Sun Records was little more than a storefront studio in a bad part of Memphis, Tennessee. Yet, it was here the first rock-n-roll record was made. It was here too that the likes of B. B. King, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison got their start, and where a shy mamma’s boy named Elvis Presley was developed into rock’s first multi-platinum superstar.
To understand the phenomena that was Sun Records in the 1950s is to understand Sam Phillips, the talent scout, record producer, and resident genius. His forbearers were Anglo-Saxon, but his heart was inextricably linked to the earthy Mississippi-Delta blues and the people who sang it.
Phillips was the youngest of eight children, raised on a dirt-poor Alabama farm. As a child he picked cotton in the fields with his parents alongside black laborers, who sang as they worked. Their music left a lasting impression on him. As a teen, traveling through Memphis with his family to hear a preacher, young Phillips sneaked off to Beale Street, the heart of the city’s music scene. “I just fell totally in love,” he recalled later. “Beale Street convinced me that with talent coming out of the Delta, especially black artists, I really wanted to do something with that talent because I was very close to it all my life. I saw the great association between (white) country music and black blues in the South.”
A bright kid with good grades, Phillips initially had ambitions of becoming a criminal defense attorney. However, his father was bankrupted by the Great Depression and died in 1941, forcing Phillips to leave school to look after his mother and aunt. He worked in a grocery store and then a funeral parlor to support the family.
Phillips’ love of southern music coupled with his ambition led to a job working as a DJ and radio engineer for a radio station in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The radio station was unusual for its day in that it played the music of both white and black musicians. Phillips saved his money, moved to Memphis and in 1950 opened a recording studio at 706 Union Street, in the very heart of the city’s thriving music scene.
Phillips conducted an open-door policy. Anybody who entered his studio with talent got recorded. He didn’t have the money to create his own label so he sold recordings to larger labels, such as Chess Records in Chicago which had national distribution. In doing so, he launched the careers of dozens of black performers. In addition to music, Phillips recorded events such as weddings and funerals, anything to generate a few dollars and keep the studio going. In 1952, he had enough money to create his own record label--Sun Records. However, distribution was regional: Sun Records were not available outside the Deep South.
As a record producer, Phillips pushed musicians to reach their full potential. The blues, if it was performed well, touched people. Said Phillips: “The blues, it got people--black and white--to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be. They would sing about it; they would pray about it; they would preach about it. This is how they relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out.”
In 1951, Phillips recorded what most musicologists consider the first rock-n-roll record: “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by 19-year-old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song. From 1950 to 1954, the tiny Memphis studio recorded the music of James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland as well as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. After selling Elvis’ contract to RCA records for the unheard of sum of $40,000 in 1955, Sun Records went national and Phillips turned to country and rockabilly with singers such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich. Ironically, Rich was the one recording artist Phillips could not make a star. Hower, in the 1970s, Charlie Rich would go on to become a country star of the first magnitude--not for Sun Records but for Columbia Records. Which just goes to show that Phillips knew how to spot talent, even when he couldn't make it pay.
No one could duplicate Sun Records’ unique sound. What was the secret? Part of it was Phillips’ technical wizardry and part of it was his feel for music. A self-described sound fanatic, he employed tape delay to achieve a big sound by running the tape through a second recorder head. Also, he often mixed the instrumental track at the same sound level as the voice track to further enhance the sound.
Phillips was more interested in emotional honesty than in perfection. He was after what he called the perfect/imperfect cut. It was the singer’s feel for a song that gave the recording a living personalty, even if the singer or his band made mistakes and the performance was not technically perfect. Phillips openness and guidance allowed musicians to reach a point where they would perform beyond Phillips’ and their own expectations. This was the moment Phillips strived to capture on tape. While a number of Phillips’ discoveries went on to enjoy long and successful careers with bigger record companies, for most of them (including Elvis Presley) the best records they ever made were recorded at Sun Studios.
A shrewd businessman and savvy investor, Phillips retired a millionaire--but not from recording music. He was among the first investors with Roy Scott in Holiday Inn, a new motel chain that was about to go national. Phillips became involved shortly after selling the rights to Elvis Presley to RCA Records for $40,000, money which he multiplied many times over the years investing with Holiday Inn.
In 1986 Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. He also has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
In 2000, a documentary about Phillips' life and involvement with the emergence of Rock and Roll called “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” was released by A&E Television. Phillips said Howlin’ Wolf was his greatest discovery, followed by Elvis Presley.
There was one singer he particularly favored, however, the one he had failed to make a rock star--Charlie Rich. Phillips concluded the interview not with a song by Howlin’ Wolf or Elvis Preslty or even Johnny Cash, but with a song he had always loved, but had never charted, a sad bluesy ballad by Charlie Rich: “Who Will the Next Fool Be.”
Phillips passed away on July 30, 2003, one day before the Sun Studio in Memphis was designated a National Historic Landmark.