Sam Phillips, most popularly known as the man who first recorded Elvis Presley, is more critically renowned for combining essential elements of Southern vernacular music, black and white, to produce the sound which heralded the age of rock-n-roll. As an entrepreneur Sam Phillips helped define the role of postwar independent labels in developing and promoting new talent.
Born in January 1923 near Florence, Alabama, to tenant farmers, Phillips developed an early interest in the music of black field workers and churches in Alabama. He first visited Memphis in 1939, where he was drawn to the musical vitality of Beale Street. He began his career in radio, taking audio engineering courses at the Auburn Polytechnical Institute and working for WLAY in Muscle Shoals, WMSL in Decatur, and WLAC in Nashville before moving to Memphis in late 1944 as an announcer and technical staff for WREC. His duties there included live broadcasts of big bands and recording of acetate radio transcriptions. Phillips’s success is credited to both his innovation as an audio engineer and an intuitive appreciation of the converging forces of Delta blues, hillbilly country music, and gospel traditions.
While still employed at WREC, Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Studio in January 1950, with one portable mixing board, a Presto tape recorder, and an acetate lathe. Early proceeds came from custom recordings of speeches, but Phillips’s goal was to record and release local musicians. His earliest recordings included the white country band of Slim Rhodes and black blues singer Lost John Hunter. Phillips was influenced by local, unrelated, WDIA deejay Dewey Phillips whose Red, Hot & Blue program disseminated black blues-based music to the Mid-South, particularly its white youth, and with whom he attempted the short-lived Phillips label. Sam Phillips’s early recordings were released through established labels, chiefly Modern/RPM in Los Angeles and later Chess in Chicago. Memphis area artists promoted by this method included Howlin’ Wolf, Riley “B. B.” King, Little Milton, Rufus Thomas, Bobby Bland, Little Junior Parker, and Roscoe Gordon. Phillips’s first major impact on American popular music was his 1951 recording of “Rocket 88” by vocalist Jackie Brentson with pianist Ike Turner, a Chess release which topped the Billboard R&B charts, and which some proclaim the first rock-n-roll record. Phillips’s own Sun Records label debuted in 1952 with Jackie Boy and Little Walter singing “Blues In My Condition.”
Sun Records made a quick reputation as an independent label, but the black musicians it fostered gradually scattered, drawn by the lure of Chicago, Detroit, and other cities outside the South. Sun had begun to intersperse its blues recordings with hillbilly artists such as Harmonica Frank when, in 1954, Phillips recorded Elvis Presley, followed soon by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. Sun release no. 209 was an unrehearsed Presley backed by Scotty Moore and Bill Black singing “That’s All Right” with Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the flip side. Phillips appreciated the mixed musical roots that underlay the styles of Presley and others and melded them to produce the sound dubbed rockabilly. By 1956 Elvis Presley’s single of “Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog” topped the Billboard charts for both country and R&B and was the best selling record of the year. By then Elvis’s contract had been sold to RCA, but Phillips continued to produce Orbison, Cash, the volatile Jerry Lee Lewis, and a host of lesser talents, retaining the classic Sun sound into the late 1950s.
Sun Records did not carry its vitality into the new decade. Phillips and his colleagues ventured into new styles and recording approaches, moved to a new studio and branched out to Nashville, but none of their efforts produced the impact of the early blues and rockabilly recordings. In 1969 Phillips sold controlling interest in Sun Records to Nashville record executive Shelby Singleton and turned his attentions to other endeavors, including several radio stations that he owned.
Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock n Roll (1991); Elizabeth Kaye, “Rockabilly Reunion” Rolling Stone 461 (21 November 1985); Robert Palmer, “Get Rhythm,” Country: The Music and the Musicians, 2nd ed. (1994)