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 Sun logo on building The Sun Rose 
The World Rocked

A legend in his own lifetime, Sam Phillips changed the world of music in the 1950’s and created a legacy of music for generations still to be born.  He was to discover some of the biggest names in country music and rock 'n' roll.  Sadly Sun Studio enteranceSam Phillips died July 30th 2003 from respiratory failure at Memphis' St. Francis Hospital.  80-year-old legendary record producer Sam Phillips was said to have been in declining health for the past year.

In January 1950 Sam opened Memphis Recording Service, an 18 by 30 foot room at 706 Union Avenue at the junction with Marshall Avenue. Paying a rent of $150 a month and a ten-year lease, Phillips installed recording and transcription equipment with a loan from Buck Turner, a performer at WREC radio station where Phillips hosted a show "Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance".

Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips in 1923, Sam was raised on a three-hundred-acre tenant farm on the Tennessee River near to Florence, Alabama. Sam was forced to leave school in 1941 when his father died, working at a grocery store and later at a funeral parlour. In the book "Good Rockin' Tonight", Sam Phillips says, "I was very sensitive to the things I heard, saw, and felt around me. You see, back then most people died at home in the country areas and often without a lot of warning. Those times working with the country mortician made me very aware of how to handle people and their problems later on".

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips started attending or took correspondence courses in engineering, including audio engineering for radio from the Alabama Polytechnical Institute in Auburn. Phillips first break in radio came in 1940 when he conducted and emceed the band for the college concert. Jim Connally the station manager at WLAY in Muscle Shoals was so impressed by Phillips performance that he offered him a job as an announcer.

In 1942 Phillips married Rebecca (Becky) Burns and they set out together on a journey that would take them to WMSL in Decatur, Alabama, on to Nashville and WLAC and then to Memphis where Phillips took up a position presenting the radio show Songs Of The West on WREC, using the handle "Pardner". Here Sam Phillips also honed his engineering skills and in those days radio shows were often pre-recorded onto 16-inch acetate discs and circulated to other radio stations for broadcasting. In Good Rockin' Tonight, Phillips states, "One of my first jobs was to go to the Home Of The Blues record store and buy any records that WREC weren't getting shipped to them. This went on through the mid to late 40's. I would listen to a lot of what was current, and I would also go play a lot of the older records they had accumulated."

Phillips then started hosting the show Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance and local journalist Edwin Howard recalled, "Phillips played what he liked on that show and talked about the records very knowledgably. He played jazz, blues, and pop, and that was where many people in Memphis first heard his name."

Sam Phillips opened the doors of The Memphis Recording Studio while still Inside  Sun Studioholding down his job at WREC where he continued to present live broadcasts of the big swing bands from the Hotel Peabody until about 1951. A similar venture called Royal Recording had opened in Memphis during 1948 offering the opportunity to record private functions only to close 12 months later. Phillips recalls, "It was because of the closures of the Royal studio downtown that my bosses at WREC warned me against trying to start my own recording business."

For a couple of dollars anybody could go into Phillips studio and make a demo recording. Along with lending Phillips the money to set-up his recording studio, Buck Turner also gave Phillips his first paying gig, recording transcriptions of Turner's band, which were distributed to about 15 - 20 stations around the mid-south. Using a Presto portable tape recorder and a Presto five-input mixer board, Phillips would load the equipment into his car and take bookings for any social or religious event, including weddings and funerals.

With the un-reliability of tape in those days, Phillips would then transfer his recording on to 16-inch acetate discs, which he cut at 78 rpm. He says in the afore mentioned book, "Normally you wouldn't do that. You recorded at 33 rpm on transcriptions, but in order to improve the sound, I recorded at 78 rpm and would make an acetate master from there." With the switch from recording on acetate discs to magnetic tape in 1951, Phillips had to watch his cost due to the high price of the tape and re-use every spare inch of it.

Howlin' Wolf
Howlin Wolf

Seeing the lucrative market that the demo recordings had led to, Phillips started Sun Record Company in the spring of 1952. The famous logo of the silhouetted cockerel against the sun's rays, denoted a new dawn rising....a new day in the history of popular music. For a few hundred dollars Phillips would cut, master, press and promote a record. During an eight-year period Sam Phillips discovered and recorded the likes of B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison and many, many more.

If you go to Memphis today, there are all the essential sights to see. Beale Street where in the 40's & 50's the whole area was alive with blues and R&B.

Graham with Bernard Lansky
Graham with Bernard Lancky

Close by is the Hotel Peabody where you mustn't miss seeing the famous Peabody ducks that live in the penthouse suite and come down each day to swim around the indoor fountain. Lansky Bros Men's Shop is situated in the lobby and 83-year-old Bernard Lansky told me that he first met Elvis when he was admiring the cloths in Lansky's window. Bernard invited Elvis into his shop and Elvis told Lansky that one-day he would buy him out. Bernard Lansky replied "don't buy me out, just buy my cloths". Elvis did from that day on and Bernard told me that he even supplied the suit that Elvis wore in his casket in 1977.

B.B. King with Lucille
B.B. King with "Lucille"

Just off Beale located in the Gibson Guitar Building, we found the Memphis Rock 'N' Soul Museum (part of the Smithsonian Institution), offering an interactive history with slices of R&B, Blues and Soul music, between the 1930's and 1970's. Also exhibited are stage cloths belonging to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and B.B. King's love of his life; "Lucille".

Sun Studio now run a free mini bus that does a circular trip, running every hour from Beale, stopping at The Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis's home of Graceland and finally Sun Studio. For a few dollars you can join an escorted tour of Sun Studio which is still a working recording studio. The tour has been voted the best guided tour and your guide narrates the Sun Story.

Jackie Brenston
Jackie Brenston

Originally Sam Phillips interest was strongly drawn towards black, or as it was known at the time...race music...blues and R&B. To this day Phillips says that his greatest discovery was Howlin' Wolf. B.B. King was one of the race artistes Phillips had been recording and he passed the word to bandleader Ike Turner that "the market was open". In 1951 Turner arrived in Memphis with his band the Delta Cats, featuring the young vocalist Jackie Brenston. Guitarist Willie Kizart's amp fell off the top of the car breaking the speaker cone. As they couldn't get it fixed, Phillips took a chance and over-amplified it, making a centrepiece of the rhythm track as Kizart played a simple boogie riff in unison with Turner's piano on a number called "Rocket 88". Released on the Chess label, Phillips later depicted "Rocket 88" as the first rock 'n' roll record. The record was released in April of 51, made the charts by May and a #1 hit in June.

The Prisonaires
The Prisonaires

The most unlikeliest of vocal groups to be recorded by Phillips were a five-piece black singing group who called themselves The Prisonairs. All inmates at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, the group was formed by lead singer Johnny Bragg in 1943. The Prisonairs had regular gigs at two local radio stations, WSOK and WSIX as part of warden James Edwards' rehabilitation program. One of the songs written by Bragg and fellow inmate, Robert Riley was "Walking In The Rain". Phillips negotiated for the Prisonairs to be brought to Memphis on June 1st 1953 for a recording session. The Prisonairs nailed "Walking In The Rain" with perfection and it was released two weeks later. Johnny Ray took the same song to #2 in the US and #1 in the British pop charts in 1956. The writer's first royalty cheque was for $1,400...Bragg mistook the sum for $14 and asked the warden to deposit it in the commissary cash register, so that he could buy some cigarettes and candy.


Elvis Presley is by far the most acknowledged artiste to make his debut, recording at Sun studios. For $4 you could go into Sun and record two sides for a personal recording. The popular myth about Elvis coming into Sun Records to make a recording of "My Happiness" coupled with "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" for his mother's birthday in the summer of 53, was probably a fabrication put out by Colonel Tom Parker years later. It is said that Elvis's family were too poor to own a record player and that his mother's birthday was in the spring. It is thought that Elvis was just curious as to how he would sound on a recording and gave the disc to a friend Ed Leek, who's grandparents owned a record player. Presley continued to call into Sun studio on frequent occasions over the next year or so and made a couple more private recordings.

Marion Keisker who worked at WREC with Phillips, became his office manager while still working part time at the radio station. Along with Sam and his brother Jud, Marion dealt with the day-to-day contact, nurturing the distribution network and radio contacts that Sun Records needed, along with the pressing plants. Phillips has often been quoted as saying "If I could find a white boy who can sing like a Negro I could make me a million dollars." It is widely recounted that it was Marion who steered Phillips towards Elvis. In July 1954 Elvis was joined by Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar to record two sides, "That's All Right" with "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", Bill Monroe's 1947 hit on the B-side. The recording was rushed to a DJ friend of Sam's, Dewey Phillips (not related) who hosted WHBQ's Red Hot & Blue. Dewey announced "This is Red Hot and Blue comin' atcha from the magazine floor of Hotel Chisca. And now we got somethin' new gonna cut loose, cut LOOSE! Good people, this is Elvis Presley"

Dewey Phillips

Dewey Phillips 

Dewey created local demand for Elvis and the phone calls started coming in with requests for repeat plays. Dewey conducted Presley's first on-air interview. Dewey told Memphis writer Stanley Booth, "When the phone calls started to come in I got hold of Elvis's daddy Vernon. He said Elvis was at a movie down at Suzore's #2 theatre. 'Get him over here,' I said. Before long Elvis came running in. 'Sit down, I'm gone interview you,' I said. He said, 'Mr Phillips, I don't know nuthin' about being interviewed.' 'Just don't say nuthin dirty, ' I told him. He sat down and I told him I'd let him know when I was ready to start. I had a couple of records cued up and while they played we talked. Finally I said, 'Alright Elvis, thank you very much.' Aren't you gone interview me?' he asked. 'I already have,' I said, 'the mikes been open the whole time.' He broke out into a cold sweat."

Bill Black, Elvis and Scotty Moore

Elvis with Bill Black & Scotty Moore

"That's All Right" and "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" gained local interest and Elvis's follow-up, the R&B "Good Rockin Tonight" with "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine" on the flip side cracked the local Memphis country charts in November 1954. Another couple of singles made very little impression with sales heading downward. In early 1955 Elvis recorded "Baby Let's Play House", which was coupled with "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone" kept over from the 1954 recording session. The single made #5 on the national country charts and later that year Elvis made #1 with "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" and the R&B number "Mystery Train" on the B side.

Phillips was having a problem with his cash low, distributors took batches of records, but were slow in paying for them. Sam also owed money to his brother Jud as part of a payout agreement. It is said that Phillips was in debt for $25,000 and heading for bankruptcy. By October 1955 Sam finally paid off Jud with $14,000, draining the last of Sam's cash and leaving him as the sole owner of Sun Records.

During 1955 Colonel Tom Parker came into the picture. Parker and Canadian country singer Hank Snow formed a company called Jamboree Attractions. Bob Neal had taken over as Elvis's manager and he called on Parker's services as a booking agent, who set-up a couple of tours for Presley in February. Parker was angling to become Presley's manager and due to his relationship with Hank Snow and Eddie Arnold (who both recorded on RCA Victor), Parker secured a recording contract for Presley with RCA in November. A deal was drawn up between Parker, RCA and the music publishing company Hill & Range to purchase Presley's contract from Sam Phillips. Phillips received a total of $35,000 from RCA, Parker and Hill & Range, with Elvis receiving $5,000 in back royalties...Colonel Tom Parker took over as Elvis's manager and as they say...the rest is all history!

Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet

This is not the end of Elvis's association with Sun Records. On December 4, 1956 a recording session with Car Perkins was winding down. Jerry Lee Lewis had been playing piano on the session. Presley had called in and was listening to the playbacks. They started singing and playing together and Phillips called newspaperman Robert Johnson saying that there might be a story and photo opportunity. Phillips also called Johnny Cash, who was on Sun's books at that time. Even though Presley was now signed with RCA, Phillips switched on the mikes and recorder while the jam session took place, with a range of country, gospel and hits of the day. The session later came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet jam session.

A mix of rock 'n' roll and country music brought about a short-lived style known as rockabilly. Johnny Cash was one of rockabilly's first Stars. Johnny Cash lived close to Sun Records and had been rehearsing regularly with guitarist Luther Perkins and Marshal Grant who had just started playing bass. He felt that they had it right and started calling in at Sun every day asking to see Mr Phillips, but always told he was not in yet, or he was at a meeting. Finally Cash was waiting outside when Phillips came into work. He said "I'm John Cash and I want you to hear me play." Phillips invited Cash in and liked what he heard, inviting Cash to return with his group. Their music at that time was all religious and Phillips told Cash that at no time could he merchandise him as a religious artiste.

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

Cash had written "Folsom Prison Blues" which was actually an adaptation of Gordon Jenkins tune "Crescent City Blues". Cash recorded "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Hey! Porter". Phillips wasn't too keen on "Folsom Prison Blues" and Cash came up with "Cry, Cry, Cry" which was backed with "Hey! Porter" and released as the first single. Phillips gave Cash the handle Johnny and named Grant and Perkins The Tennessee Two. "Cry, Cry, Cry" made #1 on the Memphis country charts in September and entered the national chats for one week in November 1954.

In July 1955 rerecorded "Folsom Prison Blues" which was backed with "So Dogone Lonesome", but as "Cry, Cry, Cry" was still doing well Phillips held off the release until December. In 1956 Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two topped the country charts for 11 weeks with "I Walk The Line".

Carl Perkins

Carl Perkins

In 1955 Presley, Cash and Carl Perkins had briefly toured together. Carl Perkins started a trio with his brothers Jay and Clayton, calling themselves the Perkins Brothers Band and in 1956 found themselves at the top of the pop charts. "Blue Suede Shoes" has been cited to be the first rock 'n' roll hit. In early December 1955, Carl and his brothers had worked on the new song and in the studio Phillips committed 3 cuts to tape. Originally the words were "three to get ready, now go boy go"...Phillips suggests that they change it to "go cat go" and change "drink my corn" to "drink my liquor". "Blue Suede Shoes" was coupled with "Honey, Don't" and released under Carl's name in January 1956. By February 11 "Blue Suede Shoes" has entered the local Memphis country charts at #2. The following week it makes #1 and by March enters the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "Blue Suede Shoes" finally peaks at #2 on Billboard selling 20,000 copies a day.

Barely in his twenties, Jerry Lee Lewis blew into town and found himself outside the door of Sun Records in November 1956. Sam Phillips offered Jerry Lee the opportunity to show what he could do. With a hunger for music in his eye, Jerry Lee impressed Sam Phillips enough for him to recognise the talent that Lewis possessed. Jerry lee Lewis's proved to be Sun's biggest seller with a reputation that rests squarely on his Sun recordings, amounting to just four Top Ten hits..."Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", "Great Balls Of Fire", "Breathless" and "High School Confidential".

Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis
Cash, Orbison and Lewis

Roy Orbison with the Teen Kings came to Sun in April 1956 to record "Ooby Dooby". In May Phillips called them to say that the record was breaking in Memphis and other markets and finally made #59 on Billboard Hot 100 selling around 200,000 copies. Orbison's follow-up "Rockhouse" coupled with Johnny Cash's "You're My Baby" was released in September. While rehearsing for a third Sun single, "Sweet And Easy To Love" with "Devil Doll" on the B-side, Orbison and the Teen Kings had a falling out during rehearsals and the band broke up right there in the studio.

Charlie Rich, Charlie Feathers and Carl Mann were less prominent artistes who made their mark with Sun Records. "Mona Lisa" had been a hit for Nat King Cole in 1951. Carl Mann was part of a vocal group who were at Sun records for a recording session with another singer. When the guy had a problem with his car, Carl Mann started playing "Mona Lisa" on the piano. Sun's promotion manager Cecil Scaife turned on the recording machine, but when Sam Phillips listened to the recording, he showed very little interest. While in town, Conway Twitty called at Sun to see if they had anything of interest on their publishing catalogue. He took a shine to "Mona Lisa" and put it out on an LP and then MGM released it as part of an EP, which drew a lot of airplay in the Midwest. Scaife had every confidence in Mann's recoding and told Phillips that he was going to put out a promo version at the forthcoming DJ convention at Miami. Consequently Carl Mann's version of "Mona Lisa" took off and peaked at #25 on the Billboard Charts. After trying to follow-up with songs like "Pretend", "Some Enchanted Evening" and "The Wayward Wind", a second hit eluded Carl Mann and his career slipped swiftly into decline.

Charlie Rich
Charlie Rich

Sam Phillips admits that "I don't think I ever recorded anyone who was better as a singer, writer and player than Charlie Rich," he says "It is all so effortless; the way he moves from rock to country to blues to jazz." When Rich first came to Sun arranger Bill Justis gave him some Jerry Lee Lewis records and said, "Come back when you can get that bad." Soon Rich was playing on sessions at Sun. Rich was one of those artistes that Phillips didn't know what best to do with him in the studio, so he let Rich do whatever he wanted in the hope of capturing that little gem that would come out of spontaneity....that touch of serendipity. In 1960 Charlie Rich recorded his first hit "Lonely Weekends" making #22 on Billboard. Rich recorded 80 songs at Sun with only10 singles and one album being released at that time.

Charlie Feathers first recorded for Sun in 1955 with the song "Defrost Your Heart". Feathers claimed to have co-written "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", but did in fact co-wrote Elvis's first hit "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" with Stan Kesler. Charlie Feathers had a minor hit with "I've Been Deceived" coupled with the bluegrass tinged "Peepin Eyes". His second single was "Wedding Gown of White" which sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Feathers recorded a rockabilly version of the old swing number "Corrine, Corrina", but got impatient when Phillips didn't release the single, going over to the Meteor studio and recorded rockabilly classics "Tongue Tied Jill" and "Get With It."

In 1957 Sam Phillips launched a second label Sun International, boasting offices in New York, Hollywood and Memphis, with the label covering a wider variety of music including pop and jazz. Unfortunately the label never really took off due to Phillips lack of commitment to promotion and advertising and folded in 1963. By 1958 Sam Phillips had realised that the recording conditions at his studio on Union Avenue was too cramped and there was a need to replace the equipment with new multitrack recording equipment and state of the art Neumann cutting lathes. Phillips also wanted to diversify into custom recording by hiring out his recording studio. New premises were found at 639 Madison Avenue and Phillips gutted out the interior and installed two new recoding studios, with publishing offices on the third floor. In 1960 Scotty Moore was brought from Fernwood Records to be the studio manager and chief cutting engineer and Charles Underwood was hired as A&R manager and assistant engineer to join Bill Fitzgerald (general manger) and Cecil Scaife (promotion manager). Problems started from the very beginning; the architect was drafted into the services...the roof leaked so badly that Everytime it rained the mop & bucket brigade had to turn out and the opening was delayed by 6 months. The acoustics were poor with a hollow sound and the studio had none of the atmosphere that had been created at 706 Union.

Jerry Lee Lewis with Sam Phillips
Jerry Lee Lewis
& Sam Phillips

With the success of Bradley's Barn in Nashville , Phillips decided to branch out and leased office space in the Cumberland Lodge building for his publishing company. In the same building Billy Sherrill and Bill Cooner had built a small recording studio which was on the point of bankruptcy. Phillips took it over and hired Sherrill as his engineer. Jerry Lee Lewis made the inaugural session and cut "What'd I Say" and Charlie Rich recorded "Who Will The Next Fool Be". Phillip sold the studio in 1964 after being plagued by minor problems.

The final record released by was in January 1968 by a group dubbed Load Of Mischief. One side of the disc was riffs from the Stax Record catalogue and the flip side was from Motown. Sam Phillips says, "The basic reason that Sum did not become a major label was that I preferred to invest my time in other things. I didn't want to hook up with a major corporation because I knew I couldn't do the job the way I wanted to do it as part as a big company….even though I had several offers." When Sun had stopped releasing new product, Sam Phillips sold Sun Records to Louisiana businessman Shelby Singleton in July 1969. Phillips had never had any confidence in the LP market, but during the first year since Singleton had purchased the Sun catalogue he issued more Sun product than Phillips had in 15 years. Sam was very shroud with his money, buying radio stations and investing in one of the biggest hotel chains in the USA…The Holiday Inn.

The old Sun studio stood empty at 706 Union for 25 years. All the old hillbilly cats who had recorded at Sun in the beginning, convinced Sam Phillips to restore the studio back to it's former glory with a reunion that came to be known as "The Class Of 55". On the Sun Studio tour they are proud to tell you that Sun Studio is still a working studio and that many names famous and not so famous have recorded there; names that include Ringo Starr and Ireland's U2.

 shuttle bus outside Sun StudioBack on the bus which returns to each venue an hour later and the driver Mike Freeman, who now lives in Elvis's first Memphis home on Audubon Drive, points out Forest Hill cemetery where Elvis and his mother Gladys were first laid to rest and also the Baptist Memorial Hospital (which is now closed) where he was taken after being found on his bathroom floor in 1977.

Perhaps if there hadn't been Sam Phillips and Sun Records, these names may never have become the "Stars" that have shone so bright!!!