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WHAT'S IN STORE: News From The Musical Marketplace


By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-7:
"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 an industrious 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 rhythm-and-blues hits followed, but his greatest discovery of all happened the following year 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
For a flipside, the trio cut a jumped-up rendition of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe's sentimental waltz
"Blue Moon of Kentucky".
Complete Releases 1954-62
"From the start," Peter Guralnick relates, "the record 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,
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.

Elvis's next two singles didn't sell nearly as well as the first one, but on February 5th, 1955, 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.

Elvis's next record emerged in May. It featured "Baby Let's Play House",
Complete Releases 1954-62
a rhythm-and-blues number he had learned from Arthur Gunter's record on the Louisiana-based Excello label.
Baby Let’s Play House (Complete EXCELLO Singles 1954 -1961)
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, Sam 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."

' Meanwhile, Phillips had just released a debut single for each of the two young singer/guitarists he had recently discovered: Carl Perkins
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62
and Johnny Cash,
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
both age 22.

Aided by a couple of public appearances with Elvis and some good press coverage, Johnny Cash's "Cry! Cry! Cry!"
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
made it to Number 1 on the Memphis country chart in September, and by the end of November it was on Billboard's national country survey, too. Gratifying as this success was, it was nothing compared to the fame and fortune that his next one would bring him.

At one of his earliest sessions, Cash had presented a song called "Folsom Prison Blues",
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
which he had sung at a slow tempo and at a higher pitch that may have been influenced by Marty Robbins' jailhouse weeper "Shackles and Chains".
Marty Robbins - The Complete Recordings: 1952-1960
Sam Phillips hadn't been much impressed at first, but the song stayed on his mind. What, he thought, if it were taken at a faster pace and delivered at John's normal vocal range? "That was a part of Sam Phillips' brilliance," Cash told Peter Guralnick. "If he knew the song was there, then he felt at liberty to play with it and doctor it until he had it in that groove that he was hearing in his head and I started hearing it in my head."

Meanwhile, by July 1955, Elvis Presley's "Baby Let's Play House",
Complete Releases 1954-62
his first record to hit Billboard's national charts, had reached Number 15 in the country category. Taking advantage of a break in his increasingly busy touring schedule, Sam Phillips brought him back into the studio. The song on which they chose to focus was bluesman Little Junior Parker's "Mystery Train",
Next Time You See Me and All The Hits - The Complete Singles 1952 - 62
issued on Sun two years earlier. It was, in fact, the record that had initially sparked Presley's interest in Phillips and his label. Parker's original had been a relaxed, laid-back affair driven by piano, rhythm guitar, and brushed drums, with a low-pitched tenor saxophone suggesting a train whistle, but as much as he and Presley loved it, Phillips had another idea for the song. To give Scotty Moore an idea of the feel he envisioned, he played him the B-side, "Love My Baby", Next Time You See Me and All The Hits - The Complete Singles 1952 - 62
which upped the tempo and featured Floyd Murphy's twangy, hard-driving guitar.

By applying the slapback echo technique he had used on earlier recordings to Moore's newly acquired Echo-Sonic amplifier, he got a masterpiece of natural exuberance.
"Mystery Train",
Complete Releases 1954-62
as Peter Guralnick points out, "was the greatest thing he had ever done on Elvis, Sam knew, with Elvis' acoustic guitar just ringing out and driving the rhythm and a sense of spontaneity so unforced that at the end you can hear Elvis laughing."

The flipside, another of this critic's all-time Presley favorites, was a country heartbreak number called "I Forgot To Remember To Forget"
Complete Releases 1954-62
that powerfully showcased his melodic side. "This is certain to get strong initial exposure," a Billboard reviewer wrote on August 20th. "Presley is currently on the best selling charts with "Baby Let's Play House", and the wide acceptance of this side should ease the way for the new disk. Flip, "Mystery Train", is a splendid coupling, with the guitar outstanding."

The record had been released on August 1st, and by late September both sides were in Billboard's top fifteen for store sales and airplay. Consequently, Sam Phillips got a telegram from Tom Parker on October 24th informing him that Elvis's parents had asked him to take over their son's recording contract. "Please advise me," he wrote, "your best flat price for a complete dissolution and release free and clear."

"This was, finally, too much for Sam," Guralnick summarizes. "Now, with a real, honest-to-god national hit on his hands, he felt as if he was being undercut by the very process he had allowed to be set in motion."

Most of all, he felt utterly betrayed by Bob Neal, the man he had established as Presley's manager. "You're associated with Tom Parker," he accused, "and after all that I've been through to get this guy going, he's putting the word out to my distributors that I'm gonna sell Elvis' contract. You're not just messing with an artist contract here, you're messing with my life. This could cost me the company."

Reluctant as he was to sell off his greatest achievement, Phillips knew he was in an impossible situation. As Guralnick points out, "He desperately needed capital. He had artists he couldn't promote, records he couldn't release, all because of an absence of cash. As much as he hated being forced by any man, let alone Tom Parker, to follow a course he had not set for himself, this might be his only way out."

On November 15th, Parker reported to Phillips that RCA had agreed to his asking price of $35,000, ten thousand more than had ever been offered for a pop artist's contract.

(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: www.phinneybooks.com ----------------------------------------

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Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop in the Fremont district, long known for its array of fine stringed instruments, instructional workshops, and folk concerts, is now open by appointment and features Sheeran By Lowden Guitars. These instruments are the result of a collaboration between singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran and master luthier George Lowden. "Designed and built in Ireland, they offer aspiring musicians great playability and tone," the website proclaims. "They are made with sustainable materials and choice woods to ensure innate natural beauty and sound." the Sheeran S02 is described as "an entry-level guitar that will last a lifetime."

Dusty Strings Acoustic Music Shop
3406 Fremont Avenue North
Phone: 206/634-1662.
Web: www.dustystrings.com
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