Sun Records

Sun Records burst onto the post-World War II American scene suddenly, a force that few would forget. At the helm was Sam Phillips, an eccentric radio engineer willing to put black and white sharecroppers, truck-drivers, dishwashers, and factory workers in front of a microphone. Always insistent on keeping recording sessions simple and down-to-earth, the producer elicited performances that reflected a degree of sincerity missing from much of the Tin Pan Alley fare of the period. Phillips’s ability to parlay regional, racial, and class marginalization into a viable commercial product that spoke to teenage angst and alienation put Sun Records on the map. And in its improbable rise to prominence, the unseemly record company situated at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis provided a special moment that launched the careers of several performers who attained legendary status. Given the nature of a popular-music universe littered by falling stars instantaneously extinguished, this fact alone grants the company historical relevance.

Instantly recognizable by a bright yellow label with a crowing rooster perched in the foreground, Sun Records signified a wake-up call to the placid Eisenhower era. The music and vitality that resounded from the momentous meeting of phonograph needle and waxed groove in the thirty-by-eighteen-foot studio formerly used as a radiator shop introduced the world to rockabilly, an almost indescribable sound that applied the kinetic energy of southern working-class gospel to an unprecedented fusion of white hillbilly and black rhythm and blues. The company and the music it produced represented necessary links in the evolution of rock-n-roll. Its influence as a record company, however, lasted less than a decade. By the end of the 1950s, its sun already had begun to set.

Yet in these few years, Sun Records mattered a great deal. In many ways, its story resembled that of many independent recording companies that emerged in the wake of World War II. Responding to the postwar market demands of a rapidly growing urban African American population (and taking advantage of technological innovations that made recording cheaper), entrepreneurs formed small record companies that recorded modern-sounding black artists. Local radio, accorded greater autonomy as network programming declined due to an emphasis on television, devised formats that assisted in exposing rhythm and blues to the public. Independent record proprietors, who generally were white, capitalized on such developments. Hoping to achieve financial success by filling a void that the industry’s major recording companies (such as RCA Victor, Columbia, and Decca) had not yet acknowledged, independent upstarts like Atlantic, Chess, Specialty, King, and Modern-RPM literally created an R&B field.

Phillips typified an independent record proprietor. He was a struggling radio-station engineer who had opened the Memphis Recording Service in 1950 as a sideline, taping weddings, bar mitzvahs, and amateurs wanting to hear themselves on disk. In addition, Phillips realized that he had access to a potentially lucrative pool of recording talent. For years he had observed music men from Chicago and Los Angeles set up portable equipment in Memphis garages and warehouses to record the region’s African American musicians and vocalists. Such transient talent scouts were reaping the benefits that a knowledgeable resident could exploit on a regular and permanent basis. Phillips grasped the concept and the opportunity. With his own studio, he recorded black performers commercially and leased the master tapes to independent record companies like Chess and Modern-RPM. In this capacity Phillips recorded luminaries like B. B. King and the Howling Wolf. In 1951, he recorded Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” a rendition that many historians recognize as the first rock-n-roll record. Like all of the other commercial material he recorded, however, “Rocket 88” produced a financial windfall for someone else’s record label (in this case, Chess).

By 1952, Phillips had tired of recording hits for other firms. He started his own record company, turning to the name “Sun” because it always had reminded him of a new day and a new opportunity. Now free to record and market local African American material, Phillips set out to establish the commercial viability of the Sun label. He sought out the financial advice of Jim Bulleit, a successful independent record entrepreneur from Nashville. He also worked with disk jockey Dewey Phillips (no relation), who often tested over the air at radio station WHBQ the latest acetates Sam had recorded. If the listeners to Phillips’s popular “Red, Hot, and Blue” radio program reacted positively to the dub, Sam then placed an order for 78- and 45-rpm disks with Robert “Buster” Williams, who had built a local pressing plant, Plastic Products, in 1949. His plant moreover served as an important warehouse and shipping hub. Williams also owned Music Sales, a major record distributorship located in Memphis that distributed virtually all of the nation’s R&B independent record labels. From this informal infrastructure, Phillips quickly established Sun as a major player in rhythm and blues.

Phillips also had an important connection with WDIA, the first radio station in the South to adopt an all-black programming format. Rufus Thomas, one of the most popular disk jockeys at WDIA, would help Sun gain prominence as the label’s first recognizable recording star. Still, the relationship did not come without controversy. In 1953, Thomas recorded the song “Bear Cat,” an answer song to the R&B smash “Hound Dog” by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Litigation followed, and the courts eventually ruled that copyright infringement had occurred. Nevertheless, Thomas’ rendition eventually climbed to number three on the national rhythm-and-blues charts, certifying it as Sun’s first hit. Others soon followed, including “Just Walking in the Rain” by the Prisonaires, a black vocal group incarcerated at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Phillips recorded other R&B standouts, including “Little Junior” Parker, Little Milton, Billy “The Kid” Emerson, James Cotton, and Dr. Ross.

While Phillips had been recording rhythm and blues for the African American market since 1950, he believed that such music had a broader appeal. He recognized that, since the late 1940s, R&B had been slowly and surreptitiously infiltrating the listening habits of a growing number of younger white listeners in the South, particularly through the spread of African American radio. Yet, he likewise understood that the racial intolerance and segregated circumstances inherent within popular music and Dixie would prevent a black rhythm-and-blues act from gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale crossover success. Influenced by his business instincts, the Sun Records owner thus sought a white man who could perform R&B with the same feeling and intensity he had observed while recording African American vocalists. Phillips assumed that if he could find such an artist, he could make a million dollars.

Phillips, of course, found Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1954, Presley, along with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black created a commercially successful, working-class and biracial synthesis. Phillips would release five Presley recordings before the year 1955 concluded as Elvis rapidly built a youthful following throughout the South. After eighteen months, the young singer left Sun (where he had been marketed as a country singer), signed an exclusive contract with industry giant RCA Victor (which promised to promote him in the pop, R&B, and country fields), appeared on national network television, and began making motion pictures in Hollywood. He was destined to become the “King of Rock-n-Roll.”

Phillips certainly did not have to look very far to find rockabilly aspirants seeking to replace the hip-swiveling “Hillbilly Cat.” Young musicians from throughout the South who performed in a style similar to that of Elvis traveled to Memphis to record for Phillips. They included such performers as Carl Perkins (who penned and recorded “Blue Suede Shoes,” the rockabilly anthem of youth independence), Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Warren Smith, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and a host of lesser-known contenders. Phillips and Sun, however, did not enjoy a monopoly on rockabilly. By the middle to late 1950s, other record labels had signed, among others, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and Gene Vincent, young adults who were as influenced by R&B shouter Roy Brown as they were by Smoky Mountain Boy Roy Acuff. Virtually all of the region’s talented (and not so talented) young, white, working-class singers seemed intent on becoming the next Elvis, not the next Hank Williams.

Phillips and Sun Records had let the genie out of the bottle; there was no turning back. In the midst of regional unrest over the Civil Rights movement, Sun had brought black and white music together (although Phillips apparently never allowed the black and white musicians he recorded to do so together; he also seems to have lost interest in black rhythm and blues following his discovery of Elvis). They had established a precedent for an interracial outlook that later recording companies in the 1960s, including Stax, would follow. As the 1950s came to a close, however, rockabilly’s time on the national pop stage had passed. Rockabilly stars and audiences, as they grew older, tended to veer toward the commercial country music emanating from Nashville and Bakersfield, California. Yet, their explorations into rhythm and blues had expanded the country genre, providing it a more modern, urban, and national character.

For Phillips and Sun Records, the end was somewhat anticlimactic. In 1960, Phillips moved his recording studio to a larger, stainless-steel state-of-the-art facility. While located only a few blocks away from 706 Union, the cultural distance could not have been greater. Yet it did not really matter. Buoyed by such diverse financial investments as radio stations, Holiday Inn Hotel stock, and real estate, Phillips apparently lost his passion for creating innovative music. In 1969, he sold the company to Shelby Singleton, who moved the operation to Nashville. By then, however, Sun was doing nothing more than cashing in on popular memory.

Suggested Reading

Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll (1991);

Craig Morrison, Go Cat Go! Rockabilly Music and Its Makers (1998);

Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1981);

Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (2005);

B. Lee Cooper and Wayne S. Haney, Rockabilly: A Bibliographic Resource Guide (1990).

Published » January 05, 2010