The Sun Sound

The Sun Sound is music that's good because it possesses intangible qualities; music of feeling, emotion and passion. The Sun Sound is music that transports you to memories of happiness and friendship. Music that still touches you today. The Sun Sound began when Sam Phillips launched his record company in February of 1952.
He named it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism: a new day and a new beginning. Sam rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue for his own all-purpose studio. The label was launched amid a growing number of independent labels. In a short while Sun gained the reputation throughout Memphis as a label that treated local artists with respect and honesty.
Sam provided a non-critical, spontaneous environment that invited creativity and vision.

As a businessman, Phillips was patient and willing to listen to almost anyone who came in off the street to record. Memphis was a happy home to a diverse musical scene: gospel, blues, hillbilly, country, boogie, and western swing. Taking advantage of this range of talent, there were no style. there were no style limitations at the label.
In one form or another Sun recorded them all.

Then in 1954 Sam found Elvis Presley, an artist who could perform with the excitement, unpredictability and energy of a blues artist but could reach across regional,
musical and racial barriers. Dubbed a Country charts on a national basis. He helped form the beginnings of the Sun Sound by infusing Country music with R&B.
Elvis's bright star attracted even more ground-breaking talent to the Sun galaxy. Listed among his contemporaries and lab mates were Johnny Cash, the inimitable Jerry Lee Lewis,
and the "Rockin' Guitar Man", Carl Perkins. These four soon became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Right behind them came Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis,
Harold Jenkins (a.k. Conway Twitty) and other equally memorable musical talents. All eventually sold on Pop, R&B and Country charts and grew to international fame.

Rockabilly became the major evolution in the Sun Sound. Lyrically it was bold. Musically it was sparse. But it moved. In the 1950's Country music rarely used drums that were so vital to jazz, blues, and jump bands. In fact, drums were prohibited on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. However, Rockabilly drums played an essential role in driving teens across the nation to become enamored with the Rockabilly movement and the revolutionary Sun Sound. Once again, Sun was able to break new ground recording music of unparalleled diversity in an incubator of creativity. Inherent in the music of Sun is a vibrancy that survives to this day. Sincere, passionate music. Music that has stood the test of time. It is music that has reached across race,
age and gender boundaries. It reflects the diversity and vision of the talent that recorded on the Sun label.
It All Started Here "When All Hell Broke Loose"

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 Fifties.
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 Fire" and
"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 Sun obligations.

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 California.

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 ever issued.

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

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