SAM PHILLIPS, SUN RECORDS AND THE MUSIC THAT ROCKED THE WORLD
The Sun Records sound was a fusion of rock & roll and country music (or hillbilly, as it was called in the 50’s) that was labeled rockabilly. The Sun sound was exemplified by early Sun recordings made by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. Sun influenced many major rock and roll artists such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. When Beatle John Lennon was introduced to a noted music business executive from Tennessee at an awards event, his first words were “Do you know Sam Phillips?”.
Sam Phillips was originally from Alabama, but moved to Memphis in the 40’s. His early career was in radio as an announcer and engineer and in the early 50’s, he opened the Memphis Recording Service to record private events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs. Phillips was influenced by black workers singing in the cotton fields when he was young and living in Alabama. Sam’s affection for the emotion generated by the black music he heard as a young man led him to begin recording artists such as B B King, Howlin’ Wolf and Jackie Brenston at his 706 Union Avenue studio in Memphis. The initial recordings for these artists were done for existing record labels such as Modern and Chess.
In 1952 Sam decided to start his own record company and he commissioned a local artist to design (with Sam’s implicit instructions) the now world famous Sun label. For the first couple of years, the Sun releases were mostly by black artists such as Rufus Thomas, Little Junior’s Blue Flames and Little Milton. In the summer of 1953, a young Elvis Presley came to the Memphis Recording Service and recorded two songs directly to disc. Elvis accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and paid four dollars. Several months later, Sam contacted Elvis and asked him to come back to discuss recording for Sun. After experimenting in the studio with Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, Sam offered Elvis a recording contract. The first recordings were made in July, 1954 and the first Elvis Sun Single, That’s All Right / Blue Moon of Kentucky, was the vehicle that not only launched Elvis’ career, but also began a revolution in the music business and had a tremendous social impact, both worldwide. Other unique and ground breaking recording artists, such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, soon flowed from the Sun stables and all achieved stardom in their musical careers.
Sam Phillips is best known as a pioneering music mogul, but he was also an astute business man with interests in various commercial ventures such as property, radio stations and stock in blue chip companies (he was an early investor in Holiday Inn). In the early 60’s, Sam decided to devote his energies to other areas and Sun Records became dormant. On July 1, 1969, Sam sold Sun Records to John and Shelby Singleton in Nashville, Tennessee. Reissues of the Sun recordings were begun immediately after the sale and they continue today under the control of the Singleton family. The sun legacy has been carried through the various formats of the music business, from vinyl to tape to CD to digital downloads to streaming and back to vinyl. The original Sun music can also be heard throughout the world in movies, TV shows commercials, live theatre and video games.