The gritty tones, pulsating grooves and “slap-back” vocal delay that characterized the Sun sound had an influence on the development of the form that’s virtually impossible to overstate—almost as great an influence, in fact, as Phillips’ own
A&R instincts.
Discovered Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, Pioneered Rock's Sound
Sam Phillips, the record man whose discoveries included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, died Wednesday (7/30) at a Memphis hospital. He was 80.

Phillips’ Sun Studios was the crucible in which countless seminal rock and roll, blues and country tracks were forged. “There can be little doubt,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer, “that Sam Phillips played the crucial role of midwife in the birth of the new music.”

The gritty tones, pulsating grooves and “slap-back” vocal delay that characterized the Sun sound had an influence on the development of the form that’s virtually impossible to overstate—almost as great an influence, in fact, as Phillips’ own A&R instincts.

Raised on an Alabama plantation, Phillips grew up listening to the blues and other so-called “race music.” Though he worked at radio stations around the South in his teens and broke into announcing on a Memphis station after college, he wasn’t able to get close to the music he loved best until he founded Memphis Recording Services in 1950.

Headquartered in a converted radiator shop—a space so confining that Phillips used a neighboring coffee shop as his office—MRS adopted the slogan “We record anything—anywhere—anytime.”

Though his income at first derived primarily from vanity recordings and wedding music, Phillips was able, at last, to record the blues. B.B. King, Little Walter, Rufus Thomas, Howlin’ Wolf and other luminaries of the form passed through his studio, and Jackie Brenston’s 1951 side “Rocket 88,” featuring Ike Turner’s band—regarded by some as the first true rock and roll recording—was Phillips’ first big hit. It was also one of the earliest examples of guitar distortion, though the sound was an accidental by-product of  Phillips’ improvised repair of a broken speaker.

1952 saw the founding of the Sun Records label. A colleague later recalled Phillips ruminating out loud about the untold riches to be had if he could find a white singer with a “negro” sound. As if answering a summons, truck-driving Mississippi native Elvis Presley ambled in to make a recording for his mother in 1953.

Presley’s recording sufficiently impressed the Sun staff that Phillips invited him to lay down more tracks. The first fruit of their collaboration was the 1954 single “That’s All Right, Mama” (b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky”).

Presley recorded a raft of jumped-up roots tunes for Phillips over the next year, including “Baby Let’s Play House,” Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Milkcow Blues Boogie.” In 1955, RCA bought Presley’s contract and masters for the unheard-of sum (for a newcomer) of $35,000.

Phillips figured his next big star was Carl Perkins, whose “Blue Suede Shoes” was a #5 hit nationally (and flew up both the R&B and country charts—try that one today). After doing a handful of other recordings for Sun, Perkins moved on to Columbia.

Johnny Cash provided Phillips with hits like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” before ankling for Columbia in 1958; Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby”/”Trying to Get to You” sold a million copies, though he never quite fit the Sun mold and went on to greater success on Monument.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1957 smash “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” kicked off a string of successes that was cut short by the revelation that the singer had married his adolescent cousin.

By the end of the decade, Phillips had begun to lose interest in the business, and though he stayed involved until he sold the label in 1969, it was clear that the explosive creativity of the peak Sun years was long gone.

Phillips devoted himself, in ensuing years, to tending several radio stations, including Memphis’ WLVS. As his role in the birth of rock calcified into myth, he was the subject of lavish praise and countless laurels, including induction, in 1986, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Sun Studios, now a tourist attraction, remains a mecca for rock and roll pilgrims, as exemplified in Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train.

“My greatest contribution, I think,” Phillips recalled to rock historian Peter Guralnick in the early ’80s, “was to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself.”

The freedom of those early recordings is as potent as ever, and will remain Phillips’ indelible stamp on the history of modern music.

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