AUGUST, 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

WHAT'S IN STORE: News From The Musical Marketplace


By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-4:
"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.

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."

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.

By early 1952, Sam Phillips was beginning to rethink his original strategy of shopping his work to companies like Chess. He had already scored Top Ten R&B hits with Jackie Brenston
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and Howlin' Wolf,
Howlin‘' Wolf: The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs, 1951-62
both of whom he had discovered. Perhaps it was time to start a new label of his own after all.
"The name "Sun" seems to have been percolating for some time," Peter Guralnick reflects. "To Sam, "Sun" represented a new day, opportunity, the dawning of hope."

After a false start, Phillips relaunched Sun Records with new partner Jim Bulleit in March of 1953. When he first heard blues shouter Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog",
The Singles Collection 1951-61
released by Peacock Records early that month, he was fascinated by its musical simplicity and raw power. The tamed-down, hillbilly-themed version that Elvis Presley
Complete Releases 1954-62
would ride to the top of the hit parade three years later dealt with a hound dog of the four-footed variety, but the object of Thornton's tirade was a no-good man.

In "Hound Dog", Sam Phillips saw an opportunity to write an answer song from a male perspective for the gruff-voiced Rufus Thomas
The Sun Years, Plus: His R&B Recordings 1949-1956
whom he had recorded the previous year for Chess Records without any chart success. Its title, "Bear Cat"
The Sun Years, Plus: His R&B Recordings 1949-1956
was, as he explained to Thomas, an Alabama term for a superlatively mean-spirited woman. It was released on March 22nd, two weeks after it was recorded, and it got the lead review in the same issue of Cash Box that spotlighted the relaunch of Sun Records.

However, "Bear Cat" was almost a carbon copy of the song that had inspired it, with only a few lyrics changed, and Don Robey of Peacock Records lost no time threatening a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Knowing he was unlikely to win such a battle, Phillips settled, paying Robey's Lion Music Publishing Company $1,580.80 and giving up all claims to song-publishing rights. Nevertheless, his record rocketed up the charts right along with Thornton's original, and by June it had reached Number 3.

Sun's next hit came from a most unlikely source. Through one of his contacts in the record business, Jim Bulleit found the Prisonaires, a quintet of inmates at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. The five singing convicts had been discovered by warden James Edwards, an old friend and appointee of newly elected state governor Frank Clement.

Performing mostly spirituals at gubernatorial functions, they were soon appearing at churches and Rotary and Exchange Club meetings, with the warden or his wife transporting them to and from their engagements. In only a few weeks they were guesting on radio, and that was how Bulleit's contact, music publisher Red Wortham, became aware of them. Impressed by his first meeting with them, he returned to the prison to record them.

When Sam Phillips heard the tape, the effortlessly soaring tenor voice of lead singer Johnny Bragg and the group's smooth backing harmony convinced him that he had found an opportunity not to be missed. Consequently, on the morning of June 1st, 1953, the Prisonaires arrived under armed guard at the Sun studio. One of the songs they recorded was "Just Walkin' In The Rain",
Just Walkin' in the Rain
an expressively delivered torch ballad written by Bragg and fellow inmate Robert Riley, accompanied only by Prisonaire William Stewart's smooth acoustic guitar work. "We used to practice, practice, practice," Bragg recalls in Guralnick's book. "I wanted to be the Ink Spots."
The Golden Age Of The Ink Spots: The Best Of Everything - 101 Classic Original Recordings

The record was released on July 8th, and in two months it had sold thirty thousand copies nationally. Three years later, Johnnie Ray
The Best of Johnnie Ray
was to revive the song, taking it to Number 2 on the pop charts and establishing it as one of the decade's best-remembered hits.

On May 8th, 1954, Sam Phillips and his Presto portable tape recorder journeyed to the Tennessee State Penitentiary, and the result was what would turn out to be the Prisonaires' final session. At 2:30 the following morning, he departed Nashville with two Prisonaires songs and a mysterious acetate recording left there for him by Red Wortham. It was a torch ballad called "Without You" performed by an unidentified singer who showed obvious influence from Ink Spots lead tenor Bill Kenny.

The song stayed on Phillips' mind, but he didn't have a clear idea who might record it and actualize its potential. "The only one who came to mind," Peter Guralnick writes, "was a kid who had stopped by the previous summer and for $4 cut a "personal" record for his mother. ... In fact, one side of the two-sided acetate was the Ink Spots standard "That's When Your Heartaches begin."
Amazon: A Boy From Tupelo

"The boy had the same yearning quality in his voice that Sam heard in the Nashville number," Guralnick continues, "attached to the kind of purity and fervor that you might be more inclined to assign to religious music. Sam had no idea of his full potential, but there was no question, he was certainly different."

On Saturday, June 26th, 1954, 19-year-old Elvis Presley arrived, on Sam's invitation, at the Sun studio. With Presley singing to his own rudimentary guitar accompaniment, they worked on "Without You" all afternoon, but it just didn't click. Concluding that it might not be the right song for Presley after all, Phillips encouraged him to run through the rest of his repertoire, but nothing ignited the spark he was seeking.

Yet there was something about the young man that neither Phillips nor assistant Marion Keisker could dismiss, so the following Thursday afternoon over coffee at the restaurant next door, they mentioned Presley to guitarist Scotty Moore of the Starlite Wranglers, a country act that Sun had recorded. "Why don't you give him a call and get him to come over to your house and see what you think of him?" Phillips suggested.

They met the following day, but neither Moore nor Wranglers bassist Bill Black were any more impressed than Phillips had been with the previous Saturday's results. "He didn't really knock me out," Moore reported to Phillips the next day, "but the boy's got a good voice."

"You know, I think I'll just call him," Phillips replied, "get him to come down to the studio tomorrow--we'll set up an audition and see what he sounds like coming back off of tape. Just you and Bill, just something for a little rhythm."

The following evening at 7, the three of them showed up at the Sun studio. They recorded two ballads: the pop hit "Harbor Lights"
A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953 to 1955 Recordings
and the country hit "I Love You Because",
A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953 to 1955 Recordings
and Presley delivered them both with compelling sincerity. "He was happy enough with the interaction between the musicians," Guralnick says of Phillips. "But still, they hadn't gotten anything usable--and he wasn't sure exactly what to do. You never wanted to quit a session like this too early--you might just kill any chance of confidence developing over time. ... Staying with it too long could create a kind of mind-numbing quality of its own, it could smooth over all the rough edges you were trying to bring out and banish the very element of spontaneity you were trying to achieve."

They finally decided to take a break, and that's when magic started to happen. "This song popped into my head that I had heard years ago," Elvis recalled years later, "and I started kidding around." The song was Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's 1946 down-home blues classic "That's All Right, Mama".
Complete Releases 1954-62

"All of a sudden," Scotty Moore remembered, "Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them."

When the surprised Sam Phillips heard what was going on, he said, "Well, back it up, try to fine a place to start, and do it again."

"The rest of the session went as if suddenly they had all been caught up in the same fever dream," Guralnick relates. "The first time Sam played it back for them, "we couldn't believe it was Us," said Bill."

"It just sounded sort of raw and ragged," Moore added. "We thought it was exciting, but what was it? It was just so completely different. But it just really flipped Sam."

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


Discover "The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll" At Phinney Books

"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. Your copy of Guralnick's book, SAM phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, is waiting for you at Phinney Books in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood.

Phinney Books 7405 Greenwood Avenue North
Phone: 206/297-2665
Web: ----------------------------------------

120-bass Accordion At Dusty Strings
Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop in the Fremont district, long known for its array of fine stringed instruments, instructional workshops, and folk concerts, has recently acquired a full-size 120-bass Rivoli accordion, made by Sonolo, in perfect playing condition. I've tried this instrument out myself and can happily testify that it even has the so-called Bassoon keyboard setting that I choose for simulating clarinets and big-band reed sections in my role of preserving vintage jazz as Dixieland Doug. It sells for $595, and although it isn't displayed on the Dusty Strings website, you can request a photo by emailing

Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop
3406 Fremont Avenue North
Phone: 206/634-1662.
1960 Les Paul Standard At Emerald City Guitars
Emerald City Guitars in Seattle's Pioneer Square, well known for its fascinating selection of new and vintage acoustic and electric guitars, amps, and accessories, has recently acquired a 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard electric in very good condition with original hard shell case. "A Holy Grail instrument with an ummatched sound," the website proclaims.Emerald City Guitars 83 South Washington Street Phone: 206/382-0231. Web: ON THE NEWSSTAND: HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW The print edition of HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW is available by mail for $15 per year and on sale at the following Seattle newsstands and music venues:FREMONT: Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop: 3406 Fremont Avenue North.UNIVERSITY DISTRICT:Bulldog News 4208 University Way NortheastGREENWOOD: Phinney Books: 7405 Greenwood Avenue NorthPIONEER SQUARE: Emerald City Guitars: 83 South Washington Street.QUEEN ANNE HILL:Queen Anne Book Company: 1811 Queen Anne Avenue NorthCAPITOL HILL: Elliott Bay Book Company: 1521 10th Avenue. For a free sample copy of the print edition, just reply to this message or, if this issue was forwarded to you, send your mailing address to ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Forwarding of this Electronic Edition is strongly encouraged. If you wish to subscribe or unsubscribe, simply send your request to editor Doug Bright: