Baby Boomers

Sam Phillips Introduced Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Many Others to the World

It was a lifelong dream to visit Sun Records in June 2020. As weird as it sounds, I also wanted to know what the back of it looked like. I’ve seen photos of the iconic and historical building in Memphis, but they were all front facing views.

Dodie and I decided to go for it.

While much of the world was still shut inside because of the pandemic, we elected to road trip to Washington D.C. for Independence Day weekend via the Blues Highway in Mississippi, Memphis, Pigeon Forge, the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Valley.

Phillips, the founder and mastermind of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, was one of the most revered and inspiring figures in American music history.

Sam Phillips

“I have one real gift,” Phillips once said, “and that gift is to look another person in the eye and be able to tell if he has anything to contribute, and if he does, I have the additional gift to free him from whatever is restraining him.”

In September 2015, I was able to visit a Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit entitled Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips was co-curated by Peter Guralnick, the author of the best selling biography Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.

Guralnick, a notable music historian and biographer of Presley, showcased the social and cultural impact Phillips had on the music he forever captured on such groundbreaking recordings as Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

“Everyone knew that I was just a struggling cat down here trying to develop new and different artists,” Phillips described the times, “and get some freedom in music, and tap some resources and people that weren’t being tapped.”

Guralnick considers Phillips recording of “Rocket 88,” performed by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, as the first Rock and Roll song. The band was led by the song writer, 19-year-old Ike Turner, and released on the Chess/Checker record label in Chicago, in 1951. B.B. King first recorded at Sun Studios with Phillips. Prior to opening Sun Studio, in the early 1950’s Phillips recorded the music of black rhythm and blues artists such as Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Bobby Blue Bland, and others.

“More than merely creating a sound, Phillips initiated a sensibility,” the announcement from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum stated. “Working in Memphis in the 1950s, he preached the value of self-belief and ‘individualism in the extreme’ to both country and blues performers, encouraging artists not to polish their sound.”

Our tour guide at Sun.

“With Sun Records and the recording studios he owned, Phillips created a progressive oasis in heavily segregated Memphis,” the statement added. “He worked to challenge the cultural assumptions of the day, blur color lines, and instigate needed social change. The result was a straightforward and soulful sound that helped develop rock & roll out of a country-blues mix. Musical integration eventually undermined barriers of racial segregation and discrimination as the Civil Rights movement gathered force.”

Marion Keisker’s office at Sun. The room Elvis first walk into to “make a record.”

Phillips was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October 2001. He was among the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. On July 30, 2003, Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, just one day prior to Sun Studio being designated a National Historic Landmark.

So what does Sun Records look like from the rear? I finally found out:

Behind Sun Records.

Here’s Dodie and me in Memphis, June 2020. Sun Records and Graceland were just beginning to reopen with strict attendance regulations from the pandemic.

Graceland

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