Memphis summers are so hot and humid that the air sticks to human skin like a glove. It was on such a day in August 1953 that a shy 18-year-old cradling a battered, beat-up guitar entered the Sun Records office at 706 Union Avenue.
Elvis Presley had passed that way often, walking, driving. Perhaps he had hesitated once or twice outside, simply to make note of the location. “When he finally entered,” writes Peter Guralnick in Last Train To Memphis (1994), “there is little question that he stepped through the doorway with the idea, if not of stardom, at the very least of being discovered.”
Since Elvis worked five days a week at a local machinist’s shop, he showed up at Sun Records on a Saturday. It was hot, and there was no air conditioning in the waiting room. Marion Keisker, the office manager, looked up from her typewriter to see him approach. “Can I help you?” she asked. She could barely hear his mumbled reply that he wanted to make a record. Marion told him it would cost $3.98, plus tax. For another dollar, he could have a taped copy as well. But he chose the less expensive option.
Marion started up a conversation with the nervous Elvis. He said, “If you know anyone that needs a singer…” And Marion asked, “What kind of singer are you?” He replied, “I sing all kinds.” She said, “Who do you sound like?” To which Elvis replied, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
Elvis was ushered into the studio, where it was obvious from the first quivering notes of the first song he sang that there was something unique about him. When he finished one song, he embarked upon “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” a ballad the Ink Spots had originally cut in 1941—and simply declared “That’s the end” at the conclusion of the song. He then looked expectantly at the man in the control booth. Sam Phillips nodded and said politely that he was an “interesting” singer. “We might give you a call sometime.” Thus began a relationship that by late 1954 saw Presley emerging as America’s greatest pop icon.
That the rock ‘n’ roll revolution would be ushered in by Sam Phillips is not all that surprising. The son of poor tenant farmers, as a child Phillips worked in the cotton fields of Alabama with black laborers. “A day didn’t go by when I didn’t hear black folks singing in the cotton fields,” he said. Phillips, thus, recognized his musical roots and was always savvy to new sounds. He saw in Elvis what he had been looking for—a white singer who sounded black—and recorded Presley’s first five singles. The first became a hit, a 1954 cover of black bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama.” “God only knows that we didn’t know it would have the response that it would have,” Phillips said in 1997. “But I always knew that the rebellion of young people, which is as natural as breathing, would be a part of that breakthrough.”
Phillips began in music as a radio station engineer and later as a disc jockey at stations in Alabama and Nashville before moving to Memphis. When he began recording artists, he dealt with many black singers. As more black-oriented labels began to emerge, however, they sought more control over the recordings they issued. As a result, Phillips turned to white artists with the motto, “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.” In the process, he merged white country music with black rhythm and blues to create a new sound. “What there was a need for,” Phillips would later say, “was a rhythm that had a very pronounced beat, a joyous sound and a quality that young people could identify with.”
Phillips lived up to his motto. After signing Presley to the Sun Records label, he went on to produce some of the greatest pop recording artists of all time. These included Jerry Lee Lewis (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”) and Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”). Phillips also gave a home to Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and Howlin’ Wolf, among many others.
Before the 1950s had ended, the tentacles of the Sun Records sound had permeated virtually every crook and crevice in the western world. Phillips also helped influence what later became the British Invasion. In fact, it was the joy found in the early Sun releases that was reflected in the music of The Beatles and caught the ear of young Robert Zimmerman, later to become Bob Dylan.
A mark of the high regard in which Sun Records was held is reflected in the number of tribute records about the label—including The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats” in 1971 and John Fogerty’s 1985 “Big Train from Memphis.” Thus, it’s fitting that Phillips was the first non-performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. And the Sun Records location was recently named a national historical site (the first recording studio to be afforded this honor).
Sam Phillips continued to work up until his death last week at the age of 80 in Memphis. “I’ll never retire. I’m just using up somebody else’s oxygen if I retire,” he said in a 2000 interview.
Phillips died knowing he was leaving a huge legacy—one that began in the South, as fueled by black musicians, and later finding root in the hearts of the youth in the 1950s. But he never lost sight of the fact that rock ‘n’ roll originated and thrived in a frantic atmosphere filled with wild-eyed abandon. “We’re all crazy,” Phillips has said of himself and his Sun charges. “But it’s a type of insanity that borders on genius. I really feel that. To be as free as you have to be for any kind of music, you almost have to be in another dimension. And to do the broad expanse of rock and roll takes an element of mind expansion that people less creative would term insanity.” Thanks for the insanity, Sam.