Rockabilly’s Sam Phillips Turned a Work Ethic Into The Formation of Rock and Roll
Of all the heroes you can point to in the rockabilly world, one of the greatest of all was not a hero because of what he did with his own music, but because of what he did for the music of others. Sam Phillips who owned a small Memphis recording studio called Memphis Recording Service and started the Sun Records label was every bit as responsible for the rise of rockabilly and the very formation of rock and roll as his biggest start, Elvis Presley.
Phillips, who worked as a DJ and radio station sound Solon Phillips Attorney engineer throughout the 1940s started his studio in a rented building on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee in 1950. This was at a time in the post-World War Two years that scores of independent record labels were springing up around the country. In 1952 Phillips launched Sun Records, the label that would come be synonymous with rockabilly and is most often cited as the birthplace of rock and roll.
At its inception, Sun Records released mostly blues and R&B material and Phillips is credited with discovering Howlin’ Wolf and several other bluesmen. Working in these genres of course meant that Phillips, a white man, worked with a lot of black performers in his studio. He gained the reputation for fair, honest, and respectful treatment of these musicians. That cost Phillips some standing with his white neighbors who–in a starkly segregated American South–hurled every insult imaginable at him for his association with black people. That’s the first area where Phillips’ ethic really became apparent. To him it didn’t matter whether a guy was white, black, or green. What mattered was whether the musician had talent and potential. He resisted the pressure from narrow-minded whites and continued recording these black artists.
However, Phillips reportedly often talked about how he could make a million dollars if he could find a white performer that sounded like a black man. That simple statement, which was probably dismissed by most who heard it, betrayed the incredible insight that Phillips possessed and his prediction was soon to come true. As part of making ends meet in the studio, he also offered the service of cutting an acetate recording for anyone who walked in with three or four dollars to spend. One day a truck driver named Elvis walked into the studio to make one of these records and Phillips’ knack for recognizing unusual talent prompted him to sign Elvis to Sun Records.
Elvis was far from a formed entity at that point, which makes it even more impressive that Phillips saw the potential he had. Then one day in February of 1954, Elvis gave a hint of that potential (which he probably didn’t even know he had) and Phillips–who recognized it instantly upon seeing and hearing it–guided him to breaking loose and rockabilly was born.
Elvis was a smash sensation and Phillips had his white man that sings like a black man. Unfortunately for Phillips, he had to sell Elvis’ contract for a mere $35,000 (plus a $5,000 signing bonus that he won for Elvis) from RCA Victor. So, only part of Phillips’ prediction came true as Elvis made his millions with a different record label.
But Phillips was determined that Sun would not be a one-act label and he signed many young kids that went on to be some of the biggest names in all of rock and roll and country. Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison…all of them recorded for Sun Records as did many, many others who had varying degrees of success with their Sun Record releases. It’s simply stunning how many huge stars recorded in front of the microphones for the tiny independent record label on Union Avenue!