“It’s writing about somebody who changed the course of the world, and who had a democratic vision. [He believed] that there were these hidden resources, these hidden reserves in people who didn’t even know that they possessed this power. Whether they were black or white, they were held back by social strictures, by poverty, by the way in which they were looked at by society. And he saw it as a mission to get out of them something they didn’t even know, necessarily, that they had in themselves. That’s what he did with Howlin’ Wolf with B. B. King, with Elvis Presley, with Johnny Cash. He was just looking to find the spark of creativity.”
-Peter Guralanick (author Last Train to Memphis, and The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll
“Never be daunted”
-Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises)
“Sam Phillips always encouraged me to do it my way, to use whatever influences I wanted, but never to copy…if there hadn’t been a Sam Phillips, I might still be working in a cotton field.”
Poor Farmer’s Son Creates Sun
Sam Phillips was born January 5, 1923, the youngest of eight children and was raised on a tenant farm just outside Florence, Alabama. The Phillips were a typical middle class family until the Great Crash of 1929. Sam’s father died in 1941 just after Pearl Harbor. He then dropped out of high school to help support his mother and deaf mute aunt. In high school, Phillips conducted the school band. His onstage presence impressed the manager of local WLAY radio so that he was hired as a part-time announcer. Thus began the long hard slog toward Memphis, Sun Records,
and musical immortality.
The Day Sun Blind-Sided Me
I have a confession to make: Elvis, Sam, Jerry lee, B.B., Howlin’ Wolf, Cash and the rest came on the scene a little before my time.
My first big musical obsession was with Chubby Checker and the Twist. Then Joey Dee and the Star lighters at the Peppermint Lounge and great broadway musical soundtracks like Porgy and Bess, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, South Pacific and others.
I was actually “turned on to” (that’s a quaint phrase people once used) Elvis, and hence Sam Phillips, by none other than Detroit born Elvis lover Dave Marsh, who’s poetic charge on Elvis’ manifest greatness and impact led me to learn more about the Memphis teenager. From Greil Marcus, the late genius Lester Bangs, and Robert Christgau’s record reviews for the once great Village Voice, I was introduced to the entire Sun Records, Sam Phillips, Elvis legend. None of these scribes were from the South. They just knew greatness when they heard it. These talented writers educated this native North Floridian on the cosmic importance of Sam, and of course, the sacred studio that created rock ‘n’ roll, Sun Records on Union Street in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Sam Phillips was not just one of the most important producers in rock history. There’s a good argument to be made that he was also one of the most important figures in 20th century American culture. As owner of Sun Records and frequent producer of discs at his Sun Studios he was vital to launching the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and numerous other significant artists. Although he first made his mark (and a very deep one) with electric blues by Black performers, he will be most remembered for his rockabilly stars, particularly Elvis Presley. With singers such as Elvis, he was fusing the best of White and Black, and of R&B and C&W — the main ingredients in the recipe that gave birth to rock & roll. In the mid-’50s in Memphis, when much of America and most of the South was racially segregated, this took not just artistic vision but personal courage.”
–Richie Unterberger (Editor – All Music)
The Session That Changed the World
“The first time Sam played it back for them, (That’s Alright Mama) “we couldn’t believe it was us,” said Bill Black (drummer) “It just sounded sort of raw and ragged,” said Scotty. (Scotty Moore guitar player) “We thought it was exciting, but what was it? It was just so completely different. But it just really flipped Sam.”
And the boy? By the end of the evening there was a different singer in the studio than the one who started out the night. For Elvis, clearly, everything had changed. Sam sat in the studio after the session was over and everyone had gone home. He was bone-weary, but he just wanted to savor the moment.
When he got home, he woke up Becky, Sam’s wife, and, as she would always remember it, “he was excited, he was happy, and he announced that he had just cut a record [that was] going to change our lives. I didn’t understand at the time what he meant, but it did. He felt that nothing would ever be quite the same again.”
–Peter Guralanick (author Last Train to Memphis, and The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll
And, some sixty-six years later and counting, nothing has ever been quite the same after that night on July 5th, 1954 in Sun Studios.
No Sam Phillips
No Sun Records
No B. B. King
No Howlin’ Wolf
No Jerry Lee Lewis
No Johnny Cash
No Black Goth Craze Via Mr. Cash
No Stax records (Small Southern Label Changes the World.)
No Woodstock (Sam Begat Elvis who begat Mass Carnal Outbreak)
No Ike Turner
No Tina Turner
No Roy Orbison
No Tom Petty (“She’s a good girl, crazy ‘bout Elvis”)
No, well, we’ll run out of room if I kept listing things that Sam Phillips was responsible for.
“I said, ‘What kind of singer are you?’ He said, ‘I sing all kinds.’ I said, ‘Who do you sound like?’ He said, ‘I don’t sound like nobody.”
–Marion Keisker (Sun Studios Manager remembering her first encounter with Elvis. Marion pestered Sam into giving Elvis a listen)
The Bard Remembers
“Ahmet Ertegun didn’t think much of my songs, but Sam Phillips did. Ahmet founded Atlantic Records. He became an icon. But Sam Phillips, he recorded Elvis and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Radical artists that shook the very essence of humanity. Revolutionaries with vision and foresight. Fearless and sensitive at the same time. Revolution in style and scope. Radical to the bone. Songs that cut you to the bone. Renegades in all degrees, doing songs that would never decay, and still resound to this day. Oh, yeah, I’d rather have Sam Phillips’ blessing any day.”
-Bob Dylan (From His memorable MusiCares speech)
”Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” (She could have been talking about Sam Phillips)
-Harriet Tubman (American legend and abolitionist)