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Sun Studio: the Memphis birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll

Sun Studio: the Memphis birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll

‘ANYTHING-ANYWHERE-ANYTIME” are three words that sum up Sam Phillips’ determination to get his Memphis Recording Service off the ground. The service was opened in January 1950 and Sam really would record anything; business conventions, weddings, funerals – you name it, if there was a chance he’d make some money from it, Sam was there. He’d simply pack his five input mixer and tape recorder into his car and off he’d go. This willingness to succeed, which included allowing wannabe singers and musicians to call into his premises to cut a record, would serve him well and kickstart the careers of legends such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and more.

To visit Sam’s premises in downtown Memphis – better known by its later name of Sun Studio – is some experience. It is smaller than you might imagine and the building’s angled shape reminded me of the Old Blue Back pub in Warrington – a narrow entrance opening out into something wider. But despite its size, to step through that entrance – the same one that Presley and Cash walked though all those years ago – is to follow in the footsteps of giants. These people, and this building, changed the course of popular music forever.

But what about the man who started it all?

The youngest of eight children, Samuel Cornelius Phillips was born on a 300 acre farm in Florence, Alabama on 5 January 1923. Growing up, music was all around him. From the hymns being sung in the fields to the banjo recitals in the town square, Phillips took everything in and at high school he began to play the drums, trombone and sousaphone. 

A career in music beckoned but in actual fact one of his first jobs on leaving school was working in a funeral parlour. He took the job partly to help his mum following the death of his father and it was here he learned how to handle people with dignity and understanding, a skill that would serve him well in future years.

At Alabama Polytechnic, Sam studied audio engineering. This and the presenting skills he’d acquired whilst assisting at college concerts, led to a local radio station offering him a job as a host. Over the next 8 years, further presenting jobs followed, one of which involved him being responsible for the station’s sound effects and live recordings which helped him further hone his skills as a recording engineer. 

By 1949, 26-year-old Sam was ready to strike out on his own. He took out a loan to purchase some recording equipment and began to rent a former automobile glass repair shop at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis for $150 per month. And with that, on 3 January 1950, Sam’s ‘Memphis Recording Service’, later to be re-named Sun Studio, was born. 

One of Sam’s first tasks was to rip out the building’s tin roof and rebuild it so it was better suited to the recording of sound. He installed a series of 12” x 12” acoustic tiles to make the sound more consistent but there were still peculiarities in the way the audio travelled around the room. As a result, Sam painstakingly learnt the reverb and echo of the studio inch by inch so he knew exactly where to position his musician’s instruments during a recording session. 

Visiting the main recording studio where Presley, Cash, Lewis and others recorded their earliest songs with its acoustic tiles in situ, is like stepping back in time. For such a small space – I estimate the area for the musicians is about 30ft x 20ft and the glass fronted control room at the far end is the size of small bedroom –  it produced some big sounds. The Presto mixing console, Altec, Shure 55 and RCA-77 D microphones and the Crestwood and Bell tape recorders Sam had in there certainly delivered, although a lot of the “Sun Sound” was down to his innovative recording techniques. This included pushing his microphones closer to the rhythm section to enhance the sound and muffling some of his equipment to add distortion to the mix. Sun’s signature ‘slapback’ tape delay echo in particular become world renowned.

In June 1950, with his equipment, studio and recording techniques in good shape, Sam launched his own record label called ‘Phillips – The Hottest Thing In Country’ with local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation) but sadly the label folded after just one release. Undeterred, Sam continued to sub-contact his services to other record companies such as Chess and Modern, recording demos and producing master tapes for many of their artists. 

One group he worked with at this time, Jackie Brenston & His The Delta Cats (actually Ike Turner and his band the Kings of Rhythm), recorded a song with Sam called Rocket 88 that is now regarded as the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll record. It was this moment that led to Sun being labelled ‘The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and although he would record many rock ’n roll classics, true to his word, Phillips would continue to record ‘ANYTHING-ANYWHERE-ANYTIME” and the studio rang out just as often with the sounds of gospel, blues, country, boogie-woogie and western swing.

Buoyed by the success of Rocket 88, Phillips decided to launch a new record label and in March 1952 Sun Records emerged. This time he was more successful – at least with regard to the calibre of acts he recorded who in the first 12 months included Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. Indeed, as a big lover of the rhythm and blues music performed by black artists such as B.B. King, who he was only too happy to record, Sam is recognised as a man who brought down racial barriers.

However, in spite of the quality of artists he was recording, Sam still struggled financially and with a business model that required him to travel long distances to promote and support his acts, he had no option but to pay them a lower royalty percentage of 3% compared to the 5% norm.

But a change, albeit it a slow one, was a-comin’. In July 1953 a young 18-year-old from Mississippi called Elvis Presley walked into Sun to record two songs. Legend has it Elvis did so as a gift for his mum but there was a cheaper service close by so some argue he chose Sun in the hope of “being discovered”. The first two songs he recorded had little impact, nor did the second set he recorded in January 1954. Things finally came together though on Monday 5 July 1954 when Sam invited Elvis back to record a song he’d acquired called Without You. Sam saw something in Elvis’ performance that prompted him to call in two of his favoured musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and upright bass player Bill Black, to back Elvis on some further songs. 

According to the tour guide who took me round Sun Studio, Elvis led the duo through multiple country songs, none of which Sam liked. Dejected, Sam was about to call the session to a close when Elvis starting singing Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right and Scotty and Bill began to join in. Sam recognised the tune, liked what he heard and asked the band to play it louder and faster. It was exactly what he was looking for – something raw, different, exciting and fresh.

Sam knew he’d caught something special. A few days later, DJ Dewey Phillips played the 1.57 minute song on his radio show and almost immediately people started calling in asking him to play it again. Over the next 3 hours Dewey played it 14 times. 

The next day, Sam signed Elvis on a three year contract. Another song, Blue Moon of Kentucky was hurriedly cut as the B side to That’s All Right (Sun 209) and released on 19 July 1954. Other singles followed: Good Rockin’ Tonight/I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine (Sun 210) in September 1954, Milkcow Blues Boogie/You’re A Heartbreaker (Sun 215) in January 1955, and I’m Left, Your Right, She’s Gone/Baby Let’s Play House (Sun 217) in April 1955. All four sold well across the Southern States and Phillips used the money they generated to expand the label further.

Success with other artists soon followed. In June 1955, Johnny Cash’s debut with The Tennessee Two, Cry! Cry! Cry!/Hey Porter (Sun 221) was released and hit the number 14 spot on the Billboard Hot Country Charts and Carl Perkins had also started recording material with the label, some of it released on its subsidiary Flip.

In August 1955, Elvis’ fifth Sun single, I Forgot to Remember to Forget/Mystery Train was released and started climbing the US Charts. It was to be Presley’s last Sun single. By the end of the year, less than 18 months after he had signed with Sun, Phillips sold his contract to RCA Victor for $35,000. 

In the cold light of day, $35,000 may seem a paltry amount but in 1955 it was a massive fee for someone yet to prove himself nationally. Sam knew his company was too small to successfully represent Presley across the whole of America and the move, encouraged with some justification by Elvis’ new manager Colonel Tom Parker, would see Elvis achieve unprecedented success.

Other musicians at Sun benefitted from Elvis’ “sale” as some of the $35,000 was used to better promote the acts that remained. Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes/Honey Don’t (Sun 234), released a month after Elvis’ departure, became the label’s first single to sell a million copies and Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line/Get Rhythm (Sun 241) released six months later hit the no 1 spot on the Billboard Hot Country Charts.

At the same time as Cash was finding success, new acts were coming on board, notably Roy Orbison, who signed on Cash’s recommendation in Spring 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis, a discovery of Sam’s engineer Jack Clement who signed later in 1956 and Charlie Rich who signed in 1957. 

For the remaining thee years of the 1950s, Sun enjoyed much success, prompting Phillips to move his studio to a larger building on Madison Avenue. Soon after though, as the 60s began to swing, Sun’s reputation for innovation and quality recordings began to fade, partly due to the artists he’d discovered moving on, changing music tastes in general and Sam’s focus switching from recording music to broadcasting it on the numerous radio stations he’d helped establish. 

Nevertheless for a short glorious period between 1951 and 1959, Sam’s Sun ventures – his studio and his record label – shone brightly. He discovered and nurtured some of music’s biggest talents and his legacy is there for all to see at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis and to hear on recordings such as It’s All Right, I Walk The Line, Blue Suede Shoes (by Perkins) and Great Balls of Fire . 

233 singles were recorded on the Sun label in total. I hope understanding the story behind the people and the studio that helped create them will help you enjoy them more.

Seven fascinating facts about Sun Studio

  • Conway Twitty recorded at Sun under his real name, Harold Jenkins. 
  • Sun Records and Sun Studios wasn’t an all-male affair. 16 female artists released records under Sam’s stewardship.
  • In Autumn 1956, not long after Elvis’ departure, RCA wanted to use Sun’s signature slapback echo on Elvis’ first RCA single ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. They called Sam for advice but he refused to explain the technique so RCA instead got Elvis to record the song in a hallway.
  • In December 1956 an impromptu jam session known as the Million Dollar Quartet took place at Sun. Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were recording when Johnny Cash and later Elvis (by now an RCA artist) popped in to say hello. A jam session began and Engineer Jack Clement kept the tape rolling. The story of the session inspired a much loved theatre show called the Million Dollar Quartet.
  • In 1959, Sam moved Sun to larger premises at 639 Madison Avenue but he began to lose interest in recording music. His focus instead shifted to radio (he opened several stations in the 1960s) and as a result Sun’s reputation as an innovative recording studio began to fade. 
  • The original Sun Studio was re-opened in 1987 as both a recording studio and tourist attraction. Artists who have recorded there since include Bonnie Raitt, John Cougar Mellencamp, Chris Isaak, Ringo Starr, U2, Def Leppard and Copper Chief.
  • In recent years Sun Studio has been used as a filmset for the Johnny Cash biopic ‘Walk the Line’ and the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic ‘Great Balls of Fire’.
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