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
Email: subscribe@heritagemusicreview.com

WHAT'S IN STORE: News From The Musical Marketplace


By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-6:
"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.

After successfully shopping some of his recordings to Chess Records, Phillips launched his own Sun label in March 1953. A couple more hits followed, but his greatest discovery of all came on account 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. The song wasn't a good fit, but about a week later, Presley returned with lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, and magic happened when he tried out Arthur Crudup's 1946 blues hit "That's All Right, Mama".
Complete Releases 1954-62
When Phillips played it for local disc jockey Dewey Phillips, his DJ friend requested two copies, playing it seven times on his next show and inviting Elvis for an on-air interview. Predictably, the station was flooded with phone calls and telegrams.

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: a jumped-up rendition of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe's sentimental waltz "Blue Moon of Kentucky".
Complete Releases 1954-62
"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."

On August 28th, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"
Complete Releases 1954-62
entered Billboard magazine'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, Jim Reeves, and several other top country stars, the enthusiasm of the audience won him a regular spot on the weekly show.

The release of Presley's second single also took place 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.
Elvis's next single, released on his 20th birthday (January 8, 1955), paired an uptempo version of an old blues standard, in this case entitled "Milkcow Blues Boogie",
Complete Releases 1954-62
with one of this critic's all-time Presley favorites, a brightly paced country number called "You're A Heartbreaker",
Complete Releases 1954-62
but its sales still didn't match the first one. On February 5th, however, a meeting took place that would change everything. Through Bob Neal, the prominent Memphis Dj whom Phillips had contracted as Presley's manager, he met Colonel Tom Parker, who had helped launch Eddy Arnold
Complete Us Chart Singles 1945-62
and was now managing another country star, Hank Snow.
Complete Us Country Hits 1949-62
With his connection to Arnold, Snow, and their RCA Victor record label, he was in a position to book Elvis into a wider range of territory than Phillips and Neal could command, so a deal was struck. By May, Presley was touring with Hank Snow all through the South and Southwest, and with the wider exposure came increased record sales.

Meanwhile, Phillips had just put out a new record by 22-year-old Carl Perkins,
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62
a northwest Tennesseean who had wandered into the Sun studio the previous fall. Preoccupied as he was with Elvis, Phillips hadn't been interested in auditioning new talent, but Perkins finally persuaded him to give him a quick listen. "There was a real push to the way this old lantern-jawed farm boy played and sang," Guralnick explains. "He sounded like a hopped-up Hank Williams
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62
the way he just jumped on the vocals. But it was his guitar-playing that really struck Sam, the dancing little fills he played behind his singing, the way he interwove voice and guitar with a naturalness that Sam had never heard from any other hillbilly singer."

The Perkins single, released in February, showcased the interaction of his voice and guitar on a bouncy hillbilly novelty in which an ardent young country boy asks his girlfriend, Maggie, if they can switch their dating venue to "the western picture show", out of reach of her father's ever-present shotgun. "Now won't you let me take you to the show so I can hold your hand?" he pleaded. "It ain't that I don't like your house, it's just that doggone man." Phillips, in a subtle display of punmanship, entitled it "Movie Mag."
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62
Its flipside was a beautifully melodic song in the Hank Williams vein, complete with fiddle and steel guitar, called "Turn Around (I'll be following you)".
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62

When 22-year-old J. R. Cash first wandered into the studio in February or March, Phillips was no more receptive than he had been when he first met Carl Perkins. After repeatedly getting the brush-off, Cash simply sat down on the curb in front of the studio and waited until Phillips returned. "I'm John Cash," he said, "and I've got my guitar and I want you to hear me play."

"Well, come on in," Phillips reluctantly replied.

After more than two hours hearing him sing everything from country and bluegrass to the sentimental old Irish-American song "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen", Phillips observed, "You've really got a range of material you understand. You say you got a group? Come back and bring those guys and let's put something down."

When Cash returned with acoustic bassist Marshall Grant and electric lead guitarist Luther Perkins, they produced a simple but unique sound that captured Phillips' attention. "It was nothing but rhythm," Guralnick summarizes, "a funny, awkward kind of rhythm--boom-chick-a-boom. It was, Sam was quick to realize, the only way they could play. But at the heart of it was this Cash boy's voice, its sincerity, its conviction, its very believability."

One song particularly impressed him. "Hey Porter"
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
was inspired by Cash's joyous return home from military service in Germany the previous year. "How much longer till we cross that Mason-Dixon Line?" the singer inquires with happy impatience. For a flipside, Phillips told Cash, "Go home and write me an up-tempo weeper love song." The result was "Cry! Cry! Cry!",
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
and both songs, released on a single in June, have since gone down in history as Johnny Cash classics.

Elvis's next record emerged in May. It featured "Baby Let's Play House",
Complete Releases 1954-62
a gently swinging, acoustic guitar-driven rhythm-and-blues number he had learned from Arthur Gunter's record on the Louisiana-based Excello label. "Elvis heard something in it," Guralnick summarizes, "and Sam did, too, once Elvis injected that characteristic note of bubbling irrepressibility, which was never even hinted at in the original." It was backed with "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone",
Complete Releases 1954-62
a country number suggested to him by Sam Phillips. Presley didn't care for the song and recorded it only reluctantly, but it remains one of this critic's Elvis favorites.

The advance publicity it generated got the new record off to a good start, with orders from distributors coming in before it was even released. In its July 2 issue, Cash Box heralded Presley as "The Most Promising Country Male Vocalist of 1955." Consequently, Phillips was beginning to get offers from other labels. "Although he acted as if selling Elvis' contract was the furthest thing from his mind," Guralnick explains, "part of him--the part that was so cash-strapped that he couldn't even keep up with the money he owed Elvis for record royalties--was sorely tempted."

The first to offer was Mitch Miller at Columbia Records. "Sam didn't say no outright," Guralnick relates, "but he named a price upward of $20,000." Miller's reply was, "Oh, forget it, nobody's worth that much."


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