In a way, Carl Mann was born just a few years too late.
A child prodigy from West Tennesse, Mann was the Sun Records star who never really was. Though he hit the charts with his rockabilly redux of "Mona Lisa" in 1959, his moment came after Sun had transformed itself into Phillips International and most of the first-generation rock-and-roll stars of the label had moved on.
"Yeah, if I'd have been a little older, I probably would've been more in the heyday of it," says Mann, 68. "I came right on the tail end of the Sun era. And everybody, most of the guys — Elvis, Cash — had left except for Charlie Rich."
A longtime staple of the rockabilly festival scene, Mann has returned to the stage after dealing with some health problems in 2010. He performed earlier this week at the Levitt Shell, and he will cap the Elvis Week festivities with a performance — along with his longtime friend and fellow Sun alum W.S. Holland — tonight at Stop 345.
Born near Huntingdon, Tenn., Mann was just a kid when he began to make his name in nearby Jackson.
"When I was 11 years old, I started playing talent shows down there. I hung around guys who were a little bit older than I was. I had my first band I was about 12, but I couldn't drive," says Mann, chuckling. "I ended up making my first recording on the Jaxson label when I was 14."
Cut in 1957, Mann's Jaxson debut was called "Gonna Rock And Roll Tonight."
"I started doing rockabilly at 13," says Mann. "Before that, I was playing country music mostly, and maybe some blues-sounding songs. But when Elvis came out, I started doing a lot of his stuff, and then I eventually developed my own style."
"Elvis had a very unique, different sound with just a slap bass and guitar and his rhythm," says Mann. "I actually think he was not only the king of rock and roll, but the main one who started rockabilly as well. Carl Perkins was already working with some of that stuff too. But Elvis was out there first."
Looking back at the prodigious talents that emerged from the Memphis region during that era, Mann says it was a result of the confluence of music in the air.
"I think we all had access to a lot of different types of things: blues, country, gospel and even jazz," says Mann. "We could get the jazz out of a couple radio stations out of New Orleans, we'd get blues from of Memphis, and then country from Nashville. Also, back then, some of the old camp-meeting gospel songs you'd hear were rocked up. It seemed to all work together."
Mann's own career took a turn when he met and began playing with Carl Perkins' drummer (and future Johnny Cash trapsman) W.S. "Fluke" Holland.
"He knew Sam (Phillips), so he got me an audition at Sun. We went there, put down two songs. Sam wasn't there; Jack Clement was the A&R man, and he said he would play it for Sam, who liked it. It was released about three months later. I was 16 years old then."
The A-side of Mann's single was a revved-up take on the Nat King Cole ballad "Mona Lisa." "That would be a pop-a-billy song, I guess," says Mann. "Where you take a pop song and rock it up, and turn it into a rockabilly number."
"We broke it out at a gig one night in at a roadhouse across the from Kentucky state line. We started doing it slow, and the kids wanted something fast to dance to. We had about eight requests to do it again. I figured that might be the one we was looking for."
Mann's version for Sam Phillips' new Phillips International imprint became a million-seller, and one of the final hits of the original Sun era.
Though he went on to cut a handful of other stellar sides for Phillips International, Mann would never quite find the charts again. He went on to tour with Perkins in the early '60s, before being drafted into the Army in 1964.
"By the time I got back out of the service, the music had changed," says Mann. "The Beatles were hot, and The Monkees and bands like that."
After his discharge, Mann cut one single for the Monument label, and then began to recede from the music industry. He soon got married and went to work in his family's lumber business in Huntingdon.
"Every once in a while, I'd break loose and do something in music," says Mann, who made some recordings for ABC/Dot in the mid-'70s. (Much of Mann's work can be found on Bear Family's lovingly compiled box set, Mona Lisa.)
But it wasn't until the rockabilly revival took hold in Europe in the late '70s that Mann returned to music seriously.
"It really did surprise me when I first started going to Europe," says Mann. "It was almost like going back in time to go there and do shows, because they would come dressed in '50s attire. It really felt good. Felt like I was 16 again. Of course, every time I play, I feel like I'm 16 again."
Sons of Sun Records presents W.S. 'Fluke' Holland with Carl Mann
Friday night at Stop 345, 345 Madison. Tickets: $10. For more information, call (901) 507-2720
Doors open at 7 p.m. for an Elvis author book signing; an artist meet-and-greet takes place at 8:15 p.m.; music starts at 9 p.m.
Authors who will be present include:
— Dr. George Nichopoulos, author of "The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me."
— Charles Stone, author of "Elvis, The Colonel and Me."
— Sue McCasland, author of "World's Best Kept Secret: Elvis Live at Sahara Tahoe, and "Elvis Now Ours Forever."
— Mike Freeman, co-author of "Memphis Elvis Style"
— Rose Clayton Phillips, co-author of "Elvis Up Close: In the Words of Those Who Knew Him Best" and "The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me."
— Patricia Graber, author of "Eternal Flame" and "Dream Angel."