Sam Phillips: Producing the Sounds of a Changing South

Essential Question

How did the recordings Sam Phillips produced at Sun Records, including Elvis Presley’s early work, reflect trends of urbanization and integration in the 1950s American South?

Overview

As the U.S. recording industry grew in the first half of the 20th century, so too did the roles of those involved in producing recordings. A “producer” became one or more of many things: talent scout, studio owner, record label owner, repertoire selector, sound engineer, arranger, coach and more. Throughout the 1950s, producer Sam Phillips embodied several of these roles, choosing which artists to record at his Memphis studio and often helping select the material they would play. Phillips released some of the recordings on his Sun Records label, and sold other recordings to labels such as Chess in Chicago.

Though Memphis was segregated in the 1950s, Phillips’ studio was not. He was enamored with black music and, as he states in Soundbreaking Episode One, wished to work specifically with black musicians. Phillips attributed his attitude, which was progressive for the time, to his parents’ strong feelings about the need for racial equality and the years he spent working alongside African Americans at a North Alabama farm.

Phillips quickly established his studio as a hub of Southern African-American Blues, recording and producing albums for artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King and releasing what many consider the first ever Rock and Roll single, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Breston and His Delta Cats. But Phillips was aware of the obstacles African-American artists of the 1950’s faced; regardless of his enthusiasm for their music, he knew those recordings would likely never “crossover” and be heard or bought by most white listeners. Phillips’ assistant Marion Keiske remembers him remarking that if he “could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel,” he could get the whole country to listen.

In 1953 a young man entered Phillip's studio and asked Keiske about purchasing studio time. The singer, Elvis Presley, recorded two ballads for his mother and impressed Keiske enough that she made a note of his name. About a year later, at Keiske’s urging, Phillips invited Presley to return to his studio with the intention of having him record a few more ballads. The sessions were initially lackluster and had nearly drawn to a close when Presley and the other two musicians (guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black) began goofing around with a version of “That’s All Right,” a song penned and recorded by African-American musician Arthur Crudup. Phillips liked what he heard and encouraged Presley to do it again, this time for the record. “That’s All Right” marked the beginning of a run of hits for Presley, some of which are covers of songs previously recorded by African-American artists. Moreover, “That’s All Right” helped to launch an era in which styles associated with African-American musicians began moving into “mainstream” American culture.

Taking Sam Phillips as a case study, this lesson explores the role of the producer in the recording studio as one defined by an ability to guide the recording process but also to affect the wider cultural context. After investigating what a producer does and why an artist might benefit from a producer’s services, this lesson looks at the way Sam Phillips’ approach in some ways reflects the trend of urbanization in the American South. Like Phillips, many of his artists came from rural backgrounds and were seeking the benefits of urban life. That move toward the urban, and the racial mixing it fostered, was almost encoded in the music, as the lesson activities will illuminate. Finally, the lesson looks at Phillip’s guidance of a young Elvis Presley and suggests how the music they produced created an opening for African-American music to “crossover” into mainstream American popular music.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • What a “producer” is in music recording
    • About Sam Phillips, his Memphis Recording Service Studio and Sun Records label in Memphis, TN
    • About Elvis Presley’s early career and its social significance
    • About the de facto segregation that often separated Pop and Rhythm and Blues music in the early and mid-20th century U.S.
    • About trends of urbanization in the American South during the early and mid 20th century
    • How race affected an individual’s access to opportunity in 1950s American South
    • How Sam Phillips helped produce music that represented a mixing of sounds previously considered “white” or “black”
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Understand connections between popular culture and the time, place and social circumstances in which it was created
    • Consider how popular culture can effect social change
    • Discuss how the careers of particular artists reflect the attitudes of the society from which they emerged
    • Make connections between popular culture and historical events such as urbanization and segregation
    • Integrate and evaluate information presented in visual, oral and audio formats