Posts Tagged ‘Ike Turner’

Rockabilly was the earliest stylistic incarnation of rock and roll music from the 1950s— an amalgam of hillbilly boogie, African-American rhythm and blues and traces of southern gospel music. Some popular music historians designate Sam PhillipsSun Studio in Memphis as ground zero for the birth of rockabilly, with recordings like Ike Turner‘s “Rocket 88” in 1951 and Elvis‘ “That’s Alright Mama” in 1954. There were, however, many precursors to Elvis’ big national breakthrough.

The boogie-woogie piano style of Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis influenced country pianists like Moon Mullican and others. Hillbilly-boogie and honky tonk musicians like Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, as well as the Texas swing music of Bob Wills, were components that informed the development of this new genre. The percussively slapped upright acoustic bass of Texas swing bassists and Fred Maddox became an integral part of rockabilly. Bill Haley was recording tracks in 1951 that are essentially rockabilly, as were other lesser known recording artists in 1953— Zeb Turner and “Jersey Rock”; Curtis Gordon’s “Rompin’ and Stompin'”; Janis Martin’s fusion of country with rhythm and blues in Richmond, VA; or Bill Flagg’s use of the term rockabilly for his early recordings. But something happened in Memphis that caused these latent elements to ignite in the awareness of the world at large. This is the birth of rock music.

On the southwest corner of Madison and Third in Memphis stood the stately old Goodwyn Institute building which housed an auditorium. In 1953, Joe Manuel, a local hillbilly music radio personality, began hosting the Saturday Night Jamboree at this location and many of the emerging Memphis rockabilly musicians played its stage. The show became popular enough for KWEM to broadcast it, but the real action took place backstage where the musicians traded licks. In its two years, the Saturday Night Jamboree saw Paul Burlison, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Johnny Cash, Charlie Feathers, Eddie Bond, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Elvis and many others— before their recording careers began.

Scotty Moore was born near Gadsden, TN in 1931 and Bill Black (September 17, 1926 – October 21, 1965) was born in Memphis. Black served in the Army during World War II and Moore in the Navy during the Korean war. After their service, they returned to Memphis and performed together in a honky tonk band called the Starlight Wranglers. When Sam Phillips placed the two musicians with the young Elvis Presley, something clicked— something that not only moved a sea of screaming teenagers, but also profoundly changed popular music forever.

Scotty Moore’s guitar picking style (derived from Chet Atkins and Merle Travis) on a Gibson ES-295 and Bill Black’s percussive slapping (copied from Fred Maddox) on a Kay Maestro M-1 upright bass, along with Elvis’ acoustic guitar strumming and Sam Phillips’ slapback tape echo, became the hallmarks of a classic rockabilly trio sound (like Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two and The Burnette’s Rock and Roll Trio). Scotty and Bill were credited on Elvis’ Sun recordings and garnered 25% of the royalties but, even though they followed Elvis to Nashville for his RCA recordings (and to Hollywood for the movies), they weren’t credited anymore. Scotty and Bill eventually left the Presley organization due to poor wages and mistreatment by Elvis’ management.

Scotty Moore returned to Sun as a recording engineer and Bill Black formed his own combo and scored at the top of the charts with several instrumental hits for Memphis’ Hi Records. Both musicians have been subsequently heralded by generations of admiring musical legends.

youtube: Scotty Moore & Eric Clapton

youtube: Bill Black Combo

It was the sport of boxing that brought together Golden Gloves champions Paul Burlison (February 4, 1929 – September 27, 2003) and the Burnette brothers, Dorsey (December 28, 1932 – August 19, 1979) and Johnny (March 25, 1934 –August 14, 1964). Singer, Dorsey, and guitarist, Burlison, both worked at Crown Electric on Marshall Avenue, as did Elvis Presley. Paul Burlison had played some guitar with Howlin’ Wolf at the Sun Studio and on KWEM in West Memphis, AR and his mutual musical interests with the two Burnette brothers carried them from Memphis’ honky tonk nightspots to three rounds on the Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour broadcast on ABC in 1956.

The Rock and Roll Trio was signed to the Coral division of Decca Records and made appearances on the Tonight Show and American Bandstand. The group picked up Carl Perkins’ cousin as a drummer and, after Dorsey Burnette quit, Bill Black’s brother on the bass. The Burnette brothers argued a lot, especially over the name of the group. Lack of commercial success combined with long and tiring strings of one-nighters precipitated their final break up.

youtube: Johnny Burnett Trio

Burlison interview with Jas Obrecht

Carl Perkins (April 9, 1932 – January 19, 1998) grew up working in the cotton fields near Tiptonville, TN hearing the music of black field workers and gospel music. He learned to play guitar from an elderly African-American man named “Uncle John” Westbrook. Along with his brothers Jay, Clayton and drummer W. S. “Fluke” Holland, Perkins had the hottest honky tonk band in the Jackson, TN area— ninety miles from Memphis.

In the early 1950s, Perkins had been performing on WTJS radio in Jackson, TN for a segment sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour and sending demos to record companies in New York City. When his wife Valda heard Elvis performing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the radio, she exclaimed to Perkins, “It sounds like you!” Elvis, coincidentally, exclaimed after cutting the track, “That sounds like Carl Perkins!” Carl Perkins exclaimed, “There’s a man in Memphis that understands what we’re doing. I need to go see him.”

After successfully auditioning for Sam Phillips, Perkins recorded his first two tracks in 1955 and released his biggest hit “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. The song charted at number one in the country category, number two in pop and number three in the rhythm and blues charts. Unfortunately, Perkins’ career was setback by a tragic automobile accident as the band was traveling to New York for a television appearance. After recovering from serious injuries, he recorded the hit “Matchbox” for Phillips’ label but left in 1958 for Columbia Records.

youtube: Carl Perkins

youtube: Perkins interview

Some of the other rockabilly artists on Sam Phillips’ record labels were:

Billy Lee Riley (October 5, 1933 – August 2, 2009) from Pocohontas, AR, who recorded “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll” and the reworked cheerleading chant “Red Hot” in 1957. Riley’s band, the Little Green Men, worked as the Sun Studio house band until Riley and Roland Janes left to start the Rita Records label in 1960. In 1962, Riley left for Los Angeles where he worked as a session musician on recordings for Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys and Sammy Davis Jr.

youtube: Billy Lee Riley

Charlie Feathers (June 12, 1932 – August 29, 1998) was born in Holly Springs, MS and learned from childhood friend and blues artist Junior Kimbrough. Feathers started as a session musician at Sun and has a credit along with Stan Kesler for the Elvis number, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” After the Sun releases “Peepin’ Eyes” and “Defrost Your Heart”, he left for the Meteor and King record labels in 1956.

youtube: Charlie Feathers

Warren Smith (February 7, 1932–January 30, 1980) was born in Humphreys County, MS and began performing at the Cotton Club in West Memphis, AR after his discharge from the Air Force. His first recording for Sun in 1956, “Rock and Roll Ruby”, hit number one on the local pop charts and outsold releases by Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Smith followed with “Ubangi Stomp” and “So Long, I’m Gone.” He left Sun in 1960 to record on the Liberty Records label.

youtube: Warren Smith

Albert Austin “Sonny” Burgess was born in 1931 near Newport, AR and recorded “Red Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie” for Sun in 1956. Burgess had a band that performed in a circuit of clubs in the Newport area and opened for Elvis’ earliest performances. Presley sent Burgess to Sam Phillips with high recommendation. The Pacers, Burgess’ band, had a reputation for wild antics and an energetic stage show.

youtube: Sonny Burgess

Many of Sun’s lesser-known artists felt neglected by Sam Phillips and resentful when the bulk of promotion resources was concentrated on Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Eddie Bond was born in Memphis in 1933. After a stint in the Navy, he put a band together called The Stompers that included Reggie Young on guitar and John Hughey on pedal steel. After being rejected by the Sun and Meteor labels, Bond recorded for the tiny Ekko Records label in 1955 and for Mercury Records in 1956. The Mercury sides “I Got a Woman” and “Rockin’ Daddy” were Bond’s high point and he toured with Elvis and Johnny Cash, appearing on the Louisiana Hayride. Bond later became a mainstay on Memphis radio as a disc jockey for several decades.

youtube: Eddie Bond

Rockabilly music continued its arc of popularity through the late 50s with artists and songs like: Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti” in 1955, “Long Tall Sally” and “Lucille” in 1956, 1957’s “Keep A-Knockin'” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1958; Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955; Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly, released “I Gotta Know” and “Hot Dog That Made Him Mad” on Capitol in 1956; Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps’ “Be-Bop-A-Lula” also in 1956; Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis began their recording careers in 1957; Ricky Nelson’s “Believe What You Say” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” released in 1958.

The lifespan of rockabilly as a musical genre was short but its influence on the next generation of rock musicians like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and the revivalists like Dave Edmunds, Robert Gordon and The Stray Cats was immeasurable.

youtube: Jerry Lee Lewis

Rockabilly Hall of Fame

image credits: PBS; Birch Harms; EPE; Jas Obrecht; glowimages; Sun; King; Sun; Ibid.; White Label; Sanctuary Records

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


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