Posts Tagged ‘B. B. King’

Memphis has been known to produce an eccentric character or two. The archetypical brilliant eccentric, Dewey Phillips (May 13, 1926 – September 28, 1968) was a pioneering radio disc jockey who disregarded segregated racial boundaries and delivered a mixture of both black and white music— and whatever caught his fancy— with a fast-talking, chaotic, speed-crazed persona that was no act. He endeared himself to black and white radio audiences alike, was a much beloved figure on Beale Street, and was declared to have transcended racial color by Rufus Thomas and B.B. King— “colorless.”

Dewey Phillips was born in Crump, TN and moved to Memphis after Army service in World War II. He managed the record department in W.T. Grant’s five-and-dime store at Main and Gayoso and used its outdoor P.A. system to attract lunchtime crowds and sell a lot of records. Dewey began his radio career in 1949 at WHBQ, broadcasting his Red, Hot & Blue show from the mezzanine of the Chisca Hotel.

WHBQ was losing its white teen-aged audience to the hipper music of all-black WDIA. The radio station was doubtful of Phillips’ abilities, while his coworkers were horrified by his unprofessionalism and destructive tendencies. He also became the city’s number one radio personality for nine years running because those same uncontrollable qualities endeared him to his listeners. The station was also swayed by the ad dollars and long waiting list for his advertisers.

youtube: Red, Hot and Blue

Dewey’s brand of madness consisted of any spontaneous, crazy antic that crossed his mind— talking to himself in multiple voices; hilariously ad-libbing advertisements; playing two copies of the same record simultaneously, but slightly out-of-sync; spinning a record he liked over and over again, but also pulling a record he didn’t like off of the turntable with a violent scratch of the needle; coaxing his listeners to honk their car horns at a specified time of night: and a never-ending parade of absurd catch phrases. He became the first to simulcast a radio program on television, with his Red, Hot & Blue program. Phillips also later hosted a television show called Pop Shop with his silent sidekick, Harry Fritzius, who ran amuck wearing a gorilla mask and an overcoat. Dewey’s achievements were numerous and he was the first to break recordings by a number of Memphis recording artists, as well as many national artists, into the radio airwaves.

youtube: Dewey and Jerry Lee Lewis

Dewey was the first DJ to break Elvis into the radio market. Already a friend and former associate with Sun RecordsSam Phillips, they briefly ran a record label together named Phillips – “The Hottest Thing in the Country.” Three days after recording Elvis’ first release, Sam brought an acetate to Dewey, who played it repeatedly on the night of July 8, 1954. Caller response was so overwhelming that Dewey phoned the Presley household and had Elvis’ parents bring him down to the radio station for an interview. In true Dewey Phillips fashion, Elvis was tricked into thinking they were rehearsing the interview when, in fact, it was going out over the air. This began a friendship between the two, which later became strained when Dewey became an embarrassment to the star.

Robert Johnson, a reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar, recounted how Elvis brought Dewey out to Hollywood in 1957 during the making of the movie Jailhouse Rock. Besides making an embarrassing remark to the actor Yul Brynner, Phillips made off with a pre-release copy of Elvis’ “Teddy Bear” and played it on his radio show, preempting RCA’s release date. Dewey became more of a liability to Elvis than a friend. Following two severe automobile accidents, Phillips had become addicted to painkillers and amphetamines— along with heavy alcohol consumption. Elvis wasn’t the only one who shunned Dewey. He was fired in 1959 from WHBQ while still the number one disc jockey in town.

Randy Haspel on Dewey and Johnny Ace

Phillip’s sad decline through the next decade involved jobs with smaller and more remote radio stations, an attempt at a singing career with a release on the Fernwood label, a number of DUIs, and a stint in a psychiatric ward after becoming increasingly delusional. Foreshadowing the same death as Elvis, Dewey Phillips died of heart failure from drug abuse at the age of 42. He is buried in the Crump, TN cemetery. The musical Memphis is partially based on his career.

Sam Phillips, Jim Dickinson, Don Nix, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wayne Jackson on Dewey Phillips

Dewey was the forerunner to a radio age of trailblazing disc jockeys, like Alan Freed, Murray the K and Wolfman Jack, who weren’t constrained by Top 40 formats and the market-research-driven, corporate staleness of today’s horrible radio stations. Dewey was more than an innovator and musical taste maker. He was a society changer— tearing down the senseless walls in a segregated culture. Robert Gordon wrote in It Came from Memphis: “He is best known as the first disc jockey to play Elvis Presley, but the legacy of Dewey Phillips is every attempt by a white Memphis kid to play black music, from the first generation of rock and roll right through Stax Records. His listeners learned not to distinguish between races or genres. He demonstrated that the boundaries of “normal” were arbitrary and heralded a freedom that society shunned. Many took heart in the realization that they might be able, like Dewey, to parlay their own particular weirdness, oddity, or eccentricity into a career. Nowhere else in society was such nonconformist thought publicly condoned. It has taken forty years of corporate rock and roll to rebuild the walls Dewey Phillips broke down.”

Regarding those walls, “load yourself up a wheelbarrow full of nanny goats, go bustin’ through’em— and tell’em Phillips sentcha.”

image credits: Memphis Archives; Robert Dye; WHBQ

Rufus Thomas Jr. (March 27, 1917 – December 15, 2001) was born the youngest of five children to sharecroppers in Cayce, Mississippi, near the Tennessee border. He became one of Memphis music’s most beloved figures and outspoken ambassadors. His career spanned the musical genres of blues, soul, funk, comedy and novelty, reaching from minstrel shows to Beale Street and from Sun Records to Stax— and beyond. He billed himself as “The World’s Oldest Teenager”.

youtube: Memphis

His family moved to Memphis when Rufus was two. He became well known for his tap dancing and participated in school productions from an early age. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, he was mentored by his history teacher, Nat D. Williams, who would become WDIA‘s first black disc jockey. Williams involved Thomas in amateur show performances at the Palace Theater on Beale Street.

Throughout the 1930s, Rufus Thomas performed in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels Show, the Georgia Dixon Traveling Show, and the Royal American Tent Shows. He expanded his routine from tap dancing and comedy to singing the blues when a female singer left one of the troupes. A comedy duo was formed with fellow future-WDIA radio personality, James “Bones” Couch, called Rufus and Bones.

youtube: Jump Back

youtube: Walking the Dog

In 1940, Rufus married his high school sweetheart, Cornelius Lorene Wilson, and remained so for almost 60 years. Thomas took employment at a textile plant, American Finishing Company, where he worked for over twenty years without missing a day. In 1943, he began his lengthy recording career with a Texas label named Star Talent and went on to record with Meteor, Chess, Sun, and was with the Stax Record label from its earliest days until it closed its doors in 1975.

Rufus joined the staff of WDIA radio in 1951, hosting a program called Hoot and Holler. While in this position, he helped promote the careers of B.B. King, Ike Turner, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Roscoe Gordon and Junior Parker. In 1953, Rufus Thomas recorded an answer to Big Mama Thornton‘s hit “Hound Dog” on Sam Phillips‘ Sun Records. “Bear Cat” became the first national hit for Sun, but a copyright-infringement lawsuit from Leiber and Stoller, the writers of “Hound Dog”, nearly bankrupted the small label. Sun Records soon dumped Thomas in order to concentrate on its new direction— Elvis Presley.

1959 saw Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla Thomas, become the first stars of the new Stax label with their duet “‘Cause I Love You”. Carla scored a big hit in 1961 with “Gee Whiz”, but Rufus recorded a string of dance-related hits with “Walking The Dog” (1964), “Do The Funky Chicken” (1969), “Push and Pull” (1970) and “The Breakdown” (1971). Rufus was featured in the Wattstax concerts and performed with James Brown’s band and the group, Con Funk Shun.

youtube: The Breakdown

Thomas released a blues album later in his life on the Alligator label and also a live recording. He was featured in the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. His performances at the Italian Poretta Soul Music Festival were so endearing that the amphitheater and park were named after him. He and William Bell headlined performances at the Olympics in 1996. His awards are numerous, among them the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award. The city of Memphis named a street in his honor that crosses Beale Street.

youtube: The Funky Chicken

youtube: Rufus is Back in Town

Despite his indefatigable heart and boundless energy, Rufus Thomas, “The World’s Oldest Teenager” succumbed to heart failure in December of 2001.

Roger Friedman wrote:

“He was a vaudevillian, a jokester, and a gentle kidder who was always heading toward a well worn punch line. His comic bits were older than he was, but it never seemed to matter. Rufus’ gift, in music and comedy, was taking what existed and making it seem brand new. Even though he wore hot pants, and often comically sang off key, make no mistake: Rufus was himself a serious musician. He just made it look so easy.”

youtube: A Full & Funky Life

image credits: Henry Diltz; amazon; Michael Ochs Archives; Wattstax; Maldwin Hamlin

Riley B. King (September 16, 1925 – May 14, 2015) was born on a plantation between Itta Bena and Indianola, Mississippi to sharecroppers Albert King and Nora Ella Farr. His middle name is “B.” and is not an abbreviation. King’s mother left his father in 1930, and his mother and grandmother died when he was around ten years old. He began working as a farm hand and moved in with his aunt, uncle, and cousin— blues singer Bukka White. King’s aunt owned a Victrola (an old, wind-up record player) and often played recordings by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

The young B.B. King worked for $15 a month on a plantation milking cows, picking and chopping cotton, and baling hay. At age 12, he ordered his first guitar from a Sears and Roebuck catalog with money loaned by the plantation owner, Mr. Flake Cottledge. King stated in an interview with Living Blues magazine, “I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin’ cotton or choppin’ or something. When I sing and play now, I can hear those same sounds that I used to hear then as a kid.”

He walked 5 miles to attend school after his farm chores were finished and made it through the tenth grade. He also sang and played guitar with several gospel groups. In 1943, King was making $22.50 a week as a tractor driver on a plantation. “I’d go to town on Saturday, after I would get through with my tractor, and sit on the street corners with my little guitar. I’d always start with a gospel song.” King recalled for the Academy of Achievement that the gospel tunes earned him a pat on the head, but the blues tunes put coins in his bucket.

At age 17, King was married to Martha Lee Denton of Europe, Mississippi. The marriage lasted eight years. In 1947, he hitched a ride on a grocery truck to Memphis. King told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “Before I left home, I thought I could really sing and play the guitar. When I got to Memphis and went down to Beale Street Park and heard those people out there… it was like a community college on the streets! Memphis and Beale Street were, for me, the college of hard knocks, the college of learning.”

In 1948, King sought out one of his favorite blues performers, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex Miller), who had a radio program sponsored by Hadacol Elixir on West Memphis, Arkansas station KWEM. Williamson was also known for his King Biscuit Radio Program on KFFA in Helena, AR. Williamson was impressed enough with King to offer him a radio spot and a steady gig at Miss Annie’s 16th Street Grill. B.B. King recounted to Ed Bradley on the television program Street Stories, “Twelve dollars a night! I’d never heard of that much money in the world before.”

King was able to translate this foothold into a ten minute radio spot with African-American staffed, Memphis radio station WDIA— promoting another elixir called Pepticon. King’s radio moniker became The Beale Street Blues Boy, which was shortened to Blues Boy King, and eventually to B.B. King. His radio spot on WDIA became popular enough to expand into a full program called Sepia Swing Club. While working at the radio station, King met another great blues influence, T-Bone Walker, and was inspired to purchase an electric guitar. King’s band, consisting of Johnny “Ace” Alexander, Ford Nelson, Solomon Hardy and other Memphis musicians, became popular in local clubs and on Beale Street, and began traveling the region.

youtube: ‪Why B.B. King’s Guitar is Named Lucille‬

B.B. King often tells this iconic story: In the winter of 1949, while playing in a roadhouse in Twist, Arkansas, a fight erupted and a kerosene stove was knocked over, setting the place ablaze. King escaped the building only to remember that his guitar was left inside. The guitar was barely rescued, but on finding out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he named his guitar after her as a reminder to never do a crazy thing like that again.

youtube: ‪Miss Martha King‬

youtube: Catfish Blues‬

youtube: Woke Up This Morning‬

In 1949, King cut four tracks for Jim Bulleit’s Nashville-based Bullet Records, which issued the single “Miss Martha King”, named after King’s wife. King recalled in an interview with Wayne Robins for Blues Access, “I had horns that very first session. I had Phineas Newborn on piano; his father played drums, and his brother, Calvin, played guitar with me. I had Tuff Green on bass, Ben Branch on tenor sax, his brother, Thomas Branch, on trumpet, and a lady trombone player. The Newborn family were the house band at the famous Plantation Inn in West Memphis.”

In that same year, Ike Turner, acting as a talent scout for the Bihari Brothers’ Los Angeles-based RPM Records, helped B.B. King sign with the label. Sam Phillips, later of Sun Records fame, cut many of the B.B. King sides. In 1951, King’s cover of Lowell Fulson‘s “Three O’Clock Blues” topped the R&B charts at number one.

youtube: Ten Long Years‬

youtube: Three O’Clock Blues‬

King assembled his band, the B.B. King Review, and hired Onzie Horne as an arranger. A bus called “Big Red” was purchased and the 1950s were spent on the road playing clubs, roadhouses, and barns on the chitlin circuit. King’s reputation eventually propelled him into a better circuit of clubs, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1956, B.B. and his band played an astonishing 342 one-night stands. He teamed up with the successful producer and arranger Maxwell Davis and scored 20 recordings in the R&B charts.

In 1958, King married Sue Hall in Detroit. The wedding was officiated by Aretha Franklin’s father, Reverend C. L. Franklin. In 1966, that marriage also ended in divorce.

youtube: Whole Lot Of Loving

youtube: Heartbreaker‬

‪‬In 1962, King signed to ABC-Paramount Records and in November of 1964, the guitarist cut his seminal Live at the Regal album at that fabled Chicago theater. Throughout the 1960s, he continued to place recordings in the charts. In 1968, he played at the Newport Folk Festival and began to tap into a younger and whiter audience. King recalls playing Bill Graham’s Fillmore West:
“Now, I had played the Fillmore many times before when it was owned by another person, but this time when I get there, there are long-haired kids. So, I told my road manager, ‘I think they made a mistake this time. So, my road manager went out and he found the promoter — who was Bill Graham, one of the greatest people I think I’ve met — and he came out and said, ‘No, B, it’s the right place. Come on in.’ I’m scared to get off the bus, but I followed him in. I’m scared to death. So, Bill announces, ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’ and everybody got very quiet ‘…I bring you the Chairman of the Board, B.B. King.’ The best intro and the shortest I ever had in my life. And all of a sudden they started to applaud, and they stood up and they applauded… and I cried because I’m starting to think how these people can be so good to me. They made me feel like I was somebody. I had never felt like that. Never. They made me feel like that that night.”

In 1969, B.B. opened for the Rolling Stones at 18 American concerts. That was also the same year that he achieved mainstream success with his hit recording “The Thrill Is Gone”. King won a Grammy Award for his version of the Roy Hawkins song.

youtube: The Thrill Is Gone (original) – Roy Hawkins 1951‬

youtube: The Thrill Is Gone‬

The 1970s continued B.B. King’s rise in popularity. Guitar Player magazine called him the world’s best blues guitarist in 1970. In 1971, with attorney F. Lee Bailey, King founded FAIRR (Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation), an organization dedicated to the improvement of prison conditions. This corresponded with his live recordings at San Quentin State Prison and the acclaimed Live in Cook County Jail.

youtube: Chains ‘n Things‬

youtube: Live At Sing Sing Prison‬‬

In succeeding decades he collaborated with his old friend, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Eric Clapton, and on U2′s single “When Love Comes to Town”. King was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the NARAS’ Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1987. In the 1990s, King was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was granted a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has earned a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and has received many honorary college doctorates— from Yale to Tougaloo (MS) College. In 1995, a 70-year old King was named a recipient of the 18th annual Kennedy Center Honors. In 2004 he was awarded the international Polar Music Prize, given to artists “in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music.”

youtube: When Love Comes To Town‬

youtube: Every Day I Have the Blues‬‬ ‪‪

In 1991, B.B. King’s Blues Club opened on Beale Street in Memphis, and several more have opened in other cities. In September 2008, a museum dedicated to King opened in Indianola, Mississippi. Over a period of 52 years, B.B. King played in excess of 15,000 performances and recorded over fifty albums. It is reported that he fathered 15 children out of wedlock, all by different mothers. He contracted Type II diabetes and became a spokesman in the fight against the disease. B.B. King became the most internationally renowned blues musician of the past 50 years. King died peacefully in his sleep at age 89 in Las Vegas. According to Edward M. Komara, King “introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed.” King rose out of oppressive, rural Mississippi labor to become a universally recognized and beloved figure around the world. He told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “I felt that this was what I wanted to do, to make a living playing the guitar. My father was born on the plantation, I was born on the plantation. I wanted more for my children. This— the guitar— was my way out.”

image credits: Reuters; Ernest Withers; Hatch Show Print; Michael Ochs Archives; Ernest Withers; opusvida; Rob Loud; Dan Dalton

Nathanial Dowd Gaston Williams (Oct. 19, 1907 – October 27, 1983) was born on Beale Street— a true Memphian! He held degrees from Columbia and Northwestern and was the editor for the New York State Contender and a writer for the Memphis World and the Memphis Tri-State Defender. For 42 years, he taught at Booker T. Washington High School. He also edited the school’s newspaper, taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir, led a Boy Scout troop and co-ordinated the annual Tri-State fair. Nat D. Williams was also emcee, along with Rufus Thomas, of amateur night at the Palace Theater (Memphis’ answer to Harlem’s Apollo Theater). Somehow, he also found time for his wife and two kids.

In 1947, the white owners of WDIA, John Pepper and Dick Ferguson, put their radio station on the air from studios on Union Avenue, with a format of pop, country and western, and light classical music. By 1948, the radio station was on the verge of bankruptcy and faring so poorly that these two men did something desperate and unheard of in a strictly segregated Southern society— they hired the first openly black radio announcer. Nat D. Williams’ Tan-Town Jamboree was first broadcast at 4:00 p.m. on October 25, 1948. Little did the owners know of the untapped power of the underserved and unrecognized African-American community.

In the next year, with only partial black programming, the station raised its rank to number two in the Memphis market. Bomb threats were called in to the station, but the wild success of Williams’ program convinced the owners to make WDIA America’s first black radio station with an all African-American on-air staff programming black music all day long. It became Memphis’ top radio station and the first to gross a million dollars in a year. The station increased its signal from 250 watts to 50,000 watts and broadcast from the bootheel of Missouri to the Mississippi Gulf coast. Representatives from stations in other cities studied WDIA’s success, like WERD in Atlanta, which became the first black owned radio station in October of 1949.


Nat D. Williams brought along his friend, Rufus Thomas, and they, in turn, brought to the station their familiarity with Beale Street and its talent. B.B. King began his career on the station— promoting the cure-all elixir, Pepticon, and recording his first single at the station during off hours. Rosco Gordon, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Johnny Ace made some of their first recordings at the radio station. The station was the first to expose the talents of Little Milton and Junior Parker, gospel groups like the Spirit of Memphis and the Southern Wonders, and future Stax Records stars Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes.

One of the program directors, David Mattis, started the Duke record label and recorded much of the station’s talent. He later sold Duke to Don Robey in Houston. Disc jockeys like A. C. “Moohah” Williams, a biology teacher at Manassas High School, or former blues singer, Reverend Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore, became familiar voices over the airwaves throughout the community and much of the Mid-South— along with Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert, Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade, and Robert “Honeyboy” Thomas. WDIA became an integral part of the Memphis community raising charity funds for needy children with its Goodwill and Starlight Revues.

youtube: ‪Rufus Thomas on WDIA‬

After the decline of Beale Street, WDIA became the single most empowering force for African-Americans in Memphis and beyond. It’s influence on musicians, including a Tupelo, Mississippi-bound Elvis Presley, is incalculable. It was sold by its original owners in 1957, but the radio station later played a large part in the renovation of Beale Street, the Stax museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. Clear Channel Communications bought WDIA in 1996.

youtube: ‪Pink Pussycat Wine‬

Nat D. Williams died of a stroke on October 27, 1983. Dale Patterson wrote that Williams would sign on to his program in this fashion:

“Well, yes-siree, it’s Nat Dee on the Jamboree, coming at thee on seventy-three (on the dial), WDIA. Now, whatchubet.” That was followed by a huge, full-bellied laugh and 90 minutes of the best rhythm-and-blues music around.

image credits: Robert A. Coleman Archives; WDIA; Michael Ochs Archives; WDIA


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.

youtube: ‪Joe Hill Louis‬

youtube: ‪Rocket 88‬

Ike Turner on ‪Rocket 88‬

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”.

youtube: ‪‪Rufus Thomas‬

youtube: ‪Prisonaires‬‬

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.

youtube: ‪Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup‬‬‬

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.

‪‪youtube: Carl Perkins‬

youtube: ‪‪Jerry Lee Lewis‬‬‬‬

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.

‪‪youtube: Raunchy‬

‪‪youtube: Sam Phillips‬

“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

During the early to mid-20th century, many African-Americans began to leave the impoverished and oppressive environment of Mississippi to find work in the factories of larger cities to the north. Among their numbers were some of the most seminal blues musicians of all time. Delta blues, Memphis blues and Chicago blues music constitute such an expansive subject that it would need a separate and extensive blog of its own. My intent is to highlight the effect that blues from the Mississippi delta had on the Memphis music scene— and that influence is inestimable. Memphis is the cap on the top of the Mississippi delta region and, because of its proximity, blues musicians streamed through it on their way to somewhere else, migrated there and stayed, or pilgrimaged to Beale Street in some consistent fashion.

youtube: ‪Big Bill Broonzy‬

youtube: ‪Howlin’ Wolf‬

Among the blues musicians who left for Chicago and other points were: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Willie Dixon, Alberta Hunter, J.B. Lenoir, Magic Slim, Jimmy Reed and his guitarist Eddie Taylor, Big Joe Williams, Otis Rush, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, Little Milton, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Ike Turner, Charlie Musselwhite and Bo Diddley. Some musicians moved from Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas to Chicago— like Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Parker, Robert Junior Lockwood, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, and Maurice & Verdine White. They created a more electrified, band-oriented version of the blues. Among the Mississippi blues musicians who mostly stayed in the delta and hill country (or kept their rural style) and impacted the Memphis scene were: Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, Charley Patton, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Sam Chatmon and the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, Fred McDowell, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner and R. L. Burnside— as well as others.

The blues musicians who were homegrown in Memphis, or migrated and stayed there, or made a larger mark in their careers by recording in the Bluff City, were (among others): Lillie Mae Glover (aka Ma Rainey II), Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas), Frank Stokes, Willie Nix, Little Laura Dukes, John “Piano Red ” Williams, Mose Vinson, Rosco Gordon (and his “Rosco’s Rhythm”), Robert Wilkins, Joe Hill Louis, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Bobby “Blue” Bland, perhaps Bukka White and Albert King, and, of course, B. B. King. In the same sense that music developed in New Orleans of a certain fashion due to its geographical location and cultural influences, Memphis was destined to be impacted by Mississippi Delta Blues. It’s musical colors and flavors are the consistent threads that weave the range of Memphis’ musical styles into a cohesive and distinctive fabric.

youtube: Rufus Thomas on the Blues‬‬

David “Honeyboy” Edwards once said, “Something in the blues hits a lot of people because there’s some verse in there, somebody done done it. It’s just, the blues are like a story.”

youtube: ‪Robert Johnson‬‬

youtube: ‪‪‪Frank Stokes‬

Find Out More

image credits: Graphic Maps; Chester Burnett; Stephen LaVere; Jorgen Angel