With the death of producer Sam Phillips the pop music industry has lost one of its greatest pioneers. In an interview given towards the end of his life, he looked back on his work with greats like Elvis Presley, Howlin'' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, most of whom were unknowns before they signed to his Sun Records label.
"It changed the world, what we did at that little studio. I'm taking nothing away from all of the other great independent labels, but what we did managed to cut through the segregation to such an extent that it was way beyond what I had even hoped we could do. That not only affected this nation, it affected people around the world, and it absolutely had a lot to do with encouraging communication between people of different races."
Sam Phillips, who died on July 30, 2003 at the age of 80, was one of the true musical pioneers of the 20th century. A man who redefined the cultural landscape by producing and engineering local talent in his modest Southern studio and distributing the results on his own Sun Records label, he was one of the main people responsible for breaking down the barriers between white and black music, melding country with blues, and creating the genre that we now refer to as rock & roll.
Phillips attained only moderate results with discoveries such as Howlin'' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and BB King, but he hit the jackpot with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. In the process, and not without design, he paved the way for so much that was to follow, and he achieved this in less than a decade while running the aforementioned label and studio located at 706 Union Avenue, close to the heart of Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1998, Sam Phillips talked with me about the events that had such a radical impact on the first century of recorded sound, as well as a life that began on January 5, 1923, in Florence, Alabama. It was there that he grew up as a sharecropper's son, and where, from his earliest years, he was both moved and inspired by the music that the cotton pickers and other black locals performed.
"A blind negro named Uncle Silas Payne came to live with us when the white family he'd been with couldn't feed him any more during the Depression," Phillips remembered, "and he taught me rhythms on his knee, and he sang me songs that he made up in his head about molasses and pancakes, and he would just fascinate me. Then there was a shoeshine man by the name of Sam in North Florence; his back was broken and he was probably less than five feet tall, but he had a natural spirit and a rhythmic instinct. I'm not just talking about popping the rag on your shoes, but he'd tap his knee, tap his toe, tap his shoe. These things influenced me so that I knew there was a cross-pollination going on between blacks and whites, because I and other people — adults and young people — would not have been as fascinated by black music if there hadn't been something very natural and very interesting about it. I knew that young people were more likely to be very, very objective about it, and as it proved, I was totally right about that!
"At the same time, I think that there was a real, real close association between country music and rock & roll. I remember the first record I ever heard in my life, on an old Victrola with a steel needle, was a Jimmie Rodgers song; I don't recall if it was 'Blue Yodel No.1' or 'Waiting For A Train'. With his Southern accent and the way he sang the blues, I can tell you, there was really more cross-pollination between Southern white music, Southern white gospel, and black gospel. I don't believe there's any relationship in any other category of music that comes closer than the country blues, especially the type that Jimmie Rodgers started in the '20s and '30s. He was a person who contributed so much, and he kind of parted the waters so that we could see the dual influence."
After working as a radio DJ and engineer during the 1940s at stations in Decatur, Alabama, and the Tennessee cities of Nashville and Memphis, Phillips commenced the next decade — the one in which he would forever change the face of popular music — by utilising his technical skills and indulging his musical tastes in his own recording studio, the Memphis Recording Service.
This was a little storefront property housing a front office, a 20 x 35-foot live area and a small control room equipped with a portable, five-input Presto mixing console and amateur Crestwood and Bell tape recorders. These were soon supplanted by a portable Presto PT900 machine; yet, unsure about the quality and durability of tape, Phillips recorded most of his earliest commercial efforts to 16-inch acetate discs, cutting them at 78rpm with a Presto 6N lathe that was hooked up to a Presto turntable. Still, it was another setup that subsequently helped endow both Phillips and Sun Records with legendary status.
The RCA 76D radio console that replaced the Presto embellished the recordings with a warmth that emanated from inputs and outputs coupled through transformers, while a pair of Ampex 350 tape machines helped create the famous Sun sound — by bouncing the signal from a console model to the rackmounted version with a split-second delay between the two, Phillips achieved the slapback effect that generations of successors would strive to imitate.
"I liked to use very sparse instrumentation," he explained, "and this was not just for economic considerations, although I certainly had every reason for it to be. I was also the first one to employ slapback, feeding the tape back through the board. You see, the human ear doesn't like hearing something that is aurally so different to the point of being strange. It likes something different so far as the total confluence of the sound and the song and how it's done. I knew that people had heard records on jukeboxes in live little restaurants and dives, and what I tried to do with that type of echo and the sparse instrumentation was to make the sound not too foreign to the average ear. The acoustics of the room [on 706 Union Avenue] were good, but miking has an awful lot to do with the finished product. Of course, everything at that time was monaural, and I'm big on miking and I'm big on using the right mic, although I couldn't buy real expensive microphones."
During the Spring of 1951, after having already made some experimental recordings with a young BB King, Sam Phillips produced and engineered the first studio sessions of the man whom he would later describe as one of the most interesting people he ever worked with: Chester Burnett, aka Howlin' Wolf. A tall, ungainly Delta blues belter in his early 40s, the Wolf, as Phillips liked to call him, recorded a number of tracks at the Memphis Recording Service, including Many More Years and Moanin At Midnight , which were released by Chess as his first single. Nevertheless, it was only after relocating to Chicago the following year that Howlin' Wolf would enjoy widespread recognition and become a seminal blues figure, even if he could never quite recapture the sound that Phillips had achieved.
"I was really impressed with the fact that his voice was so different, so unusually 'bad' , but so honest that it fascinated me, and the Wolf and I worked together better than I did with any other artist, Phillips remarked. I just enjoyed working with the Wolf. When he went to Chess I don't think they really ever gave that psychological bent that the Wolf needed. In my view very few people honestly had that ability, and Wolf was one of those people who had to believe that you believed in him. I'm not saying that the Chess brothers didn't, I'm not speaking disparagingly about them, but they never did capture his potential, and had I continued to have the Wolf, I think he would have been a mammoth seller in the white community as well as the black.
"I had a lot of different things that I wanted to do with the Wolf. This Wolf had really a lot of potential that you just didn't hear on the few records that were out both on Sun and on Chess. I had other routes and other approaches, like I did with Elvis Presley, that I wanted to attempt with the Wolf, but after he left and went to Chess Records I didn't get to do my laboratory work with him."
In the meantime, the summer of 1950 saw the launch of an eponymous label that folded after just a few weeks and one release, and the inexperienced entrepreneur then spent the next 18 months recording a variety of local artists and having the results distributed by labels such as RPM, Modern and Chess. Among these was one of the prime contenders for the title of first-ever rock & roll record, performed by Jackie Brenston, who played tenor sax in a band led by Mississippi DJ and pianist Ike Turner. A rollicking, energetic number in which the singer tries to impress his dame with a souped-up Oldsmobile coupe, 'Rocket 88' topped the R&B charts for Chess in June 1951, providing Sam Phillips with his first big hit and a step inside a door that would lead him to a much broader market.
"I cannot truly judge what the first rock & roll record was, because that would be unfair," Phillips reasoned, "but in the sense of the term 'rock & roll' — which to me wrapped up black and white youth and vitality — it really was the first rock & roll record."
And it was also one of many instances in the annals of popular music when a classic recording evolved out of adversity and innovation. En route to the Memphis session from Clarksdale, Mississippi, guitarist Willie Kizart's amp fell off the roof of the band's car, ruining the speaker cone. Sam Phillips' makeshift solution was to stuff paper into the cone and then actually over-amplify the distorted sound rather than submerge it, making Kizart's fuzzy guitar riff the centerpiece of a rhythm track that also featured Ike Turner's piano and Raymond Hill's wailing tenor sax.
"I had to tell Ike that I wanted to know if he had somebody in his band who could sing," Phillips recalled. "Ike was singing and of course he was a hell of a talent, but I knew his voice was not quite what I was looking for. I don't want to say that ultimately I couldn't have done something with Ike, but anyway he told me that Jackie Brenston had a song called 'Rocket 88'. Jackie played the sax, but I put a mic in front of him and, man, as a singer he was a natural... 'Rocket 88' is, 'til this day, an exciting record, and that piano intro which Ike played on it is still a classic.
"Back in the early '50s I was looking to create something different. I was by nature an explorer, and I loved music, period, otherwise I would not have attempted to do what I did with raw talent. As a child on the farm in Alabama I had been exposed to music that was, in one way or another, not 'developed', so the last thing that I thought about when I went in the studio at any time was cutting a hit record. Now, I had sense enough to know that if these things didn't sell and I had no money, then I couldn't stay in business very long, but I had no ulterior motive of getting rich or of doing my artists wrong in any way from a business standpoint. I wanted to develop these artists, work with these artists, get their instincts out and capture that, and then I knew it was up me to go out and work my ass off and sell it.
"From the beginning I was very much interested in exploring some paths that had not been trodden and looking for the hidden possibilities. I knew that these people had not been 'overly exposed' because most of them had never had an opportunity to even be in a studio, and so what I tried to do with each artist was to find his natural honesty in terms of what he liked to do, regardless of what category of music it might fall into. I did not want him doing something to please somebody behind the control-room glass. It was about trying to develop confidence, knowing that any audition was extremely difficult even for professionals — then as now — let alone for people who had never been tried or proven.
"You also knew that you almost had to be a psychologist, doing the things that we did at the time, because there was a great lack of confidence as to whether or not these artists would be accepted, exactly what they were supposed to do, and whether I was really telling the truth when I told them, 'No, it didn't cost anything to have an audition,' and 'Man, I want what you naturally feel. Do it to the best of your ability and we'll go from there.' The artists who I worked with all had a certain basic honesty in their music, and after assuring and working with them, and gaining their confidence and their trust in me, I think they then really knew that they had somebody who was working with them in the common interest of seeing what they had.
"To me, simplicity and naturalness are the key ingredients for a good recording, and I still feel that way even with 48 tracks today. Well, after I gained the confidence of these people, I think that they then felt that they could do 'their thing', whatever it was. That didn't mean we were going to accept it as it was, but I had the ability — or else I certainly would not have gotten into this type of work the way that I did — to spot these things, and deep down in their hearts they really truly knew that although I had white skin I had a lot of instincts that they had, and I was going to give them an opportunity to display their talents and I would be proud of them."
It was at the start of 1952 that Sam Phillips launched Sun Records, and after issuing records by an assortment of local blues artists the label experienced its first success with 'Bear Cat', Phillips' barely disguised novelty rewrite of the contemporary Big Mama Thornton R&B release, 'Hound Dog', composed by Lieber & Stoller. Performed by Memphis DJ Rufus Thomas, 'Bear Cat' rose to number three on the R&B charts, while almost immediately prompting a copyright infringement lawsuit from Peacock Records/Lion Music due to the fact that it used the same melody as 'Hound Dog'.
That song would, of course, become a worldwide smash when recorded by Elvis Presley for RCA a few years later, yet before any of that could take place he first had to be discovered by Sam Phillips. In the Summer of 1953, at around the same time that Sun was riding the crest of modest success with recordings by Little Junior Parker and a group of five Tennessee State Penitentiary inmates who called themselves the Prisonaires, Elvis walked through the front entrance of 706 Union Avenue to take advantage of the facility's side-earner, a make-your-own-record service. As has been more than well documented, Elvis's amateur renditions of 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin' caught the ears of the studio's owner, but it would be a full year before Phillips would team Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, and set about realising a long-held ambition.
"I have been accused of having had my attention diverted from making blues records by working with Elvis, and to an extent it's true, but it was not for the reason that people might think," Phillips stated. "I had a very small operation, and by that time I knew that there was an awful lot of excellent rhythm & blues records — or, as they were mainly called then, 'race records' — being produced by so many different labels. I had felt all along that, as long as the artists were black, you were going to get a limited amount of play on the air. In fact, I had found that out and I knew that, because I had been in radio myself since the '40s, and I had thought that if there was a way for some white person to perform with the feel of a black artist... I did not want anybody who did not have a natural feel, but I said to myself — and this is true — 'Man, if I can find a white person who can give the feel and the true essence of a blues-type song, black blues especially, then I've got a chance to broaden the base and get plays that otherwise we couldn't.' And man, did that prove to be a phenomenal philosophy!
"With Elvis as the catalyst, and later on, Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes', there's no question about it, it opened up so many doors. Now look; you've got as much play on black artists as you've got on white artists, or more, and while I don't say that it never would have happened, people of vision and unselfishness like me were responsible for that.
"When Elvis came in and he performed those first two songs, I was blown away by this guy's talent. By that I don't mean that I heard the finished thing, but I just heard some instinctive things about this person's intonations and stuff — of course, we didn't talk about 'intonations' and all of that jazz, but that's what I was hearing and feeling! You know, that's how you communicate, and so it didn't take a genius to recognise that this person Elvis had real potential. My honest opinion was that he might be that white guy who could get the overtones and the sexual feel in there without anything being vulgar; just that actual thing that gets hold of somebody and says, 'Hey, listen to me!'
"Elvis had sex written all over him from the day he walked in the door. I don't mean anything about him being good-looking, because he really wasn't as good-looking as he would develop a little later on, but he had sex written all over him, and the right kind. When this man opened his mouth it had sex, when you saw him on stage you couldn't take your eyes off him, and that was even as a male. I don't want to use the word 'charisma', but this guy — and I'm talking about him in a total, total personal way, in addition to fantastic talent as far as his singing was concerned — had a certain ability for contact, and to a measured degree he could give you that sexual feel, or whatever feel was needed, if a song indicated that it had that potential."
While Elvis admired and even imitated white crooners such as Dean Martin, Phillips instinctively knew that this wasn't the route that they should pursue. For one thing, the competition was too great, and for another, he suspected that Elvis's real musical soul lay closer to home. "I told Elvis, Scotty and Bill, 'We want to look for things that we can do in a medium to real up tempo.' I said, 'We've got to approach this thing to try to get the attention of younger people,' and I knew that tempo had a lot to do with that back then, rather than just a great lyric and beautiful melody."
For several weeks during the summer of '54, Elvis, Scotty and Bill worked on material both in and out of the studio, all the time encouraged by Sam Phillips to keep experimenting with different songs, arrangements and approaches until they might just hit on something which had that crossover appeal... not that Sam had any idea as to what that might be.
"I think a great part — if not the major part — of my success was working with my artists," he explained, "and I have always considered that God gave me one thing if he didn't give me anything else, and that was a good ear. I would do anything in the studio to alleviate as much tension as I could, yet I wanted them to really have that feel, that spark, like they're ready to come out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby, while at the same time not injuring themselves in the process. All of these things are so important, and I owe all of my success to that psychological bent. I knew that I had to do my very dead level best to go in the right direction, and that's why it took so many months before we finally came up with the very thing that we should have, which was 'That's All Right (Mama)' and 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky'.
"The door to the control room was open, the mics were on, Scotty was in the process of packing up his guitar, I think Bill had already thrown his old bass down — he didn't even have a cover for it — and the session was, to all intents and purposes, over. Then Elvis struck up on just his rhythm guitar, 'That's all right, mama...' and I mean he got my attention immediately. It could have been that it wouldn't have sold 10 copies, but that was what I was looking for! There was no question in my mind. I didn't give a damn what the song was. That was the sound, the feel, even the tempo. I think we moved the tempo around, but we didn't do much to that song, man. We did a couple, three, maybe four takes on it, and we had something that we had been looking for for months.
"When I heard 'That's All Right (Mama)' it opened a whole new door. Elvis being as young as he was, I thought, 'My God, this guy knows 'That's All Right'!' 'Big Boy' Crudup had had that thing out seven years before, and so on 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky', man, we certainly weren't going to do a bluegrass version and try to outdo Bill Monroe. No, we knew that we had to work with up-tempo stuff to get the attention. Then we could kind of play around maybe with slower things or things that might border on being good ballads. When it all started to come together it was just kinda like you've been looking so long for something and then there it is! I guess that's how a scientist would feel in the laboratory, looking for something that had been so elusive, and boy, there it is under the 'scope!"
Indeed, although Phillips would often record over discarded takes in order to save tape, many of Elvis's Sun out-takes did survive, and one of these captures the producer emerging from the control room at a point in the sessions when 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky' had started to evolve from a lilting country ballad into a jumped-up rocker, to exclaim, "Hell, that's fine! That's different! That's a pop song now, nearly 'bout!" As local producer and musician Jim Dickinson later observed, this is "what it sounded like 10 minutes before rock & roll was invented".
In fact, Sam Phillips was overseeing the birth of rockabilly, and hereafter his work with Elvis Presley would reach its apotheosis with landmark covers of Roy Brown's 'Good Rockin' Tonight' and Junior Parker's 'Mystery Train'. "Judging my own stuff is the toughest thing in the world to do, but I think 'Mystery Train' is a masterpiece," Phillips asserted. "It is one of those things that is so instinctively, innately there. You can play that thing all day in an office full of people and it wouldn't get in the way no matter what they're doing, or you could play it at the sexiest party and somehow or another it's got that freedom about it. You can't beat the right vamp, and this thing has got a vamp in it that is just outstanding. Even right at the very end, where Elvis thought that this wasn't going to be the take, you know; he just went off and shouted 'Woo-hooo!' as I was fading that thing out, because he really didn't think it was going to be a cut, and hey, I didn't know for sure, but I knew that we didn't need any more takes! So, that just shows you that when you really open up and instinctively feel that you've got nothing to lose, boy, you might be surprised by what you can do.
"I've never liked the term 'rockabilly'. I've always thought 'rock & roll' was the best term, because it became all-inclusive of white, black, and the whole thing, whereas 'rockabilly' tended to just want to lend itself so specifically to white. It also promoted the feeling that maybe we were stealing something from the blacks and wanted to put it in a white form, so I never did like 'rockabilly'. However, I really think that what we came up with, between Elvis, 'Rocket 88' and Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes', was the basis for rock & roll."
After Phillips sold Elvis's contract to RCA Records for $35,000 — at that time, an astronomical amount for a largely unknown singer — he was invited to continue working with him at RCA. Phillips, however, declined the offer. Unwilling to give up his independence, and with Carl Perkins' recording of 'Blue Suede Shoes' already in the can, he now at last had the money to properly promote some of his other artists.
"I worked with Carl Perkins similarly to the way I worked with Elvis, and I always thought that Carl could have been a great, sustained country artist," Phillips stated. "I cut 'Turn Around' with him before I cut 'Blue Suede Shoes', and it was one of the finest country records you ever heard. Carl had a great ability, especially in terms of his guitar playing; it had rock written all over it, and when I heard 'Blue Suede Shoes' I thought he really ought to go into the rock vein. He had written this song and he had the line 'Go, man, go'. Well, that was a common term used in the vernacular of country people, and I said, 'Carl, why don't you just say, "Go, cat, go"?' Aside from getting the sound that I wanted, that's all I did, but it was one of the things that kept it from being mainly a country record.
"On the other hand, Johnny Cash could have gone by the wayside if I had tried to make a rocker out of him. Johnny Cash had folk all over him. When he came in for his audition, Johnny basically apologised for not having more musicians. He said, 'Mr. Phillips, the next time we come in I'll have a steel player and probably a fiddle player,' but after we got through with the audition and I'd heard the 'band' that he did have, I said, 'Johnny, let's just play around here a few more sessions before we think about adding anything to the "instrumentation" of your "band"!'
"I mean, [guitarist] Luther Perkins could literally play one string at a time, and I loved that! It blew me away. Johnny would get disgusted with Luther — he'd get in and have a great feel on a cut with a good vamp going, and Luther would take a break and hit the wrong note, and Johnny would get so upset because Johnny had done a good job in his mind. Luther's hair looked like it would stand on its end when he'd make a mistake, because he was scared to death, but I loved Luther and I loved all three of those guys, including [bass player] Marshall Grant and Johnny.
"Man, you're talking about a classic sound! There's not another one like it. I mean, there's vamps and there's vamps, but there isn't that sound. Really, Johnny was disappointed when I told him there was just really no way I could sell these darned good Southern gospel songs that he had written, but I knew that I had enough on my plate to try to sell him. He wasn't country, he wasn't rock, and so I thank God that I didn't try to make something out of him but what he was."
Sam Phillips also failed to strike paydirt with Roy Orbison, who, like Elvis Presley, had the desire and ability to sing big ballads, and who was likewise steered by Phillips towards more upbeat numbers, this time without success. Nevertheless, Sam the Man was about to enjoy his greatest commercial triumph, which would blow into Memphis and then around the world like a hurricane out of Ferriday, Louisiana. The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, would help define rock & roll at its most aggressive and suggestive with barnstorming vocal-and-piano renditions of numbers such as 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On', 'Great Balls Of Fire', 'Breathless' and 'High School Confidential'.
"In late 1956, I took possibly the first vacation that I'd ever had in my life, when I, my wife and our two young sons took off and went to Daytona, Florida, for a week," Phillips recalled. "Jerry Lee Lewis had been trying to see me, and while I was away he and his father had apparently sold eggs to buy gasoline to come up here [to Memphis from Ferriday]. You might think, 'Man, was anybody that poor in the '50s?' Well, they were. Anyway, he had missed me, so one day he came in to Sun, and Jack Clement — who I had hired by that time to take a little bit of the load off me on auditions and so on — recorded a demo of him doing 'Crazy Arms'. When I got back, Jack told me about this guy who had been looking for me. He told me that he'd put him down on tape and that he was a piano player, and I said, 'That's what I'm looking for!'
"I really was looking for an artist who could be a lead piano player and hopefully a vocalist, too, and damn if Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't like that. I really do think that the guitar is the greatest instrument on the planet, but there were so many guitarists by that time that I wanted a piano. So, when I heard this demo of Jerry Lee Lewis I said, 'Where is that cat? Get ahold of him and get him in here! I want to talk to him!' And we were doing a session with Jerry Lee Lewis within a matter of two to three days. I was just blown away. The guy was different. You know, Jerry still sings a little bit nasal, but the expression, the way he played that piano and how you could just feel that evangelical thing about him... Man, was I looking for that, and there it was!"
By 1958, Phillips felt that he had outgrown the studio at 706 Union Avenue, and in February of 1961 he opened a much more state-of-the-art facility just a few blocks away, at 639 Madison Avenue, as well as another one in Nashville a short time later. However, he could never recapture the vibe or the inspiration of the original location, and neither was he able to sustain his appetite for making music. Once on the cutting edge, Phillips was now struggling to be part of the mainstream. On July 1, 1969, he sold the Sun Records catalogue to a Louisiana entrepreneur and largely retired from the business. By then, the likes of Stax, Hi and Goldwax Records were the new purveyors of the 'Memphis Sound', and besides, Sam hardly needed the money — with some of his music-related earnings he'd invested in several radio stations, and he had also purchased stock in a local business going by the name of Holiday Inn. Moreover, he knew that his legacy was intact; his achievements during the course of just a few years were eternal and undeniable.
"I always let people do their thing," he commented when attempting to identify the reasons for his success, "but I had a way of somehow or the other suggesting things that if they worked they worked, and if they didn't we didn't do any damage. That was very important. You have to keep in mind that I was working with novices, and I didn't want to undermine the potential or the confidence that they had or that I could develop in them. So, when I made suggestions, I had to be very careful about that. I don't mean I had to go in and soft-soap; I was pretty plainspoken, but they could tell by the way I worked that I was more interested in getting the potential out of them. I never played the big-shot producer who'd had this hit or whatever. They equated with me that I knew where they were coming from because I had been there myself.
"I absolutely think that the technical limitations of the time contributed towards making more successful, heartfelt records. It made us mic things more carefully, and it made sure I didn't convey to the artists, 'Well, Lord, you do it, and if you miss, then that's the only chance you're gonna have!' No, I think that having the sparseness and the lack of ability to overdub absolutely contributed to how well things turned out. Of course, we didn't know it at the time; it just made things a little more difficult to set up and that sort of thing, but I was always a mic nut anyway — I would experiment with positioning, and I knew which microphone worked best with each instrument — and I really think it was a blessing in disguise. It had the duality of getting more of a natural sound as well as the fact that nobody laid back and said, 'Gosh, I can come in tomorrow and overdub.' There just was no such animal. I mean, hell, you just cut another damned track, y'all!"