Sam Phillips died nearly 12 years ago, but his legacy is still very much alive. He is probably best know for his role in the birth of rock & roll music. Famous artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison recorded at his historic Sun Record Studios during the 1950s and 60s. However, even before starting the Sun Records label, Phillips had an uncanny ability to find talent. In the early ’50s, he was hired to find local artists for R&B record labels Chess (based in Chicago) and Modern (based in Los Angeles), when he discovered Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King.
Phillips was the youngest of eight children, born to poor tenant farmers in rural Alabama. He grew up working in the fields alongside black laborers, enchanted by their song. He got his start in radio as a disc jockey at a tiny radio station in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He came to Memphis in 1945 where he was a radio announcer for WREC. Five years later, he founded the Memphis Recording Service two days before his 27th birthday in January 1950. His first recordings were not limited to musicians, but he also recorded funerals, weddings, and beauty pageants among other things. He truly lived by the motto, “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.”
But the Memphis Recording Studio gained a lot of traction with local musicians. In 1951, he recorded “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a group led by a 19-year old Ike Turner—another inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—which is considered the beginning of rock & roll. He spent three years recording for other labels before starting his own. The first major success of the Sun Records label was Rufus Thomas’ “Bearcat,” whose sound led to a copyright infringement lawsuit for its similarities to “Hound Dog.” The lawsuit would probably have ended the storied label before it took off had it not been for an 18-year-old Elvis Presley who came to Sun Records to make his first record.
I was drawn to this topic by a story on Fugitive Waves by the Kitchen Sisters on the early recordings of Sam Phillips and the Memphis Recording Service. I tracked down the artists and recordings for this playlist from a post by John Boija. Sam Phillips’ biography was stitched together from Memphis Music Hall of Fame, a NPR radio story on the dawn of Sun Records by Ed Ward, and his obituary in the New York Times.