Phillips, Samuel Cornelius (“Sam”)
Phillips, Samuel Cornelius (“Sam”)
(b. 5 January 1923 in Florence, Alabama; d. 30 July 2003 in Memphis, Tennessee), record producer and owner of Sun Records, often called the inventor of rock and roll.
Phillips, the youngest of eight children of poor tenant farmers, was born on a farm outside Florence. From an early age he had a desire to study radio engineering and sound production, but he dropped out of Florence Alabama High School in 1941 to support his aunt and his widowed mother. He later managed to attend the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, but only for one year, and his brief education included audio training. Along the way employment in the grocery business and at a funeral home failed to hold his interest. After brief stints at a number of rural radio stations, in 1945 he went to work for WREC in Memphis, where he hosted a radio program that mixed all types of music. His show from the Skyway Room of the Peabody Hotel brought a musical renaissance to postwar Memphis. He developed a close friendship with Dewey Phillips (no relation), the most popular local disc jockey at the time. In the early 1950s Dewey’s Red Hot and Blue show on WHBQ in Memphis was a hit record barometer. Dewey Phillips later played all of Phillips’s Sun recordings before they were released.
It was the rich musical culture in and around Beale Street in Memphis that brought Phillips into contact with a number of important musicians. On the streets and in the clubs he recognized the power of the Memphis sound. He also realized that the major record labels were not going to record the lesser-known artists. He liked to point out that he made his career mark by recording the artists whom the major labels ignored.
On 3 January 1950 Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service in a converted old radiator shop at 706 Union Avenue. He cut demos for other labels, made personal recordings, and even produced birthday and bar mitzvah records. The artists who came through the door helped him achieve a musical dream. It was in this recording studio that Phillips began blending the sounds of such blues artists as B. B. King, Billy “The Kid” Emerson, Doctor Ross, and Howlin’ Wolf. He was equally at home recording the rockabilly inflections of Charlie Feathers and Carl Perkins as well as the country-tinged vocals of Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich.
The Memphis Recording Service was not a record label. Phillips solved that problem in 1952 by forming the Sun label to release records by local artists. In 1952 Sun began its releases with “Drivin’ Slow” by Johnny London. In his Sun studio, Phillips invented the rockabilly echo. On a board with a six-channel mixer designed for radio, Phillips created the echo that identified that sound. It was this understanding of technology and its innovative nature that made him so creative in the studio.
Phillips was an honest and hard-nosed businessman. His slogan “We record anything, anywhere, anytime” brought a wealth of talent to the studio. When the record producer Leonard Chess came down from Chicago, Phillips sold him demos that became major hits. When Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm arrived at Sun to cut “Rocket 88,” with Jackie Brenston’s vocals, the song became a number one rhythm and blues hit, and Phillips leased it to the Chicago-based Chess label. “Rocket 88” is widely recognized as one of the first rock and roll records. Phillips vowed never to sell another hit demo to an independent label.
In 1953 Elvis Presley entered the Memphis Recording Service and paid to record “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” Phillips was impressed and made a note to consider recording Presley. Presley reputedly told Phillips that the songs were a birthday present for his mother. From time to time Presley would stop by to talk with Phillips. Finally Phillips found the song he needed. He had a recording of “Without You” by the Prisonaires and called Presley to 706 Union Avenue to cut a demo of it. Phillips liked this demo and prepared to cut Presley’s first commercial single.
On 5 July 1954 Presley, the guitarist Scotty Moore, and the bassist Bill Black recorded a cover of “That’s All Right, Mama” by the blues artist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Phillips released it backed with a remake of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe. When Phillips sent Presley’s “That’s All Right Mama” to Dewey Phillips, the reaction on his Red Hot and Blue show indicated that it was a hit record. Presley came along for a brief interview. At that moment rock and roll took its first giant step into the white, middle-class record-purchasing market. The song was an immediate sensation, and Presley’s career was on its way.
Then Phillips created a partnership with the local promoter Bob Neal to manage Presley. It soon became apparent that Neal lacked the skill and connections to take Presley into national stardom. For almost eighteen months Neal and Phillips promoted Presley’s early career. They launched Presley and alerted the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to his potential. However, the relationship between Presley and Phillips was doomed when Presley decided to replace Neal and signed a management contract with “Colonel” Tom Parker. Phillips never downplayed his dislike for the rotund promotional genius, and Parker did not hide the fact that he was upset by the initial snub of being passed over in favor of Neal. Before Parker ruined Phillips’s relationship with Presley by convincing Presley that Phillips was cheating him of his royalties, Phillips arranged for Presley to appear on the Grand OleOpry and to perform in and around Memphis and on the Louisiana Hayride. Phillips also encouraged Presley to hone his act with hundreds of studio hours while playing with a wide variety of local musicians.
Although he made Presley’s Sun singles, Phillips remained cash poor. He could never collect enough money from the distributors to turn a sizable profit. He began his operation on a shoestring and found that his major artists—Presley, Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and King—and many of the minor acts left to sign with other labels. Phillips survived on his business acumen.
Phillips told Rolling Stone that “it hadn’t occurred to many people that white people would listen to black singers.” It was as a producer that Phillips made his mark. When Phillips added drums to Presley’s early Sun recordings, he provided the final ingredient for success. There were also some surprising moments in the Sun studio.
In early December 1956 Presley wandered into the Sun studio and met Lewis. Soon Lewis and Presley’s friend Perkins were involved in an impromptu jam session. Then Cash appeared, and the Million Dollar Quartet was born. Phillips told the recording engineer Jack Clement to tape the session. The resulting tape remains an example of how Phillips’s easygoing production style kept the fun in rock and roll. The tape also reflects Phillips’s freewheeling studio atmosphere and how important its impact on rock and roll. Phillips allowed new recording artists to cut records their way, and the result was the now iconic music of artists such as Lewis and Presley, among others.
When RCA purchased Presley’s contract, Phillips turned to recording hits for Cash, Perkins, Lewis, and a host of lesser-known artists. His talent for production was never questioned. He also used the $35,000 fee from RCA to invest successfully in the Holiday Inn hotel chain. Phillips remained an independent voice. It was his individuality that set him apart from his contemporaries. He could take a country song like “I Love You Because” and have Presley record it in a blues style.
Although Phillips was successful, he still struggled financially. He moved the Sun studio to property he purchased at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis. Then he opened an office and a studio in Nashville. Lewis cut “What’d I Say” there, and Rich recorded “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” In 1964 Phillips sold the studio because of union regulations. He could not afford to pay union scale or limit the number of hours that artists spent in the studio without pay. The spontaneity of Phillips’s recording methods did not fit with union regulations.
Phillips continued to work on various Sun projects, but in 1969 he sold the label to Shelby Singleton. Phillips was inducted into the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. Throughout his life Phillips was a heavy drinker, and this habit contributed to his erratic personal life; he was known as a womanizer and had two children out of wedlock. One of his friends remarked that he had made a deal with the devil. Phillips died of respiratory failure at Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis. He is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis.
Phillips’s Sun recordings with Presley remain his enduring legacy. But there was more to Phillips than Presley, rock and roll, and the Sun studio. He almost single-handedly brought blues, country, and rockabilly artists into a wider mainstream audience. When Howlin’ Wolf and King migrated north to record the blues, Phillips’s influence was evident. He cut their earliest efforts at his Memphis Recording Service. His belief in African-American music and his promotion of all types of Memphis music went virtually unnoticed until Presley’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune. Phillips envisioned African-American culture as a profitable phenomenon and a viable cultural alternative.
For information on Phillips and his career, see Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (1975); Howard A. DeWitt, Elvis, the Sun Years: The Story of Elvis Presley in the Fifties (1993); Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994); and Louis Cantor, Dewey and Elvis: The Life and Times of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Deejay (2005). An obituary is in the New York Times (1 Aug. 2003).
Howard A. DeWitt