Sam Phillips 1956


Sam Phillips 1999

    Sam Phillips and the Birth of Rock and Roll - 
      The World & I Online Magazine 
      by Eric P. Olsen

      The founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips was the first to record Elvis 
      Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin' Wolf, Ike 
      Turner, and many others, igniting a revolution that has shaped American 
      popular music ever since. Here, he gives a rare interview. 

      t was a seat-of-your-pants operation. For four dollars you could walk off 
      the street and cut a record. The business cards for the Memphis Recording 
      Service promised to "record anything--anywhere--any time." Not exactly a 
      bid for artistic exclusivity. 
              The founder and sound engineer, Sam Phillips, had entertained a 
      steady stream of local black talent, most of whom had never seen the 
      inside of a recording studio, and was leasing some sides to R&B labels 
      with notable success. In 1951 Phillips recorded local disk jockey and 
      aspiring blues artist B.B. King and shortly thereafter recorded "Rocket 
      88" by Jackie Benston and Ike Turner, often cited by music historians as 
      the first rock and roll record. 
              Phillips also recorded bar mitzvahs and political speeches, and on 
      one occasion he recorded a car muffler and testified in court about its 
      decibel range. This was business, although the recording service and the 
      independent label that Phillips spun off of it, Sun Records, barely paid 
      the rent. 
              Then in the summer of 1953 a painfully shy young truck driver 
      wandered in to record a couple of sentimental songs for his mother. He 
      hung around over the next few months, and Phillips made a mental note of 
      the young man with the strange name and even stranger appearance, Elvis 
      Presley. There was something in that voice, he thought. 
              Phillips was solicitous of just such unpolished talent. Indeed, he 
      had staked his tenuous fortune on the artistic enfranchisement of the poor 
      and the racially marginalized--those who had never had the opportunity to 
      record. Phillips mentioned Presley to a couple of session men and finally 
      decided to call the kid in. After a lackluster afternoon performing a 
      repertoire of pop songs and ballads, Presley idly picked up his guitar and 
      began to play around with a blues song, "That's Alright Mama." 
              This anonymous moment with the microphone turned off could so 
      easily have signified nothing. "I was surprised Elvis even knew the song," 
      Phillips later said. No matter. What he heard, and what he understood 
      about what he heard, changed American musical history. For he saw that 
      Presley infused the simple country blues with an emotion and legitimacy 
      that defied classification.
         Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, c. 1956.
              Phillips quickly recorded the song and took it to local disc 
      jockey Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam). Dewey shared with Sam Phillips 
      an ardent admiration for the blues and black music, and the listening 
      audience of his broadcast Red Hot and Blue was arguably the most 
      integrated in the South. "There are two kinds of people in Memphis," wrote 
      the Press-Scimitar: "those who are amused and fascinated by Dewey, and 
      those who, when they accidentally tune in, jump as though stung by a 
              When Phillips played the recording, Dewey "was reticent, and I was 
      glad that he was," Phillips said in a later interview. "If he hadn't been 
      reticent, it would have scared me to death. . . . What I was thinking was, 
      where are you going to go with this, it's not black, it's not white, it's 
      not pop, it's not country, and I think Dewey was the same way." 
              Dewey called Phillips the next morning. He couldn't sleep for 
      thinking about that record, he said, and he wanted it to play on his show 
      that night. 
              And so he did, and he played it again and again as phone calls 
      jammed the station lines, and American popular music began a slow rotation 
      around an axis suddenly fixed at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis--the home of 
      Sun Records and the most exclusive address in the history of rock and 

      Rising Sun 

      hillips and Presley returned to the studio to record the flip side a 
      couple days later. This remake of the Bill Monroe bluegrass classic "Blue 
      Moon of Kentucky" takes another entire genre of vernacular music and 
      charges it as with a bolt of lightning. On an early take, you can even 
      hear Phillips exclaim, "Hell, that's different! That's a pop song now!" (a 
      sentiment not lost on Monroe, who rerecorded the song up tempo after 
      hearing Presley's version). 
              Thus on a single 45, the full outline of a coming musical tsunami 
      had taken form: An obscure blues tune was transformed into an almost 
      celebratory anthem, and a lilting bluegrass standard was unmoored from any 
      recognizable country roots and transformed into a raucous, blues-tinged 
      pop song. 
              But the Presley-Phillips collaboration did more. By spontaneously 
      fusing disparate pop and folk influences, their recordings opened a new 
      emotional range that popular music had hitherto not explored. One has only 
      to listen to the leading pop singers of the day--say, Perry Como or Doris 
      Day--to appreciate the emotional insurgency that Presley's uninhibited 
      style represented. The music "expressed a kind of pure joyousness," wrote 
      Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, "a sense of soaring release that in 
      such self-conscious times as ours seems unlikely ever to be recaptured." 
              This was certainly confirmed by Presley's stage performances, 
      which, like his singing, began as an altogether spontaneous and 
      unrehearsed extension of his highly charged musical inspiration. 
      Performers who had the misfortune of following Presley could only shake 
      their heads in disbelief. For nothing like Presley had ever been seen, and 
      the emotion wrung 
         Today, the legendary Sun Studio is a museum and specialty recording 
        studio.from the listening audience left the hapless follow-up performer 
      with the cold comfort of a time-honored stage cliché: "that's a hard act 
      to follow." 
              The fortuitous meeting of Presley and Phillips held the drama and 
      poignancy of the coming together of separated lovers, the former embodying 
      an inchoate yearning and promise, the latter a purposeful and willful 
      quest. And there was effectively no venue where such a convergence of 
      talent and sense of mission could have taken place other than the musical 
      melting pot of Memphis. "I know that Elvis couldn't have walked into any 
      other recording studio in the United States," claimed Marion Keisker, a 
      receptionist and close associate of Phillips at the time, in an A&E 
      biography of the Sun Records founder. The reaction that poured forth from 
      Memphis over Elvis' recording, she said, "stands as the point where I 
      realized that society was ready to change." 
              Sun Studio, indeed, was nothing less than a laboratory for a new, 
      youth-oriented sound that became the common ancestor of nearly all 
      American popular music ever since. Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee 
      Lewis, and Roy Orbison--all products of a poor southern background and 
      first recorded by Phillips--unapologetically borrowed from the blues, 
      country, and gospel. Rock and roll standards like Perkins' "Blue Suede 
      Shoes," Cash's "I Walk the Line," and Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going 
      On" were electrifying examples of the fusion of folk and southern gospel 
      traditions. These artists, with the preeminent addition of Presley, laid 
      the groundwork for the wide integration of black music and black 
      performers into the mostly white commercial marketplace. 
              Yet Phillips' own estimation of his legacy depends perhaps less on 
      the success he found at Sun Studio than on his earlier pioneering work 
      with black 
         Part of the display on Mississippi Delta blues in the new Memphis 
        Rock'n Soul Museum.performers. In 1949 Phillips had established the 
      Memphis Recording Service, which recorded for Chess and other rhythm and 
      blues labels before being reconstituted as Sun Records. Seeking "to record 
      those people who didn't have an opportunity to record," Phillips coaxed 
      some heretofore unknown blues artists into the studio for the first time, 
      including Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter Horton, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. B.B. 
      King, recorded by Phillips at the beginning of his career, went to become 
      arguably the most acclaimed and influential artist of the genre. 
              Another typical product of Phillips' iconoclastic vision was his 
      decision to launch the nation's first all-girls radio station in October 
      1955, WHER. "You're looking at a crazy man," was Phillips' explanation to 
      this writer. "I wasn't trying to revolutionize the world," he also allowed 
      at an October 1999 ceremony recognizing him at the Museum of Television 
      and Radio in New York City. "The girls' voices were warm without being 
      oozy. They didn't try to be sexy or too sweet. It was just making contact 
      with people--male, female, hermaphrodite." 

      A Life in Music 

      t seventy-eight, Phillips is by any standard a remarkable specimen. With a 
      piercing gaze, a head of brown hair, and full beard without a trace of 
      gray, Phillips looks every bit the patriarch of postwar American music. 
      The first nonperformer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 
      Phillips combines the magnetism of a rock star with the courtliness of a 
      patrician southern planter. (Once asked how it is he looks so young, 
      Phillips characteristically explained, "I chase women every day, but I 
      don't know what the hell to do with them when I catch them.") 
              Phillips speaks in a gloriously unreconstructed southern drawl, 
      and with a conviction about his lifework that has not diminished over the 
      decades. Listening to him reflect on his motivations and early experiences 
      became almost a guilty pleasure. For he does not give many interviews, and 
      the warmth of his responses was a testimony to the passion he still feels 
      not just toward music but toward the recognition due the artistically 
              The son of poor tenant farmers, Phillips worked in the cotton 
      fields of Alabama with black field laborers in childhood. I ask him about 
      those early years and the attraction he felt toward southern black folk 
      music when it was accorded neither artistic respect nor commercial 
              "I worked in the fields when I was this high," Phillips answers, 
      measuring his height as a toddler. "A day didn't go by when I didn't hear 
      black folks singing in the cotton fields. Did I feel sorry for them? In a 
      way I did. But they could do things I couldn't do. They could outpick me. 
      They could sing on pitch. That made a big impression on me. 
              "You see, we've forgotten how much they have sacrificed to please 
      the white man," Phillips says. "For years white people have denied what 
      this old black man with four strings on his guitar could do, just saying, 
      'OK, let's hear this nigger play.' A black man playing for white folks was 
      'fun,' but that was all. 
              "The black man gave up so many things that were important to him 
      just to survive and to please. But think about the complexity, yet 
      simplicity of music we have gained from hard times--from the sky, the 
      wind, and the earth. If you don't have a foundation, you don't know what 
      the hell I'm talking about."
         The Clarksdale, Mississippi, cotton field that gave the world the 
        bluesman Muddy Waters. Phillips knew the hardships of working the cotton 
        fields, as did many of the artists he would come to record.
              "We were very poor," Phillips continues. "We had eight children 
      and lost everything in the Depression. But I will say this: there was an 
      indigenous part of me that looked for something different in life. I had a 
      certain temperament. I didn't care what people thought of me. In this way 
      I was like Elvis. We both had walked in their shoes. And there wasn't 
      anybody poorer than Elvis or Carl Perkins. 
              "You may ask whether or not that was fortunate," Phillips says of 
      those hardships. "Hell, that was fortunate. For look what has come from 
      adversity. The blues, it got people--black and white--to think about life, 
      how difficult, yet also how good it can be. They would sing about it; they 
      would pray about it; they would preach about it. This is how they relieved 
      the burden of what existed day in and day out. It is hard that it had to 
      happen, but it did happen."

            "Look what has come from adversity. The blues, it got people-black 
            and white-to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it 
            can be.

              Keisker recalled that in the early days of Sun Records, Phillips 
      frequently remarked, "If I could find a white man who could sing with the 
      natural feel and sound of a black man I could make a million dollars." 
      What he found in Presley, and what became the signature sound of Sun 
      Studio, was not only the natural sound of the southern black but the 
      integration of this sound with traditional country--so-called rockabilly. 
      Like "race" music, country ("hillbilly") music had a slightly déclassé 
      air. Country purists, moreover, were aghast at the uses traditional 
      country was put to by the likes of Presley--at least until record sales on 
      country charts began to experience the Presley effect. 
              Like the blues, country music drew inspiration from hard times, 
      and Phillips says this accounts for the essential continuity between 
      country and the blues, and the timelessness of the greatest country and 
      blues artists. 
              "If you lived through the Depression," Phillips says, "you knew 
      hard times, wondering if the next town, or the one after that, might have 
      a little work. You'd see people all around the water tower waiting for a 
      train. There weren't many choices. If you wanted to go somewhere you had 
      to hobo, you had to get on a damn freight train. I remember the first 
      record I ever heard: 
        All around the water tank, just waiting for a train 
        A thousand miles away from home, just sleeping in the rain. 
        And I walked up to a brakeman just to give him a line of talk 
        He said if you've got money I'll see that you don't walk. 
        I haven't got a nickel not a penny can I show. 
        Git off, git off you railroad bum, and he slammed the boxcar door. 
      "Can a poet write that? That was Jimmy Rogers, the Singing Brakeman. And 
      that's how life treated so many people who couldn't help themselves. How 
      can a young person today relate to someone waiting for a train? It's 
      because they've been treated like that, just not on a railroad track. 
              "Now we've learned so much from some of these people we thought 
      were ignorant, who never had any responsibility other than chopping 
      cotton, feeding the mules, or making sorghum molasses. When people come 
      back to this music in a hundred years, they'll see these were master 
      painters. They may be illiterate. They can't write a book about it. But 
      they can make a song, and in three verses you'll hear the greatest damn 
      story you'll ever hear in your life." 

      Memphis and Beale Street 

      lorence, Alabama, has the distinction of having given birth to two 
      forebears of American music: W.C. Handy, the father of the blues, and Sam 
      Phillips, the father of rock and roll. Handy migrated to Memphis as a 
      young man; Phillips followed a generation later--partly for the same 
      reason: Beale Street. A magnet for blacks throughout the South, Beale 
      Street was the nexus for that rich vein of folk tradition that formed a 
      central root of American music throughout the twentieth century: the 
      Mississippi Delta blues. The hardscrabble laborers of the delta brought 
      their hungers and sorrows--and their art--when they came to live out their 
      dreams on Beale Street, if only for a night. 
              Philips first encountered the sounds of legendary Beale Street in 
      1939, when he came through Memphis on a trip to Dallas to hear a noted 
      Baptist preacher. He later took a job in Decatur, Alabama, as a radio 
      announcer. "I was mediocre," says Phillips. "I got a lot of South in my 
      mouth--I don't have to tell you that. Well, my boss told me about a job in 
      Memphis. I walked into the WREC studio in the Peabody Hotel, and just down 
      the block was Beale Street, and I thought, 'Wow.' — SIDEBAR —
            Memphis: Musical Melting Pot

              "I had in my mind that I wanted to live in Memphis," says 
      Phillips. "Something led me. Something guided me beyond my conscious 
      efforts. To get that opportunity was like a door opening for me. 
              "I may not know much," Phillips continues, "but I do know sound. 
      And here I am thinking about opening a little recording studio--for one 
      reason: I wanted to record black people, those folks who never had the 
      opportunity to record. My unconscious mind was just saying I should do it. 

              "I rented 706 Union in 1949 and finally opened for business on 
      January 1, 1950. I had the hardest time in the world convincing them that 
      the audition was for 

            "I don't care about making a hit record. That's what I used to tell 
            them. I only care about making a good record."

      free, that they weren't going to be charged for it on the way out the 
      door. Elvis was the same way, so shy about it that he wasn't going to ask. 

              "I knew we had to get young white people involved or it wasn't 
      going to succeed," Phillips adds. "Jazz could have reached the young 
      people as something they could have called their own. But it was taken and 
      smothered by adults. The teenage years are the toughest years of your 
      life. Take the child who has so much problem mixing and mingling with 
      other people. Music can be the greatest educator in the world for helping 
      such people. 
              "Then Elvis walked in the door, and I knew this was exactly what I 
      was looking for. Elvis cut a ballad, which was just excellent. I can tell 
      you, both Elvis and Roy Orbison could tear a ballad to pieces. But I said 
      to myself, 'You can't do that, Sam.' If I had released a ballad I don't 
      think you would have heard of Elvis Presley. "I'm a hell of a taskmaster," 
      Phillips says with a laugh. "But there's times that you use that and 
      there's times that you use something else." 
         Sam Phillips signs one of the author's original Sun Records hits. To 
        his left is one of Phillips' two Grammy awards.
              Phillips shares with that other great chronicler of 
      twentieth-century folk music, Alan Lomax, a gift for capturing the musical 
      capabilities of the unrecognized. As with Lomax, this ability was rooted 
      in trust, an empathy that enabled the humblest, most unsophisticated folk 
      artist to relax and perform with the full measure of his innate talent. 
              "So many black people started out trying to play something to 
      'please' the white man behind the glass, thinking, 'He don't want to hear 
      what I do out on the back porch,' " says Phillips. "But that was exactly 
      what I was after. I don't care about making a hit record. That's what I 
      used to tell them. I only care about making a good record." 
              Peter Guralnick has said that Sam Phillips "almost single-handedly 
      authored one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of American 
      popular music." But more telling than the academic question of influence 
      is the tangible legacy of joy his pioneering work has brought to so many, 
      even to the remotest provinces of the world. "There is music and there is 
      everything else," Phillips says simply. "Music has done more to bring glad 
      news and to bring nations and peoples into an understanding of each other 
      than anything else. I don't care what anybody says. All the diplomacies in 
      the world can't hold a candle to that one damn common denominator called 

      Eric P. Olsen is associate executive editor of The World & I.

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