Sam Phillips’ place in Rock and Roll history was assured when he discovered Elvis Presley… but he was blazing new trails much before that.
Sam was born on January 5, 1923 in Florence, Alabama. His parents were poor tenant farmers and he picked cotton in the fields alongside the black laborers. This formed the foundation for Phillip’s “color blind” love of music throughout his career. He was influenced heavily by the music he heard in the fields and in the churches. At the age of 16, he took a trip to Memphis. After experiencing Beale Street, the heart of the city’s music scene, he later recalled: “I just fell totally in love”. Phillips put it this way, “The blues, it got people…black and white…to think about life, how difficult…yet how good it could be. They would sing about it, they would pray about it, they would preach about it. This is how they relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out.”
Sam’s father died in 1941 and he dropped out of school to work. In 1942, Phillips met the love of his life while working as an announcer at WLAY in Sheffield, Alabama. One year later he and “Becky” Burns were married, a marriage that lasted 60 years until his death. He felt completely at home at WLAY with its’ open music format, playing both black and white music. This principle guided Sam throughout his career as he advocated for racial equality and helped break down racial barriers in the music industry.
In 1945, he moved on to WREC in Memphis and in 1950 opened Memphis Recording Studio. Along with recording special events, Phillips let amateurs record. B.B King, Jr. Parker and Howlin’ Wolf made their first recordings there. In 1951, per music historian, Peter Guralnick, Sam recorded what he and others believe was the first Rock and Roll record, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. The band was led by 19 year old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song. It was released by Chess Records that year. Other noteworthy artists who followed in the early 50’s included: James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Little Milton and Bobby “Blue” Bland. In 1952 Phillips launched Sun Record Company. All told Sun produced more Rock and Roll records than any other label during its’ 16 year run…226 singles.
Music history walked in the door on July 18, 1953 when 18 year old Elvis Presley dropped into the studio to record an acetate for his mother’s birthday. Long time collaborator at the studio, Marion Keisker, heard talent in the young truck driver and turned on the tape recorder so she could play it later for Sam. Elvis auditioned for Phillips but it wasn’t until he heard “That’s Alright Mama” that he too was convinced. Sam later said, “Elvis cut a ballad which was just excellent. I could tell you that both Elvis and Roy Orbison could tear a ballad to pieces…but I said to myself…you can’t do that, Sam. If I had released a ballad, I don’t think you would have ever heard of Elvis Presley”. They blazed new trails with that song.
“Mama” was a regional hit but it opened the flood gates for Sun. Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”), Charlie Rich, Jr. Parker and Billy Lee Riley had some success on Sun…others such as: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins became stars. It is said that Phillips challenged his “million dollar quartet” (Elvis, Cash, Lewis & Perkins) to achieve gold record sales, offering a Cadillac to the first. Perkins gained the prize, ironically with his “Blue Suede Shoes”. It was Sun’s first million selling record and reached #1 on the Country Charts, #2 on the Pop Charts and #3 on the R&B Charts (the first for a Country artist). Elvis’ version was released on RCA shortly after.
In 1956, fighting some financial problems, Sam sold Elvis’ contract to RCA for a then unprecedented $40,000. Some went to Elvis, some to finance Perkin’s hit and some to invest in a new business. That business was Holiday Inn. Sam made a fortune.
Much has been written about Phillip’s goals, but he stated that “everyone knew that I was just a struggling cat down here trying to develop new and different artists, and get some freedom in music, and tap some resources and people that weren’t being tapped” He didn’t care about mistakes… he cared about the feel.
Sam Phillips passed away on July 30, 2003 but the legacy of this “color blind” pioneer who may have been the first to merge Country, Rock and R&B lives on to this day. In fact, maybe we should re-write history to say that on that day in 1953, it wasn’t Sam who discovered Elvis…it was Elvis who was lucky to discover Sam.