The Sun King – Take Two !

Moscow Calling again ! This month we’re gonna continue the story of one of the most important figures in rock’n’roll history. As I mentioned in the last issue he was probably the greatest rock’n’roll music producer there’s ever been. Some even claim he was the man who invented rock’n’roll. 

Sam Phillips was the man who discovered Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. The epi-centre of all this was his recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee and his Sun Records label. Last month we focused on Sam’s discovery and huge influence on the career of Elvis Presley, which was his greatest contribution to rock’n’roll history. This month let’s hear the story of how he discovered other historic legends of our great culture.

As I advised last month, Phillips eventually had to part ways with Elvis. As he had become so big and famous, Elvis needed a bigger record company to accommodate his newly acquired fame. In 1955 Sam agreed a sum of  $40 000 from the RCA record company to sell Elvis’ contract to them. This was a huge sum for those times and he now at last had the money to properly promote some of his other artists. 

And what artists ! First, Carl Perkins:

Here’s how Phillips described his relationship with Perkins: “I worked with Carl Perkins similarly to the way I worked with Elvis and I always thought that Carl could have been a great, sustained country artist. I cut ‘Turn Around’ with him before I cut ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and it was one of the finest country records you ever heard. Carl had a great ability, especially in terms of his guitar playing; it had rock written all over it, and when I heard ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ I thought he really ought to go into the rock vein. He had written this song and he had the line ‘Go, man, go’. Well, that was a common term used in the vernacular of country people and I said, ‘Carl, why don’t you just say, ‘Go, cat, go’?’ Aside from getting the sound that I wanted, that’s all I did, but it was one of the things that kept it from being mainly a country record.”

Carl had previously sent lots of demo tapes to many recording studios, trying to get their attention. But his crucial break came in the mid-1950s, when Sam and his Sun Studios took an interest. It was indeed a defining moment for Perkins. When Elvis moved on to bigger things in terms of larger money making studios, Phillips pinned his hopes on Perkins becoming the next Elvis. And Carl certainly wrote and cut some wonderful songs at that time, numbers which were to go down in rock’n’roll history; for example “Boppin’ the Blues”, “Dixie Fried”, “Your True Love”, “Matchbox” and above all “Blue Suede Shoes”. Perkins got the idea for the latter number when, at a local concert one night, he observed a young man getting annoyed with his girlfriend who kept stepping on his new shoes. The song of course became one of the greatest in rockin’ history. Phillips gave Perkins total freedom to write and record the music Perkins loved and which he played a key part in developing in the 1950s i.e. Rockabilly.

Now at around this time an accident befell Perkins, which gave birth to a subsequent myth about his career, which some people still believe in. Here’s what happened. Perkins and his band, on a long car trip to New York City for a TV appearance, were involved in a horrendous accident. Their car collided with a pickup truck and Perkins was thrown from the car. He broke several bones and had lacerations all over his body, injuries he never totally recovered from. He was unconscious for a whole day following the collision. One of his brothers was killed as a result of the crash, as well as the driver of the pickup truck.  

Carl spent half a year recovering from his injuries. It was a critical time to be out of the music business and other artists took over the spotlight in his absence. The myth circulated was that Perkins’ accident prevented him being as big as Elvis and that by the time he recovered, it was too late. Some even perpetuate this myth to this day. It was something that Phillips also believed. And it is, frankly, baloney. Errr, Carl Perkins on a par with Elvis ? Elvis was unique, he moved and performed the way no-else could. He had charisma in buckets. I hasten to add I’m talking about 1950s Elvis, not so much the declining star of later years. Carl on the other hand performed in a very conservative way, looking rather awkward on stage. His sticking out ears also didn’t help. No gyrating hips or wild movements for him. In other words, Carl was never going to be another Elvis – don’t even think about it ! Elvis was explosive, dynamic and suggestive on stage, Carl was restrained and controlled. But what Perkins did have was a superb, wonderful sound in his recordings, especially the ones he cut on Sun Records. 

Next, Johnny Cash. Here’s how Phillips remembered his times with Cash:

“Johnny Cash could have gone by the wayside if I had tried to make a rocker out of him. Johnny Cash had folk all over him. When he came in for his audition, Johnny basically apologised for not having more musicians. He said, ‘Mr. Phillips, the next time we come in I’ll have a steel player and probably a fiddle player,’ but after we got through with the audition and I’d heard the ‘band’ that he did have, I said, ‘Johnny, let’s just play around here a few more sessions before we think about adding anything to the ‘instrumentation’ of your ‘band’ !”

“I mean, (guitarist) Luther Perkins could literally play one string at a time, and I loved that ! It blew me away. Johnny would get disgusted with Luther — he’d get in and have a great feel on a cut with a good vamp going and Luther would take a break and hit the wrong note and Johnny would get so upset, because Johnny had done a good job in his mind. Luther’s hair looked like it would stand on its end when he’d make a mistake, because he was scared to death, but I loved Luther and I loved all three of those guys, including (bass player) Marshall Grant and Johnny.”

“Man, you’re talking about a classic sound ! There’s not another one like it. I mean, there’s vamps and there’s vamps, but there isn’t that sound. Really, Johnny was disappointed when I told him there was just really no way I could sell these darned good Southern gospel songs that he had written, but I knew that I had enough on my plate to try to sell him. He wasn’t country, he wasn’t rock, and so I thank God that I didn’t try to make something out of him but what he was.”

Sam Phillips had mixed success with Roy Orbison, who, like Elvis Presley, had the desire and ability to sing big ballads and who was likewise steered by Phillips towards more upbeat numbers – this time without success. 

Nevertheless, Sam the Man was about to enjoy one of his greatest commercial triumphs, which would blow into Memphis and then around the world like a hurricane; and this hurricane came out of Ferriday, Louisiana. The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, would help define rock’n’roll at its most aggressive and suggestive with barnstorming vocal and piano renditions of numbers such as ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’, ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, ‘Breathless’ and ‘High School Confidential’.

Sam takes up the story of Jerry Lee: “In late 1956, I took possibly the first vacation that I’d ever had in my life, when I, my wife and our two young sons took off and went to Daytona, Florida, for a week. Jerry Lee Lewis had been trying to see me and while I was away he and his father had apparently sold eggs to buy gasoline to come up here to Memphis from Ferriday. You might think, ‘Man, was anybody that poor in the ’50s?’ Well, they were. Anyway, he had missed me, so one day he came in to Sun and Jack Clement — who I had hired by that time to take a little bit of the load off me on auditions and so on — recorded a demo of him doing ‘Crazy Arms’. When I got back, Jack told me about this guy who had been looking for me. He told me that he’d put him down on tape and that he was a piano player, and I said, ‘That’s what I’m looking for ! ‘ “

“I really was looking for an artist who could be a lead piano player and hopefully a vocalist too, and damn if Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t like that. I really do think that the guitar is the greatest instrument on the planet, but there were so many guitarists by that time that I wanted a piano. So, when I heard this demo of Jerry Lee Lewis I said, ‘Where is that cat ? Get ahold of him and get him in here ! I want to talk to him !’ And we were doing a session with Jerry Lee Lewis within a matter of two to three days. I was just blown away. The guy was different. You know, Jerry still sings a little bit nasal, but the expression, the way he played that piano and how you could just feel that evangelical thing about him – Man, was I looking for that and there it was!”

Speaking personally, I myself saw Jerry Lee live on more than one occasion. For example, I was at the iconic Rock’n’Roll Festival at Wembley stadium in the early 1970s, where he was one of the performers. To be honest, he wasn’t at his best that day. But there was another occasion at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, again in the 1970s, where he just blew the audience and me away with his brilliance. I remember prior to the Hammersmith concert there had been talk of him drinking heavily (surprise, surprise !) and not being in the best of health. Well, that night he was sensational and silenced all the doubters. I remember one item from that night in particular. While the band was pumping out the music, he walked away from his piano. Then from the edge of the stage he charged at the piano, sliding feet first from the floor. When he reached the piano he jumped up and continued to play, right on the beat with the band. A wonderful moment to remember !

So getting back to Sam, you see can see folks that Phillips really was a crucial part of the history of rock’n’roll. Can you imagine rock’n’roll without Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis or Carl Perkins ?!

In the early 1960s he moved his Sun Records recording studio to a new location. This new studio was much more modern but failed to re-capture the original raw Sun sound. Sam explained the success of the old days compared to his newer studio this way:

“I absolutely think that the technical limitations of the time contributed towards making more successful, heartfelt records. It made us mic things more carefully, and it made sure I didn’t convey to the artists, ‘Well, Lord, you do it, and if you miss, then that’s the only chance you’re gonna have !’ No, I think that having the sparseness and the lack of ability to overdub absolutely contributed to how well things turned out. Of course, we didn’t know it at the time; it just made things a little more difficult to set up and that sort of thing, but I was always a mic nut anyway — I would experiment with positioning, and I knew which microphone worked best with each instrument — and I really think it was a blessing in disguise. It had the duality of getting more of a natural sound as well as the fact that nobody laid back and said, ‘Gosh, I can come in tomorrow and overdub.’ There just was no such animal. I mean, hell, you just cut another damned track, y’all !”

In the 1960s the new fads of music culture were passing Sam by and he was not able to re-ignite and produce the magic of his 1950s music. He sold Sun Records in 1969. But Sam was a very shrewd businessman. He invested his money expertly, particularly in the new Holiday Inn hotel franchise that opened in the 1950s. As a result he became a very wealthy man.

Sam married Rebecca Burns in 1943 and they had 2 children. The marriage ended in 1960. He died of emphysema in 2003. His legacy to Rock’n’Roll was immense. 

Join me next month Dear Readers, for another great rock’n’roll story !