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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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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