The song “Mystery Train” has become one of the most iconic classics of the rockabilly genre and in fact of all rock and roll. The song has it all: a great, mood-invoking vibe, wonderful driving slap-bass work by Bill Black, one of the most perfect guitar parts ever recorded courtesy of Scotty Moore, and of course Elvis' flawless, raw, powerful vocal delivery. And the song itself is one of those rare gems that stands strong on its own, separate from the performance. But though Elvis and the boys own this song with their amazing performance of it, Elvis didn't write it. So, where did it come from? Well, that gets to the roots of rockabilly!
Elvis recorded the song in late summer of 1955. He was already on the way up and rising fast. The song was recorded in the legendary Memphis Recording Service studios on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. It was originally released on the equally legendary Sun Records label as the B-side to the song that really put Elvis on the map nationally: the number one country hit “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” Even as the B-side, “Mystery Train” reached number 11.
However, this wasn't the first release the song had seen. The song had been written in 1953 by the bluesman Junior Parker. Studio and Sun Record label owner Sam Phillips is credited as co writer, but it's often difficult to tell with songs written in those days whether anyone besides the musician who is credited really did help write the song or whether there were credited as part of the record deal or other arrangements. In any event, Parker's original recording was released–also on Sun Records–in 1953.
Parker's version is up tempo and in its own right just as great at Elvis'. In it you can really hear how the blues influenced the early rockabilly musicians. Elvis clearly borrowed heavily from these blues players as well as the rhythm and blues music he'd heard so much of growing up. He took that influence and mixed it in with his country roots to become the driving force behind rockabilly music and, for that matter, all of rock and roll.
In my opinion, Elvis' version of “Mystery Train” is the perfect embodiment of the Sun Records rockabilly sound. If someone needed the ultimate example of rockabilly, “Mystery Train” would be one of the songs I would point them too. It totally exemplifies the melding of blues and country music that morphed into rockabilly music. Although the country music world–by all outward appearances–seemed to have had the bigger impact on rockabilly music, this song proves that it would never have happened without great blues and rhythm and blues songs and artists.
And besides all that, it's a train song and what could be more rockabilly than that?