Sam Phillips was either a genius, or the luckiest man in music history. Or both.
What do Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Carl Perkins all have in common?
The answer is Sam Phillips.
The influential producer and founder of Sun Records has been called “The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.” Within a five-year span in the early 50’s, he launched the careers of eight Hall of Famers and sowed the seeds of a new genre of music with a combination of exemplary intuition and incredible luck. Such was his influence on modern music that he himself was inducted in the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class in 1986, alongside Elvis, Ray Charles, and James Brown.
In 1950, Phillips started the Memphis Recording Service, recording artists from the famous Beale Street blues scene, such as B.B. King and Junior Parker. In 1951, he produced what is arguably the first rock and roll record, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” Memphis Recording Service would become Sun Records in 1952, and its focus would later shift to promoting artists of the new “rockabilly” genre. Phillips’ greatest discovery was a young, unproven Elvis Presley, whose first hit single was serendipitously captured by Phillips during a jam session in 1954.
But Phillips wasn’t always so lucky. After Sun Records experienced financial difficulties in 1955, Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Records for the princely sum of $40,000, one year before Elvis’ career exploded and he became a cultural icon. Phillips also missed the peaks of several of his other artists’ careers, and by the 60’s Sun Records had become largely irrelevant. However, by then Phillips had made an auspicious investment in the Holiday Inn motel chain, which would make him a fortune.
A perfect example of Phillips’ aptitude for chance encounters is the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session in 1956. During a Carl Perkins recording session that featured the still-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis on piano, Johnny Cash dropped by to observe the recording. Later, Elvis, then with RCA, stopped in out of the blue. The four decided to jam on some country and gospel tunes, and Phillips, seeing an amazing publicity opportunity, alerted the newspapers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here are some classics that came out of Phillips’ studios:
Considered by many to be the first ever rock and roll record. Written by Ike Turner with vocals by Jackie Brenston, this tune was way ahead of its time when it was released in 1951.
As the story goes, during a break after an unimpressive recording session, an impromptu jam on an old blues number by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup resulted in Elvis’ first single.
Carl Perkins’ signature tune became Sun Records’ first major hit when it was released in 1956. Later recorded by Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, and many, many more.
Johnny Cash originally wanted this song to be done slow, like a ballad, but Phillips convinced him to go with the memorable train-track tempo that would define his sound.
Despite Phillips’ claim that the song was “too risque” (which now seems pretty hilarious), Jerry Lee Lewis hit it big with this dynamic track, which would be Sun’s biggest success, selling over 6 million singles.
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