(1923 – 2003)
If he'd done nothing other than discover Elvis Presley and release his early singles, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips would be a crucial figure in the birth of Rock and Roll. But the Memphis-based impresario's music-related achievements were far broader than his pivotal association with Elvis.
The Alabama native opened the Memphis Record Service in 1950, hiring out his services to record weddings, funerals, and civic events, while cutting sessions with such local (and soon to be legendary) Blues musicians as Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Junior Parker, James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, and Bobby Blue Bland, selling the recordings to Chess Records and other labels. In 1951, Phillips recorded what many observers have called the first Rock and Roll record: "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by 19-year-old Ike Turner, who wrote the song. The following year, Phillips began releasing his Blues and R&B recordings on his Sun label.
Although Phillips genuinely loved the African-American music that he was recording, he recognized the sales limitations of the Rhythm and Blues market. He figured that if he could find a white performer who could channel the energy and grit of his black artists, he would become a rich man. That opportunity arrived two years, when local teenager Elvis Presley walked into Sun, looking to make an amateur recording as a gift for his mother.
Presley's debut Sun single, "That's All Right," recorded and released in July 1954, was a seminal moment in Rock and Roll history. Upon its release, it became a sensation around the Southern United States, as did Elvis' subsequent Sun releases. Presley's success set the stage for Phillips to sign a bevy of young white Rock and Rollers, including Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Sonny Burgess, and Billy Lee Riley. As those performers gained varying degrees of success, Phillips quietly dropped Sun's black artists.
By the middle of 1955, Sun was experiencing financial problems, and Phillips sold Presley's contract to the much larger RCA Records for $35,000. While that figure seems paltry in light of Elvis' subsequent success, it was unprecedented at the time, and the influx of cash allowed Phillips to promote the label's other artists, beginning with Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," which became Sun's first national hit.
Although Sun Records continued to reap success into the 1960s, Phillips eventually lost interest in making music, and sold the label in 1968. He invested successfully in several other businesses, acquiring a handful of radio stations and reaping a financial windfall as one of the first investors in the Holiday Inn motel chain. Although he did little recording after selling Sun, Phillips' effusive personality and colorful patter assured that he remained a go-to interview subject for documentarians and Rock historians until his death in 2003.
Beyond his knack for recognizing and nurturing musical talent, Phillips was also an innovative record producer (although that term did not exist at the time) who favored emotionally compelling performances over technically perfect ones, and recognized the value of capturing moments of spontaneous inspiration on tape. Phillips is generally credited for passing on his studio knowledge and recording philosophy to Presley, who, though never credited as such, would oversee his own recording sessions for the rest of his career.