The Sun King: Sam Phillips
BACK IN THE MID-'50s, the Sun Records studio at 706 Union Avenue was the epicenter of a sudden, wrenching shift in world consciousness. Tremors had been felt for several years, and then, one afternoon in early 1954, Sam Phillips was busy with routine work in the tiny studio when Destiny walked in.
Actually, Destiny, in the person of a handsome, painfully shy but flashily dressed young man with longish hair and greasy sideburns, paced up and down the sidewalk outside for some time before summoning the courage to actually walk in the door. Phillips, a thirty-one-year-old radio engineer from Florence, Alabama, who'd opened his studio in 1950 and begun making distinctive yellow-label Sun records of local blues talent in 1952, watched the boy idly through the storefront building's window.
The kid said his name was Elvis. He was there to make a record for his mother, and Sam turned on the machine that pressed private messages– songs, greetings, remote recordings of wedding or funeral services–onto acetate discs. Elvis ran through his song, the Ink Spots ballad 'My Happiness', a couple of times and Sam, who'd already proved he had a sharp ear for talent by making some of the first recordings of Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King, and other seminal black artists, cocked an ear. The kid had something.
Within two years that something was going to shake RCA, CBS, and the nation's other giant record companies to their foundations, inspire paroxysms of angry rhetoric and record-burning by clergymen and politicians and disc jockeys, dig a crevasse between young people and many of their elders, and bring millions of black and white Americans together socially for the first time in the country's history. That something that Sam Phillips heard in the voice of Destiny would be banned in Boston and in Red China, accused of inciting rioting and juvenile delinquency, attacked in the U.S. Senate, savaged and defended in public debate. It was the sound of a white man with a look, a style, and a genuine feeling for the vitality that America's minority musics–white country, black rhythm and blues–had in common. It was rock & roll.
When Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records that first time he was painfully timid. "He tried not to show it," Sam Phillips says today, "but he felt so inferior. He reminded me of a black man in a way; his insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person." But less than two years later, the shy kid was a national phenomenon. Sam had found Elvis a band, worked with him in the little studio on Union, and made five single records, each of which featured Elvis singing a blues song on one side and a country song on the other. The records were so successful that RCA bought Elvis's contract out. For that, Sam got $35,000, a fee that seems pitiful today but was unheard-of at the time. And he turned right around and recorded Carl Perkins's 'Blue Suede Shoes', the first record to become a top ten hit in every major market–country, popular, and rhythm and blues. Another Sun discovery, Johnny Cash, was selling steadily to the nation's fans. And in the next few years Phillips recorded Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Carl Mann–the list goes on and on and on. "This man had a knack," says Carl Perkins. "He had the capability of spotting raw talent. Because look at the guys he spotted, check 'em out–they're damn near all still around."
A spotter of raw talent with a record that no other figure in the history of American popular music has matched, Sam Phillips was much more as well. He did not just find talents that were waiting to be polished, packaged, and promoted: he perceived talent in individuals who might otherwise have kept it locked up within themselves. Elvis Presley hid an overwhelming drive to success beneath his timidity, but how long would it have taken him to break into the music business through conventional channels, and what other producer would have taken weeks and months to work with him, patiently searching for something he couldn't even name or define?
Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins both tried their luck with Sun. Perkins's family had been the only white sharecroppers on a huge Tennessee plantation, and Lewis had been banging out the blues and boogie numbers since he was twelve or thirteen. Phillips wasn't worried that they were too country and too black for conventional country music tastes. In fact, he was intrigued, just as he'd been intrigued by something he heard in Elvis. As a longtime booster of black music, Sam was very aware that young whites, especially in the South, were listening to it. "When I first formed my label," he says, "the input I got from the distributors, jukebox operators, and retailers was that white teenagers were picking up on the feel of the black music. These people liked the plays and the sales they were getting, but they were concerned, saying, 'We're afraid our children might fall in love with black people.' At that time, you know, three categories of music–pop, country music, rhythm and blues–were just miles apart, and yet, if you took a Southern country person and a Southern black, they were so damn close together. Still, that line came right down. So, in no way to undermine the black people that gave me my start in this industry, I felt that if we could get plays on radio stations and generally better acceptance for this music because white people were doing it, it would help. It couldn't hurt the black man, because he can hold his own in music with anybody in the world."
But Phillips wasn't looking for white singers who would simply copy black records or the mannerisms of black singers, as white pop and country and jazz vocalists had been doing for years. He was looking for a singer who could approach black idioms as naturally as he approached country music, and in Presley, Perkins, Lewis, and most of his other white rock & roll artists he found just that. It was a matter of trial and error. "If it took a week or a month to get in or out of a person what they really, truly had to say," Sam continues, "this is what we did. A lot of times you've just got to unlock that person."
Right now, interest in what Sam Phillips and his Sun artists accomplished is more intense than at any time since the fifties. Rockabilly, a term Phillips hates but a generally accepted description of a kind of music he made, is the rage of England and the continent. There, every record company with the rights to a major American catalog has released a rockabilly compilation. CBS Rockabillies, Mercury Rockabillies, Capitol Rockabilly Originals, The M.G.M. Rockabilly Collection, and the rest are really tributes to Sun. For the most part they chronicle the mid-fifties reactions of established country stars, up-and-coming hopefuls, and panicky record executives to the Memphis juggernaut.
That interest isn't limited to people who purchase '50s rock & roll collections. A strong rockabilly flavor runs through contemporary pop, from superstars like Linda Ronstadt, who included a few rockabilly numbers on each of her multimillion-selling albums, to English cult figures like Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. Punk rockers–New York's Robert Gordon, Memphis's own Alex Chilton, a whole phalanx of English groups–flatter Sun rock & roll by attempting to copy it. Carl Perkins, Ol' Blue Suede himself, is making a spectacular comeback on the CBS-distributed Jet label. After a decade making albums that were mostly bar-stool country, Jerry Lee Lewis is rocking again. And, of course, Elvis is an even bigger star in death than he was in life.
Historians are beginning to chronicle the Sun years, or trying to. The problem is that Sam Phillips, the man who started it all, hasn't talked to any of them. Without his input, books like Catalyst: The Sun Records Story, which was published in England in 1975, and Jerry Hopkins's Elvis: A Biography are less than definitive. In fact, Phillips quarrels with Hopkins's account of Elvis's days at Sun, an account pieced together with the help of Sam's former secretary Marion Keisker, on several significant points. As interest in the Sun story continues to grow–and it is an essential story for anyone who wants to understand American popular culture in this latter half of the twentieth century–that story becomes increasingly obscured by half-truths and outright fantasies.
But recently Sam Phillips pried himself loose from his radio station and his other business interests long enough to come again into the public eye, especially to supervise the restoration of the original studio at 706 Union. A few weeks ago he agreed to talk to this writer. The interview he gave was his first major interview, and it lasted a good six hours.
PHILLIPS LIVES ON a quiet suburban street in east Memphis, in the same house he owned when Sun was at its zenith. He doesn't look his fifty-five years. In fact, he doesn't look much like the grinning, crew-cut young man with the somehow pixieish nose whose picture is in so many histories of rock & roll. He has a lot of hair and a full, red beard, and you have to look at him hard to discern those same distinctive features. But the spirit is there, and so is the headstrong individualism that led him to leave a secure job with WREC in the early fifties to plunge into the extremely risky business of recording black blues musicians. "I thought it was vital music," he said as soon as he had settled himself on the couch in his wood-paneled den. "I don't know whether I had too many people agree with me immediately on that, but I thought it was vital and I tried my best to let people be individuals. I think that if I contributed anything, it was the ability to discern in people a natural talent, be it unpolished or semi-polished or almost crude–I feel prouder of myself for that ability than for any other achievement."
Eventually the conversation got around to establishing some facts. Sam Phillips was born January 5, 1923, on a small farm near Florence, Alabama, at a bend of the Tennessee River. As a child he worked in the cotton fields, like so many of the artists he recorded for Sun, black and white alike. "And I never did see white people singing a lot when they were chopping cotton," he says, "but the odd part about it is, I never heard a black man that couldn't sing good. Even off-key, it had a spontaneity about it that would grab my ear."
Sam played drums and sousaphone in the high school band, took the lead in organizing a school dance band, and even convinced his band director to let him organize a benefit concert so the budding musicians could buy capes and some decent instruments. "I think some leadership quality came out," he says, thinking back, "the ability to possibly convince somebody that change is not always bad. It might be fun, and it might even be good." As a teenager, his burning ambition was to become a criminal defense lawyer, but his father died, the family had a deaf-mute aunt to look after, and his older brother, one of eight Phillips children, went into the Marines. Sam had little choice but to quit school and begin working for a living. Luckily–although it may be stretching the point to call anything that happened to such a self-willed individual "luck"– Sam had impressed the manager of a Muscle Shoals radio station, WLAY, when he announced numbers for his high school band, and he went to work spinning white gospel and hillbilly records. He moved on to stations in Decatur and Nashville, and in 1945 he arrived in Memphis.
"The first thing to remember about Sam," says Stan Kesler, who played steel guitar and bass at Sun and wrote songs for Elvis Presley and other Sun artists, "is that he was a great audio man, a radio engineer. And what made Sam great, Sam was not afraid to experiment." Already, the young man had a reputation for audio excellence. He began engineering live broadcasts by big-name bands from the Peabody Skyway, and starting in 1946 his broadcasts fed directly into the CBS radio network every night. It was customary for stations to record these remote broadcasts; the next day the bandleaders would drop by to see how they had sounded. They began to encourage Sam Phillips. Then one day the bandleader Art Mooney needed to make a record in a hurry in order to cover a fast-breaking hit by Pee Wee Hunt, 'Oh!' Sam arranged to record the Mooney band at the studios of WMC, in the old Goodwyn Institute Building, and ran wires from the studio all the way to a long, straight stairwell in the back of the building. That stairwell was his first echo chamber, and Mooney's 'Oh!' was a smash.
One would think this kind of success might have emboldened Sam Phillips to go into business for himself, but he denies that it did, and it isn't difficult to believe him. Unlike most young people who came from rural poverty to the relative sophistication of a career in the city, Sam was still concerned with, maybe even obsessed by, his roots. He remembered Silas Paine, a blind black man who had lived on his family's farm when he was very young and who sang him perhaps fifty or a hundred blues and folk songs. He remembered passing a black church there in Alabama, on the way home from the Baptist church he joined when he was sixteen because he found his family's Methodism insufficiently emotional and too formal. "I would tell people, 'Why doesn't our music sound that good in our church?' I mean, hearing them wasinspiring, you'd get happy, and although back then you were taught to look upon it as, well, you know, 'Those niggers are really getting with it,' I felt that they were getting with it, in the right way. They were letting it all hang out. Wish I'd known that expression then, but you couldn't have used it, could you?"
These were the experiences that fired Phillips with the desire to open his own studio, a move he made with the express purpose of recording black talent. There was plenty of it around Memphis. Beale Street had been a black Main Street for the entire Mid-South since the early years of the century, and it was still going strong. Sam went to a few shows there–occasionally there would be a roped-off section for whites, or a balcony, or a whole show–and heard a young Mississippian with a big, booming, gospel singer's voice and a fleet, polished guitar style–Riley "Blues Boy" King. But for the first time in Memphis's history, whites didn't have to go to Beale Street to hear black music, they could simply turn on their radios. WDIA had switched to a black format, against considerable community opposition, and was enjoying success with performing disc jockeys like King, Rufus Thomas, and the one-man band Joe Hill Louis. Some of these artists played Mississippi Delta blues and appealed to blacks with strong country roots, while Thomas, King, and others were more urban. All of them were good enough to get it on records, but Memphis didn't have a record company, or even a commercial recording studio.
All this time, the major record companies were largely ignorant of the shifting tastes of black record buyers. The war years had seen an epic black migration from the rural South to the nation's cities, and these newly urbanized country people wanted music that combined deep roots with a metropolitan veneer. The companies that were providing this music were small, one-man or family operations–Specialty, Imperial, and Modern in Los Angeles, Chess in Chicago, Atlantic in New York. Often the men who ran these companies would load records into the trunks of their cars and make whirlwind tours of the South, where much of their audience still lived, visiting radio stations, bribing disc jockeys, hawking records, and looking for talent. Several of them had already visited Memphis when Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service at the beginning of 1950.
"I knew that it wouldn't be easy," says Sam. "My boys Knox and Jerry were born in '45 and '48, and I couldn't save too much on fifty, fifty-five dollars a week and raise a family, even then. But I managed to save and with my own hands built a little studio and wired it. I was also working for WREC as an engineer–I finally quit in June of '51–and taking care of the convention PA system for the entire Peabody. So I was a pretty busy cat. Recording black musicians was what I wanted to do, but in the meantime I recorded conventions, funerals, weddings, anything I could to keep the doors open while I was trying to do some of the things I personally wanted to do."
EVEN IF SAM PHILLIPS had never started the Sun label and never recorded Elvis Presley or any of his other white artists, his place in the history of American popular music would be assured. Through his studio passed the cream of the Mid-South's black musicians, men who would go on to leave an indelible imprint on the whole world's popular music–B. B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, James Cotton, and more.
In March 1951, Sam Phillips recorded his first big hit. Ike Turner, later half of the very successful Ike and Tina Turner team but then a young bandleader and disc jockey from Clarksdale, Mississippi, showed up at the Memphis Recording Service with his band, the Kings of Rhythm. Unlike older Delta bands, which still played the down-home blues, the Kings of Rhythm looked to the urban jump blues that was then emanating from Texas and the West Coast for their inspiration. Their lineup boasted Ike's piano, electric guitar, bass, drums, and a section of saxophones. Unfortunately, the group's equipment was not on a par with its aspirations. They had all packed into one car to make the drive up to Memphis, and on the way guitarist Willie Kizart's amplifier had fallen off the top and onto the highway, bursting its speaker cone. Sam's knowledge of audio and willingness to experiment saved the day. "We had no way of getting it fixed," he recalls, "so we started playing around with the damn thing, stuffed a little paper in there and it sounded good. It sounded like a saxophone."
The distorted, fuzzy-sounding guitar played a rocking boogie figure all the way through 'Rocket 88', a song about cruising around in a fancy automobile that boasted a convincing vocal by saxophonist Jackie Brenston and a searing, all-out saxophone solo from Raymond Hill. 'Rocket 88' was snapped up by Chess Records and became one of the best-selling black discs of 1951. It has often been hailed as the first real rock & roll record because of its loud guitar sound, rocking beat, raunchy saxophone, and teenage-automotive lyrics. Later that year, a young white country musician named Bill Haley made his own recording of 'Rocket 88'. It was his first venture outside the strictures of conventional country and western music.
Soon Sam produced another hit for Chess, Rosco Gordon's 'Booted'. But encouraging as these experiences must have been, the first few years of the Memphis Recording Service left him deeply frustrated. Legal wrangling, and some questionable business tactics on the part of some of the record companies he dealt with, deprived him of the services of some of his most talented black artists. He especially regretted the loss of Howlin' Wolf, who agreed to record with him for a year but was lured away to Chicago by Leonard Chess after the first sides he recorded with Phillips stirred up interest there.
It was frustrating, too, to have no control over the commercial fortunes of artists he really believed in. Dr. Isaiah Ross, a harmonica- and guitar-playing bluesman from Tunica, whose recordings combined fire-breathing intensity with novelty lyrics, catchy melodies, and a chugging beat reminiscent of the rockabilly to come, never really got off the ground, and neither did Jimmy DeBerry, a Delta bluesman in the old style whom Phillips greatly admired. Neither did Harmonica Frank Floyd, a white hobo who fascinated Sam because he had an innate feeling for black music, even if it was the black music of the 1920s and 1930s.
"I thought about it long and hard," Sam says. "My devotion was in creating, or attempting to. I kind of have an evangelistic way about me. I don't go for all this religion as it's structured today; my evangelism is, in my own peculiar way, letting people out of themselves. I got pure gratification, far more than what recompense I got monetarily, in unlocking or helping these people unlock their lives. So with the help of my old friend Jim Bullet, who had the Bullet label out of Nashville years ago, we started Sun." The yellow label, with its sunburst, crowing rooster, and musical staff line, was designed by a man named Parker who played with Sam in the high school band in Florence.
The first fifteen Sun releases were by black musicians. There were deep blues by the likes of Joe Hill Louis and Walter Horton, jazzy jump music by some artists who have since faded into obscurity, and three hits. The first, 'Bear Cat' by WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas, was evidence of far-reaching changes in American popular music. Early in 1953, a Texas blues shouter named Willie Mae Thornton had had a hit with a song called 'Hound Dog'. It had been written for a black singer and aimed at a black audience but the authors were two young whites, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Within a few years they would be writing rock & roll hits for black groups like the Coasters and for Elvis Presley. But Sam Phillips had no way of knowing that when he concocted 'Bear Cat' as an answer record to 'Hound Dog.' "I should have known better, though," Sam says ruefully. "The melody was exactly the same as theirs, and we claimed credit for writing the damn thing." The result was a lawsuit. It was settled out of court and the record sold much more than any of Sun's previous efforts, but the whole incident left a bad taste in every-one's mouth. Rufus Thomas was dissatisfied with the record because his roots were in jazz and the slick novelty music of Louis Jordan, and Sam had put him together with a studio band that featured the country-style blues guitar of Joe Hill Louis. Even today, Rufus takes perverse delight in pointing out the wrong notes in Louis's solo.
The second Sun hit was the Prisonaires' 'Just Walkin' in the Rain', and the third was a bristling boogie record, 'Feelin' Good', by Little Junior's Blues Flames, led by bluesman Junior Parker. Gradually some white country artists appeared along with the blacks, beginning with an unaccompanied vocal group, the Ripley Cotton Choppers, followed by Earl Peterson ('Michigan's Singing Cowboy') and the haunting, unforgettable 'Troublesome Waters' by a blind guitar evangelist, Howard Seratt. It was inevitable that Phillips would record more and more white musicians, because more and more blacks from rural Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee were leaving the area altogether for better salaries in Detroit and Chicago. Almost all the black musicians who recorded at the Memphis Recording Service and during the early days at Sun followed the migration northward. Only the most stubbornly countrified bluesmen remained, along with a handful who had good, steady jobs, like Rufus Thomas.
AND THEN IN walked Elvis. There has been considerable confusion about what happened during the first few months he was working at Sun, and Sam's story differs from the most widely accepted account, as told by Marion Keisker to Jerry Hopkins in Elvis: A Biography. According to the Hopkins account, Sam was out, and Marion, who worked part-time as his secretary while still holding down a position at WREC, was in on the day Elvis first came to the studio. According to Hopkins, Marion turned on the big, bulky machine that made custom acetates, but when she heard Elvis's voice she also turned on the tape machine so that she could save a copy for her boss. "The reason I taped Elvis," she is quoted as saying, "was this: Over and over I remember Sam saying, 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.' This is what I heard in Elvis…"
"I hate like the Devil taking anything away from Marion," says Sam, "but the record has to be set straight. And the record is that, number one, I was there busy in the little control room and I saw Elvis through the windows, trying to get up the courage to come in. Number two, I recorded him. Marion didn't even know how to record an acetate record, and it was put on acetate directly. There wasn't a copy put on tape, period. This was a record that he bought and paid for, and if you want to know the truth I wasn't going to use any tape for it. Tape was expensive. But his voice really interested me, even singing the Ink Spots song. It was there, no question about it. I mean I saw it by the yard. I wrote down and hung on the spindle 'Good voice. See if I can find a song. . . .' Something like that.
"So I talked to Elvis and asked him had he been playing with any musicians. Usually if you were that interested in music you would, but Elvis was a total loner, based on the fact that he was extremely timid. So I told him, 'Look, I'll get on the phone and call some musicians. I'm going to call Scotty Moore, who's very interested in working with us over here, and possibly Bill Black, and y'all can do a little woodshedding.' And that's how it happened. I called Scotty and he was tickled to death to do it. I explained to Scotty and Bill that Elvis was an extremely shy person and just to really make him feel at home, no matter if they did it at his house–Elvis's bedroom where he played so much–or at Scotty's, or if they came over to the studio when it wasn't busy. Bill reported back that he didn't see much in Elvis."
Sam laughs. "I was real busy trying to keep my label going, so my time frame is not too secure, but Scotty and Bill fooled around with Elvis and they were in four or five different times. I'd listen to what they were doing, and they'd go back and work some more. It was treated as an informal thing with no promises to anybody, because I felt this was his one chance. From the first time he heard 'Without Love' until I actually got them to recording, it was somewhere between three and six months.
"We cut some good stuff, and of course you didn't save much then because you had to save tape. Aww, God, the stuff I recorded over! We worked on I don't know how many songs. I knew he had it, and I liked the simplicity of Scotty's guitar and the slap of Bill's bass; nothing was encumbering anything there. There was no question in my mind that this kid had it in him. It was a challenge for me to see if it was possible for us to get it out of him somehow. Then one night"–records show that it was July 6, 1954–"we were just about ready to give up for that session, and I walked out and I said, in jest or tongue-in-cheek a little bit, 'Elvis, ain't there something you know that you can sing?' And when he cut down on 'That's All Right, Mama'. . . Of course, I love Big Boy Crudup, and it was amazing to me they even knew a Big Boy Crudup song. That just knocked me out."
Sam ran back in the control room, and after he offered some advice on the song's tempo, Elvis, Scotty, and Bill recorded 'That's All Right' (as the label read) in a burst of energy. The flip side of what was to be Elvis's first record took a little more time; 'Blue Moon of Kentucky', a well-known country song by Bill Monroe, went through several changes. By this time Phillips must have known he had something, for several early takes of the song were saved. On a Dutch bootleg album called Good Rockin Tonight you can hear its step-by-step transformation from a straight country song with an unconventional instrumentation–no fiddle, no steel guitar–into a jumping jukebox number, hillbilly with a beat.
The story of how Dewey Phillips introduced the record on his Red Hot and Blue show, received so many calls he had to play it over and over, and eventually fetched Elvis out of a movie theater to come and be interviewed, has been told and retold. What one hears less often is that Sam Phillips's efforts to break the record outside Memphis were some of the hardest and most dispiriting of his career. He would leave Memphis driving his black '51 Cadillac on a Sunday afternoon and crisscross the heart of the country, Oklahoma City to Dallas and Houston, down to Shreveport, into Mississippi, stopping at every little radio station along the way, checking with his distributors, pushing new releases, getting reactions. Nobody would play Elvis's record. One disc jockey, a longtime friend, told Sam, "You know, Mr. Phillips, this man is so country, he got no business at all singing after the sun comes up." Finally, a distributor in Dallas began moving on the record. It went on to sell around 300,000 copies in the South, more than enough to encourage Sam to persevere.
The most encouraging signs, though, were Elvis's personal appearances around Memphis. "His first show," Sam remembers, "we played him at a little club up here at Summer and Mendenhall, I went out there that night and introduced Elvis. Now this was kind of out in the country then, out on the highway, as they say. It was just a joint. Here is a bunch of hard-drinking people, and here is a kid up there onstage, and he ain't playing country, and he ain't necessarily playing rhythm and blues, and he didn't look conventional like they did. He looked a little greasy, as they called it then. And the reaction was just incredible. Then there was a show at Overton Park Shell with Slim Whitman, who was hot with 'Indian Love Call.' Slim was supposed to wrap up the show, and I felt sorry for him, because when he came out those people just wanted more Elvis. Those people came to see Slim and wound up with Elvis, that's a fact."
Sam has often been criticized for selling Elvis's contract to RCA when he could have held on to it for another eighteen months. "I just needed the money," he says. "I had struggled so long, and I made a damn proposition that I didn't think they would take. I didn't think they'd be fool enough to take it. And it was the eleventh hour before they did actually take it. The price doesn't sound like anything today, but damn! Columbia paid twenty-five thousand dollars for Frankie Laine's contract from Mercury, and they had less time to go on his contract than I had on Elvis's. What I needed was money to just get out of the bullpen so I could maybe get on the mound and throw to a batter. If I've been asked once I must have been asked a thousand times, did I ever regret it? No, I did not, I do not, and I never will."
Sam Phillips did get on the mound with the $35,000 from RCA–it was closer to $40,000 because RCA also paid Elvis around $5,000 that Sun owed him in royalties–and his aim was true. Johnny Cash was already a country star–he had been selling household appliances door-to-door when he came to Sun–and by the end of 1955, before RCA was able to make a new record with Elvis, Carl Perkins had a nationwide smash with "Blue Suede Shoes."
Carl Perkins has always maintained that he was playing rockabilly before he heard Elvis, or at least country music with a beat. Sam Phillips maintains that Carl was more or less a straight country artist and that making him a rocker took him somewhat out of his element. Both men are probably telling the truth. Carl's music probably did have a jumping boogie beat, but it must have been closer to the hillbilly boogie of black-influenced country groups like the Delmore Brothers than it was to Presley's rawer, sparer, bluesier sound. In any event, Carl's Sun recordings–'Blue Suede Shoes,' 'Glad All Over,' 'Honey Don't,' and 'Matchbox' are some of the best –were, like Cash's, a self-contained body of work, not country, not blues, not rock & roll, just pure Perkins.
The third member of Sun's post-Presley triumvirate arrived at 706 Union not long after Sam had hired Jack Clement as producer. "I had a little station over in Marked Tree, Arkansas," Sam says, "and we went over there for a little open house. When I got back to Memphis, Jack Clement had recorded Jerry Lee and everybody was just ecstatic. Well, I don't know if I told Jack this, but I had been saying I wanted to get off this guitar scene and show that it could be done with other instruments. And they put that tape on, 'Crazy Arms,' and I said, 'Where in the hell did this man come from?' He played that piano with abandon. A lot of people do that, but I could hear, between the stuff he played and didn't play, that spiritual thing. And I told Jack, 'Just get him in here as fast as you can.' Now you talk about talent."
With the help of his brother Judd, an experienced country music promoter, Sam made Jerry Lee Lewis into an international phenomenon. His singles sold in the millions, and after shooting a movie with Mamie Van Doren, High School Confidential, he left for a tour of England. Unfortunately, the English press found out that he was married to his teenage cousin and he was hounded out of the country. That was the end of his career, for all practical purposes, until he came back as a country singer in the sixties. Sam lost him to Mercury and he lost Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins to Columbia. But there were other Sun hits, ranging from Roy Orbison's regional successes to smashes on the new Phillips International label by Charlie Rich and Carl Mann. There were plenty of great records that never quite made it, by rockers like Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, and Sonny Burgess.
Riley says flatly of his Sun almost-hit 'Red Hot' that "Sam Phillips let that record die. He canceled orders on it so that he could fill orders for Lewis's records; I stood right there in the office and heard him do it. I guess he could handle just so many artists at once, and he had a big record with Jerry Lee, 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.' Well, I got mad and drunk and came in the studio one night and kicked a hole in the bass fiddle."
Riley is not the only star to have expressed dissatisfaction with Sun. Jimmy Van Eaton, the brilliant session drummer who powered Jerry Lee Lewis's most incendiary recordings and those of many other Sun rockers, told an English interviewer a few years back that "things really started falling apart at Sun after Jack Clement and [arranger] Bill Justis got fired. We were in a groove and it just disappeared. After the hits stopped coming, they started screwing the musicians. I was pretty dissatisfied with Sun by the time I left."
You'd think Riley and Van Eaton would bristle at the very mention of Sam Phillips's name, yet they speak of him warmly, and still with a trace of awe, and both of them have been working in the Phillips studio on Madison these past few months, along with Knox and Jerry Phillips, cutting hard, raw rock & roll just like the old days. An initial single, Riley's moving ode to the Sun sound 'That Good Old Rock and Roll' with a churning 'Blue Monday' on the flip side, has been released on the Southern Rooster label. "I tell you," says Riley, "back then we had fun, and that's what's happening here."
Time ran out for Sam Phillips and Sun not because he lost the feel– his astonishing gift for getting the very most out of an artist and reacting spontaneously in the right way at the right time, as he did when Ike Turner showed up with a broken guitar amplifier and when Elvis half-jokingly began singing 'That's All Right'. Time ran out because of the very thing he had been working for, because of success. Jack Clement and Bill Justis made some excellent records for Sun, using saxophones, vocal choruses, and the other sweetenings that other record companies were using. But one suspects that once Sam Phillips had to devote more of his time to running his hit-making company, once he could no longer spend as many hours as he wanted roaring around his little studio and working with his artists until they yielded up their treasures, he began to lose interest. After the early sixties, Sun returned to being basically a local label. It was inactive for a year before Sam sold a controlling interest to Shelby Singleton in 1969.
By that time, Credence Clearwater Revival was at the top of the nation's record charts with a sound that was as close to the Sun sound as they could get, and a new generation of American and English rockers was coming along that would pay homage to Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the rest, as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and so many others had done. But try though they did, none of them quite managed to duplicate the essentials of the Sun sound–its simplicity and its feel. "Everything's too complicated anyway," said Sam Phillips late in the interview. "Why make music complicated? You'll notice my records never did have too much in the way of instrumental cushion. I knew in my mind's eye what I was looking for when I would go into these sessions. Maybe not the lyric, maybe not the melody pattern, but the feel. And with this approach and with an awful lot of patience, I think that each person developed that feel in working with me. It was a mutual type of thing."
Pop records aren't made that way anymore. They're made a step at a time, starting with the drums and bass and adding instruments one or two at a time and the vocals last, sometimes weeks later. The ingredients aren't mixed together right there on the spot, when the juices are flowing and everyone is concentrating on the task at hand. Nowadays records are mixed by highly paid technicians with the help of elaborate computerized consoles. Record companies don't decide who they're going to record the way Sam Phillips did, by instinct. They decide in board meetings, after studying whether the artist can be promoted as this or that and plotting his demographics. And records don't sound like Sam Phillips's records anymore. A good 99 percent of today's popular music sounds dull and lifeless by comparison. It doesn't have that spark, that feeling of going for the big one as if nothing else mattered. It doesn't have the soul. But more and more people are finding Sam Phillips's recordings to their liking, and who knows? Maybe someday records will begin to sound like Sun records again.
Copyright Augusta Palmer, used with permission.
© Robert Palmer, 1978