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WHAT'S IN STORE: News From The Musical Marketplace


By Doug Bright

Summary of Parts 1-9:
"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 yearon 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."

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, and the advance publicity it generated got it 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." As a result, Sam Phillips was beginning to get offers from other labels.

Elvis's fifth single,
Complete Releases 1954-62
"Mystery Train" and "I Forgot To Remember To Forget", was released on August 1st, 1955, 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. 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."

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 a new Johnny Cash single, "Folsom Prison Blues",
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
to all three of his pressing plants and scheduled the next recording session for another of his more recent discoveries, Carl Perkins.

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, and one of his two most significant discoveries of the year was a 19-year-old college student from Wink, Texas named Roy Orbison. "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
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 Lewis 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 recalls in the book.

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


"Jack played the tape for Sam when he got back from Nashville," Guralnick writes, "and he practically jumped out of his skin. "Crazy Arms,"
The Essential Jerry Lee Lewis [The Sun Sessions]
the last number they had done on the session and currently at the top of the country charts, was, Sam announced, a certifiable hit!"

"He had the record out three weeks later," Guralnick continues, "on December 1, with the label boldly proclaiming, "Jerry Lee Lewis, With His Pumping Piano." He didn't know how many it would sell, but he knew if he missed out on talent like this, he might just as well cut his ears off. And to Jerry Lee he simply declared, "You are a rich man." And he sensed that this boy, with all his talent and all his confidence, knew exactly what he meant."

On December 4th, 1956, Lewis appeared for the first time on a Carl Perkins session, and the result was a rocking boogie-woogie approach to the old blues number "Matchbox". "That was when Elvis walked in," Guralnick reports. "Naturally everything came to a halt as the musicians all gathered around Elvis and his girlfriend."

A spontaneous jam ensued, and Sam Phillips, aware of the potential for publicity, called in Johnny Cash and a couple of reporters. "Sam had Jack turn on the tape recorder--or perhaps Jack just took the initiative," Guralnick elaborates, "but no one bothered to position the mikes or balance the sound. It was all strictly unplanned."

Despite the initial excitement over what Phillips called his Miklion Dollar Quartet, nothing came of the session, and the tape lay unused in the vault at Sun Records for years. Nevertheless, Nashville record collector Shelby Singleton somehow gained access to the secret treasure and issued it on a small-scale pirate label during the mid-1980's. It appeared on similar albums after that, but in 1990 RCA issued the first official version, and it's now available from Sony Legacy.
The Complete Million Dollar Quartet

By February 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis's star was clearly on the rise, and backed by guitarist Roland Janes, drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, and Jerry Lee's cousin, Jay Brown, on electric bass, he was engaged to play The Big D Jamboree in Dallas. On the way down from Memphis, they performed one night at a little club called The Twin Gables in Blytheville, Arkansas.

During the course of the evening, Lewis went into his powerful, chord-driven boogie mode to introduce "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On",
The Essential Jerry Lee Lewis [The Sun Sessions]
which blues shouter Big Maybelle had recorded in 1955. Before they were halfway through the song, Roland Janes recalls in Guralnick's book, the people were "bopping all over the floor, you know how they do in Arkansas. They just loved it, man, they insisted on hearing it over and over."

The same thing happened in Dallas, so the band members all agreed to propose it to Sam when they got back to Memphis. "When they played it for Sam," guralnick summarizes, "he didn't hesitate for a minute. Memories differ, but if they didn't cut it on the spot, they went back into the studio the next day, and after four or five takes they had it."

By September, with "Shakin" riding high on all three of Billboard's national record surveys, Sam Phillips broadened his scope with the launch of a new and deliberately wide-ranging label, Phillips International. "Future plans call for a wide variety of music," the accompanying brochure proclaimed, "including standard pop and jazz. Music is the international language--can make friends, bridge the geographical and cultural barriers, and perhaps promote a bit of international understanding."

The new label released several records that fall, but the clear winner was Bill Justis's instrumental "Raunchy",
Sun King Collection - Bill Justis
which rocketed to Number 2 on the Billboard pop charts and inspired two Top Ten cover versions. Meanwhile, the new Sun record, Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire",
The Essential Jerry Lee Lewis [The Sun Sessions]
took off in similar fashion, reaching Number 2 on the pop charts.

In early November, when "Great Balls of Fire" emerged, johnny Cash came in to cut his next single, and the two songs chosen couldn't have been more dissimilar. "Big River",
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
which he considered to be his finest composition yet, was an odyssey on the mighty Mississippi inspired by a magazine article written about him entitled "Johnny Cash Has The Big River Blues In His Voice." "Ballad of A Teenage Queen",
The Total Johnny Cash Sun Collection (2CD)
written by Jack Clement, was squarely aimed at the pop market, complete with overdubbed vocal backing arranged by Bill Justis. "I brought in a barbershop quartet and a church soprano," Justis recalls in Guralnick's book,
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll
"and they had no blend at all--but they did sound commercial." The record was released in January 1958 and remains, in this critic's not-so-humble opinion, a double-sided treasure of the Cash discography.

(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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