As one might expect, there is historical argument over the precise point at which rock and roll music was born. There are those who point to the back beat of Big Joe Turner’s “Roll ’em Pete” in 1938, or a number of other Atlantic Records rhythm and blues releases from the late ’40s and early ’50s. Others highlight what was happening with blues music on Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s. Some cite Ike Turner‘s 1951 recording, “Rocket 88”, and some point to Elvis Presley‘s 1954 recording of “That’s Alright Mama”. Regarding the last two examples, both recordings were cut by Sam Phillips at his Sun Studio in Memphis, TN. Most would agree that the differentiation between jump blues, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly and rock and roll (in its earliest incarnation) was a matter of racial considerations— and appropriation and acceptance by the mass of white society. Sam Phillips stood at the nexus of that issue. He was vital to launching the careers of Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins and numerous other significant artists.
Samuel Cornelius Phillips (January 5, 1923 – July 30, 2003) was raised on a farm outside of Florence, Alabama and attended Alabama Polytechnical Institute in Auburn. He became a radio engineer in the early 1940s for stations in Muscle Shoals and Decatur, AL, Nashville, TN and eventually, in 1945, WREC radio in Memphis. Phillips hosted a radio program called Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance, which was broadcast over the CBS radio network from the Peabody Hotel’s Skyway Room.
In 1950, Sam Phillips borrowed money to open the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue. He and his friend (and soon-to-become-legendary Memphis radio DJ) Dewey Phillips began a short-lived record label called It’s the Phillips – “The Hottest Thing in the Country.” On August 30,1950, three hundred copies of “Boogie in the Park” by Joe Hill Louis were pressed. The Bihari brothers’ independent Modern Records label from Los Angeles, CA had signed B.B. King to a subsidiary and contracted Phillips to record the five singles. Soon Phillips was offering recordings by Joe Hill, jazz pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., Rosco Gordon, Walter Horton, and Bobby “Blue” Bland to the Biharis and Chicago’s Chess brothers.
In 1951, heated wrangling erupted between Phillips, Modern Records and Chess Records over first option for leased masters of “How Many More Years” and “Baby Ride With Me” by Howling Wolf and Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Out of this conflict, in an era when small, independent record labels were beginning to create a large influence, Phillips started his Sun Records label. Sun’s first attempt, “Blues in My Condition” by Jackie Boy and Little Walter, was not considered worthy enough for commercial release, making the first official Sun release “Drivin’ Slow” by Johnny London, a sixteen year old black saxophonist, in March of 1952.
In 1952, the Memphis-based Duke label had a number one hit with Johnny Ace‘s “My Song”, and also signed Bobby “Blue” Bland. Under this pressure of competition with other labels for local talent, Sun scored its first hit in 1953. WDIA disc jockey, Rufus Thomas’ “Bear Cat” was an answer to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, and he scored a follow up hit that year with “Tiger Man”. The same year saw successful Sun releases from Billy “The Kid” Emerson, Little Junior Parker and Little Milton Campbell— but more so for a group of inmates from the Nashville State Penitentiary called The Prisonaires and their recording “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”.
The year 1953 was also notable for Sun because a young truck driver named Elvis Presley stopped in on his lunch hour to record two songs for his mother’s birthday. Sun’s more-than-a-secretary, Marion Keisker, recorded Elvis in Sam Phillip’s absence and continually lobbied on the young singer’s behalf. A year later, Sam auditioned Elvis and paired him with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. On July 5, 1954, after unsuccessful attempts at a Bing Crosby tune and a country number, Elvis, Scotty and Bill began goofing around on a blues tune during a break. Sam Phillips heard them speed up, Mississippi bluesman, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup‘s “That’s Alright Mama” and knew he had something unusual.
Phillips loaded copies of the record into his car and hit the road promoting it throughout the region, and managed to book Elvis on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride radio shows. Elvis’ music became hits on country radio stations first, because there was no other format for this music that channeled the energy of the blues with a beat, and straddled racial and musical boundaries. The five singles that Presley made for Sun literally fused blues numbers on one side of the platter with country on the other. Rockabilly music was born. By late in the year 1955, Elvis was an uncontrollable regional sensation poised to break into the consciousness of the American experience.
Sam Phillips, knowing he could not hold onto the phenomenon once Elvis’ contract with Sun expired, sold the contract to RCA Victor for $40,000 in November of 1955. Elvis’ success at Sun drew other artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, and Harold Jenkins (a.k.a. Conway Twitty). Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”), Junior Parker, and Billy Lee Riley recorded for Sun with some success, as well.
Sam Phillips and Sun saw the promise and disappointment inherent in the music business when the success of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” was hindered by his automobile accident. Or when Sun’s Jack Clement discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, but the success of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” fell prey to the scandal of Lewis’ marriage to his 13 year old cousin. Bill Justis had the first rock and roll instrumental hit in 1957 with “Raunchy” and it scored number 2 on the Billboard charts. Johnny Cash was a consistent revenue for Sun until leaving for the Columbia label in 1958.
In the summer of 1958 Sun moved to 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis. Judd Phillips, Sam’s brother, had worked promotion for Roy Acuff and Jimmy Durante and brought his expertise to Sun. Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original guitarist, was made studio manager and chief cutting engineer, as the company took on more staff. Sun opened a studio in Nashville on 17th Street in 1961 and hired, famed engineer, Billy Sherill, who cut hits on Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich, but the studio quickly ran into problems. The 1960s saw Sun’s influence fade and Sam Phillips fielded many offers to buy Sun and its catalog. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic offered a distribution deal similar to the one struck with Stax, but Phillips deferred.
In 1969, Sam Phillips sold Sun to Nashville record executive Shelby Singleton, known for his work with Ray Stevens and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”. The company remains vital today… marketing its hit recordings, boxed sets and collectible memorabilia. Sam Phillips successfully invested his earnings and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and won a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements. He died of respiratory failure in Memphis on July 30, 2003— a day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark.
“Back in the early ’50s I was looking to create something different. From the beginning, I was very much interested in exploring some paths that had not been trodden and looking for the hidden possibilities. What I tried to do with each artist was to find his natural honesty in terms of what he liked to do, regardless of what category of music it might fall into. The artists who I worked with all had a certain basic honesty in their music, and after assuring and working with them, and gaining their confidence and their trust in me, I think they then really knew that they had somebody who was working with them in the common interest of seeing what they had.”- Sam Phillips to interviewer Richard Buskin
image credits: John Boija; Michael Ochs Archives; Sun; ibid.; ibid.; GAB Archive/Redferns; Bai Bayev; Salon