Sam Phillips, producer who launched Elvis, Johnny Cash and … – NPR
the man who brought elvis presley, johnny cash, roy orbison and b.b. king, among others, would be 100 years old today.
Record producer Sam Phillips is best known as the founder of the legendary Memphis Sun Records record label and a key architect of rock and roll.
he discovered elvis, made the first recordings of several 20th-century music greats, and helped bring the genre to prominence. In turn, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll, Blues, Rockabilly, and Country Halls of Fame, joined the Memphis Music Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, and won a Grammy Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Phillips spoke with former morning edition host Bob Edwards about his career, and the era-defining discoveries, in an interview in 1993, a decade before Phillips’ death.
when asked, he said he wasn’t necessarily aware of “creating a new kind of music”.
“I think he was conscious of letting out the inside, the emotional inside, of people. And that was the challenge, a lot,” Phillips added. “oh man, i loved the music… loved it so much. so this was a beautiful experience, still is, to see the influence it has had on the whole world.”
sun records started out as a blues label (mostly)
Phillips grew up in Florence, Ala., and moved to Memphis via Nashville in 1945.
he had worked as a dj and engineer for a local alabama radio station that played music by black and white musicians.
and saved enough money to move to tennessee and get into the recording business, where he would go on to shape the future of rock and roll.
In 1950, Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service, which would also serve as the studio for Sun Records when it was founded two years later.
began as a rhythm and blues record label, giving black musicians a place to record without having to travel north to chicago.
“people at the time, and no disrespect to any human being on this earth, but people didn’t consider this to be true art,” phillips told the morning edition. “So, I felt like knowing that these people, just based on the hardships and the things that I had been through as a kid during the depression of the 1930s, and I knew that my life wasn’t as bad as theirs, and these people had something to say, something real, and I liked that.”
blues legends like b.b. king and howlin’ wolf made their first recordings at phillips’ studio.
Phillips recorded what some music historians consider the first rock and roll song, and Sun Studio made more rock and roll music than any other label at the time: 226 singles during its 16 years, according to Graceland.
But in its early days, the business also had to “do a number of different things to keep the wolf out the door, so to speak,” as Phillips later put it.
so he also recorded events like weddings and funerals, and let clients make their own records for a fee of $1.99.
enter young elvis presley.
a brief association with a lasting legacy
In 1953, Presley was 18 years old and earned $1.25 an hour as a trucker. he was shy but passionate about singing.
as the story goes, he worked up the courage to go to sun records and make his own recording, covering the ballads “my happiness” and “that’s when your heartaches begin”, as a birthday present. for her mother
Their partnership is legendary, but exactly when Presley and Phillips first met is a matter of controversy.
Phillips’ secretary, Marion Keisker, said before her death that her boss was not at the studio during that fateful first visit. According to her account of her, she took note of Elvis for possible future opportunities, because she liked what she heard and Phillips had been “saying that she wanted to find a white man who sounded black”.
“I wrote on a little piece of paper, ‘elvis presley, good ballad singer,’ and a phone number I could reach, and I wrote ‘save’ and put it under my desk, Keisker recalled, adding that she was the one who encouraged Phillips to record it again.
phillips, however, told npr that he remembers noticing presley’s arrival (from crown electric, the company elvis drove trucks for, did a lot of business in the area but had never seen him before), when he introduced to him by keisker, dropping what he was doing to help him make the record and seeing something special in it.
“I had no problem telling this man from a good singer,” he said. “He was an excellent singer, but he had that little detail that none of us know what he is, that I liked him, and we went from there. ”
months later, phillips invited presley back into the studio to record “that’s cool (mom)” with guitarist scotty moore (who was “in a country band we were playing with a bit at the time “) and bassist bill black. the rest is history.
That record went on to launch Presley’s career. and his success also gave a boost to his records. hopefuls from all over the region came to memphis to record, including future superstars like jerry lee lewis and carl perkins.
phillips had many stories about his famous acts, as reported by npr.
When Cash approached him about wanting to record gospel music, Phillips said he replied, “Johnny, go do some sinning, (then) come back and sing me some songs.” (phillips added: “you didn’t have to tell jerry lee lewis that.”)
Phillips also said that Presley admired his hair, which he offered to change it in exchange for the singer’s good looks.
“elvis liked my hair,” said phillips. “Her hair was just a mess. “[There was] actually a lot, but I’ve never seen hair grow in all different directions in my life.”
Phillips is credited with teaching Presley how to produce records, but also how to value emotion over technical perfection. Those lessons stuck with Presley even after she walked away from Sun Records.
phillips’s life after presley
Despite Sun Records’ prominence in the region, it began to experience financial difficulties in the mid-1950s. Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA Records in late 1955.
That same year, Phillips launched Wher, the country’s first all-female radio station (reportedly with the money he made from selling Presley’s contract).
“at that time, stations had at most one female announcer. every woman interviewing for a job she thought that girl would be,” reported npr in 2005. “it wasn’t until the day before Before the station went on the air, the girls themselves found out that the station would be an all-female station.”
Phillips remained on the music scene: he orchestrated what is now known as the “million dollar foursome,” in which Lewis, Perkins, Presley and Cash performed an impromptu jam session in his studio.
but over the years he focused less on recording and more on opening radio stations and seeking other investments (he was an early investor in the holiday inn chain).
he eventually sold sun records to producer shelby singleton in 1969. the label is still in business today, albeit under new ownership.
Audio for this story was produced by phil harrell and edited by olivia hampton.