Celebrating Sun Records and Sam Phillips

Music fans generally don’t take much notice of record labels, and now that we stream music, we notice them less than ever. But if there’s one label that many country and rock ‘n’ roll fans know, it’s Sun. Remarkably, nearly all the records we associate with Sun came from a five-year window between 1954 and 1959. That was when company president Sam Phillips discovered and produced Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and several others who shaped our music. Quite a few of us have visited the old Sun studio in Memphis to stand where they stood.

Phillips was among the first non-performing inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame because one evening in July 1954, Elvis was struggling with a country ballad when he suddenly cut loose with “That’s All Right.” He had never performed outside his bedroom, so few producers would even have let him in the door. For sure, no one else would have responded so immediately and intuitively to “That’s All Right.” Nothing like it was selling, or had ever sold. No one was making records with just three instruments. It wasn’t pop or R&B or country. Sam Phillips’ genius lay in the fact that he didn’t care. “That’s All Right” sounded good to him, so he issued it. What looks like an easy decision in hindsight was far from it in 1954.

The following year, Johnny Cash walked in the door. At a time when country music meant fiddles, steel guitars, and maybe a piano, banjo or mandolin, Cash’s ragged two-piece band comprised electric guitar and bass. They had performed nowhere but a few church socials. Once again, Phillips didn’t care. They sounded good to him just the way they were. Country musicians joked about the barebones sound, but after “Folsom Prison Blues” and then “I Walk the Line” shot up the charts, Cash was invited to join to the Grand Ole Opry.

When Phillips returned from vacation in December 1956, he was handed an audition tape by a young man who’d come up from Louisiana and was waiting at a relative’s house for a call. Thirty seconds into the tape, Phillips said, “I can sell that!” and the call went out to Jerry Lee Lewis. Unlike Presley and Cash, Lewis had some performing experience, but he’d auditioned around Nashville only to be told to go away and learn the guitar. His second record was “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going on.” The third was “Great Balls of Fire.”

That’s why Sam Phillips and Sun Records are remembered.

It all fell apart quite quickly. Phillips had already been forced to sell Presley’s contract to RCA Victor just to stay afloat. Then, when Cash’s three-year contract was up in July 1958, he jumped ship. Just weeks earlier, Lewis had gone to England with his thirteen-year-old bride and the ensuing furor derailed his career.

If all Phillips had ever done was discover Presley, Cash, and Lewis, he would still have earned his place in popular music history, but before he ever started Sun, he ran a small studio in Memphis and recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner at the dawn of their careers. Turner’s first hit, “Rocket 88,” was issued under the name of his cousin, Jackie Brenston, and some say it’s the first rock ‘n’ roll record. It certainly had the attitude.

Phillips also made the first recordings by Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, and Charley Pride. Rich scored a hit on Sun with “Lonely Weekends,” but Twitty and Pride didn’t come up with anything that Phillips liked enough to issue. Phillips missed another trick when he signed Roy Orbison, scored a hit, then let him go because he didn’t share Orbison’s vision of big production pop ballads. No-one bats 1.000.

In 1969, Sam Phillips sold Sun Records. Earlier this year, it was sold again, although Phillips, who died in 2003, wasn’t around to see it. Next year, it will be seventy years since he sat in his little studio sketching out his logo of a rooster crowing at dawn’s first light. “The sun to me, even as a kid back on the farm, was a universal kind of thing,” Phillips reflected years later. “A new day, a new opportunity.” It became that for him and for some of popular music’s most enduring legends.

- Colin Escott © 2021

On The Country Music Cruse 2020, our Elvis Tribute Artists performed a very special Tribute to Sun Records, performing hits from the greats including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. This February marks the 69th anniversary of the founding of Sun Records, so to celebrate, enjoy the full performance on our YouTube channel here.