NASHVILLE — Working in Memphis, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips specialized in blues and early rock and roll more than in straight-ahead, bona fide country music. So the legendary producer, talent scout and label owner isn't taking for granted Thursday's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"For years they had a hard time deciding whether I deserved to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame," Phillips said from his home in Memphis. "I quite understand that, I really do. … Deserved or not, thank God I made it."
Phillips, 78, earned country music's highest honor by introducing the world to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash — themselves members of the Country Music Hall of Fame — as well as Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich, among others. Many of them made their first, and best, recordings for Phillips.
Unlike most commercial country music of the '50s, the pioneering rockabilly recordings Phillips oversaw at Sun were infused with spontaneity and energy, and they incorporated elements of rhythm & blues. "Turn Around," an original by Perkins, was one of Phillips' earliest and best straight-country productions. Recorded in late 1954, it features fiddle and steel guitar and owes a measure of debt to Hank Williams in its composition and execution.
"In no way was I attempting to chastise or corrupt or do anything that would be adverse to the great basis of country music and its experiences," Phillips said with the grand flair of a Southern preacher. "Many things were being done in Nashville at the time that I thought were good. I really didn't have a desire to outdo Nashville — or New York or Los Angeles. I just had my own feelings about the blues and, especially, Southern white and black gospel."
Raised on a tenant farm outside of Florence, Alabama, Phillips emphasizes that Southern rural music — including country, blues and spirituals — laid the foundation for many other forms of American music. "The Country Music Hall of Fame is the embodiment of that impact," he said. "My induction therein shall have a glory for me personally [that] I never experienced before."
Phillips will be inducted with 11 other members in the largest class to enter at one time. Among them are Ken Nelson and the late Don Law, producers who headed the country divisions of Capitol and Columbia, respectively.
Nelson, 90, was nominated many times before winning election this year. "I'm tickled to death because I have grandchildren, and I like them to know that their granddad accomplished something," he said from his home in Somis, California. "This honor is the peak of my career. It's about the best I've had."
Like Phillips, Nelson had an uncanny knack for finding talent, and he supervised records that often sounded distinct from those made in Nashville. He gave a commercial voice to West Coast country, and he embraced rock and roll early, signing rockabilly singers Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson in 1956.
Living and working in Southern California, Nelson recorded some 200 artists from the late 1940s until his retirement in 1976. He was at the helm of Hank Thompson's 1952 #1 hit, "The Wild Side of Life," Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky's 1953 chart-topper, "A Dear John Letter," and Husky's 1957 smash, "Gone."
Nelson produced the majority of recordings by the Louvin Brothers, also in the hall of fame's 2001 class, and he nurtured the talents of hall of fame members Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who put Bakersfield, California, on the country music map in the 1960s.
Nelson's stable of recording artists included Faron Young, Tommy Collins, Rose Maddox, Red Simpson and numerous others. He co-founded Central Songs, a publishing company that dominated the West Coast country songwriting industry.
Nelson downplays his role in country music. Asked to name his greatest career achievement, he said, "I'm proud I was able to help many people in the music business. I never thought of myself as an outstanding person. To me, outstanding people were Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins and the great musicians and artists. I didn't have the ability of Owen or Chet. I got lucky."
Phillips and Nelson expect to attend Thursday's black-tie dinner at the new hall of fame in Nashville.
"The only thing to keep me away would be if I was kicked by a damn mule or something," Phillips quipped. "I'd have to be kicked real hard, maybe in the head."
Also scheduled to be on hand for their inductions are Bill Anderson, Charlie Louvin (of the Louvin Brothers) Phil Everly (of the Everly Brothers) and Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker (of the Jordanaires). New members Waylon Jennings and Don Gibson have not committed to attend. Producer Don Law, Webb Pierce, the Delmore Brothers and Homer & Jethro will be inducted posthumously.
The new class brings membership in the hall, whose members are elected by the Country Music Association, to 86. Phillips and Anderson were elected in the normal CMA cycle, while the 10 others will be inducted as a special group named on the occasion of the opening of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in May.
Marty Stuart will host the ceremony, and Mavericks frontman Raul Malo will lead a musical salute to the inductees.
"I'm looking forward to seeing people I've known for years and doing a lot of jawboning and acting a fool with each other," Phillips said. "That would be, to me, a great party."
In addition to Thursday's ceremony, new inductees will be recognized November 7 during The 35th CMA Awards, to be telecast by CBS from the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.