red Swiss Army knife to break the seal. He pulled out a 10-inch vinyl record and held it up.
“This,” he announced, “is the first recording ever made by Elvis Presley.” He went to a turntable, and his hand shook slightly as he dropped the needle. And then Elvis began to sing “My Happiness” as I’d never heard it. The sound of the room he had recorded in — its ceiling shaped like a cathedral because Phillips believed that better captured the proceedings — was there. The record popped and crackled with all the noise of the living.
When “My Happiness” finished, White held the record up again. “On Record Store Day,” he told the small crowd, “Third Man Records will issue this on vinyl.” There was more applause. Then White gestured to his office and asked if I wanted to talk.
White’s office is behind a vintage door that reads JOHN A. WHITE III, D.D.S., FAMILY DENTISTRY. Drawings by his kids with ex-wife Karen Elson, Scarlett, 8, and Hank, 6, are proudly displayed. (He and Elson, a model-singer, share custody. He hasn’t been romantically linked with anyone since the split.) One wall is dominated by a blowup portrait of 1930s Delta bluesman Charlie Patton, and on a shelf is a black skull flanked by black-and-white photos of another blues legend, Son House, and ’80s rapper Slick Rick. There’s also a 6-foot-tall stuffed giraffe head.
Down the hall is a vault — fireproof and climate-controlled — that holds The White Stripes’ master tapes, which the band own, as well as recordings made at Third Man by Neil Young, Beck, Jack Johnson and others. Some acts that play the performance space, the Blue Room, record directly to vinyl through a 1950s lathe that once belonged to King Records, the Cincinnati label that was home to James Brown. Young chose another route: He made his 2014 album A Letter Home in the 1947 Voice-o-Graph recording booth that sits in the Third Man storefront.
White’s fascination with the pre-digital, mechanical world — from the Voice-o-Graph to $400 reissues of blues, jazz and gospel in handmade boxes — has marked him as a retro eccentric. His goal, he insists, is to learn from what has come before, “to take what’s beautiful and soulful and feels like it’s etched in stone” and “see how it applies to what’s happening right now.”
White speaks with the rush of passionate conviction, and when he says or hears something funny he erupts into a chesty cackle. But behind that flush of sincerity is a wariness, and at times he stops to clarify that he doesn’t want to be seen as a braggart, or negative, or retro. “I don’t like feeding off the past. I don’t live in a hopeless notion that amplifiers or records were better in the ’60s.”
But the tug of the past can be strong. Later, when talking about the challenges of playing arena and festival shows — White is one of the headliners at Coachella in April — he laments the difficulty of reaching big crowds without pop-star spectacle and sexuality. “Don’t you think that crowds in the ’60s, crowds in the ’50s were looking for something different?” He asks the same about the ’70s and ’90s before dispelling his own nostalgia with a story about how The Beatles gave up on live shows because the audience was more interested in screaming than the music.
White does have a distinctly different, and more personal, connection to the past than most, though. He has made records or appeared with Young, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page, Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn. “I’ve worked with a lot of people in their 70s and 80s who have had incredible careers. I’ve been lucky with that,” he says. His easy rapport with these elder artists may have something to do with his upbringing. He once said he was raised by “senior citizens.” His parents and siblings were a good deal older — at 83, Loretta Lynn is actually two years younger than White’s mother.
Jack White was born John Anthony Gillis in 1975, the 10th child in a large Catholic family. His father, Gorman, was born in 1927 (he died in 2006); his mother, Teresa, in 1930. His brothers and sisters were older by seven to 21 years — White’s nephew by his sister Maureen, Ben Blackwell, is 32 to his 39, and is one of the guiding forces at Third Man.
White (right) with Blackwell in 2000 at White’s house in Detroit.
Teresa and Gorman both worked for the Archdiocese of Detroit, she as a secretary, he as a maintenance man. Music and religion were the animating forces in White’s life. He was an altar boy who considered the priesthood. But at 5 he began banging on a drum set in the attic and never stopped making noise.
White grew up on the cusp of the CD era. He remembers skipping school in 1990 at 15 to go to downtown Detroit and buy a vinyl copy of The Beatles’ White Album. But he loves CDs as well. “It’s portable, it still has the artwork and lyrics, and it sounds really good,” he says. “And you can turn it up really loud.” It was a pre-Internet age, when music fans didn’t have everything at their fingertips. White has said he discovered his first Stooges album in a dumpster belonging to a next-door neighbor who had an upholstery shop.
It’s a story too good to be true — a future Detroit rock star uncovers the history of Detroit punk in the trash — and White delights in mixing myth and reality. In the days of The White Stripes, he insisted he and drummer Meg White were brother and sister (the youngest of 10 siblings, in fact), even after it was revealed they were a divorced couple.
White said he wanted to focus attention on the music, not the relationship. The White Stripes created a sensation with bracingly simple music, placing three consecutive records in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. In 2002, when Nickelback, Linkin Park and Puddle of Mudd dominated the charts, “Seven Nation Army” became a No. 1 alternative hit. It has risen as an unlikely jock jam — a rallying cry widely heard at baseball, football, basketball and hockey games — enduring in a way no Linkin Park song has.
White’s reputation as a trickster also has persisted, and there are strains in his relationship with the media. He’s frequently chastised as an oddball (“Rock’s Willy Wonka”) or a crank (he walked offstage at Radio City Music Hall in October 2012 after less than an hour, complaining that it seemed “like an NPR convention”). In 2014, he issued an open letter clarifying comments he had made in a Rolling Stone story about The Black Keys (derivative of The White Stripes) and Meg White (didn’t always relish The White Stripes’ accomplishments). “I’m in a sound-bite era, and I don’t talk like a sound-bite artist,” he says. “I never hear anybody say anything about me when they watch a videotaped interview. When they read an article that takes sound bites and [makes] click bait out of it, that’s when they get complaining on me.”
There was more finger wagging in February, when the University of Oklahoma’s student newspaper published White’s contract in advance of a show there. The press seized on a recipe for fresh guacamole in the rider as fresh evidence of White’s meticulous, controlling nature. White responded in an open letter complaining about online journalism: “A hundred articles about bananas, free speech and guacamole … Is this a TMZ assignment or can you give us some peace while we try to put on a show for the students? Give us a break, man.”
The media, he feels, thrives on embarrassment: “Type in someone’s name on YouTube, a lot of what comes up is someone falls down, someone blows up, someone fumbles the ball. That’s what people want. And I’m in the wrong era for that.”
White holding copies of Lazaretto at United Record Pressing in 2014.
On the Saturday night that the Elvis acetate arrives at Third Man, alt-rap duo Shabazz Palaces plays the Blue Room. The show is recorded directly to vinyl, and the crowd respects the posted admonitions prohibiting cellphone photos.
Third Man is part business, part cultural center and part artistic laboratory. There are film screenings and performances; offices for graphic designers and a new book publishing wing; a darkroom and a video-editing suite. The warehouse mails out about 500 packages a day — vinyl, turntables, T-shirts, tote bags — but the week White’s second solo album, Lazaretto, came out in June 2014, it shipped 25,000 vinyl copies. Lazaretto, the top-selling vinyl album of 2014, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 338,000 copies as of Feb. 8, according to Nielsen Music, with 90,000 of those on vinyl.
White is neither an analog purist nor a record collector. His saying: “Digital in the car, vinyl in the bedroom. Because I like to listen to music in the car really loud.” He has noticed that CDs are now on the way out; neither his car (a Tesla) nor his new Apple laptop have disc drives. “I miss actually having the thing. But when you respect music, it doesn’t matter how we’re getting it. We still know what the real deal is. But you start wondering about people who don’t.”
This is where vinyl comes in. “It’s the movie theater compared to the iPhone.” It’s less about sound quality than aura — vinyl provides a focus, a ritual. “You’re reverential to it. With vinyl, you’re on your knees. You’re at the mercy of the needle. You watch the record spin and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire. It’s hypnotic.”
At the start of the Shabazz Palaces show, a shade rises on the window that lets the crowd see into the control room behind the stage, where the producer and engineers wear Third Man lab coats. After a little more than 20 minutes of music, Side One is complete, and the group pauses while a new acetate is placed on the lathe. “Everyone here is so sweet and nice and real,” says Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler.
Afterward, about 300 people line up at the storefront to place orders for the limited-edition colored vinyl pressing of the show. There are also black-and-white photos of Shabazz Palaces for sale, shot before the show and printed during it — you can smell the fixer at the merch table. It’s heavy and a little chemical, both comforting and a little foreign at the same time. It’s the smell of analog.
For more stories from Billboard’s vinyl revival package, check back on Billboard.com on Monday.