Sam Phillips was not just one of the most important producers in rock history. There's a good argument to be made that he was also one of the most important figures in 20th century American culture. As owner of Sun Records and frequent producer of discs at his Sun Studios he was vital to launching the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and numerous other significant artists. Although he first made his mark (and a very deep one) with electric blues by Black performers, he will be most remembered for his rockabilly stars, particularly Elvis Presley. With singers such as Elvis, he was fusing the best of White and Black, and of R&B and C&W -- the main ingredients in the recipe that gave birth to rock & roll. In the mid-'50s in Memphis, when much of America and most of the South was racially segregated, this took not just artistic vision but personal courage.
Exposed to blues, spirituals, and hillbilly music while growing up in Depression-era Alabama, Phillips worked as a radio announcer and engineer throughout the '40s. The experience would prove valuable when he decided to start a recording studio, which opened as the Memphis Recording Service in January, 1950. Although Memphis had already been a notable breeder of recording talent, particularly in the blues field (especially for jug bands), there was, hard as it may be to believe, no other studio in town when Phillips opened for business. That on its own ensured that much of the area's regional talent would be eager to try things out for him. In the meantime, however, he had to make a living, and to support himself at the outset, Phillips would record weddings, funerals, and other private functions. When Phillips first recorded musicians with an eye for commercial release, however -- which he did virtually from the start of his operations -- he cut mostly blues artists. At first he recorded masters that he would lease to other independent labels, Chess and RPM (run by the Bihari brothers) being the most notable of these. In this capacity Phillips recorded important early sides by B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, as well as one of the discs often cited as a candidate for the first rock & roll record, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" (on which Ike Turner played). Already, Phillips' talent as a producer was evident in how he captured primal electric blues with a rawer, more Southern feel than much blues being cut in bigger urban centers, though not at the expense of sterling performances and strong song selection.
Phillips briefly tried to start a label of his own, also called Phillips, in 1950, but this folded after only one release (by Joe Hill Louis). In 1952, frustrated by his business relationships with his leasees, Phillips again started a label, this time calling it Sun Records. Sun got its first national R&B hit in 1953 with Rufus Thomas' great "Bear Cat," though the triumph turned a bit sour when Phillips was successfully sued for royalties due to its extreme resemblance to the Leiber & Stoller classic "Hound Dog." For the next couple of years, Sun continued to make excellent, occasionally commercially successful electric blues records, particularly on early sides by James Cotton, Little Milton, and Junior Parker, who recorded the original version of "Mystery Train" for Sun. Phillips' role in these records was important -- he had a good eye for top-notch regional talent, and he was good at funneling their unpolished talents into solid studio performances. He was also willing to record instruments, particularly electric guitars and harmonica, at high levels which gave them enormous presence. And he was willing to record guitars with fuzzy and distorted textures that most other labels would have ruled out of the picture. For "Rocket 88," for instance, guitarist Willie Kizart arrived with an amp that had been damaged when it fell off the top of the car on the way to the session, breaking the speaker cone. Phillips, instead of getting flustered, realized that the resulting dirty tone sounded good, and it ended up being an important feature on the single.
Phillips was also recording some White country musicians at the time, like Doug Poindexter and the Starlite Wranglers, who included guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. As Phillips was essentially the only game in town for aspiring roots musicians, his studios were also the target of repeated visits by a shy but persistent teenager named Elvis Presley, who used them to record a couple of discs that have been described as birthday presents for his mother, vanity recordings for himself, or attempts to somehow attract Phillips' attention. One of the chief skills a producer, or A&R representative as they were often known then, can bring to bear is sensing talent when the potential is not obvious, and putting together combinations of musicians to bring out that talent. That is what Phillips did when he arranged for Presley to record at Sun on July 5, 1954, with Moore and Black. At this point there is no way of knowing exactly what Phillips might have been thinking in 1954, but it's sometimes reported that he would say that he could make a fortune if he could find a White singer with a Black feel. That's what he brought out in Elvis, and he deserves enormous credit for doing that right from the start. Presley's first session wasn't going too well, the musicians concentrating on ballads, before they started jamming on the blues cover "That's All Right Mama" during a break. Phillips told them to start working on that song straight off, and made American history, as the resulting single unveiled Presley as the first great rockabilly singer. In 1954 and 1955, Elvis made five classic singles for Sun Records, each combining large parts of blues and country (and smaller parts of bluegrass, gospel, and pop), which established him as the first major White rock & roll singer.
Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA for $35,000 in late 1955 -- a transaction that is still hotly debated by music historians. Phillips has since noted, with much validity, that he badly needed to raise capital for Sun ($35,000 meant much more in 1955 than it does now), both to keep it in business and to nurture a growing artist roster. Even Presley, his most successful artist to date, had only managed to break through to the country & western charts with his later Sun singles, and remained almost unknown to the national pop audience. Almost immediately after Presley's departure, Sun got its first national pop hit with Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes."
For the rest of the '50s, Phillips would continue to concentrate on rockabilly, with Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash (who was closer to country than rockabilly, but certainly rockabilly-influenced), and numerous others who had minor hits or got a cult reputation, like Roy Orbison, Billy Lee Riley, and Sonny Burgess. He mostly stopped recording blues and Black artists, a decision that has been criticized by some, such as Rufus Thomas. It was rockabilly that was bringing in the money, however, and in that style, Sun was able to carve the most distinctive label-identified rock & roll sound of the '50s. This was typified by uninhibited performances, and a full rich sound that sounded clean and pristine, and was sparse in comparison to that of both bigger labels and subsequent decades.
As a businessman, Phillips was not perfect, and artists would sometimes question his royalty statements and selection of material for release when interviewed long after the '50s. As a producer, however, he certainly seems to have been gifted at eliciting great performances from his artists. Sun Records were often imbued with a "slapback" echo, created by a small tape delay when the signal was bounced between machines. Whether on sessions principally overseen by Phillips or others, Sun studio personnel were good at positioning instruments so that an especially crisp sound emerged. The resulting "Sun sound" was recognizable enough that many collectors automatically respect and purchase almost anything on the label.
As the '50s wound down and the label's success accumulated, Phillips delegated more responsibilities to others in the studio, such as Jack Clement and Bill Justis. He also proved unable to sustain the success of Sun, in part because rockabilly's heyday was passing, but also because he wasn't proving adaptable to new trends and technologies. The biggest losses, perhaps, were those of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins to major labels. Phillips had been unable to tap the true talents of Roy Orbison, who became a superstar in the early '60s for Monument Records when allowed to pursue a pop/rock ballad direction. Jerry Lee Lewis stuck with Sun for some years to come, but his career was stymied by scandal in the late '50s. Charlie Rich made some good records and small hits for Sun in the late '50s and early '60s, and Carl Mann had a hit with "Mona Lisa." But generally, Sun was losing a lot of momentum, particularly as Phillips' attention was diverted by other business interests, and the small Sun studio on Union Avenue, where so much classic music had been laid down, was superseded by a more modern Sun facility on Madison Avenue with less character.
Sun continued to issue records until the late '60s, but by the middle of the decade, its operation was drastically curtailed, and after 1965, actual releases were pretty infrequent. Sun was, in fact, winding down, as Phillips invested in radio stations, property, and the Holiday Inn chain. In 1969 he sold the Sun catalog to Shelby Singleton, and the Sun legacy would be preserved by a flood of reissues that continues to the present. Phillips' involvement in recording and the music business in general diminished considerably thereafter, with only his radio station concerns tying him to his former life. He died quietly in Memphis on July 30, 2003. The original Sun Studios in Memphis remains open both to musicians and tourists, looking much as it did when the greats recorded there in the '50s. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi