Sam Phillips, born Samuel Cornelius Phillips (January 5, 1923 – June 30, 2003), was a record producer and founder of Sun Records in Memphis, best remembered for discovering and first recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and other early pioneers of rock and roll. Often referred to as the "father of rock and roll," Phillips was committed to providing opportunities for gifted performers regardless of their race or economic background. Phillips' respect for the artistry of southern black musicians led him to record many major blues artists, including B. B. King, Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, and Bobby "Blue" Bland.
The now classic Sun recordings by Presley, Cash, Lewis, Orbison, and Carl Perkins synthesized the blues, southern gospel, and country music into a distinctively American musical idiom that would capture the imagination of America's youth. Despite the often-overt eroticism of rock and roll, which caused consternation in the culturally conservative fifties and contributed to the erosion of sexual mores in the decades that followed, the music exerted far-reaching influence on the integration of African Americans into the artistic, economic, and cultural mainstream of the United States. Significantly, Phillips was the first non-performer inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its inaugural elections in 1986.
Sam Phillips was born in Florence, Alabama, the city where W. C. Handy, the “father of the blues," was born fifty years earlier, in 1873. The son of poor tenant farmers, Phillips worked every day with black field laborers as a child and was deeply impressed with the pitch and rhythm of the singing.
Like Handy before him, Phillips was drawn to the musical magnet of Memphis and the legendary Beale Street, where itinerant blues musicians from throughout the South came to live out their dreams. Phillips first arrived on Beale Street in 1939, on a trip to Dallas, but returned to Alabama to work as a radio announcer and engineer in Decatur, throughout the forties.
Phillips’ chance to move to Memphis came in 1949, with a job at WREC radio at the famed Peabody Hotel, just one block from Beale Street. Although Memphis was famed for its music, surprisingly there was no recording studio when Phillips arrived. Not looking to strike gold with the opportunity, Phillips was still obsessed with launching a recording studio—“for one reason: I wanted to record black people, those folks who never had the opportunity to record. My unconscious mind was just saying I should do it.”
Risking his meager fortune, Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service on January 1, 1950. Recording poor, itinerant blues singers didn’t always pay the bills, however; so Phillips supplemented his recording work with weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, political speeches—“anything, anywhere, any time,” according to the business card. During these first years, Phillips recorded masters by little-known blues artists such as B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, and “Doctor” Isaiah Ross (specialist in the “Boogie Disease”), which he would lease to other independent labels with major marketing operations, such as Chess and RPM. In 1951, Phillips recorded Jackie Brenston's “Rocket 88” (with Ike Turner on piano), often cited by music historians as the first rock and roll record.
In 1952, frustrated with his leasing arrangement, Phillips launched his own label, calling it Sun Records. Sun got its first national R&B hit in 1953, with Rufus Thomas' “Bear Cat,” a transparent cover of “Hound Dog,” a hit recorded just earlier by the blues singer "Big Mamma” Thornton and later, with phenomenal success, by Elvis Presley. Other electrified blues artists, like James Cotton, Little Milton, and Junior Parker, recorded for Sun, with some commercial success.
Phillips’ role in these records was far more than technician. He had an unusual rapport with the performers, most of whom had never seen the inside of a recording studio, and told them, “I don’t care about making a hit record; I only care about making a good record.” He also had an intuitive sense of the crossover appeal of blues and was willing to record electric guitars and harmonica at high volume with fuzzy and distorted textures.
In the summer of 1953, a shy young singer arrived at Sun Studio with the stated purpose of recording a couple of sentimental songs for his mother. Phillips made a note of the eighteen-year-old with the strange name and appearance, Elvis Presley. A year later, on July 5, 1954, Phillips called Presley back and arranged for a session with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. During a break after lackluster renditions of a number of ballads, Presley playfully began to improvise around a country blues song, “That’s Alright Mama,” by Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup.
This anonymous moment with the microphone turned off became an iconic event in American musical history, as Phillips flipped on the microphone and launched a career that would come to transform the American musical landscape. In 1954 and 1955, Presley made a series of now-classic recordings for Sun Records, a spontaneous synthesis of blues, country, gospel, and pop that were mostly covers of recent country and rhythm and blues recordings.
Phillips recorded looking for a feel, not technical perfection. He told Presley that the worst thing he could go for was perfection. Phillips was always seeking what he called the perfect/imperfect cut. This meant that it was not technically perfect, but perfectly conveyed the feeling and emotion of the song to the listener and gave the song a living personality, partially due to it being technically imperfect.
Most recordings at the time gave substantially more volume to the vocals. Phillips pulled back the Elvis vocals, blending it more with the instrumental performances. Phillips also used tape delay to get an echo into the Elvis recordings by running the tape through a second recorder head. RCA, not knowing the method that Phillips had used was unable to recreate the Elvis echo when recording "Heartbreak Hotel." In an attempt to duplicate the Sun Records sound, RCA used a large empty hallway at the studio to create an echo, but it sounded nothing like the echo that Phillips had created at Sun Records.
Following Presley into Sun Studio were some of rock and roll’s greatest names—Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison. Like Presley, each came from impoverished background and drew on rich veins of vernacular music, fashioned into a recognizable idiom, termed rockabilly, by the sound engineer, Sam Phillips.
Despite popular regional acclaim, by mid 1955, Sam Phillips' studio experienced financial difficulties, and he sold Presley's contract in November of that year; RCA Records' offer of $35,000 beat out Atlantic Records' offer of $25,000. Through the sale of Presley's contract, he was able to boost the distribution of Perkins' song, "Blue Suede Shoes," and it became Sun Records' first national hit, later recorded (twice) by Presley and the Beatles, and sometimes called "the national anthem of rock and roll."
Phillips' musical horizons reached elsewhere than the artistic enfranchisement of poor southerners. In 1955, he launched radio station WHER, an "All Girl Radio" format. Each of the women who auditioned for the station assumed they were applying for a single female announcer position like other stations at that time. Only before the first broadcast did they learn that almost every position at the station was held by a woman.
Broadcasting out of a few pastel, beauty salon-like rooms known as the "doll's den" at a Memphis Holiday Inn, the "jockettes" played the records, managed the station, and reported the news. Few thought the station would survive, but it broadcast for eleven years, going off the air in 1966.
"When I started WHER … people thought I had rocks in my head," Phillips said. "A girl could do a cooking show, but no one thought girls could handle hour-to-hour programs and commercials. I felt differently. I had always wanted a radio station, but Memphis already had nine. I had to do something different. An all-girl crew, and pleasant, light music, was the answer."
Through savvy investments, Phillips soon amassed a fortune. He was one of the first investors in Holiday Inn, a new motel chain that was about to go national. He would also create two different subsidiary recording labels—Phillips International and Holiday Inn Records. Neither would match the success or influence of Sun, which Phillips ultimately sold to Shelby Singleton in the 1960s.
Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis on June 30, 2003, only one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark. He is interred in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis.
Sam Phillips is best remembered for his role in launching the rock and roll revolution and the careers of some of its most talented performers, preeminently Elvis Presley. Rock and roll had enormous popular appeal among young people and became a global phenomenon. Borrowing heavily from the blues, the music was energetic and celebratory rather than brooding, but also adopted much of the erotic subtext of the blues.
The term “rock and roll” was itself a fairly candid allusion to sex, and in both lyrics and stage performances the music frequently advanced the notion that sexuality was primarily a kind of entertainment. Packaged and marketed for affluent young whites, rock and roll engendered deep social divisions, as traditional views of sexuality grounded in religious faith were challenged by powerful commercial forces. The sexual revolution of the sixties and the continuing erosion of traditional views of sexuality may be seen as consequences of the rock and roll’s widespread popularity, although many other factors beside this music must be recognized as contributing to these changes.
Another, more important legacy of Sam Phillips was his formative role in breaking down racial barriers and culturally enfranchising American blacks. Phillips recognized from an early age that hardship could be sublimated into art and that society’s most discriminated-against underclass, the rural southern black, poignantly expressed their experience in the music and poetry of the blues.
Phillips’ empathy for the less fortunate and his conviction of their inherent dignity and artistic ability is the legacy for which he would want to be remembered. "Now we've learned so much from some of these people we thought were ignorant, who never had any responsibility other than chopping cotton, feeding the mules, or making sorghum molasses," Phillips said of his legacy. "When people come back to this music in a hundred years, they'll see these were master painters. They may be illiterate. They can't write a book about it. But they can make a song, and in three verses you'll hear the greatest damn story you'll ever hear in your life."
"Sam Phillips possessed an almost Whitmanesque belief not just in the nobility of the American dream but in the nobility of that dream as it filtered down to its most downtrodden citizen, the Negro," agrees music writer and Presley biographer Peter Guralnick.
In 1986, Sam Phillips was part of the first group, and the first non-performer, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 1987, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1991. In 1998, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in October 2001, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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