Sam Phillips was born Samuel Cornelius Phillips in 1923. The youngest of eight children, he was born in a farmhouse just outside of Florence, Alabama. He and his family grew up in poverty; they were the kind of poor that got you into trouble if you talked about wanting to grow up being rich and famous.
But that’s exactly what he dreamed of.
Phillips’ family were tenet farmers, working on land they could only (barely) afford to rent. The young Samuel picked cotton with his siblings and parents, along with black hired-hands who would sing as they worked. The music the workers made up and down the rows of cotton not only helped to pass the time, it implanted in the young boy a love of music and a belief in its power. As he grew, Sam began to travel to Florence, to take part in banjo concerts and enjoy local talent shows. He never participated, but he loved to listen to the singers. In high school, Phillips proved himself a capable musician; he played drums, sousaphone, and trombone in the marching band.
At the age of eighteen, the whole Phillips family packed up for a six-hundred mile journey to Dallas, TX; a famous Baptist evangelist named George Washington Truett had been the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for decades, during which time he grew the attendance from seven-hundred to over seven-thousand. Truett was nearing retirement and scores of people were traveling all over the country for the chance to say they heard him live. His sermons in those days focused on the idea that wealth and power were not evils but tools to be used for the benefit of others. It was a message that Phillips would take to heart.
While traveling between Florence and Dallas, the Phillips family stopped in Memphis, Tennessee. It was there that the teenage, music lover first discovered the wonders of Beale Street. Though a steady rain was falling when he first toured the street, Phillips was amazed at how alive it all was. Compared to the “big city” of Florence, Beale St. alone was happening. In 1939, Beale St. was a hopping strip, brimming with clubs, restaurants and shops, predominately managed by African-Americans. Music was played in the stores and out. A cacophony of saxophones and trumpets greeted every pedestrian and everywhere you went you were saturated with the so-called “black sound.” After visiting, Sam Phillips would never be the same again.
He returned to Florence and helped to support his mother after his father died (bankrupt) in 1941. Grocery stores and funeral parlors provided slight but steady paychecks but did not satisfy the young man’s desires to run away and make it big. The early part of his youth was spent with his desiring to be a criminal defense attorney, but his lone visit to Memphis changed his life and set his sights on music. He didn’t know in what capacity he’d work in it, but he knew one way or another he would work “in” music.
Finally in 1945, the twenty-two year old Phillips left Alabama and moved to the town of his dreams. His first job in the city was as an engineer, and later a disc jockey for WREC, which broadcasted out of the legendary Peabody Hotel.
As a WREC engineer, Phillips was put in charge of recording live performances for later use on the air. Unlike other engineers, Phillips’ focus was less on the technical set-up or the quality of the sound equipment. He cared about the music and wanted to make sure he got the most out of the performers. He would position microphones around the percussionist and stand-up bass player, to give his recordings a deeper, more driving sound. He would also stop and direct the performers, offering tips on ways to improve their takes. Rather than being angry that his employee had acted unilaterally, WREC owner Hoyt Wooten praised the young engineer on the unique sound he had managed to produce.
By day he’d work at the station and at night he’d roam Beale St., taking in the sound that, while ubiquitous to Memphis, was not being heard on the radio.
In 1949, Phillips secured a lease for an abandoned auto repair shop located on Union Avenue. After working on the building for several months while still DJ’ing for WREC, he opened “Memphis Recording Studio” on Tuesday, January 3, 1950. Inspired by a belief that the south was an untapped goldmine of new and exciting music just waiting to be plundered, Phillips opened his studio up to any “joe blow” off the street who wanted to come in and cut a record (for a few bucks). Mostly, Phillip’s studio attracted regular folk looking to record a novelty record as gift for their husband or mother, but every now and then a real talent would step through the doors. It didn’t take long for the producer to realize there was potential in starting his own record label.
In 1951 Jackie Brenston recorded “Rocket 88,” a twelve-bars blues song with a hot tempo and a dash of swing. Brentson’s vocals were lively but it was the backing band that really made the record. Twenty year old Ike Turner was the leader of the Kings of Rhythm band, and Ike arranged the record himself, starting with a hopping piano, before mixing in a bouncing jump-blues saxophone accompaniment.
The saxophone in particular is memorable on the track, as it has a muffled, almost fuzzy sound. It’s not a feature that can be easily replicated; to achieve it you need an amp that’s fallen out of truck and suffered from a busted speaker cone. That was the situation when Ike Turner’s band entered Memphis Recording Studio to record “Rocket 88,” but far from panicking, Phillips had an idea.
He shoved a bunch of newspapers in there and called it fixed.
The vibrations made for a unique sound. Every famous music studio has its own quirk or feature that gives it a distinct flair. Motown’s acoustics make for some great background singers but a bit of a flat instrumental sound. Stax on the other hand is all about the band, leaving the vocals oddly distant. The former auto-repair building was not meant for the finely-tuned needs of music recording, and it offers no particular kind of “sound” when artists record there; it was Sam’s makeshift, “duct-tape and prayer” engineering that made it special. “Rocket 88” is one of the earliest and best examples.
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Some have called it the first “rock and roll” record, though there’s about a dozen other songs with a similar style that were being recorded in studios around the country around this time. If it was anything, it was a fusion of rhythm and blues and swing. Rock and roll, at least as it would come to be defined by a young Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips, needed a few additional ingredients added to the pot; namely country and jubilee-gospel/soul.
“Rocket 88” would launch itself up to number-one on the R&B charts of the day, but Sam Phillips would receive none of the glory. He had not formed his own recording label to distribute to the record, so it was licensed it to Chess Records for release. Soon after, however, he secured the capital needed to found the Sun record label, and renamed his little retrofitted-autoshop Sun Studios.
Money troubles was the biggest hurdle Sam faced with his new label/studio. There was no shortage of brilliant singers coming in and out, both who would be signed to his label and others who went on to be famous with other companies. Everyone from Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard to BB King and Roy Orbison stepped into the oddly-shaped building on Union Ave. to record for “Mr. Phillips.”
In fact it was with Roy Orbison that Sam Phillips demonstrated his out of the box thinking needed to get the names of his talents out there to the mass market. After Orbison recorded a trio of songs at Sun, he was signed to the label and sent on a tour across the south. Instead of booking hayrides, fairs and rodeo shows, Phillips booked Orbison to perform at the many drive-in theaters that peppered the US landscape. Drive-ins always showed a double-feature, and Orbison was slotted as the intermission act, playing a few songs while people rolled in and out.
Phillips worked himself to exhaustion (and alcoholism) trying to keep his label afloat. It was not unheard of for him to drive from Memphis to Kansas City, from Kansas City to Detroit, from Detroit to Indianapolis, and from Indianapolis back to Memphis, all within a ten day stretch, all to pitch his music to DJs in the hopes of catching fire. BB King was his first big star, but King was a blues singer through and through. Elvis was the first one to show the potential to break out into national success. RCA evidently thought so too, as they offered to buyout Elvis’ contract from Phillips.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say Phillips was a fool to make the sale, especially for a paltry $35,000, but the label was underwater and likely would not have survived more than another two years at its current rate of business. It was a double-whammy for Phillips as he needed the money anyway and also lacked the money necessary to promote Elvis enough to capitalize on his potential. Presley asked Phillips to join him as his producer at RCA, but Sam still had a few other cards in his hand: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and “loyal son” Carl Perkins were all still making music on Union Ave and the control-freak, mad scientist Phillips refused to give up his fledgling control to go work for the New York studio.
RCA actually contacted Phillips, not longer after they signed Elvis, searching for an inside scoop into one of the engineer-turned-producer’s clever ideas. Back when Sam was recording Elvis, he used a unique kind of echo effect, just to give the music an extra dimension. The echo was achieved by running the sound through two tape recorders. The slight delay while the sound moved from one recorder to the other created a bounce-back echo effect that can’t be naturally reproduced. RCA tried and failed several times to recreate the sound (even sticking Elvis in a hallway) before calling the man himself and asking how the trick was done.
Phillips heard their request but merely replied: “Nah. Trade secret.” and hung up the phone.
As the 1950’s neared their end, much of the superstar talent that he’d had at his disposal had moved on. Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were both at Columbia and Jerry Lee was soon to move to Monster Records. The Sun label never reached the heights of Motown or Stax. It trudged along, and over time Phillips took less of a hands-on role in producing. His quest to create new sounds and market Beale St. music to the rest of America was realized but it never made him a multi-millionaire.
Holiday Inn did that.
Phillips made big money being one of the first investors in the hotel chain. Ironically it was the money from the Elvis deal with RCA that allowed him the opportunity to invest. The poor kid from northwest Alabama finally achieved the American dream, albeit not through the medium he envisioned. It would be a generation before his imagination, innovation and vision would be recognized by the greater, so-called “rock” community. Phillips was inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and was credited as a pioneer of the genre.
Together with his little makeshift studio, Sam Phillips and Sun are the “Virgin Mary” and “Bethlehem Stable” of Rock. Without them, there would never have been Presley or Perkins, Johnny or Jerry Lee. Without Sam and Sun, Rock and Roll as we know it would never have been born.