Sam Phillips loved the blues and he recorded plenty of country at Sun Studios -- these two genres are documented on the appropriately titled The Sun Blues Box and The Sun Country Box, respectively -- but rock & roll is what made his legend. He wanted to find a white vocalist who sang with a black feel, convinced that he could find his fortune there, and when he found Elvis Presley, he found an artist who exceeded all his wildest dreams. Phillips released five Elvis singles on Sun before selling Presley's contract to RCA, thereby earning money that he needed badly to keep Sun afloat. Not long afterward, Elvis had his first smash hit on RCA with "Heartbreak Hotel," thereby kickstarting the rock & roll revolution of which Sun was a commercial beneficiary as Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" went all the way to number two in 1956.
The Sun Rock Box -- a greatly expanded eight-CD, 255-track version of the original Bear Family vinyl set of the same name that appeared in the mid-'80s -- documents the early years (aka the rise of Elvis) and all the rockabilly that came afterward, rounding up all the major movers and shakers and rockabilly cats Phillips recorded between 1954-1959. Those big names -- Presley and Perkins, along with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich (there are none of Johnny Cash's rockabilly records here) -- are sometimes represented by alternate takes and do not have all their Sun hits here. In some ways, their presence is even downplayed: a cult figure like Ray Smith winds up with ten songs, which is just as many as Carl Perkins and twice as many as the Killer, but that isn't a flaw of the box, it's an attribute. This, more than either its Blues or Country cousins, digs deep into the wild, forgotten corners of Sun, placing such widely heralded but still relatively unknown acts like Sonny Burgess, Billy Riley, Carl Mann, Gene Simmons, and Warren Smith on equal level to the titans, then spending even more time with lesser-known rockers as Harold Jenkins, Kenny Parchman, and Vernon Taylor. If there are some very clear reasons why these singers never had a hit -- perhaps the singers are a little too bug-eyed, perhaps the music is a little too raw, perhaps the songs are just three-chord raves -- when they're combined here with the mythic Sun rockers, along with pretty wild one-shots from everyone from Mack Self to Mickey Gilley and Charley Pride (here doing a cool laid-back stroll), it's hard to deny the deep power of this rock & roll explosion. By concentrating so much on the lesser-known rockers in the Sun stable, The Sun Rock Box recaptures the kinetic thrill of the birth of rock & roll, so this winds up as history that seems alive.