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Good Rockin' Tonight
Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll
By Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1991 Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins
All rights reserved.
"That Muddy Old River ..."
"IT WAS BACK in 1939. I was 16 years old, and I went to Memphis with some friends in a big old Dodge. We drove down Beale Street in the middle of the night and it was rockin'! The street was busy. It was so active—musically, socially. God, I loved it!"
That was Samuel Cornelius Phillips' first experience of Memphis. He was a country boy from the northwest corner of Alabama, where the state borders Mississippi and Tennessee. A half-century later, Sam Phillips is an uncontested legend in his adopted hometown. He came to the city where there was, as he put it, "a meeting of musics," and in a tiny storefront studio he recorded music that would change the face of popular culture. He also ensured that not even the most cursory history of American popular music could be written without reference to Memphis or Sam C. Phillips.
Phillips is responsible for two of the most enduring images in American iconography: Elvis Presley, barely twenty-one years old, shaking his butt and singing the blues on network television, and Jerry Lee Lewis staring at those same cameras with wild-eyed fury, kicking his piano stool back behind him across the soundstage. Together those images defined a revolution.
It wasn't just that these were white kids singing black music; after all, that had been done before. The white folk group the Weavers, for example, had sung the black folk song "Goodnight Irene" on television a few years before. But when Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis performed on the same shows, they did more than borrow the form of black music: they borrowed its fervor. What they were offering was not a blatant copy—something new had been forged, and Sam Phillips was responsible.
Phillips was not the first person to open a studio in Memphis. He was not the first to start a record label there, nor the first to experiment with white kids singing what was essentially the blues. In fact, much of what Phillips did others had done before, but he did it with a consistent artistic conception of the way music should sound. He recognized the primacy of the blues and looked for the raw blues feel in virtually all of the artists he recorded.
Phillips also sensed that he was in the right place at the right time, and he had the tenacity to hold fast through six largely desolate years to see his vision pay off.
The notion that a record label of national importance could emerge from Memphis would have been—in fact, was—laughed at in 1950. Even Nashville was seen only as a convenient recording outpost for the major labels, which were located in either New York or Los Angeles. Memphis may have been associated with the blues in much the same romantic way that New Orleans was associated with jazz, but it was tantamount to lunacy to suggest that a record label with national aspirations should base itself there. It was even more unlikely that such a company could hope to achieve national success by recording a strange hybrid music that flouted all conventional barriers.
In beginning the story of Sun Records, it is worth looking at the musical and cultural scene in Memphis when Sam Phillips hung his neon "Memphis Recording Service" sign in the window and announced to the few who cared that he was open for business.
The Talking Machine Comes to Memphis
There is an old adage that Nashville is the capital of Tennessee and Memphis is the capital of Mississippi. Geographically isolated from most of the state, Memphis has always looked south toward the Delta, rather than east toward Nashville, for the commerce that sustained it.
As in life, so in music. By the mid-1920s record companies had started to bring portable recording equipment into the South, usually setting up shop in a hotel, staying for a few days, then moving on. When Ralph Peer, representing the Victor Talking Machine Company, set up makeshift studios in Tennessee in 1927, he captured entirely different musical traditions at the two extremes of the state. In the far northwest corner, the city of Bristol yielded Appalachian folk ballads grounded in the Anglo-Celtic traditions. In Memphis, Peer recorded mostly jug band music, jazz, and blues—music with African-American roots. Using a room in the McCall Building as a temporary studio, Peer recorded thirty-four tunes between February 24 and March 1 of that year. He returned during the three succeeding years to build up a strong roster of bluesmen and jug bands, laying the groundwork for the city's first recording boom, which—in common with similar groundswells in most other regional centers—simply evaporated during the Great Depression.
Some of Sam Phillips' earliest recordings, which featured jug band veteran Charlie Burse and other artists who had recorded before the war, such as Jack Kelly and Sleepy John Estes, harked back to the traditions Peer had drawn upon. Otherwise, the scene had changed completely by the time Phillips picked up the threads.
On the Air
Record sales may have slumped during the Depression, but radio began to thrive. The first station to open in Memphis was WMC, launched by a newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, in 1932. As an aside, it's worth noting that a columnist for that paper, George Hay, once covered a rural funeral in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, and, that evening, a country hoedown not far away. Guessing that the barn dance format could adapt well to the new medium of radio, he took his concept to Chicago, where it spawned the National Barn Dance on WLS and, a little later, the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville. The WSM show would eventually, as the Grand Ole Opry, become a symbol of country music. The history of American music might just have taken a different course if Hay had taken his brainchild to Memphis's WMC, where he worked a short stint as an announcer.
An early Memphis radio pioneer who would later have an influence on Sam Phillips was Hoyt B. Wooten. Born in Coldwater, Mississippi, Wooten founded one of the first radio stations in the South there in 1920. He moved to Memphis in 1929, changing his station's call letters to WREC (Wooten Radio Electric Company). He had a fascination for uncharted territory, applying for a television broadcasting license as early as 1928, and hand-building much of his audio technology. His unfettered thinking and flair for audio experimentation would be an inspiration to Phillips, who joined WREC as a young engineer in 1945.
Pop music and radio drama dominated the airwaves in the years before 1950. Most of the music was broadcast live from the studio, or relayed from live "feeds" off the networks. Most Memphis stations programmed a little country music, primarily from local artists. WMPS launched its country programming in 1939 and swung into high gear with the acquisition of Smilin' Eddie Hill, whose Noontime Roundup show between 1947 and 1952 featured the cream of the local musicians together with some imported from out of state. It was Hill's show that reached Johnny Cash and tens of thousands of others taking a lunchtime break out in the fields.
The research of country music scholar Bill C. Malone has revealed that for many years southerners lagged behind the remainder of the country in ownership of radios. Malone suggests that the large black population in the South did not own radios because there was so little programming of black music. Radio station owners generally assumed that the black marketplace would not attract advertising dollars, but that belief began to collapse in the years of prosperity following the Second World War.
Suddenly, in the mid to late '40s, stations began springing up that were targeted primarily at the black audience. In Birmingham, there was WEDR; in Nashville, WSOK; in Atlanta, WERD; and in Memphis, WDIA. The reasons were many, but the principal ones were the growing affluence of the black consumer and the formation of Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), in 1939. BMI and its rival, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), licensed music for broadcast. ASCAP, which had previously enjoyed a virtual monopoly, had admitted only a few members who specialized in ethnic music, black or white. BMI wasn't founded expressly to propagate minority-interest music, but it was interested in generating repertoire to license. Hillbilly and black music were two vast, untapped sources of material, and BMI cultivated their writers and publishers as founts of revenue. And because, as the Russian proverb goes, a black cow may give white milk, the effect of BMI was to make available a much wider variety of music.
WDIA started as a pop and country station in 1947 and changed to a black music format the following year. Even though it remained under white management, WDIA—and to a lesser extent KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, and WLOK, also in Memphis—gave daily exposure to the artists Phillips and his competitors would record. Their principal medium was the fifteen-minute sponsored live show, a format that spawned B. B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and many more.
The year 1948 also marked the radio debut of Dewey Phillips, whose radio style virtually defied categorization. He was a white disc jockey from rural Tennessee who hosted a show called "Red Hot and Blue" on WHBQ. Randy Haspel, who would later record for Sun as part of Randy and the Radiants, has written a luminous description of Dewey hosting his show: "His style was pure country. He was an irreverent squawker with a stream of consciousness speed rap that never quit—even while the record was playing. From the midst of trained, deep and resonant voices that filled the airwaves, came this countrified rapid fire drawl with an indefinable vocabulary."
During its first year on the air, the show was expanded from fifteen minutes to three hours daily. Dewey programmed an eclectic mix of blues, hillbilly, and pop that would become an institution in Memphis, and his importance to the cross-cultural miscegenation that became rock 'n' roll is incalculable. Among the few who followed in his immediate wake was Sam Phillips, who soon began programming a comparably freewheeling show on WREC on Saturday afternoons. Sam and Dewey Phillips weren't related by blood ties, but it's not going too far to say they shared a relationship that ran much deeper.
Just as the formation of BMI had increased the number of stations programming black music, those stations, and the DJs like Dewey Phillips who manned them, were vital to the exposure and promotion of new records. In fact, the proliferation of black radio was a major factor in the astonishing growth of the number of independent record companies aiming their product at the R&B market in the postwar years.
The Age of the Indie
A shortage of shellac, a key component in the manufacture of 78-rpm records, contributed to the slumping fortunes of the record business through the war years. The problems were exacerbated by a recording ban called by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in 1942. After the war, however, with the shellac shortage easing, the economy booming, and the music industry's grudging acceptance of the AFM's new recording rates, the record business grew in quantum leaps.
The major record labels (Decca, Capitol, Victor, and Columbia) concentrated on the most lucrative sector of the market: pop music. Pop accounted for over 50 percent of the market and was firmly controlled by the majors. The small independent labels, known as "indies," sensibly decided to look elsewhere. "Some indies," reported Billboard in April 1946, "frankly admit they are going to stay out of fields in which the majors push heavily and concentrate on items where the majors do more or less of a token job."
It was in the field of black music, then dubbed "sepia" or "race" music, that the majors fell conspicuously short. Their A&R (artists and repertoire) men didn't understand the music, and their salesmen didn't know how to promote or sell it. The result was a market share reported to be less than 5 percent of the total pie. It was hardly surprising that the indies would gravitate toward such an open market. The prospect of recording the music was made even more attractive because the sessions were cheap to produce. The groups were comparatively small, and the AFM's presence was marginal at best. "The major labels used to laugh at [the indies]," recalled Sam Phillips in 1981. "Atlantic, Aladdin, Sun, Dot. They figured these damn people would go away—and what percentage of the market are they gonna get anyway? One or two percent? So while their eyes were closed to us who were hungry and knew what we were doing, and weren't shackled by corporate routine, we grew beyond what they expected."
Although most country music and blues emanated from the South, very few labels of appreciable size were headquartered there. Nashville spawned the Bullet label in 1945, which had one of the biggest hits of 1947 with Francis Craig's "Near You," but that was the only hit the label ever saw. Virtually every southern city had a small record company, but none made a steady national impact until Randy Wood founded Dot in Gallatin, Tennessee, in 1950. Like Wood, Phillips never envisioned his label servicing just the local market. He was convinced that he could buck the odds and launch a national label from a storefront in Memphis.
The Memphis Scene
The Memphis music scene, such as it was, was a mixed bag of different, sometimes opposing, forces. The successful country artists based in Memphis, such as Eddie Hill, the Delmore Brothers, and the Louvin Brothers, were snapped up by out-of-town record companies. Those artists and countless others worked daily on local radio and nightly at the honky-tonks, most of which were outside the city limits. News of their activities rarely if ever reached the newspapers.
The focus of activity for polite society was the Skyway ballroom at the Peabody Hotel. The cream of the touring big bands played at the Skyway, and their music was fed nightly into the CBS network via WREC. Sam Phillips was one of the technical staff working the Skyway. His first job was as a "spotter," staying on the phone, relaying information to the engineer at WREC's control room, telling him which musician was about to take a solo and into which microphone he was going to play.
The opulence of the Skyway and the accommodations provided for band members at the Peabody contrasted starkly with the touring conditions for black bands. Under the alliterative headline "Bible Belt Heads Back to Banjo Bands and Blackfaces: Beat Bandsmen with Bats," Billboard in November 1946 described the facilities for black bands in the mid-South: "As a rule, Southern club operators are hostile toward labor and are kept in their best cooperative spirits when the word 'Union' is not spoken aloud in their presence. They regard the AFM as a force of banditry. Negro bands often have to choose between vermin-infested hotels or the band bus. All of this in addition to filthy cafés, poor or no valet service, long jumps on tar-graveled roads, crippled pianos and buzzing PA systems make the South the least attractive hinterland to musicians." downbeat magazine conducted a random survey in May 1947 and found that most renowned black bands chose to ignore the South. With hipper-than-thou obliqueness, Nat "King" Cole told the magazine, "I try my best to keep my kicks along Route 66—and there's no place I know of where that route dips down south."
Conditions in Memphis were a little better than in the Deep South, and the city drew some top black bands to play the regular Midnight Rambles at the black night spots, accommodating them in comparative luxury at the Mitchell Hotel. Local black artists had steady work as supporting acts in the clubs, at black baseball parks, on the radio, and at juke joints, but the dearth of local recording companies ensured that few got onto disc. The truth was that the South, which had given birth to rhythm and blues, was regarded as a pest hole by those who played it for a living.
It is also true that the cultural cross-pollination Sam Phillips has often pointed out undoubtedly took place. White kids listened to R&B and blacks listened to country music long before rock 'n' roll; but the mixing of the musics took place in a social climate that was rigidly segregated.
Record producer Jim Dickinson (who later worked at Sun as part of the Jesters) is one of many who believes that segregation was one of the factors that gave a distinct edge to Memphis music. "I started noticing as a producer," he asserts, "that Spooner Oldham, the keyboard player, played drastically differently in different places. His best playing was done in Memphis. I wondered if the same was true of me, so I got out my own tapes, and by God it's true. I may not play better in Memphis, but I certainly play differently, and if I stay away too long I start to play funny. Memphis music is about racial collision in both directions. The rednecks who are playing blues still feel funny about it because they're playing black music."
Excerpted from Good Rockin' Tonight by Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins. Copyright © 1991 Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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