Sam Phillips demurs when it’s suggested that rock ‘n’ roll was invented at his Sun Records label during the 1950s.
But he does acknowledge there was a whole lotta shakin’ going on in Memphis thanks to the music he created there with the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and others.
“I do know this – it changed the world and it opened up a lot of doors,” Phillips said in a recent interview. “I’m happy we were able to contribute, at least in my opinion, to what music has done and is continuing to do as one of the greatest ambassadors we have both for nations around the world and racial desegregation.”
Sun’s achievements are celebrated in “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records,” a documentary that debuted Nov. 28 on PBS and airs through the public broadcasting network’s current pledge period.
A companion album of the same name, featuring Sun classics covered by rock ‘n’ roll luminaries such as Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, also was released.
“Sun Records had some of the greatest artists of all time,” said Ahmet Ertegun, who co-founded rival Atlantic Records 54 years ago and thought enough of Sun to produce the “Good Rockin’ Tonight” album. “They were all epic artists, and the music they made will last forever.”
The late Carl Perkins once defined Sun’s music as “the hillbilly’s beat with the black man’s rhythm.” But Phillips, whose work at Sun earned him an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, offers a more detailed recipe for what he and his musicians cooked up.
“What we did was to borrow from country music and Southern gospel quartet music, and then the blues and black blues and gospel, which to me is some of the most exciting music in the world,” recalled Phillips. “We took these and we molded them into something that wasn’t country, wasn’t the blues, wasn’t gospel. It was just different.”
Sun, based at the Memphis Recording Service opened by Phillips in October 1949, reached its stride in the mid- to late-1950s, when Presley, Perkins, et al turned out a string of hits that defined early rock.
Only Chess Records, led by Chuck Berry’s prodigious repertoire, could compete against Sun’s barrage of hits like “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Honey Don’t!,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” “Matchbox,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Claudette” and “Breathless.”
Sun Records’ legacy has been acknowledged frequently, but “Good Rockin’ Tonight” is one of the most ambitious tributes to the label. The producers went to great lengths to round up not only the artists on the album but many of Sun’s original acts – famous and obscure – to share stories about the label and the music they made.
But what distinguishes this from other salutes to Sun is the newly recorded music by artists who lovingly recreated the sounds of some of their favorite influences, a roster that also includes Sheryl Crow, Tom Petty, Chris Isaak, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Beck with Chrissie Hynde and Johnny Hallyday.
“There are thrills and chills on this album, some outstanding performances – and very authentic, too,” said Ertegun, who produced several of the tracks himself even though he was in and out of the hospital while the recordings were being made.
Each artist picked his or her own song to cover, and Ertegun said he was particularly “astounded at the incredible talent and musicality of Paul McCartney,” who recorded Presley’s “That’s All Right” with two of the King’s former sidemen – guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana.
British piano man Elton John appropriately chose Lewis’s hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” but several of the artists dug deeper into the Sun vaults.
Page and Plant, for instance, selected the Sonny Burgess hit “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” Dylan covered Warren Smith’s “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” and Clapton grabbed the Impressions for vocal support on the Prisonaires’ doo-wop-styled “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.”
The version of the traditional “Sittin’ on Top of the World” by Perkins and Van Morrison, meanwhile, represents Perkins’ last recording session before his death in 1998.
The most modernized track is an electrified rendition of Malcolm Yelvington & the Star Rhythm Boys’ “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by the Detroit group the Howling Diablos, with Kid Rock providing a guest rap.
And the band matchbox twenty distinguished itself by traveling to Phillips’ studio in Memphis, which is still active, to perform its version of Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekend,” with Lewis guesting on piano.
“It was like this total step back in time, with Ahmet and Sam working at the board,” said the group’s frontman, Rob Thomas. “Somewhere in the middle of it, everything stopped and you heard Ahmet going, ‘Uh, I think the engineer’s been drinking since 10 in the morning and he forgot to get tape, so we’re gonna get some more tape and roll this thing again.’ It was priceless.”
Lewis almost stormed out of the session, too, when one of the band members couldn’t remember how to play “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” during a jam session. “We had to all beg him to come back in so we could do it,” Thomas recalled.
But even that moment of drama, Thomas said, made the Sun story come alive.
“You can imagine Jerry Lee doing something like that back in the day,” the singer said. “I mean, he’s The Killer, right? It felt like a real Sun Records kind of moment.”