Phillips started by recording artists from WDIA, which was a black-oriented radio station in Memphis. His first success came from recording B.B. King for RPM Records. As word spread, Ike Turner and his band drove from Mississippi to see Phillips. During the trip, a guitar amplifier fell off the top of the car, damaging the speaker cone. When the band arrived, Phillips began to play with the amp, stuffed paper into the broken cone, and proceeded to record “Rocket 88.” The amp produced the sound of a saxophone. Phillips maxed out the volume of the amp which ultimately allowed this unique sound to drive the song. Phillips told Rolling Stone, “the more unconventional the sound, the more interested I become in it.” Phillips sold the masters to Chess Records in Chicago, and “Rocket 88” rocketed to number one on the R&B charts. Sam Phillips had his first hit record. Still, despite this success, Phillips felt as though that special “something” had eluded him.
Before World War II, major record label companies had abandoned race music and country music, deeming it unprofitable. Instead, they had focused on popular music by introducing musicians such as Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra. Popular music had been established in the North for the white-middle class; country music was established for the white working-class of the South; and now, rhythm and blues had become established in the South for the African American audience. Some radio stations began to pick up on this new African American market, abandoning their country and popular music programs for the blues. The blues helped broaden the base of music because a cross-pollination emerged: whites began listening to blues, and blacks to country music. As an early advocate of this cross-pollination, Phillips was not surprised. In fact, he believed that whites, up to this point, had been secretly listening to the blues, as if it were socially unacceptable. “It hadn’t occurred to too many people that white people would listen to black singers,” Phillips told Rolling Stone. “I was in it to record something I felt, something I thought other people ought to have an opportunity to render a judgment on.”
But it was not white adults who became excited about this music; it was white teenagers.
The teen phenomenon of the 1950s gave Phillips a new idea: to create a new genre of music tailored to teens. “Before Rock N’ Roll,” said Phillips, “teens didn’t have any type of music they could call their own, once they got over four or five years old, until they were in their twenties.” Simply hoping to make profit, the major record labels had their popular singers cover blues songs; their attempt to establish a firm grasp on this new phenomenon, however, was mostly unsuccessful. Conversely, Phillips (though he, too, was keen on tapping into the vast teenage market) wanted most of all to create a genre of music that teens could identify with, one that would bring together the booming generation. As Phillips noted, “[Teens at the time] had emotional starvation, and the most active, imaginative years of your life were going to waste because you didn’t have a thing for just shear enjoyment, or an ability to say hey this would help me make contact with this girl or boy.” Believing that the vehicle would come from blues music, Phillips reflected, “Thank God that the statue of limitations didn’t run on the blues and what came from it.”
In February 1952, Phillips created Sun Records and quit WREC so he could fully commit himself to running his own record label. Phillips’ own design for his label was a rooster with a rising sun behind it. Symbolically, the sun is universal and represents a new day for a new opportunity, so Sun Records would offer an opportunity to black artists who could not make the trip north to Chicago, or who were rejected by major record labels. Phillips could now release records on his own label and avoid dealing with the politics of major labels. Looking for a new raw sound characterized with feeling, Phillips held open auditions in an unsophisticated, informal atmosphere. Phillips recalled that he “wanted something ugly and honest. They’d [blacks] look at the recording booth and see a white man, and they’d start trying to be like [popular white] singers.” Phillips wanted the opposite. He was interested in the music that major labels turned away. As such, he urged his musicians to play with the enthusiasm of playing in front of a live audience — and to tell their story with feeling and simplicity.
After issuing records by an assortment of local blues artists the label experienced its first success with 'Bear Cat', Phillips' barely disguised novelty rewrite of the contemporary Big Mama Thornton R&B release, 'Hound Dog,' composed by Leiber & Stoller. Performed by Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas, 'Bear Cat' rose to number three on the R&B charts, while almost immediately prompting a copyright infringement lawsuit from Peacock Records/Lion Music due to the fact that it used the same melody as 'Hound Dog.'
That song would, of course, become a worldwide smash when recorded by Elvis Presley for RCA a few years later, yet before any of that could take place he first had to be discovered by Sam Phillips. In the Summer of 1953, at around the same time that Sun was riding the crest of modest success with recordings by Little Junior Parker and a group of five Tennessee State Penitentiary inmates who called themselves the Prisonaires, Elvis walked through the front entrance of 706 Union Avenue to take advantage of the facility's side-earner, a make-your-own-record service. As has been more than well documented, Elvis' amateur renditions of 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin' caught the ears of the studio's owner, but it would be a full year before Phillips would team Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, and set about realising a long-held ambition.
"I have been accused of having had my attention diverted from making blues records by working with Elvis, and to an extent it's true, but it was not for the reason that people might think," Phillips stated. "I had a very small operation, and by that time I knew that there was an awful lot of excellent rhythm & blues records — or, as they were mainly called then, 'race records' — being produced by so many different labels. I had felt all along that, as long as the artists were black, you were going to get a limited amount of play on the air. In fact, I had found that out and I knew that, because I had been in radio myself since the '40s, and I had thought that if there was a way for some white person to perform with the feel of a black artist... I did not want anybody who did not have a natural feel, but I said to myself — and this is true — 'Man, if I can find a white person who can give the feel and the true essence of a blues-type song, black blues especially, then I've got a chance to broaden the base and get plays that otherwise we couldn't.' And man, did that prove to be a phenomenal philosophy!
"With Elvis as the catalyst, and later on, Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes,' there's no question about it, it opened up so many doors. Now look; you've got as much play on black artists as you've got on white artists, or more, and while I don't say that it never would have happened, people of vision and unselfishness like me were responsible for that.
"When Elvis came in and he performed those first two songs, I was blown away by this guy's talent. By that I don't mean that I heard the finished thing, but I just heard some instinctive things about this person's intonations and stuff — of course, we didn't talk about 'intonations' and all of that jazz, but that's what I was hearing and feeling! You know, that's how you communicate, and so it didn't take a genius to recognize that this person Elvis had real potential. My honest opinion was that he might be that white guy who could get the overtones and the sexual feel in there without anything being vulgar; just that actual thing that gets hold of somebody and says, 'Hey, listen to me!'
"Elvis had sex written all over him from the day he walked in the door. I don't mean anything about him being good-looking, because he really wasn't as good-looking as he would develop a little later on, but he had sex written all over him, and the right kind. When this man opened his mouth it had sex, when you saw him on stage you couldn't take your eyes off him, and that was even as a male. I don't want to use the word 'charisma', but this guy — and I'm talking about him in a total, total personal way, in addition to fantastic talent as far as his singing was concerned — had a certain ability for contact, and to a measured degree he could give you that sexual feel, or whatever feel was needed, if a song indicated that it had that potential."
Finding The Sound
While Elvis admired and even imitated white crooners such as Dean Martin, Phillips instinctively knew that this wasn't the route that they should pursue. For one thing, the competition was too great, and for another, he suspected that Elvis' real musical soul lay closer to home. "I told Elvis, Scotty and Bill, 'We want to look for things that we can do in a medium to real up tempo.' I said, 'We've got to approach this thing to try to get the attention of younger people,' and I knew that tempo had a lot to do with that back then, rather than just a great lyric and beautiful melody."
For several weeks during the summer of '54, Elvis, Scotty and Bill worked on material both in and out of the studio, all the time encouraged by Sam Phillips to keep experimenting with different songs, arrangements and approaches until they might just hit on something which had that crossover appeal . . . not that Sam had any idea as to what that might be.
"I think a great part — if not the major part — of my success was working with my artists," he explained, "and I have always considered that God gave me one thing if he didn't give me anything else, and that was a good ear. I would do anything in the studio to alleviate as much tension as I could, yet I wanted them to really have that feel, that spark, like they're ready to come out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby, while at the same time not injuring themselves in the process. All of these things are so important, and I owe all of my success to that psychological bent. I knew that I had to do my very dead level best to go in the right direction, and that's why it took so many months before we finally came up with the very thing that we should have, which was 'That's All Right (Mama)' and 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky.'
"The door to the control room was open, the mics were on, Scotty was in the process of packing up his guitar, I think Bill had already thrown his old bass down — he didn't even have a cover for it — and the session was, to all intents and purposes, over. Then Elvis struck up on just his rhythm guitar, 'That's all right, mama...' and I mean he got my attention immediately. It could have been that it wouldn't have sold 10 copies, but that was what I was looking for! There was no question in my mind. I didn't give a damn what the song was. That was the sound, the feel, even the tempo. I think we moved the tempo around, but we didn't do much to that song, man. We did a couple, three, maybe four takes on it, and we had something that we had been looking for for months.
"When I heard 'That's All Right (Mama)' it opened a whole new door. Elvis being as young as he was, I thought, 'My God, this guy knows 'That's All Right'!' 'Big Boy' Crudup had had that thing out seven years before, and so on 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky', man, we certainly weren't going to do a bluegrass version and try to outdo Bill Monroe. No, we knew that we had to work with up-tempo stuff to get the attention. Then we could kind of play around maybe with slower things or things that might border on being good ballads. When it all started to come together it was just kinda like you've been looking so long for something and then there it is! I guess that's how a scientist would feel in the laboratory, looking for something that had been so elusive, and boy, there it is under the 'scope!"
Indeed, although Phillips would often record over discarded takes in order to save tape, many of Elvis's Sun out-takes did survive, and one of these captures the producer emerging from the control room at a point in the sessions when 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky' had started to evolve from a lilting country ballad into a jumped-up rocker, to exclaim, "Hell, that's fine! That's different! That's a pop song now, nearly 'bout!" As local producer and musician Jim Dickinson later observed, this is "what it sounded like 10 minutes before rock & roll was invented."
In fact, Sam Phillips was overseeing the birth of rockabilly, and hereafter his work with Elvis Presley would reach its apotheosis with landmark covers of Roy Brown's 'Good Rockin' Tonight' and Junior Parker's 'Mystery Train'. "Judging my own stuff is the toughest thing in the world to do, but I think 'Mystery Train' is a masterpiece," Phillips asserted. "It is one of those things that is so instinctively, innately there. You can play that thing all day in an office full of people and it wouldn't get in the way no matter what they're doing, or you could play it at the sexiest party and somehow or another it's got that freedom about it. You can't beat the right vamp, and this thing has got a vamp in it that is just outstanding. Even right at the very end, where Elvis thought that this wasn't going to be the take, you know; he just went off and shouted 'Woo-hooo!' as I was fading that thing out, because he really didn't think it was going to be a cut, and hey, I didn't know for sure, but I knew that we didn't need any more takes! So, that just shows you that when you really open up and instinctively feel that you've got nothing to lose, boy, you might be surprised by what you can do.
"I've never liked the term 'rockabilly.' I've always thought 'rock & roll' was the best term, because it became all-inclusive of white, black, and the whole thing, whereas 'rockabilly' tended to just want to lend itself so specifically to white. It also promoted the feeling that maybe we were stealing something from the blacks and wanted to put it in a white form, so I never did like 'rockabilly.' However, I really think that what we came up with, between Elvis, 'Rocket 88' and Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes', was the basis for rock & roll."
A milestone in American music would occur in the Sun studio in March of 1951 when Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings would finally get the desired sound of “Rocket 88” down to Sam Phillip’s expectations. On many earlier takes, Sam was not pleased because the vocalist was Ike Turner. Phillips just didn’t hear what he wanted in Ike’s voice – rather gruff and crude and so with some hard persuading convinced Turner to permit another band member to take the vocal – Jackie Brenston.
The final release on Chess credits Brenston as the composer and the “Delta Cats” as the band – but in fact these guys were the “King’s of Rhythm.” Was it the first ‘rock and roll’ record? Doesn’t matter – it was the stuff legends were made of. The song went to number 1 on the R&B charts remaining there for 5 weeks and gave Sam Phillips all the incentive he needed to forge on.
Over the years Sam Phillips recording service inc. has recorded these artists:
Jerry Lee Lewis
Amazing Rhythm Aces
Sam The Sham
Booker T. Jones
Hank Williams Jr.
Cowboy Jack Clement
The Memphis Horns
North Mississippi Allstars
and many others!
Born: Samuel Cornelius Phillips. January 5, 1923. Florence, Alabama
Died: July 30, 2003 (aged 80) Memphis, Tennessee