Sun Records: An Oral History

Sun Records: An Oral History

by John Floyd

Paperback(2nd ed.)

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The tiny Sun studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, may not have looked like much from the outside, but inside musical miracles were being performed daily by its enigmatic owner, Sam Phillips.

Phillips began more or less as a talent scout for other record labels, such as the legendary Chess Records in Chicago. However, after discovering a wealth of talent in his own backyard in the Mid-South area, Phillips began his own record label-Sun Records-with an emblematic rising sun and rooster logo.

A white man who loved and understood African-American music, Phillips recorded soon-to-be blues icons such as Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. A seismic shift occurred during one session in 1951 when Phillips recorded "Rocket 88" with Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner. That shift was to become known as rock and roll.

A shy white boy named Elvis Presley came into the studio to record a song for his mother's birthday. Phillips recognized something in the young man, and a moment of silliness in the studio ruptured into the first record of the future King of Rock & Roll, "That's All Right."

Elvis shot to stardom; Sun Records didn't stop there. Hot on his heels came Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. However, there wasn't a day that the studio wasn't searching for other artists, other hits.

Sun Records: An Oral History (2nd edition) brings to readers the voices of the pillars of Sun Records, the artists, producers and engineers who made the place tick. Thomas (the first hit-maker for Sun), Scotty Moore, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton Campbell, Billy Lee Riley, producer and musician Roland Janes, producer Cowboy Jack Clement and others all tell their inimitable stories about the making of a music empire, the label that put rock and roll on the world map.

Music journalist and critic John Floyd has woven together dozens of priceless stories and anecdotes with his own insightful and artful narrative to make this book definitive for anyone interested in Sun Records or the birth and rise of rock and roll. For example, there are firsthand accounts of the early Elvis sessions by Moore, Riley's own account of his legendary drunken rampage in the Sun studio, and a transcript of the back-and-forth hell and damnation conversation between a reluctant Lewis and Phillips just prior to the recording of "Great Balls of Fire."

This second edition updates the masterful original book which was critically acclaimed and considered one of the canon of must-have music books.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781942531104
Publisher: The Devault-Graves Agency
Publication date: 08/28/2015
Edition description: 2nd ed.
Pages: 258
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.58(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Great Musical Menagerist

Although it is rightly celebrated as the place where blues, pop, and country met as one and became rock and roll, there's something greater that connects the music recorded at Sun Studio by Sam Phillips—something that goes far beyond any thing as simple as the blues swing in this country tune or the honky-tonk snap in that R&B wailer. You can hear it in Howlin' Wolf's "My Baby Walked Off" and Elvis Presley's "Good Rockin' Tonight," in Pat Hare's "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" and Charlie Rich's "Lonely Weekends," in Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and James Cotton's "Cotton Crop Blues." What you hear is a moment when the singers and musicians looked deep into their lives and emotions, found a part of their soul that maybe they didn't even know existed, and projected it into Phillips's tape machine. Sometimes it was enhanced with a bit of tape-delay echo, or maybe a microphone was placed in just the right spot to add an ethereal ambiance to the proceedings. But the soul was there, frozen in time but alive for the ages. Those songs, and many others just as good, bristle with the sound of discovery, of potential suddenly turning into perfection.

Moments like that were almost routine at Sun, and over a period of about ten years Phillips and his eclectic and ever changing stable of artists created the foundation on which most modern blues and nearly all rock and roll firmly rests. The label's achievements have been amply documented in books, album liner notes, and countless magazine articles, but they remain no less staggering nearly fifty years afterPhillips—a native of Alabama born January 5, 1923—started the Memphis Recording Service in a small, narrow store front on Union Avenue.

Phillips was already an established radio man when he opened the studio, having produced and hosted shows in Muscle Shoals, Decatur, and Nashville before moving to Memphis in 1945. There, he first took a job as an announcer at WREC, where his older brother Jud Phillips sang in the mornings as part of the Jollyboys Quartet. In 1949, in need of extra cash to support his growing family, Phillips got the idea to open a studio to record, as the slogan went, "Anything-Anywhere-Anytime." Mostly that meant wed dings, bar mitzvahs, speeches, and commercials, but Phillips was also able to record the local bluesmen he had been infatuated with since the late thirties, when he first encountered Beale Street en route to Dallas with some church friends from Alabama.

Although he has said that he never had a desire to start a record company, Phillips almost immediately entered into a partnership with Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, related in spirit if not blood, to do just that. The label, christened Phillips, issued its one and only record in the summer of 1950: Joe Hill Louis's "Gotta Let You Go"/"Boogie in the Park," a raucous pairing by a local one-man band. Only three hundred copies were pressed; the poorly distributed disc promptly sank with hardly a trace. Phillips's work with Louis did lead, however, to a partnership of sorts with the Bihari brothers—Joe, Saul, and Jules—who headed the Los Angeles-based Modern label and were about to start up a subsidiary imprint, RPM. Phillips would record local talent in his studio and ship the results to the Biharis for release. (He also worked up a similar deal with Leonard Chess in Chicago, much to the chagrin of the Bihari clan.)

Even before he introduced the Sun label in 1952, Phillips had already recorded some of the most important blues artists, most notably B. B. King and Howlin' Wolf, as well as some of R&B's biggest early hits, including Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88." Once Sun made its proper debut with "Driving Slow," a moody instrumental by Memphis saxman Johnny London, Phillips's studio became a magnet for blues and R&B performers throughout the mid-South, attracting everyone from Junior Parker and Bobby "Blue" Bland to Rufus Thomas and Little Milton, all of whom would become influential and popular in the 1960s.

From there the story of Sun reads less like history and more like a combination of fable and myth. Always on the lookout for a white man who could sing with the soul and feel of a black man, Phillips (or, depending upon whom you believe, Phillips's assistant, Marion Keisker) found him in 1954—a shy but sharp-dressed nineteen-year-old named Elvis Presley. Together Phillips and his young artist created rock and roll and brought Sun to the forefront of a pop music revolution with a battalion that counted in its ranks Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and a host of other worthy soldiers.

The Sun Records story is ultimately the Sam Phillips story— one based on his determination to lend voice and a little dignity to the unheard masses of poor Southerners who entered his studio. There is a tendency, however, to gloss over some of Phillips's shortcomings as a producer and a record man Gust as there is a tendency to overlook the contributions of Phillips's assistants, most notably Jack Clement and Roland Janes). Chief among those shortcomings was Phillips's inability to harness the talents of the wildly gifted Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, who had to leave the label in order to make their best records. As for Sun's notoriously low royalty payments, they may have been no worse than those of other labels at the time, but that doesn't mean a lot of people didn't get paid—or, at least, didn't get paid what they deserved. And because Phillips proved incapable of carrying Sun's legacy into the 1960s (he spent the decade instead buying radio stations and investing in the Holiday Inn chain), the Sun story feels unfinished, despite the 1969 sale to Shelby Singleton that provides its final chapter.

In the long run, though, little of that matters, and if you're going to cut someone some slack, Sam Phillips better be at the top of the list. Not that he needs it: The man did more to alter the direction of popular music than anyone this side of Louis Armstrong, from the litany of artists he thrust upon the staid pop scene of the 1950s to his numerous innovations in the studio, which helped to turn the recording process from one that simply documented the sound of a live band to one in which the studio and the men running the equipment were integral components of the music. At Sun they had to be. After all, they were recording souls.

Copyright ) 1998 by John Floyd

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