JUNE, 2020

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A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond.
Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright
Email: subscribe@heritagemusicreview.com



By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-2:
"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.

Spurred on by the impoverished circumstance of his family, Phillips 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.

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.

In the summer of 1949, after Phillips had earned a Class C engineer's license and gained valuable radio experience at stations in Alabama and Nashville, his elusive career vision began to take shape 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."

That October, Phillips found the location he wanted: a vacant storefront on Union Street that had formerly housed an auto-glass and medical-supply company. From the outset, he 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.

Meanwhile, Sam had been working with
Joe Hill Louis,
A' Jumpin' and A' Shufflin' The Blues 1950-1954
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 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 then," Peter Guralnick relates, "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. ... 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."


Sam Phillips' fortunes began to change on March 1st, 1951, when he met Leonard Chess of Chicago's now-legendary Chess label, who happened to be in Memphis to promote bluesman Muddy Waters' latest single. "He'd heard about my studio," Phillips recalls in Guralnick's book,
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll

"and he came by, and we talked, and he said, "Man, I'd give anything to work with you." And the first thing I gave him was "Rocket 88."
I Like Ike: The Best of Ike Turner

The song, regarded today as a rhythm-and-blues classic, was composed by Jackie Brenston, the baritone sax player in a combo called the Rhythm Kings led by future legend Ike Turner. His inspiration was drawn from jump-blues bandleader Jimmy Liggins' 1948 hit "Cadillac Boogie"
Knocking You Out (A Singles collection featuring all the hits 1947 - 59)

and the "rocket ship" look of the new Oldsmobile.

The recording process offers one of history's most eloquent demonstrations of the old maxim, "When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade." On the drive from Mississippi, the Rhythm Kings' overloaded vehicle had suffered a flat tire, and in their rush to retrieve a spare from the trunk, they dropped guitarist Willie Kizart's amp on the pavement. Given the horrible sound it made when Willie plugged in, it was obvious that the speaker cone was blown, but where others saw disaster, Sam Phillips saw opportunity. Concluding that the distorted sound of the damaged cone could be made to sound like a gritty rhythm-and-blues saxophone, he simply stuffed it with brown paper from the restaurant next door.

"The effect was almost instantaneous," Guralnick summarizes, "with the fuzz-tone taking the bass part, the horns riffing, ... and Ike's storming piano cutting through the churning mix--it was like making an all-out assault on a rhythmic wall. To the end of his life Sam refused to even try to explain it. It was magic, it was alchemy, it was modernity."

"This sensational new record, "Rocket 88",
I Like Ike: The Best of Ike Turner

is going to make my first million for me," Phillips wrote to Jimmy Connolly four days after recording it. "Seriously, Jimmy, this is one of the best race records I have ever heard, and I think you'll agree with me when you hear it."

On March 28th, 1951, the headline on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal read, "Rocket Becomes Flying Disc, Spins Toward Record Glory." By June 9th, it had soared to Number 1 on Billboard magazine's rhythm-and-blues charts, where it stayed for a month, and by the end of August it had sold a hundred thousand copies, but by this time, the band was on its way to breaking up.

The problem lay in the fact that Chess had released the record under Jackie Brenston's name rather than Ike Turner's
I Like Ike: The Best of Ike Turner
and identified his Kings of Rhythm as Brenston's Delta Cats, a name that the label had created out of thin air. With no official recognition given to its leader or the name it was using to build its reputation, the band was populated by some very unhappy musicians--so much so that Phillips wasn't even able to get them together in the studio for a follow-up release.

In the long run, however, none of that mattered because by this time, Sam Phillips had discovered the artist whose compellingly earthy sound represented exactly what he had been seeking all along. Chester Arthur Burnette, born near Tupelo, Mississippi in 1910, had spent his youth singing and playing guitar around the Delta, taking his musical identity from country bluesman Funny Papa Smith's song "Howling Wolf Blues".
the original howling wolf, 1930-1931

The year 1948 found him in West Memphis with an early morning radio spot on KWEM, advertising farm tools and dry goods for the sponsors and promoting the gigs he played in the area with the band he had put together. On a tip from an announcer at the station, Sam Phillips tuned him in. "I heard one number," he recalled to Peter Guralnick, "and I instantly said, This is what I'm looking for."

"The man he met was imposing," Guralnick writes. "Six three, well over two hundred and twenty pounds, with a broad, handsome face, smooth, dark skin, and a manner that indicated wariness, suspicion, and a residue of deep hurt."

"He was highly, highly intelligent," Phillips remembers, "in many ways the sweetest man you'll ever know, and the strangest man in many ways, too."

A few days after their meeting at the studio, Wolf showed up with guitarist Willie Johnson, drummer Willie Steele, and an assortment of harmonicas tuned in various keys. "Before long," Guralnick summarizes, "the trio was just blowing as if Sam wasn't even in the room, encouraging one another with unrestrained shouts while he switched the mikes around to get the absolute maximum out of each individual sound. Most of all, though, he was just stunned by the uniqueness, the overwhelming thrust, subtlety, and power of the Wolf's voice, as riveting an instrument as he had ever encountered in all his life."

The two resulting sides, "How Many More Years (have I got to let you dog me around)"
Howlin‘' Wolf: The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs, 1951-62
"Moanin' At Midnight",
Howlin‘' Wolf: The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs, 1951-62
emerged on Chess as Wolf's first single at the end of August.

"How Many More Years" reached Number 4 on the national rhythm-and-blues charts, and the primitive, field-holler blues
"Moanin, At Midnight",
Howlin‘' Wolf: The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs, 1951-62
which Phillips proudly characterized as "the most different record I ever heard," also charted.

By early 1952, Sam Phillips was beginning to rethink his original strategy of shopping his work to companies like Modern and Chess. He had already scored Top Ten R&B hits with Jackie Brenston and Howlin' Wolf, both of whom he had discovered. Perhaps it was time to start a new label of his own after all.

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