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Jimmy Sweeney's Daughter On Her Father's Influence On Elvis

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

* A music mystery now solved. 1954, a recording studio in Memphis - legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips has a demo record he wants an aspiring young singer to hear. It's called "Without You".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITHOUT YOU")

JIMMY SWEENEY: (Singing) Always at twilight, I wish on a star, ask God to keep you wherever you are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As the story goes, teenage Elvis Presley listened intently but just couldn't master the purity of the voice on that record. He pounded the table and said, I hate him. I hate him. Why can't I sing like that? Elvis, of course, eventually simmered down and soon released his first song, "That's All Right."

But who was that singer on "Without You," the earliest of influences on Elvis? There was no name listed on the demo record. And for decades, he remained a mystery. But a few years ago, thanks to music researcher Christopher Kennedy, we learned that a Black Nashville singer named Jimmy Sweeney was almost certainly the voice that so frustrated Elvis Presley that day and would impact his future recordings. And now there is a new collection of Jimmy Sweeney's music. And Christopher Kennedy joins us now from Warwick, N.Y.

Good morning.

CHRISTOPHER KENNEDY: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're also joined from Nashville by Eugenia Sweeney, a legal secretary and Jimmy Sweeney's daughter.

Welcome to you.

EUGENIA SWEENEY: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christopher, I'm going to start with you. The legend of the anonymous "Without You" singer was well known in the world of music researchers. What were some of the theories?

KENNEDY: Well, the idea had been that an unknown kid recorded the demo in Nashville, and it really didn't go beyond that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're a collector who became interested in Jimmy Sweeney in the 1990s. What can you tell us about his musical career?

KENNEDY: Well, Jimmy had been very well known in Nashville and had recorded in and around town. And in my thinking, he never got a break to have that hit. He had the talent, but he never got the lightning to hit, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you link Jimmy Sweeney, then, who died in 1992, to that unlabeled demo record, a connection no one made in more than 60 years?

KENNEDY: Well, I got lucky. I had been a fan of Jimmy from about 1995 when I found a 45 in a Nashville record shop. And I fell in love with him at that point and began collecting everything I could. And finally, I got to hear a little clip of "Without You" after hearing about it my whole life and never knowing who performed it. And I knew from the opening line that it was Jimmy. And believe me, I couldn't have been more shocked to hear that. I thought I had to be wrong, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to play a little bit of Elvis singing "Tomorrow Night" from September of 1954.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOMORROW NIGHT")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Tomorrow night, will you remember what you say tonight? Tomorrow night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, there is sure a lot of Jimmy Sweeney in there.

KENNEDY: For sure. Yeah, quite uncanny. He definitely heard Jimmy and wanted to immediately try to integrate that tone and that quality into whatever he had been doing, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess emulation, the sincerest form of flattery.

Eugenia, what was your reaction when Chris first played "Without You" for you?

SWEENEY: (Laughter) Wow. I was so excited about it. I guess I'm just still having to absorb what is happening here. People are finding out, finally, who my father was. And there was such a great appreciation for my father's gift. And the way I met Chris was actually a pure happenstance. I happened to be on YouTube and just fiddling around there. And I wondered if my dad's song - his favorite song, which was "She Wears My Ring", was on YouTube. And down below, I saw comments. And I said, well, I need to put a comment here. This is my father; I'm his daughter, blah, blah, blah. And before you know it, I get a response from Chris. He's giving my father props. And I said, oh, wow, this is great. You know, it really made me feel good to know that there was somebody out there who really appreciated my father's voice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. What can you tell us about your dad? I understand he worked for the Postal Service. He was also a master carpenter.

SWEENEY: That's correct. He was. My dad was the oldest of 13 kids, I think. And he was a very hard worker, very diligent. And he was very much the perfectionist in everything he did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chris, here was a very talented singer, good enough to impress the likes of Sam Phillips at Sun Records. And yet he never really made it big as a musician. Is Jimmy Sweeney's story one that we have heard so often of Black recording artists being overlooked and maybe taken advantage of?

KENNEDY: I think you're right for sure. And Eugenia and I have talked about it before, too, that the quality of work that Jimmy did had been beautiful. And Jimmy already had everything that Sam Phillips was looking for - that fusion of R&B and country and pop. And you know, the only thing had been that he hadn't been white. You know, he should've been there, man. He should've been at the top.

SWEENEY: And you know what? I think a lot of it - it was just the times. Historically, it happened not just to my father, of course, but to so many artists, you know? And then when you don't have a way - have anybody - the right people in your corner, what can you do about it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eugenia, what do you think your dad would make of this very late recognition?

SWEENEY: He would've loved it quietly. He wouldn't have made a big deal out of it, you know? But he was very modest - I think modest to a fault. But he would have really enjoyed knowing that finally, somebody is giving him some credit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Chris has produced an album of Jimmy's music called "Without You." And Eugenia, I'm going to leave the last word to you. Is there a song in this collection you'd like us to play going out?

SWEENEY: Yeah, "What'cha Gonna Do About Me." I like that. I really do (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'CHA GONNA DO ABOUT ME")

SWEENEY: (Singing) Well, I will love you, baby, for a long, long time, ever since you were 4. And I was just a little country boy, playing all around (unintelligible). And now we've been together down through the years, closer than the two could be. You said I was the only boy for you and you the only girl for me. But now you...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Eugenia Sweeney and Christopher Kennedy remembering singer and songwriter Jimmy Sweeney.

Thank you both very much.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

SWEENEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'CHA GONNA DO ABOUT ME")

SWEENEY: (Singing) Tell me what you're going to do about me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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