|By J. Robert Parks|
The early history of rock ’n’ roll music is filled with such household names as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and such behind-the-scenes figures as managers and record producers. One of the latter was Sam Phillips, the Father of Rock ’n’ Roll, who was born 100 years ago today. He founded Sun Records in 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee, and the artists who walked into his little studio helped launch a revolution in American music. Gale In Context: U.S. History has a wealth of resources for teachers and librarians looking to expose students to the early days of rock music, along with biographies of Phillips and analyses of why he is significant.
Phillips was born in Florence, Alabama, to poor tenant farmers. He dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but he had to drop out of high school when his father died. He took some classes in audio engineering and then got a job as a DJ at a small AM radio station in Alabama. He eventually made his way to Memphis in 1945, where he was an announcer at radio station WREC. He had a national audience through the syndicated show Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance.
Phillips would later talk about how his childhood experience of working alongside both Black and white farmworkers had shaped his understanding of race as well as music. His experience in Memphis made him realize that there was no place where Black musicians could record their songs, so he leased what had been a radiator shop and turned it into a recording studio. His slogan was “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.”
Being a DJ in those days was much different than today, and Phillips had learned how to record music to a disc and work with record labels. His 1951 recording of Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years”/“Moanin’ at Midnight” was the blues legend’s first single and launched his career in Chicago. Even more significant, however, was the song “Rocket 88.” It was written by Jackie Brenston, who was a member of Ike Turner’s band. The guitar distortion on the single was literally an accident—the band’s amplifier was damaged when it fell off the car on the way to the studio―but that sound became synonymous with rock ’n’ roll. In fact, some rock historians credit “Rocket 88” with being the first rock single, and it rose to the top of the rhythm and blues chart.
What Phillips is best known for, though, is discovering Elvis Presley. In 1953, the King was just a truck driver who wandered into Phillips’s Memphis studio. Phillips had a gimmick where anyone could record a song for $3.98 and he would give them a pressing of the recording. Phillips was intrigued enough by Elvis’s recording that he signed him to a record deal and had him record the following year. Phillips passed the record to a local DJ who put it on the air―and the rest is history.
Elvis recorded 10 songs with Phillips before he left for the much larger RCA Records in 1955, but Phillips was just getting started. Johnny Cash signed with Sun Records and recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 and then “I Walk the Line” in 1956. The latter spent 40 weeks on the country chart. Other iconic songs released by Sun Records include Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” Legendary artists such as B. B. King, Ike Turner, and Roy Orbison recorded at Sun Studio.
Probably the most famous recording that happened at Sun Studio was immortalized in the musical Million Dollar Quartet: a jam session in which Elvis happened to walk in on Perkins and Lewis recording. Phillips called Cash, and the four icons jammed through a bunch of gospel songs they had grown up singing. Engineer Jack Clement decided to record what was just four guys having fun. The recording was discovered years later and released in Europe in 1981.
The history of Sun Records is an interesting story in itself. Those fortunate enough to go to Memphis can tour the Sun Studio museum, filled with artifacts from its glory days, and even see the original studio that produced all those hits. As for Phillips, he grew tired of recording by the mid-1960s and had more than enough money (he was one of the first investors in the Holiday Inn chain). He sold the record label in 1969.
Phillips is credited for helping to combine country with rhythm and blues to produce a style that came to be known as rockabilly. In 1986, he was part of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He died on July 30, 2003, at the age of 80.