Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis Presley and helped kickstart the rock and roll era, died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, on Wednesday (July 30). He was 80.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, Phillips founded the Sun Records label in Memphis in 1952 and recorded the debut single from Elvis Presley (“That’s All Right, Mama” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) in 1954. Elvis’ first recording helped secure both his and Phillips’ places in rock history and set the stage for Phillips’ work with some of the giants of the genre.
“He’s the man who invented rock and roll,” said Shelby Singleton, who, along with his brother, bought Sun from Phillips in 1969.
Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips in Florence, Alabama, on January 5, 1923, Phillips began his music career as a radio engineer, and later a DJ, in Alabama and Nashville before moving to Memphis in 1945, where he worked as a talent scout for labels such as Chess and Modern.
He quit the radio business in 1950 to form Sam Phillips Records, which faltered after releasing one album. He gave it another shot two years later under the name Sun with the notion of releasing records by local R&B and country singers, many of them unschooled. His desire to capture the unpolished energy of his artists was reflected in the label’s early motto, “We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime,” a philosophy that could just as easily apply to the punk rock revolution more than 20 years later.
During a time when the South was segregated, Phillips, who was white, frequently worked with black musicians such as R&B singer Rufus Thomas. “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.”
Phillips’ love for the propulsive, energetic sound of electric blues by artists such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf – whose debut studio recordings he produced – helped spread the gospel of rock and roll and make it the dominant sound of the 20th century. Phillips is also credited with producing what is widely considered to be one of the first rock records, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner’s 1951 hit, “Rocket 88.”
The fusion of country and blues Phillips recorded with artists such as Elvis and Carl Perkins came to be known as rockabilly. It became a big part of the signature Sun sound, which relied on a spare drum pattern that gave country music a jazzy, swinging beat. (Drums were rarely used in country recordings before the early 1950s, according to the Sun Records Web site, and were outright banned on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.)
Phillips has said that he was attracted to Elvis because the teenage singer was exactly what he was looking for – a white singer who understood the nuances of blues and gospel music. That egalitarian philosophy helped make Sun a home for everything from western swing and blues to gospel-influenced soul, country and R&B.
After his hit cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama,” Elvis recorded four more singles with Phillips before the Sun chief was forced to sell Presley’s recording contract to RCA for $35,000 in 1955 in order to raise money to expand the label.
Elvis, of course, went on to megastardom at RCA, but Phillips did just fine on his own. He continued to record hits with just about every important early rock and roll artist, from B.B. King and Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”) to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
Phillips’ risk-taking, open-door philosophy encouraged those around him to experiment as well, resulting in a legendary Sun Records session that was the blueprint for all rock supergroups to come. On December 4, 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session as Johnny Cash stood watching. Presley walked in a short time later and the four recorded an impromptu jam session under the name the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Cash, Perkins and Orbison eventually left to record for other labels, and Phillips continued to release albums on Sun infrequently through the late 1960s. In 1969, he sold Sun to Singleton and spent his remaining years running a number of radio stations in Memphis and Alabama.
The Sun Studios at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis are preserved today as a tourist attraction.