Born in Florence, Alabama, January 5, 1923; married; wife's name, Becky; children: Knox, Jerry.
There will always be debates as to who was the first rock and roller; Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, Bill Haley or Bo Diddley, etc., etc. But the "Father" of the genre will always be recognized as Sam Phillips, the man whose Sun Records launched the careers of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and a smattering of blues artists during the 1950s. "There can be little doubt that Sam Phillips played the crucial role of midwife in the birth of the new music," wrote Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone. Indeed, there can be no doubt about it.
Seemingly enough, Phillips's discovery of rock began with its very roots: blues. He was born in Alabama and raised on a plantation hearing black singers on radio station WDlA. He decided at an early age that the music would consume his life and worked toward giving back to its creators the recognition they deserved. Phillips worked at radio station WLAY during high school and after graduating from college was employed at WREC in Memphis in 1944 as an announcer. Bored with the type of music they featured, he saved enough money to start the Memphis Recording Services in a converted radiator shop located at 706 Union.
Phillips hand-built the studio that was so small he had to use a neighboring coffee shop for his office. The studio's motto was "We record anything--anywhere--anytime" but the bulk of their income came from a $2-per-side recording service and their wedding ceremony recordings. But Phillips's main ambition was the recording of black blues musicians who would otherwise have to travel to Chicago or New York to get on wax. He leased to Chess and Modern/RPM the aluminum masters of Howlin' Wolf, Walter Horton, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, Elmore James, James Cotton and B.B. King among others. "When Leonard Chess came down here and promised him [Howlin' Wolf] the moon, it broke my heart. This was one of the things that made me want to start my own label," Phillips is quoted in The Listener's Guide To The Blues.
One of the big hits that enabled Phillips to quit his job at WREC was Jackie Brentson's "Rocket 88" (with lke Turner's band backing) of 1951. With its theme of cars/girls and a big beat, it is cited by many as the first rock and roll tune ever. The tune is also probably the first recorded example of the distorted guitar sound popularized a decade later on the Rolling Stone's hit, "Satisfaction." On the way to the session one of the amplifiers fell off of Turner's car, rupturing the speaker cone. In an effort to save time, the ever-creative Phillips stuffed paper inside the box and carried on with the recording.
B.B. King's "Three O'Clock Blues" and Little Walter's "Juke" offered further proof that Phillips could make it with a legitimate label and thus Sun Records was formed in 1952. The first single, "Bear Cat," by WDlA disc jockey Rufus Thomas, went all the way to Number 3, and an ensuing lawsuit by Peacock Records for copyright infringement also helped to give Sun some notoriety. According to Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, Phillips was fond of saying, "If you aren't doing something different, you aren't doing anything." Phillips was constantly searching for a unique sound which he felt was out there just waiting to be unleashed. "Over and over I remember Sam saying, 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,'" Marion Keisker, officer manager at Sun, told The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.
In the summer of 1953 a truck-driving teenager from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Presley entered the Sun studios and plopped down $3.98 to record two songs for his mother, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." He left his name and number with Keisker in case they needed someone to sing sometime. She made a note about his voice and filed it away. "I'd run across a ballad written by a prisoner in the Tennessee State pen and I wanted a crooner," Phillips said in Rock 100. And, according to Rolling Stone, Keisker offered, "What about that kid with the sideburns?" As Presley reported in Honkers & Shouters, Phillips phoned him and said, "'You want to make some blues?...' All I know is I hung up and ran fifteen blocks to Mr. Phillips's office before he'd gotten off the line--or so he tells me." "Elvis toyed around with it. I decided he needed a couple of good rhythm men back of him so I called in Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] and still nothing happened," Phillips continued in Rock 100. "Then I got the notion of trying some of the old 'Big Boy' Cruddup material. Although it seemed incomprehensible to have a white man do those songs, I just got a notion and I called Elvis.... When we cut, things happened. I said right then, 'That's it.' I knew we had a hit."
History is clouded though, as Moore (who had been trying to get Phillips to record his Starlight Wranglers band) said "That's All Right" started out as some horsing around by Presley which prompted Moore and bassist Bill Black to jump in. The singer had been trying to cover "I Love You Because" in the style of the era's popular vocalist but it just wasn't working. Whether it was a calculated attempt or a fluke, "Phillips knew immediately that what another producer might have taken for a bit of lighthearted country clowning, a break from the serious work, was in fact one of the most serious cultural events of the 20th century," wrote Palmer in Rolling Stone.
WHBQ's Dewey Phillips played Presley's jumped-up Cruddup cover on his "Red, Hot and Blue" radio show and the reaction was phenomenal. At one point he played the song thirty times in one night. Between August 1954 and August 1955 Presley recorded 10 more sides for Sun, including "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Milkcow Blues Boogie," "Baby Let's Play House" and the flip side to "That's All Right," "Blue Moon of Kentucky." After listeners realized that Presley wasn't black, his popularity soared and brought a host of record companies to Phillips's door wanting to sign the sensation.
In November of 1955 RCA's Steve Sholes bought Presley's contract and masters for $35,000 plus $5,000 in back royalties and Hill & Range Songs purchased publications of Hi-Lo Music (a Sun subsidiary) for $15,000 from Phillips. At the time it was an unprecedented amount for a relatively unproven newcomer, but in hindsight it seems like the steal of the century. Phillips, however, figured he could develop five more Presleys with the cash and set about to form his roster.
Carl Perkins joined the Sun lineup and released two singles in 1953 and 1954, "Turn Around" and "Let The Juke Box Keep On Playing," with mild success. But a year later Perkins and Phillips produced a major hit with "Blue Suede Shoes." Released on New Year's Day, the song soared to Number 5 on Billboard 's national charts while simultaneously scoring on the R & B and country charts as well (the first song to ever accomplish the feat). Perkins followed with more fine songs for Phillips with "Matchbox," "Boppin The Blues," "Dixie Fried"/"I'm Sorry, I'm Not Sorry" and "Your True Love" before moving on to the Columbia label.
In 1956 Phillips purchased Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby"/"Trying To Get You" from the Je-Wel label and soon it sold over a quarter of a million copies. Phillips tried to mold Orbison's sound like he had done with Presley and Perkins, but the singer/guitarist could not perform the rockabilly style. Orbison never really had another hit for Sun but was able to pen some fine tunes for others during the next three years even though Phillips failed to fully realize his vocal potential. Orbison left Sun for Monument records in 1960.
Johnny Cash joined Phillips's staff in 1955 with "Cry Cry Cry"/"Hey Porter" and followed it up the following year with the million-seller "I Walk The Line." Cash leaned more towards the country side of the blues as opposed to the still-young rock and roll end of the spectrum. Over the next three years Cash scored a half dozen more hits for Phillips before jumping to Columbia in 1958: "Orange Blossom Special," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," "Home of the Blues," "Guess Things Happen That Way"/"Come in Stranger" and "The Ways of a Woman in Love." Up to that point Phillips's success relied on guitarists/vocalists who were all quite different from their contemporaries. "They were all free spirits, they were all uniques," stated publicist Bill Williams in Feel Like Going Home. "I think every one of them must have come in on the midnight train from nowhere. I mean, it was like they came from outer space."
Perhaps the most spaced-out of all was Jerry Lee Lewis, a brash, bragging, strutting, piano-stompin' shouter who staked out Phillips's Sun studios until they would give him a listen, claiming that he could play piano like Chet Atkins. Noting that Atkins was a guitar player, Sun engineer Jack Clement decided to see what this big shot was all about and let him in to record a few tunes (although Lewis claims it was a marathon session). Phillips liked what he heard and signed him on as a piano player until he heard Lewis singing "Crazy Arms" and decided to release him as a solo artist.
It was the beginning of one of Phillips's most lucrative ventures as Lewis countered in 1957 with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," a Number 3 smash hit. The piano man's outrageous act made him a standout in rock and roll revues and his ensuing singles, featuring Phillips's trademark slap-back echo, were chartbusters to boot: "It'll Be Me," "High School Confidential," "Great Balls of Fire," "Breathless," and "Break Up"/"I'll Make It All Up To You." Phillips set up a tour of England but soon learned that Lewis had married his 13-year-old cousin. The star's career took a major nosedive and, although his "What'd I Say" Ray Charles cover in 1961 helped some, by 1963 one of Phillips's most promising artists had left Sun and appeared to be washed up. [An interesting footnote; in 1957 Presley, Perkins, Cash, and Lewis met at Phillips studio for an impromptu jam session of country and gospel classics, but the recordings would not be released until the 1980s as the Million Dollar Quartet. ]
Although the Sun label continued to record artists like Charlie Rich, by 1958 Phillips had seemed to lose interest and was hanging on to it more or less as a hobby. Rather than compete with the big guns of the recording industry and their cutthroat tactics, Phillips sold the label in 1969 and shifted his concentration towards operating several radio stations.
Although only one of his first twenty-three recordings was by a non-black artist, Phillips was criticized for abandoning his original sources after Presley. "This is a regrettable thing on my part," he said in The Listener's Guide to the Blues, "but I saw what I was doing as not deserting the black man--God knows, there was no way I could do that--[but] I saw what I was trying to do with white men was to broaden the base."
Phillips will be always be recognized as one of the innovators in the history of popular music and his Sun recordings document the transition from blues to rock and roll. "My mission was to bring out of a person what was in him, to recognize that individual's unique quality and then to find the key to unlock it," he continued. "My greatest contribution, I think, was to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself, to help him to express what he believed his message to be."
by Calen D. Stone
Sam Phillips's Career
Created Memphis Recording Service in 1950, started Sun label in 1952; discovered and recorded some of rock music's earliest stars, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as country stars Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins; sold Sun Records in 1969; an original shareholder in Holiday Inn chain; owns several radio stations.
July 30, 2003: Phillips dies on July 30, 2003, in Memphis, Tennessee, of respiratory failure. He was 80. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, July 31, 2003; New York Times, July 31, 2003, p. B9.
- Dalton, David, and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.
- Guralnick, Peter, Feel Like Going Home, Vintage, 1981.
- Guralnick, The Listener's Guide To The Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
- Guralnick, Lost Highway, Vintage, 1982.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Harmony, 1977.
- The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
- Shaw, Arnold, Honkers And Shouters, Collier, 1978.
- Guitar Player, November 1987.
- Guitar World, May 1985.
- Rolling Stone, September 22, 1977.