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Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips, 1923–2003

Last Train to Memphis, the first of Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, is of course about Elvis, but Sam Phillips emerges as just as great a hero. It’s generally a mistake to give an entrepreneur as much credit as the artists he "discovers." But Sam Phillips is a special case.

Phillips, who died on July 30 in Memphis at the age of 80, is also credited with the line "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars." Phillips used to say this "over and over," remembers his former secretary and right-hand woman at Sun Records, Marion Keisker, as quoted in Gurlanick’s 1971 collection, Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ’n’ Roll. On the surface, you’d have to say this was the ultimate statement of entrepreneurial opportunism. Phillips long disavowed the comment. The New York Times obituary cited a 1978 piece from that paper in which Phillips said, "That quote is an injustice both to the whites and the blacks. I was trying to establish an identity in music, and black and white had nothing to do with it."

But you could say that black and white had everything to do with it. As a white man from Alabama, raised on his father’s farm where he picked cotton, Phillips had always been drawn to black music. When he later recorded black artists like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, his appraisal was, "This is where the soul of man never dies."

In fact, he got into the record business specifically to record black artists. Besides Wolf and B.B., Phillips also recorded what is often considered the first genuine rock-and-roll record, Jackie Brenston’s 1951 "Rocket ‘88.’" But there was a ceiling on selling blues and R&B by black performers. They just couldn’t break through to a white audience. "They liked the music, but they weren’t sure whether they ought to like it or not," Phillips says of Southern white teenagers in Last Train to Memphis. Elvis was a way to break the color barrier, to bring black music to the rest of America, to give white kids permission to listen to black music — in Guralnick’s words, to "democratize American culture."

After Elvis’s breakthrough "That’s All Right," Phillips went on to record Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and many more. Last Train to Memphis depicts an epic confrontation between Phillips and Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. "These were two very strong, independent men with two very different visions of life," writes Guralnick. "Sam’s embraced the sweep of history; it very consciously conjured up the agrarian hero as the focus of the democratic dream. The Colonel’s vision, on the other hand, denied history; it centered on the here and now, focusing on survival by wit and instinct in a universe that was indifferent at best. There was room enough for sentiment in the Colonel’s view but little for philosophy; Sam was perhaps less inclined to the sentimental gesture but more to the humanitarian impulse."

The difference between Tom Parker and Sam Phillips was the difference between a colorful businessman and a visionary. The rock-and-roll revolution owes everything to Sam Phillips.

From the Boston Phoenix
Issue Date: August 8-14, 2003

Sam Phillips/Sun Records Timeline

Jan. 5, 1923
Sam Phillips is born in Florence, Ala.

June 1945
Phillips moves to Memphis, taking a job as an announcer and maintenance and broadcast engineer at WREC.

Oct. 1, 1949
Phillips signs a lease on a storefront at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis.

Phillips opens Memphis Recording Service and begins recording several local blues artists, including B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and James Cotton.

Phillips records "Rocket 88" with singer Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner's band for Chess Records. This recording, widely considered the first rock 'n' roll record, hits No. 1 on the R & B chart. Phillips records "How Many More Years/Moanin' At Midnight," the first single by Howlin' Wolf.

Phillips launches his own label, Sun Records, with the release of "Drivin' Slow" by saxophonist Johnny London.

Elvis Presley stops at Memphis Recording Service to record two songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," as a birthday present for his mother. Phillips notes that Presley has a good feel for ballads and should be invited back. Sun releases "Mystery Train" by Little Junior Parker.

Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black record "That's Alright Mama" at Sun Studios. It becomes Elvis' first hit.

Drawn to Sun by Presley's first single, Carl Perkins and his band audition for, and are signed by, Phillips. Phillips signs aspiring country singer Johnny Cash and releases his debut single, "Cry! Cry! Cry!/Hey! Porter." Despite Presley's growing popularity, his five Sun singles fail to make a dent on the national charts. Phillips sells his contract to RCA Records for $35,000.

Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" becomes Sun's first certified million-seller.

Sun releases "Flyin' Saucer Rock 'N' Roll" by Billy Riley and His Little Green Men. Featuring Roland Janes on guitar and Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, the song is a rockabilly classic. The label also issues Lewis' second single, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

Phillips launches a new label, Phillips International. Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash sign with Columbia Records. Perkins leaves Sun immediately and Cash leaves in August when his contract is up. Jerry Lee Lewis hits No. 1 with "Breathless."

Phillips opens a new studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis.

Phillips sells Sun Records to Shelby Singleton.

1970 - present
Phillips' sons run the family studio, the Sam Phillips Recording Service, and a music publishing company in Nashville. Phillips focuses on radio stations he owns in Alabama.

Phillips is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Phillips is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

July 30, 2003
Phillips dies in Memphis of respiratory failure.

The Elvis Presley's Sun recordings is a number of recordings Elvis Presley made at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A. between 1953 and 1955. The recordings were produced by Sam Phillips. Memphis is a melting pot of many types of music: both black music (blues, rhythm & blues, gospel) and white music country & western, hillbill, the recordings reflect these influences. In 2002, Elvis Presley's Sun recordings were inducted into the US Congress's National Recording Registry.
Presley recorded 20 songs, 18 of them have survived and two tapes are lost. Ten were released by Sun as Elvis' first five singles between 1954 and 1955. And a year after he left for RCA, he revisited the same studio to have a spontaneous informal session with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. This meeting was recorded on December 4, 1956, dubbed The Million Dollar Quartet by the local paper the next day.

On July 18, 1953, Presley first went to the Memphis Recording Service at the Sun Record Company, now commonly known as Sun Studio. He paid $3.98 to record the first of two double-sided demo acetates, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." Presley reportedly gave the acetate to his mother as a much-belated extra birthday present, though the Presleys did not own a record player at the time. Returning to Sun Studios on January 4, 1954, he recorded a second acetate, "I'll Never Stand in Your Way"/"It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You."

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips had already cut the first records by blues artists such as Howlin Wolf and Junior Parker. He thought a combination of black blues and boogie-woogie music would be very popular among white people, if presented in the right way. In the spring, Presley auditioned for an amateur gospel quartet, The Songfellows, and a professional band. Both groups turned him down.

When Phillips acquired a demo recording of "Without You" and was unable to identify the vocalist, his assistant, Marion Keisker, reminded him about the young truck driver. She called him on June 26, 1954. Presley was not able to do justice to the song (the original acetate of the song that Phillips presented to Elvis resides the Memphis State University collection), but Phillips asked him to perform some of the many other songs he knew, and he invited local Western swing musicians Winfield "Scotty" Moore (electric guitar) and Bill Black (slap bass) to audition Presley. They did so on Sunday, July 4, 1954, at Moore's house. Neither musician was overly impressed, but they agreed a studio session—on July 5–6—would be useful to explore his potential. During a recording break, Presley began "acting the fool" with Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right (Mama)," a blues song. When the other two musicians joined in, Phillips got them to restart and began taping. This was the bright, upbeat sound he had been looking for. Black remarked, "Damn. Get that on the radio and they'll run us out of town." The group recorded four songs during that session, including bluegrass musician Bill Monroe's Blue Moon of Kentucky, which he had written and recorded as a slow waltz. Sources credit Bill Black with inititating the song, with Presley and Moore joining in. They ended up with a fast version of the song in 4/4 time. After an early take, Phillips can be heard on tape saying: "Fine, man. Hell, that's different—that's a pop song now, just about."

To gauge professional and public reaction, Phillips took several acetates of the session to DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) of Memphis radio station WHBQ's Red, Hot And Blue show. "That's All Right" subsequently received its first play on July 8, 1954. A week later, Sun had received some 6,000 advanced orders for "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky," which was released on July 19, 1954. From August 18 through December 8, "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was consistently higher on the charts, and then both sides began to chart across the South.