Memphis disc jockey Sam Phillips wanted his own studio, a
place where Southern rhythm and blues artists could record
their music, the kind, as Phillips said,
"where the soul of man never dies." In 1949, Phillips bought
a radiator shop at 706 Union Avenue and converted it into
the place that would become rock and roll's Plymouth Rock.
With the motto "We record anything--anywhere--anytime," the
Memphis Recording Service and its label, Sun Records, were
open for business.
Elvis Presley caught his ring here. You know the story: Poor
boy in tupelo, Mississippi, grows up listening to black
Delta and Chicago blues-man. Moves to Memphis in 1948,
graduates from Humes High. In 1953, on his day off from M.
B. Parker Machinists' Shop, goes to Sun's Memphis Recording
Service, Where anyone willing to spend $3.98 could get an
acetate disc and record the Ink Spot's "My Happiness" as a
present for his mother. Returns a few months later and
records "Careless Love" and "I'll Never Stand In Your Way."
Phillips hears the songs, is "underwhelmed" but asks the
young singer to rehearse with a local act, the Starlite
Wranglers. On July 5, 1954, with Scotty Moore playing guitar
and Bill Black slapping bass,
Presley records "That's All Right, (Mama)." Two days later
the songs debuts on Memphis radio and Sun's rise began.
Yet there was more to Sun Records than Elvis. Johnny Cash,
Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Carl Mann, Bill
Justis and Jerry Lee Lewis all shared the label during the
They took rockabilly, a sound mostly confined to the
barrooms of America's Southland, and set it loose. While the
recording giants on both coasts were trying to keep the
genie in the bottle, Sun made the country sweat.
Before Presley walked through the doors, Sun was making
history but not much money. Ike Turner, a deejay from
Clarksville, Mississippi, arranged a session with teenaged
Jackie Brenston. Their version of "Rocket 88,' recorded by
Sam Phillips in 1951, is considered by many to be the first
rock record. Yet Phillips knew the key to financial success
was a "white man who had the negro sound and the negro
feel." So when WHBQ disc jockey Dewey Phillips (no relation
to Sam) spun "That's All Right" for the first time, as Sam
put it, "all hell broke loose." Sam had his man.
Rockabilly's momentum was propelled by Sun's subsequent
discoveries of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny
Cash. Perkins sold two million copies of "Blue Suede Shoes,
" making it the first rockabilly song to reach number one on
the pop, country, and rhythm and blues charts. Lewis
recorded Sun's most successful hits with "Great Balls Of
"Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," while Johnny Cash became the
label's most consistent act, with twenty releases on the
original Sun label, selling over 10 million records.
The good times didn't roll forever. A lack of capital kept
Sun from reaping the financial rewards of it's success.
Strapped to meet consumer demands, Phillips sold Elvis'
contract to RCA in 1955. Of that infamous decision, Phillips
said, "I looked at everything for how I could take a little
extra money and get myself out of a real bind. I wasn't
broke, but man, it was hand to mouth." For $40,000 ($5,000
of which went to Elvis) Phillips released Presley from his
After RCA's coup, for two years, 1956-1957, it prospered
during the golden age of rockabilly, but by 1958, the
pendulum was swinging the other way.
Johnny Cash's skyrocketing fame pulled him to Nashville and
Alcoholism and an automobile accident all but finished the
rise of Carl Perkins. "Blue Suede Shoes" in fact, the number
Perkins wrote and first made famous, was a huge hit for
Elvis as well. Finally, in 1969, Phillips sold Sun to
Mercury Records producer, Shelby Singleton. Within months,
there were more Sun LPs on the market than Sam Phillips had
Recording just ten of Elvis' tracks, though, fixed Phillip's
place in history; he was an original inductee to the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
For Fans whose primary connection to country music was
through their radios, 1956 was a great year. Aside from
Elvis, folks could hear genre-shattering new songs like Red
Sovine & Webb Pierce's duet cover of George Jones' "Why Baby
Why" and assertive returns to the hard country of two
decades earlier like "Cash On The Barrel Head" and "I Don't
Believe You've Met My Baby" by The Louvin Brothers. The
Year's biggest hit was Ray Price's "Crazy Arms," a
Hank-style heartbreak ballad. This was a year in which
record companies allowed the country audience to respond to
the unadorned stuff, which gave Sun a shot,
No one can seriously argue that the biggest shot Sun got
after Elvis wasn't Jerry Lee Lewis with his Pumping Piano,
whose first single, "Crazy Arms," backed with "End of the
Road," recorded in late 1956, immediately established him as
the only stylist who could ever threaten Elvis. Phillips saw
him as someone with that magical combination of talent and
senselessness. The Killer's string of explosions
masquerading as mere pop records - "Whole Lot Of Shakin'
Goin' On," "Great Balls Of Fire," "Breathless," "High School
Confidential," and "Lovin' Up A Storm" ("You Win Again" is
here to showcase his status as the greatest-ever Hank
Williams interpreter) - remain shocking even in these days
of hardcore punk and gangsta rap. The scariest thing about
his Sun recordings may be that nothing about Jerry Lee's
ferocity was ever faked.
Those big bands I recorded at the Peabody [Hotel in Memphis]
were great, but they were so slick," says Sam. "I saw music
as something that should be a little more temper mental. How
I feel tonight is the way I'm gonna play it. I think that's
a part of the personality of the music, and that's one of
the great things about Jerry Lee Lewis. He never played a
damn song back-to-back the same way. He didn't want to do
it, he couldn't do it."
Yet on December 4, 1956 this was all in the future. Jerry
Lee was just a studio hand, augmenting Carl Perkins and his
band while they recorded "Matchbox." Then company showed up.
Johnny Cash walked in unannounced, as did Elvis, already the
most famous man in the western world. The party blossomed
into the studio, Phillips and his pupils began celebrating,
and Cash slipped away to get some shopping done.
Jerry Lee, Carl, and Elvis had all turned to a music career
to avoid the dead ends they sensed elsewhere. All of them
discovered music in church, so it was no surprise that the
common ground they picked when they started harmonizing was
sacred music. Fluid, fervent versions of songs like "Down By
The Riverside" jumped out of them in a relaxed, spontaneous
rush. They sang, joked, shared stories - this session
deserves to be heard in its entirety (See "Suggested Further
Listening"). For a long time this session was known as The
Million Dollar Quartet, but even marked down 25 percent as
the result of Cash's absence, this was a bargain.
Although he wasn't a quartet member, Roy Orbison's sun was
rising as well, even if he later tried to hide from it. For
more than a decade, Roy considered his Sun sessions too
primitive and "hillbilly," but he eventually returned to his
Sun repertoire. "Roy Orbison was one of the most introverted
people," Sam remembers. "Now I know Roy wanted to be a
balladeer, and I didn't want him to be a balladeer at that
particular time. Roy was an extremely good guitarist, a lot
of people don't know that. He was a stylist on the guitar.
He was a hell of a guitar player, and I knew that it was
like with Elvis: He might not have been heard of if all he
sang was ballads, because a lot of people can sing good,
sing ballads. Roy didn't need that at that time. He needed
to catch on like all of our artists did with the younger
crowd. As much as he can deny it, as much as Roy said he
wasn't proud of 'Ooby Dooby,' by God, it got him recognition
with the people he needed recognition with. So I didn't let
any of this stuff disturb me when it came to doing what I
felt the artist was capable of doing to carve his niche."
Although he moved on to make broad, masterful pop records
for major labels, Orbison's thrilling later achievements
inevitably pointed back to Sam Phillips' cramped studio.
Orbison's tenure at Sun lasted barely two years, but this
short period of ceaseless creativity provided Orbison with
lessons he'd put to work with Fred Foster at Monument.
Whether the nonsense verse of "Ooby Dooby" or the teen
dreams of "Devil Doll" and Claudette," Orbison was a
gentleman who could still sound reckless.
Others nearly as talented as Orbison stormed the world for a
brilliant record or two and then disappeared, at least as
far as Sun's audience was concerned. A book could be written
about Sun's greatest rockabilly one-shots or two-shots,
folks like Sonny Burgess (Red-Headed Woman), Onie Wheeler
("Jump Right Out Of This Jukebox"), Carl Mann ("Mona Lisa"),
and the kings of late period rockabilly at Sun, Billy Riley
& His Little Green Men, represented here by "Flying Saucer
Rock And Roll" and "Red Hot," the latter a cover of a blues
tune Billy "The Kid" Emerson had previously written and
recorded at Sun. Each of these fellows enjoyed a few minutes
of genius that earned them a lifetime of cult adoration.
Phillips greatest late-period find was Charlie Rich. Rich
arrived at Sun at the end of its heyday and was groomed to
be a millionaire songwriter. He wrote both sides of a single
for Sun's biggest star of the day, Jerry Lee, but the
Killer's marriage scandal came between Rich and his
Cadillacs. Rich's first record came out in 1958, after a few
false starts, mixed with some turns as a session pianist,
including a date with Jerry Lee. Rich didn't score his first
hit, "Lonely Weekends," until1960.
At Sun, Rich displayed a marvelous eclecticism that came
within shouting distance of Sam Phillip's own - though
Charlie's ideas were more high-toned. He could cut blues,
country, rockabilly, pop, and schmaltz with equal fervor.
All that marred Rich's released Sun singles were obtrusive
arrangements, a situation remedied by this set's remixed
takes of "Who Will The Next Fool Be" and "Don't Put No
Headstone On My Grave."
Hits were sparse for Sun in the '60s (Jerry Lee, the last
great holdout, was gone in 19630, though the label was still
home to many moments of greatness, as evidenced by "Cadillac
Man," a 1966 single by The Jestors, a local blues-rock band
formed by Jerry Phillips, Sam's younger son, and Teddy
Paige, joined briefly by the
one-day-to-be-legendary-in-his-own-right Mississippi madman
Jim Dickinson. All the last gasps should sound this full.
As compelling as all these performers are, they're only the
beginning. I haven't mentioned Marion Keisker or Ike Turner,
each pivotal to the Sun Story. But everything here leads
back to Sam Phillips. The slogan on Sun Records stationery
read "Consistently Better Records for Higher Profits":
Phillip's imagined an untapped audience as vast as any and
went all out to reach it, trusting it would want music
unlike that ever provided by anyone else. Phillips remains
the most important non-performer in popular music because he
enhanced his commercial hunches with a spate of
unprecedented and unrepeatable discoveries. He encouraged
his performers to rock the status quo. He took talents as
different as Joe Hill Louis and The Jesters, Harmonica Frank
and Carl Perkins and uncovered the form in which they best
served themselves. More than merely creating a sound,
Phillips initiated a sensibility, one that reached further
than even he dared imagine when he hung out his Memphis
Recording Service shingle. Nearly half a century after he
first entered 706 Union Avenue, he still inspires, as he
will in another 50 years.
.....Jimmy Gutterman .....June 1994