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WHAT'S IN STORE: News From The Musical Marketplace


By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-8:
"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.

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".
a target="_blank" href="">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".
a target="_blank" href="">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."
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",
Dream Baby: Complete Sun RCA & Monument 1956-1962 Singles
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.

Meanwhile, Phillips had just released a debut single for each of the two young singer/guitarists he had recently discovered: Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, 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. But gratifying as this success was, it was nothing compared to the fame and fortune that his next one, "Folsom Prison Blues",
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
would bring him.

Elvis's next single,
Complete Releases 1954-62
"Mystery Train" and "I Forgot To Remember To Forget", was 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."

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.

"The formal execution of the contract took place at the Sun studio, as agreed, on November 21," Guralnick reports. With Parker's $5,000 down payment in hand, Phillips placed a rush order for the new Johnny Cash single, "Folsom Prison Blues",
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
to all three of his pressing plants and scheduled Carl Perkins' next recording session.

On the morning of December 17th, Perkins called Phillips to tell him he had just written a new song. It had been inspired by a story that Johnny Cash had told him about a black serviceman, a "cool operator" named C. V. White, whom he had known during his tour of duty in Germany. "He and his buddies were all standing in the chow line one night when somebody stepped on C.V.'s toes," Peter Guralnick explains. Like everyone else, White was wearing standard Air Force-issue black shoes, but he quipped, "Hey man, I don't care what you do with my fraulein, but don't step on my blue suede shoes." Perkins, who had been encouraged by Cash to write a real "bop" song now that Elvis was out of the picture, took the proverbial football and ran with it, and when he sang his new song to Phillips over the phone, Sam got excited.

Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes"
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62
was released on January 5th, 1956, and thanks to some advance airplay in Memphis from Sam's DJ pal Dewey Phillips, it had a good head start. By the time he returned to the studio in mid-March, it had sold nearly a million copies.

Perkins cut several promising songs on the session, but the two that Phillips chose for his next single were the self-explanatory "Boppin' The Blues"
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62
and a Perkins-Cash collaboration called "All Mama's Children"
Complete Singles and Albums 1955-62
inspired by a familiar nursery rhyme about an old woman who lived in a shoe. "But in this case," Peter Guralnick explains, "all the old woman's children were destined not only to rock but to bop till they popped." The term "rockabilly" hadn't yet been coined, but the three hillbilly rock anthems that Carl Perkins had created said all that needed to be said.

Due to the success he had achieved with Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, Sam Phillips suddenly found himself overrun with aspiring artists. "They had been arriving in a steady stream since the beginning of January," Guralnick elaborates. "Poor country boys who had read about Elvis, or in many cases actually encountered him, now found their way to the Sun Records door. Every day the postman would bring a sackful of tapes."

One of Phillips' first discoveries was 24-year-old Warren Smith, whose hit "Rock 'n' Roll Ruby",
Sun King Collection - Warren Smith
written by Johnny Cash, sold seventy thousand copies in its first three months. Another was Sonny Burgess
Sun Record's Must Haves! Sonny Burgess
from Newport, Arkansas, and his band, The Pacers. "Maybe Sonny's sound was too raw, I don't know," Phillips told Peter Guralnick, "but I tell you this. They were pure rock and roll."

Nevertheless, one of his two most significant discoveries of the year was a 19-year-old college student from Wink, Texas named Roy Orbison. A year earlier as a freshman at North Texas State, he had picked up a rocking dance tune called "Ooby Dooby" written by a fellow student, and by the time he transferred to Odessa Community College, he and his band, The Pacers, were featuring it on their local TV show. Cash, on tour in the area, had just appeared on Orbison's show and, at Orbison's request, gave him Sam Phillips' phone number at Sun. "I told Sam that Johnny had said that I might be able to get on his label," Orbison told Guralnick. "He said, "Johnny Cash doesn't run my record company," and hung up on me."

That might have been the end of it, but unbeknown to Sam, Roy Orbison had an ace in the hole: a recording of "Ooby Dooby" that he and the Pacers had cut at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico slated for release on Petty's fledgling Je-wel label. When Orbison called Phillips back and played it for him over the phone, Sam's attention was captured, and he called the band in for a session in his own studio. "Roy was a perfectionist in the best sense," Phillips recalls in Guralnick's book. "I don't think people generally know how good a guitar player Roy was."

"Ooby Dooby"
Dream Baby: Complete Sun RCA & Monument 1956-1962 Singles
and its flipside, "Go Go Go",
Dream Baby: Complete Sun RCA & Monument 1956-1962 Singles
which Orbison had written with drummer Billy Pat Ellis, were released at the beginning of May on the same day that Carl Perkins' "Boppin The Blues" emerged, eventually selling 200,000 copies.

Sam was out of town on the October day that 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis and his father arrived at Sun Records. "He had read a magazine story about Elvis that cited Sam Phillips as the guiding light behind all these rising stars," Guralnick writes, "and he said to his father, This is the man we need to go see." It was Phillips' newly hired production assistant, Jack Clement, that auditioned Lewis, who claimed he could play piano like Chet Atkins played guitar. "Well, that intrigued me," Clement told Guralnick, "so I went back in the control room and put on a tape."

"When Sam heard the tape," Guralnick summarizes, "it was as if, he said, Jerry Lee Lewis stepped out of a dream he was fixing to have."

As luck would have it, Sam Phillips was again out of town when Jerry Lee showed up unannounced for the second time on Friday, November 9th, 1956. Knowing that he wouldn't be back until late Sunday night and unwilling to let another opportunity pass, Clement scheduled an audition session the following day with Louis and his cousin, rhythm guitarist J. W. Brown, and two of Sun artist Billy Lee riley's sidemen, lead guitarist Roland Janes and drummer Jimmy Van Eaton. "I've never seen anybody play a piano like that," Van Eaton later recalls in the book.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll

"He had this rhythm, this fantastic abass rhythm," Janes adds. "I mean, the music never stopped."

(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: ----------------------------------------

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