In 1955, when RCA Records bought Elvis Presley’s contract from Sun Records for an unprecedented $35,000, the label made Sun’s Sam Phillips a second offer: Why not come to work as a producer and talent scout for one of the biggest and most prestigious record companies in America?
Phillips told RCA executive Steve Sholes he wasn’t interested. “I said, ‘Steve, you are a company man, and you do a great job,’ ” Phillips recalls, enunciating each word with the grand flair of a great Southern orator. “ ‘But I could no more work for RCA than I could be the president of the whole damn United States. I could not cut records with someone looking over my shoulder like that.’ ”
Today, Phillips is the grand old man of Memphis music, the person most responsible for putting the Bluff City’s recording industry on the map and the individual who best represents its renegade spirit. Part of his success, he says, came precisely from his ability to follow his instincts and to work independently. Those instincts led him to see the potential in Elvis Presley when the 19-year-old truck driver first walked into Sun Studios; those same instincts later led him to present Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, and Roy Orbison with their first recording contracts as well.
Each of these performers, Phillips points out, had a distinctive style. Rather than try to polish them or mold them into something smoother, the producer encouraged them to accentuate their differences. That encouragement allowed Presley to indulge his sensual slur and aggressive snarl, and it allowed Lewis to attack his piano and his vocals with lustful abandon.
“They’re truly distinctive,” says Phillips, whose thick, dark beard, full head of hair, and fire-breathing eyes make him look a decade or two younger than his 76 years. “They were totally untried and unproven when they came to see me, and that’s what I loved. I wanted stylists. I don’t care if a man can sing or not, if he’s a stylist, he’s going to get you.”
Rummage through Memphis’ recording history, and it becomes clear that the city’s musical legacy is built entirely upon distinctive stylists. From the blues of B.B. King to the soul of Otis Redding and Al Green to the rock ’n’ roll of the Box Tops and Big Star, the best performers stood out because of their unmistakable individuality and unadorned passion.
“We were close to the street,” Phillips says of Sun, but the statement could speak for Memphis music in general.
The youngest of eight children, he grew up poor. He was 6 years old when his father lost everything in the Depression, and he spent the rest of his youth on a tenant farm outside of Florence, Ala. After taking correspondence courses in engineering, he found work in radio, moving from WLAY in Muscle Shoals to Nashville’s WLAC. He tried out for WSM, but when he didn’t get the job, he moved on to WREC in Memphis.
According to Good Rockin’ Tonight, Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins’ history of Sun Records, Phillips honed his engineering skills at WREC by recording live transcriptions of Memphis performers. He took that expertise with him when he opened Sun Records and the Memphis Recording Service in January of 1950.
At Sun, Phillips began by recording blues and R&B, cutting early sides on B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Jackie Brenston, Ike Turner, and Junior Parker, among others. After Presley, however, scores of poor white Southerners flocked to Sun’s doorJerry Lee Lewis, for instance, stopped by on his way back to Louisiana after having been turned down flat in Nashville. It was from this flood of hopeful young Southerners that Phillips found Lewis, Cash, Perkins, Rich, and Orbison, not to mention such worthy but less heralded acts as Charlie Feathers, Sonny Burgess, and Billy Lee Riley.
Although Sun’s best-known performers all eventually joined bigger record labels, the music they made for Phillips stands as the best work many of them ever made. Cash will always be identified, first and foremost, with “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” Lewis with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Perkins with “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Dixie Fried.” Moreover, listen to what they cut later in their careers, and it’s obvious that their rawness started to get polished and processed. (Tellingly, each of these artists at some point ended up in Nashville.)
Sun’s heyday was over almost as quickly as it began after Phillips suffered a series of business blows in the late ’50s: Lewis lost his commercial momentum after he married his 13-year-old cousin; Perkins suffered a devastating car accident that took him out of action; and Columbia Records lured Cash to Nashville.
But over the years each of these stars would continue to speak of Phillips with enormous respect and gratitude. According to Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, when Presley started his late-’60s comeback with a series of Las Vegas performances, he asked Phillips to attend because the producer’s presence would give him confidence. And during a recent musical tribute to Cash in New York City, the first person the singer thanked was Sam Phillips.
As Marty Stuart puts it, “As big as those guys were, and as much as they all mean to the world of music, Sam always meant a little bit more, because he was their creator, and I think that’s evident in the acknowledgment they’ve given him.” That’s why Phillips was listed, along with Elvis Presley and the recordings the two men made, among the 100 most important events of the millennium in a recent issue of Time.
Phillips may no longer be in the record business, but he remains a passionate observer of music and its role in the world. Not only that, he remains a force to be reckoned with, as a recent story from Stuart perfectly illustrates. Not too long ago, the Nashville-based singer ran into Phillips’ son, Knox, at the Grammy Awards. When he asked about the elder Phillips, Knox said he’d walked into his father’s office recently and overheard a conversation: “No, I don’t want to speak with his assistant,” he heard his father say. “I want to speak with Fidel!”
Apparently, Phillips had read about the recent cultural exchange between American and Cuban musicians and had some ideas he wanted to share with Fidel Castro. Before Knox left the room, he heard his father address the Cuban dictator. Apparently, Sam Phillips’ call went through.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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