Without his vision Rock N’ Roll wouldn’t had been the same
Remembering Sun Records founder Sam Phillips on his birthday, a man who changed the music world
Sam Phillips was born on January 5th, 1923 in Florence, Alabama, he had a pivotal role on the initial success of Rock N’ Roll music during the 1950’s with his label Sun Records, that served as a launching platform for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ike Turner among others. Sam Phillips was the youngest of eight children, born on a farm near Florence, Alabama, to poor tenant farmers As a child, he picked cotton in the fields with his parents alongside black laborers. The experience of hearing workers singing in the fields left a big impression on the young Phillips which would reflect later on his musical vision. In the 1940’s, Phillips worked as a DJ and radio engineer for station WLAY (AM), in Muscle Shoals, Alabama where on a time of deep segregation he would openly play black music for a mostly white audience. In 1950, Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin’ Wolf among others, did their first recordings there. The Memphis Recording Service also served as the studio for Phillips’s own label, Sun Record Company, which he launched in 1952. Phillips recorded what the music historian Peter Guralnick considered the first rock and roll record: “Rocket 88”, by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, a band led by the 19-year-old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song, and the recording was released in 1951 by Chess Records. On July 18th, 1953, the eighteen-year-old Elvis Presley dropped into the studio to record an acetate for his mother’s birthday; the longtime collaborator at the Memphis Recording Service, Marion Keisker thought she heard some talent in the young truck driver’s voice, and so she turned on the tape recorder. Later, she played it for Phillips, who gradually, with Keisker’s encouragement, warmed to the idea of recording Elvis. Presley, who recorded his version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” at Phillips’s studio, became highly successful, first in Memphis, then throughout the southern United States. He auditioned for Phillips in 1954, but it was not until he sang “That’s All Right (Mama)” that Phillips was impressed.
While still not known outside the South, Presley’s singles and regional success became a drawing card for Sun Records, as singing hopefuls soon arrived from all over the region. Singers such as Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”), Charlie Rich, Junior Parker, and Billy Lee Riley recorded for Sun with some success, and others, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins, became stars; Elvis as we all know, became “The King”. Phillips’s pivotal role in the early days of Rock N’ Roll was exemplified by a celebrated jam session on December 4th, 1956, with what became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session at Phillips’s 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. Phillips challenged the four to achieve gold record sales, offering a free Cadillac to the first, which Carl Perkins won. After selling the contracts of most of Sun Records stars, during the 1960’s Sam Phillips rarely recorded and sold Sun Records to Shelby Singleton in 1969. In 1986 Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was the first non-performer inducted. Sam Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, on July 30th, 2003, only one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark, and just over a month before the death of former Sun Records recording star Johnny Cash, on September 12, 2003. His role on Rock N’ Roll history it’s one of the most important, with an inspiring story of success that changed the music all over the world. Most recently, his life story with Sun Records was dramatized on the TV Series “Sun Records”. Sam Phillips would had turned 97 today.
Watch a clip from CBS with Sam Phillips biographer Peter Guralnick, author of “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.” discussing Phillips vision and legacy
Watch a 2002 clip from a Sam Phillips interview where he discusses Elvis Presley
Listen to the compilation ” Sun Records – 60 Years, 60 Singles” on Spotify
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