This biography (which is basically an history of his Sun Records) focuses on the less well known pre-Elvis days

(b. 1923; Florence, Alabama
d. 2003; Memphis, Tennessee)

The Hero Behind the Scenes

Because he worked in radio station studios in his twenties where he learned the technology: consoles, mixing boards, microphone placement, tape recording, and everything else pertaining to capturing talent, all this fueled and moved his ambition.

Finally in 1950 he started the Memphis Recording Service, emulating Lillian McMurry, the furniture store co-owner, that started recording Blues artists at Trumpet Records (she immortalized Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson II) with the difference he was going to take this phenomenal -- rough but dynamic, traditional yet electrified rural -- musical product to the major record labels like Chess in Chicago or Modern in Los Angeles. Chess got the benefit of Sam's work with Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (later also done by Ike Turner) monster hit in the Rhythm and Blues field in 1951. This success in Chicago was followed by Booted by Rosco Gordon and the first (of many) most famous discovery: Howlin' Wolf's Moaning at Midnight.

Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett; 1910-1976) was for Phillips, "... where the soul of man never dies." The loud talus-laden threatening style of this blues great was never compromised by Sam Phillips, but the 40 year old star he made finally was successfully wooed over to Chess Records exclusively as Modern bid for it adamantly as well. Unfortunately for Sam, Howling moved to Chicago to record, after first obtaining several studio sessions with him.

In 1952 he unsuccessfully tried to start up his own record company, "Sun," whose initial releases didn't get the essential notice; but the next year he released a Willie Nix (1922-1991) recording, Seems like a Million Years (With James Cotton (b. 1935) on harmonica.) This Memphis known journeyman (like their Sonny Boy), who had recordings by Phillips sent earlier to RPM and Checker got lost in the shuffle when he, too, moved to Chicago where some of the recordings were played. Joe (Lester) Hill Louis (1921-1957 {Tetanus}) known on radio as the "Pepticon Boy" (sometimes solo: but on drums, guitar and harmonica simultaneously) recorded We All Gotta Go Sometimes for Phillips new company that year.

In 1953 Walter Horton (1918-1981), another Memphis sideman whose techniques were borrowed by the more aggresive like Little Walter, recorded an instrumental version of Ivory Joe Hunter's I Almost Lost My Mind. as "Jimmy" (DeBerry) "and Walter" titled: Easy. This was the year the fledgling enterprise got into legal problems that ironically put Sun in the news; because "Walking the Dog" (Stax Records) Rufus Thomas (b. 1917) recorded the too similar sounding musical answer to Big Mama Thornton's Hound Dog with his Bear Cat. Also at this time earlier Memphis Vocation] label artist, Jimmy Deberry (b. 1911) recorded Take A Little Chance...

1953 was the year Sun also benefitted from Junior (Herman) Parker (1927-1971) coming into the studio and putting on 'wax', Feelin' Good, and more importantly, Mystery Train which was to get covered just a little later by none other than Sam's new singing sensation, Elvis Presley. Parker became a star with Houston's Duke records R & B releases.

1954: Sun got a doctor in the house, Doctor (Isaiah) Ross (1925-1991), another sometimes one-man band, who gave his contagious harp diagnosis of The Boogie Disease. Even though he left for Michigan soon after, he had a career boost in the 60's (like many others) and played until his death. This year also pianist Billy "Red" (Milton) Love came in and recorded an ad for Hart's Bread, but Hart's Bread Boogie sat in the vaults. At this time as well the harp player for Muddy Waters, James Cotton, struck out on his own, curiously sans mouth organ with the Cotton Crop Blues punctuated by Pat Hare's overdriven amped guitar. This Auburn 'Pat' Hare (1930-1980) not only played wild guitar and wrote reckless lyrics like his Sun recording, I'm Gonna Murder My Baby he wound up fulfilling the prophecy serving 17 years, until his death, of a 99 year sentence for shooting his woman and a policeman. He was a powerful studio guitarist in Sam's, and played with Muddy Waters at the Newport Festival in 1960.

Sam's studio was open to all musicians, he encouraged experimentation and all new comers. Phillips is proud, today, to recall his vision of recording music not based on its genre, but just for its creativity. He was known for his desire to focus on new talent -- whether it was for power reasons, or not -- his gambles paid off. His only regret is the inability to continue to compete with the corporate giants.

1955 saw all of Sam Phillip's blues greats in exodus to the Northern blues scene, but not before one of Howlin' Wolf's guitarists, Willie Johnson recorded one of Sun's last of this genre: So Long Baby Goodbye.

Now country music became the studio's main interest, but the old rhythm and lues influence mixed with it and evolved into 'rockabilly' (the late Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) leading to rock and roll (they would just sign Elvis Presley) were the vanguards of a musical revolution about to unfold. He produced the fabulous "Sun Sessions" where one can hear Elvis' Mystery Train as well as It's Alright, Mama. December 4, 1956 is notable in the studios when Carl Perkins was recording with Jerry Lee Lewis doing the studio keyboard work, and Johnny Cash hanging around, when Elvis popped in. They all reminisced and jammed together in a, unbeknownest to them, "roots revival."

Even though Sam Phillips sold Elvis Presley's contract to RCA for a much needed thirty-five thousand dollars,(a mistake of the highest magnitude -- in easier to perceive in hindsight) and Jerry Lee got in trouble with his 13 year old cousin-bride, the Great Balls of Fire (1958), Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, and High School Confidential put Sun, via the "Killer"'s hits on the map. Billy Lee Riley claims that his "Red Hot" release was not promoted because of the new attention on Lewis, but Sam and Sun were trying to survive. Jerry Lee continued recording, but in the country and western format. By the end of the 60's the competition became to great for this studio.

Many of the artists that are still living came together around the beginning of this millennium to the studio for a reunion, with much emotion they performed for and with each other. A special Public Broadcasting Company special was taped, which included Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page doing covers of Sun record's great hits. They had a special on Friday, August 1, 2003 remembering Phillips, as he died the previous Wednesday at the age of 80 on July 31. We can now with deepfelt earnestness thank Sam Phillips for producing, discovering, and recording, as well as the above mentioned, but including, (and not a comprehensive list):

Source: A Modern Blues Anthology; Ain't Times Hard Les Francourt, Charly Studios - London.
Smithsonian, November, 2001
PBS Special on Sun Records, December, 2001
NPR Rememberances of Sam Phillips, August 1, 2003

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