The Sun King

Hello again from good ole Russia, where Rock’n’Roll LIVES !. This month I’m gonna tell you the story of one of the most important figures in rock’n’roll history. And he wasn’t even a performer. 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. 

On 9th March I organised a tribute concert at the Duma Club in Moscow to celebrate the life and achievement of Sam Phillips. I booked the most appropriate band possible in Russia, given Phillips’ role in the career of Elvis Presley. The group “Elvis on Tour” are quite simply the best Elvis-style band in Russia. They are brilliant. They put on a great show for us on 9th. Coming very soon in this column, you will find out much more about this iconic group. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the event. 

And now, to the story of Sam Phillips:

To give you some idea of Sam Phillips’ importance to rock’n’roll, consider this: He was the man who discovered Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny  Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. Get the picture ? The epi-centre of all this was his recording studio in Memphis, Tennesse and his Sun Records label. Here’s how his story began:

He was born into a large family on a farm in Alabama. As a child, he picked cotton in the fields with his parents alongside black labourers. The experience of hearing black labourers singing in the fields left a big impression on the young Phillips and was an influence on his future career. I have my own positive experiences of Alabama. I lived and worked there in the early 1990s, incidentally also doing heavy manual work in the fields. It wasn’t picking cotton, but believe me the labour was just as hard. I was there on a student exchange scheme. Plus most of the time I was working alongside real Rednecks ! But that’s maybe a story for another time; but a very interesting experience indeed –   good times, friendly people.

Sam attended school up to the age of 18, but then in 1941 had to leave behind schooling forever. The reason was that his father died that year and as the family had been bankrupted by the Great Depression, he had to leave his education to support his mother and aunt. He worked in a grocery store and then a funeral parlour.

In the 1940s he worked as a radio engineer and Disc Jockey for a local radio station in Alabama. Then in 1945 he worked for a radio station in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1950 he opened the Memphis Recording Service. It was here in the early days that the then unknown performers like B.B King, Junior Parker, and Howlin’ Wolf made their first recordings. Phillips would then sell these recordings to larger labels. If you know your music history, you will know how big these three figures were to become. 

Here is the where the story gets really really interesting. The Memphis Recording Service also served as the studio for Phillips’ own label, Sun Record Company, which he launched in 1952. And here is where the real legend and impact of Sun Records on music history began. In the course of the next few years, artists hitherto unknown would cut records at Sun and go on to become music legends. Here are some examples – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. 

Most rock’n’rollers who know the story of Sam Phillips would agree that his greatest individual achievement for our great music was discovering Elvis Presley. So let’s focus now on the history of Elvis, Sam and Sun Records: 

In August 1953 an event occurred which seemed insignificant at the time, but was to change rock’n’roll and music history. A young and shy teenage Elvis Presley went to the Sun Record Company offices in Memphis. Marian Keisker, who was on the reception desk, noticed a nervous young boy at the front of the offices pacing back and forth. She went out to ask him if he was OK. After a while Elvis plucked up the courage to enter the building and asked Marian how much it would cost him to cut a record. She told him the cost and then asked, “Who do you sound like ?”. He replied, “I don’t sound like nobody else.” Truer words had never been spoken !

Phillips’ musical philosophy was a revolutionary one for that time. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to quote one of his famous remarks, “If I could find a white man who had the negro sound and the negro feel, I could make a billion dollars !” That statement in a way is an over-simplification of what he was trying to do, but you get the idea. And of course the “white man” in question would turn out to be Elvis. Although Phillips didn’t end up making quite that amount of money !

Not that Phillips was completely sold on Elvis straightaway. The first recordings he did with him were unsuccessful and even Elvis was unhappy with the way things were going. But Phillips identified that there was something a bit different about this performer and decided to keep him as a recording artist. Then in July 1954, Elvis cut “That’s Alright Mama” in the studio, with the help of backing musicians which included Scotty Moore and Bill Black. It was the turning point. Phillips at last realised he had the sound he wanted and that his faith and patience with Elvis had been well worth it. When he heard them performing in the studio, Phillips exclaimed, “Good God, they’ll run us out of town for this !”

Early on Presley teamed up with Tom Parker, a man who promised to make him a star if he allowed him to manage his affairs. Phillips sent Elvis, along with the band who had been backing him in the studio, out on tour. He was advertised in those early days as the “Hillbilly Cat”. The impact of those early concerts can hardly be over-estimated. They were witnesses to Elvis performing at his youngest and his wildest. If you look back at film clips of those times, you will see the evidence that there really never was anyone like Elvis, either before or since. He was rock’n’roll at its very very best. The legend had now truly arrived. 

What followed was the greatest period in his life, in terms of his performance and achievement. It was the King at his Greatest. For example, his very first gig after he signed to Sun was in July 1954, at an open-air theatre in Memphis. Whilst waiting to go on stage, Elvis was terrified and told Sam, “Man, I’m so glad to see you, Mr Phillips. I-I-I-I just didn’t know what I was going to do.” Re-assured by Phillips, Elvis got on stage and proceeded to sing, shake those hips and do all the things that were to become legendary. The audience reaction was explosive. They went wild, especially the young women. Even Presley and his backing band were taken aback and at first didn’t understand why the audience were so wild. Later Elvis said, “I was scared stiff. Everyone was hollering and I didn’t know what they were hollering at.” When Elvis came offstage he asked his manager, “What did I do ?” His manager explained it was the way he was “wiggling” his legs that caused all the excitement !

This period was Elvis at his greatest. He truly took the World by storm. No other pop or rock star could come close to him at that time, in terms of impact and popularity. It is also true to say he made the most of this success and his life style was rather the opposite of the public image he portrayed outside of his concert performances. He was highly active sexually and took full advantage of his new found fame. Here’s Scotty Moore, a key member of his backing group, describing it, “Elvis was like a young stud at a rodeo. They could have named him Man o’War”. As part of his new image, Elvis took to wearing eye make-up and mascara in his performances. This led to some rubbish rumours about him being bi-sexual. Scotty Moore pointed out the nonsense behind these rumours, “He’d have been the first to lay someone out if a man made an advance on him, I can tell you that. If he was prejudiced about something, that was it.” Interestingly, despite his excessive sexual appetite, in other ways he was a model young man, a non-smoking tee-totaler. It was only a bit later that his excessive use of pills really kicked in. And it was primarily the pills that ultimately killed him.

It is hard to over-exaggerate the impact rock’n’roll made in the mid-fifties in its early days in America and the Western World. And it was Elvis who was in the forefront. He was at the front of a new youth culture that for the first time really did belong to young people and was not just a modification of what had gone before. The reaction was extreme on both sides. For example here is what Frank Sinatra, as someone whose massive fame was kind of side-lined as a result of the rock’n’roll revolution taking place, had to say, “Rock’n’Roll is played and written for goons, for the most part by goons. Rock’n’Roll is the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression – sly, lewd, in fact, dirty – a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac and the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the Earth.”

Elvis’ days with Sam at Sun Records inevitably came to an end. Basically Sun could not cope or handle the huge demand for Elvis’ records and Sam Phillips agreed a deal with RCA in 1955 to release Elvis, as well as sell recordings that he had cut at Sun and had still not been released. As a result of this, Elvis had many number one hits in the music charts during his time in the army, which included his five Sun singles and other early Elvis songs that were unreleased Sun material. The price was an unprecedented one for that time, $35 000 with a $5,000 bonus for Elvis.

It is fair to say Phillips and Elvis opened a new form of music. Phillips said of Presley: “Elvis cut a ballad, which was just excellent. I could tell you, both Elvis and Roy Orbison could tear a ballad to pieces. But I said to myself, ‘You can’t do that, Sam.’ If I had released a ballad I don’t think you would have heard of Elvis Presley.” Of course his later career would confirm Elvis’ tremendous ability with ballads. 

One interesting side story during Elvis’ time at Sun was the so-called famous “million dollar quartet” jam session in December 1956 in the Sun studios. It comprised Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis. Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session. When Elvis Presley walked in unexpectedly, Johnny Cash was called into the studio by Phillips, leading to an impromptu session featuring the four musicians. Phillips challenged the four to achieve gold record sales, offering a free Cadillac to the first (which Carl Perkins won !)

Now Phillips huge impact on rock’n’roll history didn’t end with Elvis. Next month I will tell you about Sam’s discovering and bringing to the music world legends like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s an incredible story. Stay tuned !