Born Samuel Cornelius Phillips, 5 January 1923, Florence, Alabama
Died 30 July 2003, Memphis, Tennessee

Sam Phillips has earned eternal celebrity in rock & roll history as the inspiring Memphis record man behind Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and a slew of rockabillies. He was much more than just a producer and label owner, however. Phillips has often been called a "cultural revolutionary”, one of the most important figures in 20th century American culture.

Born as the youngest of eight children to a family of poor tenant farmers, Phillips initially wanted to become a criminal lawyer. He had to give up that ambition when his father died in 1941 and he dropped out of high school in his senior year to support his family. Sam had a lifelong interest in radio and his first job (in 1942) was as a deejay at station WLAY in Muscle Shoals. In 1945 he moved to Memphis to work for WREC as an announcer and maintenance and broadcast engineer, after taking courses in audio engineering. Phillips decided to apply his engineering expertise to the operation of a recording studio, which he would run in addition to his other jobs.

The Memphis Recording Service opened its doors in January 1950. Sam’s idea was to provide a service for “some of the great Negro artists” of the mid South who had not been given the opportunity to reach an audience. He was primarily interested in singers who could express their emotions with individuality and authenticity. “Feel” was more important then perfection. Business was slow at first and revenues came mainly from recording weddings and funerals. Until November 1955 his only assistant was Marion Keisker (1917-1989), who also worked part-time at WREC and who was hopelessly in love with Sam.

Among the first artists recorded by Phillips were Joe Hill Louis, Lost John Hunter, Junior Parker, B.B. King and Roscoe Gordon. Initially, the recordings were leased to RPM Records in Los Angeles. Then Phillips met Leonard Chess, of Chess Records in Chicago. The first thing Phillips sent to him was “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston with Ike Turner’s band, considered by many as the first rock & roll record. Released in April 1951, the disc reached # 1 on the R&B charts in June and eventually became the second-biggest R&B record of the year. RPM was not amused.

Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) made his recording debut in the spring of 1951 and gave Phillips his second success with the double-sided hit “How Many More Years”/ “Moanin’ at Midnight” (Chess 1479) in late 1951. Sam was mesmerized by the sound of Wolf’s voice. (“This is where the soul of man never dies.”). In later years Phillips has often said that he considered Howlin’ Wolf to be his greatest discovery. When the deal with Chess ran sour in 1952, Howlin’ Wolf went to Chess and stayed there for the rest of his career. After the unpleasant experiences with RPM and Chess, Phillips decided to start his own label. Sun Records started operations on March 27, 1952, at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. The first Sun single was the sax instrumental “Drivin’ Slow”/“Flat Tire” by Johnny London (Sun 175) ; the first chart entry on Sun was “Bear Cat” by Rufus Thomas (Sun 181, # 3 R&B, April 1953), an answer to “Hound Dog”. In 1953 Phillips expanded the label’s horizons by recording country acts. His wish to find a white singer who could sing with an R&B feel was answered with the arrival of Elvis Presley, who recorded his debut single, “That’s All Right”/“Blue Moon of Kentucky” in July 1954. The singer’s five Sun singles rank among the greatest achievements in popular music. But Sun's financial basis was still very unstable and in November 1955 Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $ 35,000. He invested the money wisely (especially in the Holiday Inn motel chain) and by 1958 Phillips was a millionaire.

By 1956 almost all the black acts had disappeared from the label and Phillips began to concentrate on the new rockabilly style which he had helped to create. “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins (early 1956) was a typical example and became Sun’s first million seller, scoring in all markets (# 2 pop, # 1 country, # 2 R&B). Later in 1956, “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash also passed the million mark. Singer-pianist Jerry Lee Lewis from Ferriday, Louisiana, paid his first visit to the Sun studio in October 1956. In Sam’s absence, he recorded his first single, “Crazy Arms” (supervised by Jack Clement), which didn’t chart, but his next two singles, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” were giant hits. Phillips began to concentrate his resources and promotion on Lewis, much to the dissatisfaction of other Sun artists. Both Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash defected to Columbia in 1958. Before Cash left, Phillips recorded him so prolifically that he was able to continue issuing Sun singles by Cash until 1964 with a certain regularity.

Especially in 1956-57 countless rockabilly artists came by to audition for Sun and Phillips listened patiently to them all. Important signings included Roy Orbison, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith, Billy Riley and Ray Smith. Bill Justis was hired as an arranger and had a # 2 hit in late 1957 with the instrumental “Raunchy”, another million seller. It came out on the Phillips International subsidiary, on which 71 singles were released between October 1957 and May 1963. Apart from Justis himself (who was fired by Phillips in 1959), the main artists on the label were Charlie Rich and Carl Mann.

In 1960 Phillips opened a new studio in Memphis, at 639 Madison Avenue, and the next year also a studio in Nashville. But musical tastes had changed and Phillips’s commitment to the record business began to diminish. He left the running of the studios for the greater part to others : Scotty Moore and Charles Underwood in Memphis and Kelso Herston and Billy Sherrill in Nashville. Fewer and fewer Sun singles were released, especially after Jerry Lee Lewis left in 1963 and the last Sun 45 appeared in January 1968. By that time Sam’s sons, Knox and Jerry, were more or less running the label.

Phillips sold Sun Records to Shelby Singleton in July 1969 for an undisclosed sum. Singleton started an extensive album reissue program. Hundreds of unissued Sun recordings saw their first release in the 1970s and it wasn’t until then that the giant scope of Phillips’s achievements was revealed. The flood of reissues continues to the present. After the Sun period, Phillips devoted most of his time to the operation of his radio stations. In 1986 he was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a nonperformer). He was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1998 and into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2001). Sam Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis on July 30, 2003. He was 80 years old.

More info :

Comprehensive Sun site :

Books :
- Peter Guralnick, Sam Phillips, the man who invented rock ’n’ roll. New York : Little, Brown, 2015. 763 pages.
- Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin’ Tonight : Sun Records and the birth of rock ’n’ roll. New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1991. 276 pages.

CD recommendation :
The Complete Sun Singles, Vol. 1-6 (Bear Family BCD 15801-15806). Released 1994-1998. Six four-CD box-sets, extensively annotated by Hank Davis.

Acknowledgements : Peter Guralnick, Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins, John Broven, Wikipedia.

YouTube :
- Sam Phillips, the man who invented rock & roll, part 1 (A&E biography) :
- Same, part 2 :
- Good Rockin’ Tonight : Documentary about Sun Records, part 1 :
Part 2-8 are also on YouTube.
- Sam Phillips on David Letterman (but he wasn’t drunk!) : - Interview with Peter Guralnick about his Sam Phillips biography :

Dik, March 2016

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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