MAY, 2020

ELECTRONIC EDITION: Now free to email subscribers and supported by tasteful, music-oriented advertising with a unique news-format approach.
A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond.
Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright



By Doug Bright

Summary of Part One:

"I didn't set out to revolutionize the world," Sam Phillips once told biographer Peter Guralnick. Nevertheless, that's just what he did as owner and operator of the Sun record label that launched Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Guralnick, whose books have told the stories of Presley and Sam Cooke, entitles his latest one SAM PHILLIPS: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll

To invent is, by definition, to bring something into being that didn't previously exist, but as Guralnick points out, Sam Phillips' part in the creation of rock 'n' roll was more that of discoverer than architect. From the moment he opened his studio in January 1950, his aim was to identify the defining essence of every artist he recorded and "find the key to unlock it." It had its roots in a keen power of observation that characterized him from his earliest childhood in rural Alabama.

Born January 5th, 1923, Samuel Cornelius Phillips spent his first ten years of life on a farm about ten miles from the town of Florence, learning his guiding values from hard-working parents. A defining moment in his life occurred in 1939 when, at age sixteen, he traveled to Dallas with his older brother J.W. and three other young men to hear one of the most famous preachers of the time, Dr. George W. Truett. To get there, they passed through Memphis, Tennessee, and the city's musical mecca, Beale Street, made an indelible impression. After arriving in Dallas and hearing Dr. Truett's dynamic sermon, the Phillips brothers got to meet him and were impressed by his warmth and sincerity. He specifically encouraged J.W. to pursue the calling he felt for the ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, but even at the age of sixteen, Sam Phillips knew that his life's path led in another direction, even if he wasn't yet sure what it was.

Spurred on by the impoverished circumstance of his family, Phillipss was a hard-working, frugal, and ambitious youth, working six days a week at a local grocery store or drugstore in Florence and, for a while, operating a summertime drink stand in front of the family residence. He had taken up drums in the sixth grade, and during his ninth-grade year, he showed his capacity for leadership by successfully mounting a one-kid campaign to a reluctant administrator to outfit his school marching band with uniforms and even a sousaphone, which he himself undertook to learn.

His diligence was rewarded at the end of the year when the faculty presented him with a popular inspirational book written by Ralston Purina company founder William Danforth. Entitled I DARE YOU,
I Dare You!
it was a youth-oriented manual on self-development and positive thinking in the style of Dale Carnegie's classic HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE.
How to Win Friends & Influence People
"I dare you, young man," Danforth wrote, "you who have come from a home of poverty--I dare you to have the qualities of a Lincoln." Sam Phillips, for his part, was absolutely willing to take that dare.

In the summer of 1941, at the end of his sophomore year, Phillips recruited the most musically dedicated of his fellow students to form a dance band. After only a couple of performances, he and his fifteen-member crew were asked by the commander of the local American Legion Post to play its awards ceremony at the Teachers College's outdoor amphitheater. When they arrived, Phillips was shocked to learn that the show was to be broadcast live on WMSD, a station based across the Tennessee River in the town of Sheffield, Alabama, and when he was asked by station manager Jimmy Connolly to announce his combo's repertoire, he bravely agreed. At the end of the show, Connolly was so taken with the sincerity of the young bandleader's on-air personality that he offered him an afternoon spot five days a week on "Hymn Time", which featured records by the era's great Southern gospel quartets. Given Phillips' love of the music, it was a good fit.

About the middle of his junior year, Phillips became a full-time employee at WMSD when he took on the daily "SSL Hilbilly Jamboree" show, and in true Sam Phillips fashion, he threw his heart and soul into it. "Man, I made those records come alive," he remembers, "and when I got through doing that show, the cards and letters they would send in--then I knew I was on my way."

With the intent of becoming an even greater value to the station, the ambitious young disc jockey enrolled in an Alabama Polytechnic Institute extension course offered at Florence State, and by May 1942 he had his license as a Class C engineer. By the end of the year he had secured a position at WMSL in Decatur and was soon promoted to production manager. Nevertheless, the most momentous event of that life-changing year of 1942 took place in September when he met 17-year-old Becky Burns, who was already a skilled announcer at WMSD. "He wore sandals and a smile unlike any I had ever seen before," she recalled to Guralnick. "He walked into the small radio station studio where I worked, sat down on the piano bench, and began to talk to me. I told my family that night I had met the man I wanted to marry." A year and three months later, on December 13th, 1943, she did exactly that.

In June 1945, after gaining valuable experience through Jimmy Connolly at the CBS network's powerful Nashville affiliate, WLAC, 22-year-old Sam Phillips got the chance to live and work in the city of his dreams when a position opened up at CBS's Memphis affiliate, WREC. From the basement control room of the city's Peabody Hotel, where the station was housed, he started out doing essentially the same announcing and engineering chores that had characterized his work in Alabama and Nashville, but in addition, he was given a challenging job that was perfectly suited to his inclinations and his skill set. At 10 o'clock six nights a week, the young audio engineer would be on hand to set up the mikes for a network feed from the hotel roof, where the top white swing bands of the day played live. Once the microphones were properly positioned, Phillips would descend to the basement with copies of sheet music for each band so he could mix appropriately when a trumpeter, saxophonist, or pianist was due to take a solo. "I think it was one of the most enjoyable things that I ever did in my life," he later recalled.

Sam Phillips' elusive career vision began to take shape in the summer of 1949 when Memphis's 250-watt WDIA became the first station in America to target an African-American audience. "My conviction was that the world was missing out on not having heard what I had heard as a child," he explained to his biographer. "Memphis was the inducement--I mean, going out and hearing a black man pick a guitar and pat his foot and put a wood box under his foot to pat while he sings. These were elements that I knew were not going away. Then I said, "I've just got to open me a little recording studio, where I can at least experiment. I don't have any money, but I know I can build it with my own hands." Had I not tried, I would have been the biggest damn coward that God ever put on this earth."


In October 1949, Phillips found the location he wanted: a vacant storefront on Union Street that had formerly housed an auto-glass and medical-supply company. When he approached the two elderly property owners about his bold venture, he actually had to explain to them what a recording studio was, but in true Sam Phillips fashion, his sheer sincerity won the day. "They might not have fully understood the purpose or the practical elements of a recording studio," Peter Guralnick summarizes, "but they knew that somehow or other here was someone trying to do something different. ... Then they opened the door to the building, all grimy and littered with junk, and Sam knew he had found his cathedral."

"It was approximately eighteen feet wide by fifty-seven feet deep," Guralnick continues, "with room for an eighteen-by-thirty-foot studio, a tiny reception area out front, and a control room that would be raised up a couple of feet above the studio so that Sam could sit at eye level with his artists and that would be just large enough to allow space for a tiny commode and a slightly larger storage area. He agreed to pay $75 a month rent, but on a month-to-month basis--he thought this was the greatest part of the whole deal."

"They wanted to help me," Phillips elaborates in the book. Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
"They were thinking of me as a young man attempting to do something that they had not heard of--but at the same time I don't think they thought my destiny was going to be what I hoped it would be."

         From the outset, Phillips built into his enterprise a practical way to finance his larger artistic dream, recording weddings, conventions, and other community events for customers who wanted them documented in high-quality sound. His goal was to be up and running on the first business day of the second half of the twentieth century, and true to character, he met his self-imposed deadline, opening Memphis Recording Service to the public on Monday, January 2nd, 1950.

At      the same time, Dewey Phillips, a kindred spirit who shared Sam's last name and Caucasian ethnicity but not his lineage, was making a name for himself in Memphis playing "race music" through a crude sound system from the record department he ran at the W. T. Grant five-and-dime location on Main Street, shouting and singing along to the delight of a growing clientele. The success of WDIA had already demonstrated the purchasing power of the black population, prompting another Memphis station with a stronger signal, WHBQ, to initiate its own rhythm-and-blues show, "Red Hot and Blue". When the irrepressible Dewey Phillips talked program director Gordon Lawhead into placing him at the mike, the show took off like a rocket, expanding from a fifteen-minute experiment to two hours a night five nights a week and three hours on Saturdays.

It was at Dewey's suggestion that Sam reached out in June to Jules and Saul Bihari, whose independent company, Modern Records, was in the process of launching a rhythm-and-blues label called RPM. In July they wrote to tell him they planned         to come to Memphis to record 24-year-old Riley King, a young artist they had recently met who had a regular DJ spot called "The Sepia Swing Club" on WDIA and had cut some sides for Nashville's Bullet label. He was known around town as the Beale Street Blues Boy or B.B. King. Sam liked the young bluesman instantly, and four sides were released, but nothing came of it.

Meanwhile, Phillips had been working with another local artist who played regularly on Beale Street and billed himself as Joe Hill Louis. In sharp contrast to the more predictable and commercially viable sound of B.B. King, Louis was a country-blues shouter with a simple, hard-driving harmonica style that matched the exuberance of his voice, supporting it all with an intensely rhythmic, over-amped guitar. In hopes of matching John Lee Hooker's hit-making success the previous year with the similarly primitive "Boogie Chillen",
John Lee Hooker: The Ultimate Collection 1948-1990
he released two sides, "Gotta Let You Go"
A' Jumpin' and A' Shufflin' The Blues 1950-1954
and "Boogie In The Park",
A' Jumpin' and A' Shufflin' The Blues 1950-1954
as the first single on his new Phillips imprint. "Dewey Phillips and I are partners 50-50 on our new label," he wrote to Jimmy Connolly at his station in Bessemer, Alabama, "and we're going to do our best to make it roll in the South."

It was a hastily conceived venture that was completely out of character with Sam's carefully designed, sole-proprietor business strategy, and his time and energy were already thinly stretched between his responsibilities at WREC and the normal operations of Memphis Recording Service. "It was to please Dewey, really," he later reflected.

Nevertheless, as Peter Guralnick points out, "his ambition for the label swiftly grew. And then as quickly as it started, ... the whole enterprise came crashing down. in the early morning hours of September 3, Dewey had a terrible head-on collision on Highway 7 just outside of West Memphis that killed both the driver of the other car and Dewey's companion, a nineteen-year-old girl who had moved to Memphis from Booneville, Mississippi, just six weeks earlier and was living at the Hotel Chisca with her aunt."

Regarding Sam, Guralnick continues, "It must have hit him all at once what in reality he had known all along--just how little he knew about what it took to run a record company and how much this was diverting him from his main task. ... There was no formal conclusion, and a few independent outlets may have continued selling the Joe hill Louis record for another few months. But there never was a second, from Joe or anyone else."


(This article will be continued in the next issue of Heritage Music Review.)