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Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright

WHAT'S IN STORE: News From The Musical Marketplace


By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-5:
"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 unique 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 the country 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 record companies like Chess. He had already scored Top Ten rhythm-and-blues 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. "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 in March 1953. The label scored its first hit with "Bear Cat",
The Sun Years, Plus: His R&B Recordings 1949-1956
Rufus Thomas's answer to blueswoman Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog".
The Singles Collection 1951-61
The next one came from a most unlikely source: a quintet of inmates at the Tennessee State Penitentiary discovered by Phillips' new partner, Jim Bulleit. Billed as The Prisonaires, they recorded "Just Walkin' In The Rain",
Just Walkin' in the Rain
a song written by lead singer Johnny Bragg and a fellow convict. Released July 8th, 1953, it sold over thirty thousand copies in two months. When Johnnie Ray revived the song three years later, he took it to Number 2 on the pop charts and established it as one of the decade's best-remembered hits.
The Best of Johnnie Ray
Phillips' greatest discovery of all came as the result of an acetate demo recording that had been submitted to him: a torch ballad called "Without You". The song stayed on his 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."

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. The following Sunday at 7 PM, Presley returned with Moore and Wranglers bassist Bill Black. 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."

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 later, "and I started kidding around." The song was Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's 1946 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 writes. "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, "but it just really flipped Sam."

"Sam sat in the studio after the session was over and everyone had gone home," Peter Guralnick relates. "He was bone-weary, but he just wanted to savor the moment." When he got home, Phillips told his wife, Becky, that he had just cut a record that was going to change their lives. "I didn't understand at the time what he meant," she recalls in Guralnick's book,
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
"but it did."

From    the very beginning, Sam Phillips' mission had been to expose the wider world to the uniquely African-American music that had made such a deep impression on him during his youth. Having produced rhythm-and-blues hits for other labels as well as his own, he was sure that those sounds would soon revolutionize popular music by bridging the gap between the races, but he also knew that given the cultural climate of the day, it would take a white artist to get the ball rolling. "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars," he often told Marion Keisker, and he was convinced that young Elvis Presley, with his distinctly passionate approach to Arthur Crudup's down-home blues, was just  the man for the job.

His longtime DJ friend Dewey Phillips was equally impressed.   "Dewey had gotten so excited when Sam played the acetate for him that he requested two copies," Guralnick elaborates.

During the course of his evening show he played it at least seven times and invited Elvis in for a live interview. Predictably, the station was flooded with phone calls and telegrams. Dewey even brought up the fact that Presley had recently graduated from Memphis's obviously white Humes High School. "I wanted to get that out," he later explained, "because a lot of people listening thought he was colored."

With the record's success virtually assured, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black returned to the studio the following night to cut a flipside. They ran through a few ideas for songs, but nothing clicked until Bill started clowning again with a song that bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe had recorded as a waltz. "Bill jumped up and started beating on his bass and singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Complete Releases 1954-62
in a high falsetto voice, more or less mimicking Bill Monroe," Moore recalls. "Elvis started banging on the guitar, playing rhythm and singing, and I joined in and it just gelled."

"The record came out officially less than two weeks after the first session," Peter Guralnick points out, "and from the start sold like nothing else Sam had ever released. Like nothing else, in fact, that Memphis had ever experienced."

"According to our local distributor," Phillips reported to Billboard rhythm-and-blues columnist Bob Rolontz, "it is being bought by practically every operator with all types of locations ... and retail purchasers range from teenage white kids to dyed-in-the-wool Negro blues enthusiasts on the "That's All Right" side,
Complete Releases 1954-62
while the Hillbilly set young and old are setting the pace on the "Blue Moon" side."
Complete Releases 1954-62

"The potential of this record is unlimited because of its apparently universal appeal," said Memphis's Home of The Blues record-store owner Ruben Cherry. "I've never seen anything like it!"
"It was as if he had been caught up in a whirlwind," Guralnick writes of Phillips. "He put every penny, every ounce of energy he had into the record."

Before long, his effort began to pay off. On August 28th, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Complete Releases 1954-62
entered Billboard's Memphis country chart at Number 3, topping the survey by September 11th. On October 2nd, Elvis appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. When he played the Louisiana Hayride, which had launched Hank Williams,
Complete Us Country Hits 1949-62
Jim Reeves,
8 Classic Albums
and several other top country stars, the enthusiasm of the audience won him a regular spot on the weekly show.

Presley's second single emerged in October, pairing blues shouter Roy Brown's 1948 hit "Good Rockin' Tonight"
Complete Releases 1954-62
with "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine",
Complete Releases 1954-62
which Dean Martin had swung convincingly in the 1950 Disney version of "Cinderella". The new Elvis record was just as exciting as its predecessor, but it didn't sell as well.

(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.
1966 Fender Princeton Amp 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 1966 Fender Princeton Reverb amp. "It's got incredible reverb, vibrato, everything that people freak out about in those vintage Fenders," proprietor Jay Boone proclaims on the store's website. "It is the smallest option to get everything that vintage Fender encompasses."

Emerald City Guitars
83 South Washington Street
Phone: 206/382-0231.

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:

Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop: 3406 Fremont Avenue North.

Bulldog News 4208 University Way Northeast

Phinney Books: 7405 Greenwood Avenue North

Emerald City Guitars: 83 South Washington Street.

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Elliott Bay Book Company: 1521 10th Avenue.

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