Record company executive
There will always be debates as to who was the first rock and roller; Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley, Bill Haley or Bo Diddley, etc., etc. But the “Father” of the genre will always be recognized as Sam Phillips, the man whose Sun Records launched the careers of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and a smattering of blues artists during the 1950s. “There can be little doubt that Sam Phillips played the crucial role of midwife in the birth of the new music,” wrote Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone. Indeed, there can be no doubt about it.
Seemingly enough, Phillips’s discovery of rock began with its very roots: blues. He was born in Alabama and raised on a plantation hearing black singers on radio station WDIA. He decided at an early age that the music would consume his life and worked toward giving back to its creators the recognition they deserved. Phillips worked at radio station WLAY during high school and after graduating from college was employed at WREC in Memphis in 1944 as an announcer. Bored with the type of music they featured, he saved enough money to start the Memphis Recording Services in a converted radiator shop located at 706 Union.
Phillips hand-built the studio that was so small he had to use a neighboring coffee shop for his office. The studio’s motto was “We record anything—anywhere—anytime” but the bulk of their income came from a $2-per-side recording service and their wedding ceremony recordings. But Phillips’s main ambition was the recording of black blues musicians who would otherwise have to travel to Chicago or New York to get on wax. He leased to Chess and Modern/RPM the aluminum masters of Howlin’ Wolf, Walter Horton, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, Elmore James, James Cotton and B.B. King among others. “When Leonard Chess came down here and promised him [Howlin’ Wolf] the moon, it broke my heart. This was one of the things that made me want to start my own label,” Phillips is quoted in The Listener’s Guide To The Blues.
One of the big hits that enabled Phillips to quit his job at WREC was Jackie Brentson’s “Rocket 88” (with Ike Turner’s band backing) of 1951. With its theme of cars/girls and a big beat, it is cited by many as the first rock and roll tune ever. The tune is also probably the first recorded example of the distorted guitar sound popularized a decade later on the Rolling Stone’s hit, “Satisfaction.” On the way to the session one of the amplifiers fell off of Turner’s car, rupturing the speaker cone. In an effort to save time, the ever-creative Phillips stuffed paper inside the box and carried on with the recording.
B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues” and Little Walter’s “Juke” offered further proof that Phillips could make it with a legitimate label and thus Sun Records was formed in 1952. The first single, “Bear Cat,” by WDIA disc jockey Rufus Thomas, went all the way to Number 3, and an ensuing lawsuit by Peacock Records for copyright infringement also helped to give Sun some notoriety. According to Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, Phillips was fond of saying, “If you aren’t doing something different, you aren’t doing anything.” Phillips was constantly searching for a unique sound which he felt was out there just waiting to be unleashed. “Over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars,’” Marion Keisker, officer manager at Sun, told The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.
In the summer of 1953 a truck-driving teenager from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Presley entered the Sun studios and plopped down $3.98 to record two songs for his mother, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” He left his name and number with Keisker in case they needed someone to sing sometime. She made a note about his voice and filed it away. “I’d run across a ballad written by a prisoner in the Tennessee State pen and I wanted a
Born in Florence, Alabama, January 5, 1923; married; wife’s name, Becky; children: Knox, Jerry.
Created Memphis Recording Service in 1950, started Sun label in 1952; discovered and recorded some of rock music’s earliest stars, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as country stars Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins; sold Sun Records in 1969; an original shareholder in Holiday Inn chain; owns several radio stations.
crooner,” Phillips said in Rock 100. And, according to Rolling Stone, Keisker offered, “What about that kid with the sideburns?” As Presley reported in Honkers & Shouters, Phillips phoned him and said, “‘You want to make some blues?…’ All I know is I hung up and ran fifteen blocks to Mr. Phillips’s office before he’d gotten off the line—or so he tells me.” “Elvis toyed around with it. I decided he needed a couple of good rhythm men back of him so I called in Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] and still nothing happened,” Phillips continued in Rock 100. “Then I got the notion of trying some of the old ‘Big Boy’ Cruddup material. Although it seemed incomprehensible to have a white man do those songs, I just got a notion and I called Elvis…. When we cut, things happened. I said right then, That’s it.’ I knew we had a hit.”
History is clouded though, as Moore (who had been trying to get Phillips to record his Starlight Wranglers band) said “That’s All Right” started out as some horsing around by Presley which prompted Moore and bassist Bill Black to jump in. The singer had been trying to cover “I Love You Because” in the style of the era’s popular vocalist but it just wasn’t working. Whether it was a calculated attempt or a fluke, “Phillips knew immediately that what another producer might have taken for a bit of lighthearted country clowning, a break from the serious work, was in fact one of the most serious cultural events of the 20th century,” wrote Palmer in Rolling Stone.
WHBQ’s Dewey Phillips played Presley’s jumped-up Cruddup cover on his “Red, Hot and Blue” radio show and the reaction was phenomenal. At one point he played the song thirty times in one night. Between August 1954 and August 1955 Presley recorded 10 more sides for Sun, including “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” “Baby Let’s Play House” and the flip side to “That’s All Right,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” After listeners realized that Presley wasn’t black, his popularity soared and brought a host of record companies to Phillips’s door wanting to sign the sensation.
In November of 1955 RCA’s Steve Sholes bought Presley’s contract and masters for $35, 000 plus $5, 000 in back royalties and Hill & Range Songs purchased publications of Hi-Lo Music (a Sun subsidiary) for $15, 000 from Phillips. At the time it was an unprecedented amount for a relatively unproven newcomer, but in hindsight it seems like the steal of the century. Phillips, however, figured he could develop five more Presleys with the cash and set about to form his roster.
Carl Perkins joined the Sun lineup and released two singles in 1953 and 1954, “Turn Around” and “Let The Juke Box Keep On Playing,” with mild success. But a year later Perkins and Phillips produced a major hit with “Blue Suede Shoes.” Released on New Year’s Day, the song soared to Number 5 on Billboard’s national charts while simultaneously scoring on the R & B and country charts as well (the first song to ever accomplish the feat). Perkins followed with more fine songs for Phillips with “Matchbox,” “Boppin The Blues,” “Dixie Fried”/“I’m Sorry, I’m Not Sorry” and “Your True Love” before moving on to the Columbia label.
In 1956 Phillips purchased Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby”/ “Trying To Get You” from the Je-Wel label and soon it sold over a quarter of a million copies. Phillips tried to mold Orbison’s sound like he had done with Presley and Perkins, but the singer/guitarist could not perform the rockabilly style. Orbison never really had another hit for Sun but was able to pen some fine tunes for others during the next three years even though Phillips failed to fully realize his vocal potential. Orbison left Sun for Monument records in 1960.
Johnny Cash joined Phillips’s staff in 1955 with “Cry Cry Cry”/“Hey Porter” and followed it up the following year with the million-seller “I Walk The Line.” Cash leaned more towards the country side of the blues as opposed to the still-young rock and roll end of the spectrum. Over the next three years Cash scored a half dozen more hits for Phillips before jumping to Columbia in 1958: “Orange Blossom Special,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “Home of the Blues,” “Guess Things Happen That Way”/Come in Stranger” and “The Ways of a Woman in Love.” Up to that point Phillips’s success relied on guitarists/vocalists who were all quite different from their contemporaries. “They were all free spirits, they were all uniques,” stated publicist Bill Williams in Feel Like Going Home. “I think every one of them must have come in on the midnight train from nowhere. I mean, it was like they came from outer space.”
Perhaps the most spaced-out of all was Jerry Lee Lewis, a brash, bragging, strutting, piano-stompin’ shouter who staked out Phillips’s Sun studios until they would give him a listen, claiming that he could play piano like Chet Atkins. Noting that Atkins was a guitar player, Sun engineer Jack Clement decided to see what this big shot was all about and let him in to record a few tunes (although Lewis claims it was a marathon session). Phillips liked what he heard and signed him on as a piano player until he heard Lewis singing “Crazy Arms” and decided to release him as a solo artist.
It was the beginning of one of Phillips’s most lucrative ventures as Lewis countered in 1957 with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a Number 3 smash hit. The piano man’s outrageous act made him a standout in rock and roll revues and his ensuing singles, featuring Phillips’s trademark slap-back echo, were chartbusters to boot: “It’ll Be Me,” “High School Confidential,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “Break Up”/“I‘ll Make It All Up To You.” Phillips set up a tour of England but soon learned that Lewis had married his 13-year-old cousin. The star’s career took a major nosedive and, although his “What’d I Say” Ray Charles cover in 1961 helped some, by 1963 one of Phillips’s most promising artists had left Sun and appeared to be washed up. [An interesting footnote; in 1957 Presley, Perkins, Cash, and Lewis met at Phillips studio for an impromptu jam session of country and gospel classics, but the recordings would not be released until the 1980s as the Million Dollar Quartet.]
Although the Sun label continued to record artists like Charlie Rich, by 1958 Phillips had seemed to lose interest and was hanging on to it more or less as a hobby. Rather than compete with the big guns of the recording industry and their cutthroat tactics, Phillips sold the label in 1969 and shifted his concentration towards operating several radio stations.
Although only one of his first twenty-three recordings was by a non-black artist, Phillips was criticized for abandoning his original sources after Presley. “This is a regrettable thing on my part,” he said in The Listener’s Guide to the Blues, “but I saw what I was doing as not deserting the black man—God knows, there was no way I could do that—[but] I saw what I was trying to do with white men was to broaden the base.”
Phillips will be always be recognized as one of the innovators in the history of popular music and his Sun recordings document the transition from blues to rock and roll. “My mission was to bring out of a person what was in him, to recognize that individual’s unique quality and then to find the key to unlock it,” he continued. “My greatest contribution, I think, was to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself, to help him to express what he believed his message to be.”
Dalton, David, and Lenny Kaye, Rock 100, Grosset & Dunlap, 1977.
Guralnick, Peter, Feel Like Going Home, Vintage, 1981.
Guralnick, The Listener’s Guide To The Blues, Facts on File, 1977.
Guralnick, Lost Highway, Vintage, 1981.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden, Harmony, 1977.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
Shaw, Arnold, Honkers And Shouters, Collier, 1978.
Guitar Player, November 1987.
Guitar World, May 1985.
Rolling Stone, September 22, 1977.
—Calen D. Stone
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Although she began her pop music career in the .1980s, Sam Phillips would find herself at home in any decade or style. She draws from such early twentieth-century poets as Thomas Merton, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda, and Rainer Maria Rilke, but also from later, musical poets—Randy Newman, Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, and John Lennon. Though she infuses her music with a 1960s psychedelia, she is also rooted in the pop of earlier generation, adoring “melodic music, first and foremost,” she explained in a Virgin Records press release—old jazz, composer George Gershwin, and vocalist Nat King Cole reign among her favorites. She produces deeply spiritual albums, yet she retains a very sharp sense of wit and irony.
Phillips’s music, which Craig Tomashoff of People described as “too hip for radio,” has struggled to find a wide audience. Yet early in her career, Phillips became a favorite of music critics, who seemed to like the combination of “dark lyrics and light sounds,” in the words of Rolling Stone’s Patti O’Brien, and her voice, which Interview’s Dimitri Ehrlich likened to a “soprano bagpipe.”
Thom Jurek of the Detroit Metro Times ventured an explanation of her critical success: “Phillips makes the kind of pop records that most musicians only dream of. She consistently writes intelligent words; combines them with delightful, often stunning melodies; and delivers them in an unusual, yet attractive voice—with unexpected surprises popping out of the mix at every turn.” Ron Givens of Stereo Review put it succinctly: “Sam Phillips is always wondrous to hear.”
Phillips was born in East Hollywood, California, in 1962, the second of William and Peggy Phillips’s three children. Though named Leslie, she was called by her nickname, Sam. She grew up in suburban Glendale, California, in what she described to Musician’s Mark Rowland as a “standard dysfunctional house.”
She first entered the music world through dance and turned to writing and playing in her early teens as she watched her parents’ marriage disintegrate and end in divorce. “Basically, I was crying into the piano,” she confessed to Jeff Giles in Newsweek.”One of the first songs I wrote was called ‘Walls of Silence,’ about the fact that my father would go days, weeks, even months without speaking.” She learned to play her brother’s guitar and began exploring music outside the Top 20, finding such artists as singer-songwriters Randy Newman and Bruce Cockburn. Her non-musical interests
For the Record…
Born Leslie Phillips, June 28, 1962, in East Hollywood, CA; daughter of William (an accountant) and Peggy (a medical secretary) Smith; married T-Bone Burnett (a musician and producer) ; has two stepchildren.
Signed with gospel label Word/Myrrh records, c. 1980; recorded and toured as Leslie Phillips, 1980-87; signed with Virgin Records, c. 1987; changed professional name to Sam Phillips; released first secular album, The Indescribable Wow, 1988.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
led her even further from the Top 20. She studied philosophy and religion—primarily fundamentalism—and found herself drawn to the counterculture Christian movement of southern California.
Undoubtedly, the splintering of her family contributed to this attraction. “Because of that pain, I’ve always been interested in metamorphosis, and when that can happen to a human being, emotionally and spiritually,” Phillips revealed to Rowland. “I’ve always loved that theme throughout literature. I think that’s what attracted me to Christianity the most.” She also found the church attractive because of her music. “I thought I would find an audience there that would want to listen to songs about spiritual things,” she explained to David Wild in Rolling Stone.
At 18 years old, Phillips signed a contract with A&M’s gospel label, Word/Myrrh Records, and performing as Leslie Phillips, she became a Christian music star. A 1985 press release, reprinted in Harper’s, described her image: “If ever there was a Queen of Christian Rock, she’s it. She’s 22, blond, hazel-eyed, lovely, and single, and her hair and clothing are up-to-date, California youth style.” Her albums sold well, up to 200,000 a piece, and she toured the country, performing in churches, coffeehouses, and festivals.
Her last album as Leslie, 1987’s The Turning, was produced by T-Bone Burnett, a musician as well as producer who had worked with such rock luminaries as Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, and Los Lobos. Their collaboration impressed critics outside Christian music. Jimmy Guterman asserted in Rolling Stone that The Turning “is far more generous of spirit than most secular-gospel records nowadays, mostly because Phillips is such an adept writer.” High Fidelity’s Jeff Nesin found the album “spare and compelling,” and Wild called it “an ethereal beauty.”
After she released The Turning, Phillips left the Christian music scene, a world in which she had become increasingly uncomfortable. As she recalled in Billboard, she “wanted to explore spirituality, not dispense God propaganda.” She elaborated in a Virgin press release: “I was naive enough to think I could talk about spiritual issues in my songs within the church. I wanted to ask questions, push the boundaries, and they wanted me to say that I’d found all the answers.... I just don’t think life is that simple. True spirituality is much bigger than that.”
Burnett introduced her to people at Virgin Records, and she had signed with them by 1988. The move to secular music meant a hit to her income, but as she insisted in Musician, “It wasn’t a career decision to quit gospel music, it was a soul decision—and a turn-of-the-stomach decision.” With this metamorphosis, Phillips decided to change her professional name as well, and redubbed herself Sam Phillips. She had no idea she was taking the name of the legendary Sam Phillips who founded Memphis’s Sun Records, and who is credited with the discovery of Elvis Presley. Some things about Phillips did not change. Burnett remained her producer, and critics continued to love her music. Wild applauded The Indescribable Wow, her first release as Sam Phillips, calling it “an exquisitely crafted, introspectively romantic pop gem,” and Nesin considered it one of the best albums of 1988.
Some critics noticed the influence of 1960s pop music, especially the Beatles, in her use of harpsichord, electric sitar, organ, and reverse tape. In Nesin’s words, the album was “chock-full of dazzlingly arranged and executed pop songs redolent of the 1960s—not just in instrumentation ... but in a willingness to experiment, to push farther, that just hasn’t been heard much since those hybrid, halcyon days.”
Despite her move into the secular world, Phillips’s work retained a spiritual edge. In her later material, the lyrics dwelt, Jurek noted, “on questions rather than answers.” David Okamoto of CD Review a\so observed that, “Phillips no longer evangelizes, but she still celebrates her faith via secular signposts that everyone can follow.”
Opting for one of the more out-of-the-ordinary routes of promotion, Phillips followed the release of The Indescribable Wow with a tour of the country, bowling with radio program directors. She also married Burnett, and they began working on her next album. With Cruel Inventions, released in 1991, Phillips and Burnett took the experimentation up a notch. Musically, Rowland noticed “increasingly elaborate and unpredictably textured arrangements.”
Josef Woodard of Rolling Stone found the album more complex than The Indescribable Wow. He noted “alien guitar sounds,” “savory string arrangements,” and “unusual percussion.” Woodard wrote, “conventional ingredients are transformed into something stranger, more evocative, to suit Phillips’s cryptic lyrics.” The underlying the lyrical and musical experimentation on the album was Phillips’s increasingly characteristic wit and pop flair—qualities that led Rolling Stone to insist that Phillips helped “prove that it actually is possible to find beautiful, articulate pop in the nineties,” and to rate the album “one of the years most arresting treasures.”
Before she released her next album, Phillips discovered fans in important places. While working on his film Ruby in Paradise, director Victor Nunez heard “Raised on Promises,” a cut from Cruel Inventions, on his car radio. He loved the song enough to drive immediately to a record store and buy the album. Eventually that song, and “Holding on to the Earth” from The Indescribable Wow, were added to the film, which became the Grand Prize winner at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival.
With her next release, Phillips sought a less complex album. “I think the experimenting wore us out a little bit in the past,” she explained to Rowland. “These songs are a little simpler and maybe easier to figure out.” In the resulting album, 1994’s Martinis and Bikinis, Phillips’s penchant for 1960s pop and unusual instrumentation was still evident. In addition to the harpsichord, sitars, and reverse tape, Phillips included a string quartet, treble guitars, and amandolin. She also included an overt nod to John Lennon, covering his song “Gimme Some Truth.”
Once again the album was a critical success, with Okamoto proclaiming it “the first pop masterpiece of this young year.” Giving the album four stars, Rolling Stone’s Kara Manning delighted in Phillips exploration of “not only the poetry of words, but the poetry inherent in stunning production techniques.” Above all, critics were fascinated with Phillips’s ability to balance the exuberance of pop music and a love of melody with a probing and unflinching quest for virtue and truth.
“Phillips has developed a singular voice, coopting the stylistic quirks of pop innocence in a heady search for modern maturity,” Musician’s Chris Willman averred. “Druggy with youth and punch-sober with experience, this album feels a little like getting to have your cake and eat it too. The effect is delicious, and uneasy.”
Throughout her secular career, commercial success had eluded Phillips, and critics hoped Martinis and Bikinis would be her breakthrough album. Finding a niche for delicious and uneasy music on popular radio was not easy. “I’m not soft enough to be considered ‘easy listening’ or hard or weird enough to be considered ‘alternative,’” she complained to the Merto Times’ Jurek. “And in a way that’s understandable, because I can’t describe what my music is either.” Phillips was also hindered by her aversion to adopting an image in a field where image can be everything.
Phillips remarked that she is not interested in the glaring stereotypes the industry markets in the name of image. Furthermore, after a career as the “Queen of Christian Rock,” she had reasons to avoid image. “I’m leery, I’ve been through that once already,” she told Jurek. Yet her lack of celebrity didn’t particularly bother Phillips—she’d been there before as well. “Celebrity is really uninteresting, and it’s tiring,” she revealed to Woodard. “The work is the thing,” she emphasized, “the great thing.”
White conjectured that it will be the impact of her work, not any manufactured image, that will last. “Generations onward, when others reflect on the hollows of our faithless age, the work of Phillips, like that of the poets she holds dear, will show that many still sought to improvise virtue after much common evidence of it had evaporated.”
Dancing with Danger, Word/Myrrh, 1985.
The Turning, Word/Myrrh, 1987.
The Indescribable Wow, Virgin, 1988.
Cruel Inventions, Virgin, 1991.
Martinis and Bikinis, Virgin, 1994.
Billboard, January 22, 1994; March 5, 1994; July 9, 1994.
Boston Globe, April 19, 1989.
CD Review, April 1994.
Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1991.
Guitar Player, June 1994.
Harper’s, May 1985.
High Fidelity, February 1989.
Interview, June 1991.
Metro Times (Detroit), March 23, 1994; May 18, 1994.
Musician, August 1991; July 1992; March 1994.
Newsweek, April 4, 1994.
People, October 21, 1991.
Pulse!, November 1993.
Rolling Stone, June 18, 1987; August 24, 1988; November 17, 1988; May 18, 1989; October 17, 1991; August 8, 1991; December 12, 1991; March 24, 1994.
Stereo Review, August 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Virgin Records publicity materials.
—Megan Rubiner Zinn
Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips, January 5, 1923, in Florence, AL; died of respiratory failure, July 30, 2003, in Memphis, TN. Record label executive. Recording studio owner Sam Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952 and is credited with discovering Elvis Presley and with being an instrumental part of the launch of the rock 'n' roll genre. He brought wide attention to the then–neglected rhythm and blues and African–American country music, helping to bring these musical styles and traditions to white Americans. He helped launch the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich, among many others.
Phillips grew up in Florence, Alabama, where he was the youngest of eight children; his parents were poor tenant farmers. According to Claudia Luther in the Los Angeles Times, Phillips said that he felt "an awakening of my spirit" when he heard the singing of African Americans who worked alongside him and his parents, picking cotton in the fields. He wondered what it would have been like for him if he had been born African American, and experienced the same hardships. As he grew older, he decided that the music of poor people—both black and white—"was absolutely the greatest thing we had in the South," according to Luther. However, at the time, this music was not recorded, and few people considered it valuable or interesting.
Phillips originally hoped to become a criminal defense lawyer, but poverty and his father's death prevented him from pursuing the education needed for such a career. He got a job at a radio station in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and in 1945 moved to station WREC in Memphis, Tennessee. Witnessing that city's vibrant musical scene, he became determined to have this music get national—and eventually international—recognition. In 1949 he started a business, Memphis Recording Service, working there at night after his shift at the radio station. He recorded anything he could make a little money from, mostly weddings and $2–a–side personal recordings; he also recorded political speeches, and once he even recorded a car muffler and testified in court about its loudness in decibels. His motto was "We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime." However, he also began recording local musicians performing black gospel, white gospel, blues, and what was known at the time as "hillbilly music." These artists included B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Howlin' Wolf, and Ike Turner's band. According to Douglas Martin in the New York Times, his ambition was to record "the real gutbucket stuff that other labels weren't putting out." Phillips renamed his company Sun Records in 1952.
However, Phillips soon found that the potential of his recordings of "race" music—blues and R&B—were limited because of the prevalent racism of the time. Although many white fans liked the music, they were reluctant to buy it because it was performed by African Americans. Phillips decided that if he could find white artists who could perform the music, he could break down this barrier. When Elvis Presley, then a shy 18–year–old who wanted to make a record for his mother's birthday, showed up in 1953, Phillips did not think he would be the one to do it, despite the fact that he had a very unusual voice. Presley worked with Phillips during the next year without much success, until he recorded "That's All Right" in July of 1954. Phillips took the record to radio station WHBQ, where it received such enthusiastic calls from listeners that the DJ ended up playing it many times in a row. In 1956, because of mounting debts, Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA Records for $35,000, a tiny fraction of what it would eventually be worth.
After recording Presley, Phillips recorded Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich. He also recorded rockabilly artists Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess. Because of his work with these artists, Phillips was in the first group of ten people to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and was the only person also to be a member of the country, blues, and rockabilly Halls of Fame.
Phillips was forced to close his studio after bigger labels began siphoning off his performers by offering them much bigger contracts than he could afford; he sold it to producer Shelby Singleton of Nashville in 1969. Today, the studio is a tourist site for those interested in the history of rock 'n' roll. Phillips went on to other business ventures, and spent many of his later years operating a radio station in Memphis. He lived quietly, although he occasionally appeared at events honoring Presley after Presley's death in 1977.
According to the Los Angeles Times' Luther, Phillips did not purposely set out to create a new kind of music. "I think I was conscious of letting out the insides, emotional insides, of people, and that was a challenge to a great extent. Oh, man, I loved the music. I loved it. I dearly loved it. So this was a beautiful experience. It still is, to see the influence it's had around the world." On July 30, 2003, at the age of 80, Phillips died of respiratory failure in Memphis, Tennessee. He is survived by his wife, Rebecca; sons Knox and Jerry, two granddaughters, and a great–grandson.
Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2003, p. A1, p. A20; New York Times, August 1, 2003, p. A19; Times (London), August 1, 2003, p. 35; Washington Post, August 1, 2003, p. B4.
Born: Leslie Phillips; East Hollywood, California, 28 June 1962
Best-selling album since 1990: Martinis and Bikinis (1994)
Hit songs since 1990: "I Need Love," "Baby, I Can't Please You," "Zero, Zero Zero"
Not to be confused with the legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, singer/songwriter Sam Phillips got her start in contemporary Christian music. She quickly switched genres early in her career, with her first pop album The Indescribable Wow (1988). Critics acknowledge Phillips has never quite received the accolades and record sales that her talent as a songwriter merits. With a penchant for witty, cerebral love songs that recall 1960s pop influences such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Phillips is a psychologically incisive songwriter who knows that a touch of levity adds the right portion of irony.
Phillips grew up in Glendale, California, the second of three children. Her given name is Leslie, but her nickname was Sam. Phillips was exposed to myriad cultural arts: painting, dancing, singing, and piano. By the time Phillips was a teenager she was writing her own songs. It proved an effective coping mechanism as she watched her parents' marriage dissolve. By the time Phillips was twenty-two, performing as Leslie Phillips, she was selling a quarter million copies with her gospel-flecked records.
Phillips fled the Christian scene, which she found too confining, and recorded two albums before her Grammy Award–nominated Martinis and Bikinis (1994). Hailed by critics as smart, consistently melodic, and at times surprising, the album is her most acclaimed release. It garnered a near hit with "I Need Love." With its insidious hook, and textbook verse-chorus-verse structure, it is one of her most structured pop songs. It is also one of her best, illustrating her world-weary wisdom and deft sense of word-play. "I need love / Not some sentimental prison / I need God / Not the political church," she sings out in the chorus. Its weighty sentiments belied their light delivery and poet's attention to rhyme and rhythm.
Phillips's third album, the beautifully produced Omnipop (It's Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) (1996), features collaborations with members of the band R.E.M. and witty stabs at the entertainment business and politics. After Omnipop, Phillips took a break and switched labels from Virgin Records to Nonesuch, a prestigious label known for its roster of high-caliber, left-of-center talent. Phillips released Fandance (2002), her most unadorned album.
Phillips is married to guitarist and producer T Bone Burnett, who produced her final Christian album, and has worked with her on her rock albums. She is the kind of artist whose music is too smart for commercial radio, but has found a home with fans of Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) radio.
The Indescribable Wow (Virgin, 1988); Cruel Intentions (Virgin, 1991); Martinis and Bikinis (Virgin 1994); Omnipop (It's Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) (Virgin, 1996); Fan-dance (Nonesuch, 2001).