You will undoubtedly know the names Elvis, BB King and Johnny Cash. It is possible you know the name of Alan Freed. But hardly anyone remembers the name of Samuel Cornelius Phillips, better known as Sam Phillips. Simply put, Sam Phillips was singlehandedly responsible for the most radical changes in American music of all time. His influence on rock and roll, alongside with the roles of women in radio and music, as well as the introduction of multi-racial music, cannot be understated.
Phillips was born in Florence, AL on January 5, 1923 to tenant farmers. He attended Coffee High School. He became fascinated with the music of black field workers and churches in Alabama.
He first worked in the music industry as a DJ at WLAY-AM in Muscles Shoals. The format of playing both black and white musicians may have been a great influence on his own later work. While at WLAY, he took course from Auburn Polytechnic in audio engineering. From there he went to work at WMSL in Decatur and then WLAC in Nashville. In 1944, Phillips went to work at WREC in Memphis as an announcer and a member of the station’s technical staff. His exceptional knowledge obtained from Auburn Polytechnical Institute combined with his appreciation of the emerging (on the public scene) styles of gospel, blues and hillbilly made him a valuable asset to the station.
In 1950, he left radio to open his own recording studios, Sam Phillips Records. After one failed album, he decided to try again two years later, under the name Sun Records at Sun Studios on 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, TN (later to become a tourist attraction). The studio was originally set up to be a recording studio for speeches, came to represent a new era in music. Some of the earliest recordings Phillips did were of white country band of Slim Rhodes, black blues musician Lost John hunter and Jackie Brentson (whose “Rocket88”, along with Ike Turner, topped the R&B Billboard charts in 1951).
Sam’s open mindedness when it came to music could be summed up in a 2003 quote from Shelby Singleton, who had bought Sun from Phillips in 1969. “Sam was the kind of man for whom color had no barriers,” Sun owner Singleton said. “If it was music he liked, he recorded it, and he didn’t care what color they were. There were no closed doors in his studio. Anybody could walk in and make a record, and that’s the way he was until he died.” It is said that the label’s early motto was “We record anything. Anytime. Anywhere.”
It was his attraction to a teenage singer who Sam felt was a white singer who understood gospel and blues, and who had a raw energy to his music. The singer, Elvis Aaron Presley, recorded “That’s Alright Mama!” in 1954. Phillips would be a big influence on the singer’s music, deciding early on that the youth didn’t need a group behind him, just him and his guitar. Sam sold Presley’s contract to RCA in 1956, in order to raise money for the studio. Although production of Elvis’ records at RCA is credited to Steve Sholes, it was widely known that Presley had the major hand in it, thanks to the mentoring of Phillips while at Sun Records.
Sam continued to produce such legendary greats as B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. His contribution to rock and roll expanded due to his willingness to experiment. In December of 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins song. Johnny Cash was standing by listening (why he was there and when he got there is a matter of some debate). When Elvis walked in, they all got together for an impromptu jam session. They would later be dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet after Shelby Singleton would find this nearly twenty years later and release the recordings in 1987, comprising some 46 tracks of music. It was describer later by Bob Johns)t)on (producer?) as “an old fashioned barrel-house session with barber shop harmonies resulting.”
Phillips launched WHER-AM and an “All Girl” radio format. In fact, the entire station was staffed by women. He also invested with Roy Scott in Holiday Inn. He founded Phillps International and the Holiday Inn record labels. thnough neither of these two were as successful as the Sun label, Phillips still continued making innovations throughout the years, eevn after selling Sun to Shelby Singleton in 1969. He woned several radio stations, under the Big River Broadcasting Corporation and he also opened the Sun Studio Cafe in Memphis..
It is ironic that, after all he had done to revolutionize rock and roll, he died on July 30, 2003, just a day before the original Sun Studio was named a National Historic Landmark. But he did enjoy recognition for his labors. In 1986 he was among the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland Ohio) and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame (an internet arena based in Nashville) In 1987 he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (Tuscumbia, AL), in 1998 the Blues Hall of Fame (a list by the Blues Foundation of Memphis, TN) and in 2001 into the Country Music Hall of Fame (Nashville, TN).
Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits from Our Leading Historians by Susan Ware (editor)
Diane Publishing Company, November 1998
Samuel Phillips – Wikipedia
Sam Phillips: Sun Records – The Man Who Invented Rcok & Roll