Sam Phillips is arguably the single most important name in the history of rock’n’roll music. In 1950 he opened a recording studio in Memphis and his label, Sun Studio, went on to make much of the earliest – and still the greatest – rock’n’roll music ever recorded.
At a time of racial segregation, Phillips adopted an open-door policy, allowing anyone to make a record at his studio onUnion Avenue for a small fee. His slogan was: “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.”
That’s how he discovered the first generation of rock’n’roll stars.
Elvis Presley walked in at the age of 18 to make a recording for his mother’s birthday; others included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as future blues legends like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf.
Phillips had grown up on his parents’ farm in Alabama, the youngest of eight children, and picked cotton with them as a child, acquiring a lifelong love of black music from the songs his fellow labourers sang in the fields.
His passion grew when he discovered Beale Street, the home of the blues in downtown Memphis, on a trip to Dallas with his parents to see a preacher.
When his father lost the family farm and went bankrupt in the Great Depression, Phillips found work on a radio station with an “open format” – a rare example of one that played both black and white artists – learning skills as a sound engineer.
In January 1950 he opened his own studio, the Memphis Recording Service, at 706 Union Avenue. At first he recorded conventions and choirs, weddings and funerals, to get his company off the ground, and soon set up his own record label – Phillips Records – to record the “negro artists of the South.”
It folded after its first – and last – release, by one-man blues band Joe Hill Louis (later to become Chicago Sunny Boy) but, with hindsight, Boogie In The Park by Joe Hill Louis is well worth hearing, not least for its filthy distorted electric guitar sound.
Too far ahead of its time for the public, it sold fewer than 400 copies and after the label folded, Phillips focused instead on recording, selling the finished songs on to labels like Chess and Modern Records.
Thanks to the success of songs he produced like Rocket 88, by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner, by 1952 he had enough money to try again and founded Sun Records.
It got off to a difficult start when its first hit, Rufus Thomas’s Bear Cat – a riposte to Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog, ironically featuring Joe Hill Louis on guitar – resulted in a lawsuit for copyright infringement.
Thankfully for generations of rock’n’roll fans, Phillips – and Sun Studio – survived. And it’s a popular tourist attraction to this day, with a nice line in black T-shirts with the distinctive sun logo on the front. Mine has faded, along with the photos I took when I visited 706 Union Avenue – but the music hasn’t.