Record Spin with Sun Records
Recording pioneer from Memphis, Tennessee, Sam Phillips broke into the recording business, taking 10 years to become an overnight sensation in the record business. Before he recorded Elvis Presley at his famous Sun Studios, before he recorded Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, and BB King, Sam’s first foray into recording sounds for a living was his little start up company called “The Memphis Recording Service.”
Sam wanted to do something that was different. He wanted to give opportunity to some talent that otherwise couldn’t find a voice. He looked for a simple humble building in downtown Memphis in order to make this project work. In January 1950, he opened up the doors at 706 Union Street, with very little money in his pockets, wanting to raise his young family with his engineer skills. Coming from radio, Sam took a turn running the PA systems in the local hotel convention rooms, and even ran the sound at the AA baseball park in town.
Working at the radio stations during the day, he did everything he could to keep the doors open at his own recording studio. He came up with the idea of recording funerals. An innovative idea at the time, he approached local funeral directors tactfully, and offered his service. Sam made many recording of ministers eulogizing, the organ music, and people crying in the church. This became a “memory” for people to purchase. To Sam, it became his bread and butter.
When Sam started Sun Records in 1953, he had one hit after another. They were big hits by R&B standards. One of them was The Prisonaires’ “Just Walkin’ In The Rain.” He had a couple of hits with Little Junior Parker. He had a big hit with Rufus Thomas with Bear Cat. A big hit in R&B meant that it sold 35,000, maybe 50,000. That was the ceiling. Sam Phillips was on the verge of going out of business. When Elvis came into his studio in July of ’54 and he made “That’s Alright,” Sam was on the edge of bankruptcy, but he was determined to present the music in a way that was absolutely true to itself, not to present imitation music, not to present music that tried to ape the sound or the feeling of the great blues singers, the great R&B singers. And in Elvis he found that.
By 1955, Sam had lots of financial troubles. He decided to sell Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA records, and with the $35,000 windfall, he was able to promote the distribution of Carl Perkin’s song “Blue Suede Shoes” which became the first number one national hit for Sun Records.
Sam began to find amateur singers and music makers in and around the area. By 1952, he started recording the likes of BB King, Junior Parker, and Howlin’ Wolf. He took those recordings, and sold them to record labels. What Sam said when he first heard Howlin’ Wolf, a friend of his, an engineer over at KWEM in West Memphis, said, “We got this guy on the air every day at noon, around noon, selling farm implements, farm tools, and he plays the kind of music I think you’d be interested in,” which I don’t think was intended as a compliment by this friend of Sam’s … but Sam always said he tuned into the program on KWEM. It was a weak signal, it came through crackling, it was a terrible connection, and he said from the first moment he heard Howlin’ Wolf’s voice, he said, “This is it for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.”
“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.” -Sam Phillips
What is considered to be the very first “Rock n Roll” record was from a band called Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, with a tune called “Rocket 88.” I’m not going to find any video of these guys performing this song, but above, you can hear the swinging, the movin, the shakin, and the rhythm of rock n roll come alive in the little brick building that day.
Phillips’ pivotal role in the early days of rock and roll was exemplified by a celebrated jam session on December 4, 1956 which came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session at Phillips’ studio. When Elvis Presley walked in unexpectedly, Johnny Cash was called into the studio by Phillips, leading to an impromptu session featuring the four musicians.
In 1986 Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was the first ever non-performer inducted. In 1987, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1991. In 1998, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in October 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 2003, only one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark.