If he were still with us, Sam Phillips would have turned 95 years old today. Sam…

Written by on January 6, 2018

If he were still with us, Sam Phillips would have turned 95 years old today. Sam is best known for ‘discovering’ Elvis Presley. He also ‘discovered’ Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and many others. Here’s a very brief, edited history of Sam:

In the 1940s, Phillips worked as a DJ and radio engineer for Muscle Shoals radio station WLAY (AM). According to Phillips, this radio station’s “open format” (of broadcasting music from both white and black musicians) would later inspire his work in Memphis. Beginning in 1945, he worked for four years as an announcer and sound engineer for WREC.

On January 3, 1950, Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. The Memphis Recording Service let amateurs perform, which drew performers such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin’ Wolf. Phillips then would sell their performances to larger record labels. In addition to musical performances, Phillips recorded events such as weddings and funerals, selling the recordings. The Memphis Recording Service also served as the studio for Phillips’s own label,which he launched in 1952.

Phillips recorded what some—notably music historian Peter Guralnick—consider the first rock and roll record: “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by 19-year-old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song. The recording was released on the Chess/Checker record label in Chicago, in 1951. From 1950 to 1954 Phillips recorded the music of James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland, and others. Others such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolfmade their first recordings at his studio. In fact, Phillips deemed Howlin’ Wolf his greatest discovery and he deemed Elvis Presley his second greatest discovery.

Sun Records produced more Rock and Roll records than any other record label of its time during its 16 year run, producing 226 singles.[6

Phillips and Elvis Presley opened a new form of music. Phillips said of Elvis: “Elvis cut a ballad, which was just excellent. I could tell you, 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 heard of Elvis Presley.”

Presley’s singles and regional success became a drawing card for Sun Records, as singing hopefuls soon arrived from all over the region. Singers such as Sonny Burgess (“My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”), Charlie Rich, Junior Parker, and Billy Lee Riley recorded for Sun with some success, while others such as Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins would become superstars.

Phillips had an open style and insightful guidance that seemed to allow musicians, especially Presley, to search and feel their way to a point to where they would perform beyond Phillips’s and their own expectations. Phillips told Elvis that the worst thing he could go for was perfection. Phillips was always seeking what he called the perfect/imperfect cut. This meant that it was not technically perfect, but perfectly conveyed the feeling and emotion of the song to the listener and gave the song a living personality, partially due to it being technically imperfect.

Phillips’s pivotal role in the early days of rock and roll was exemplified by a celebrated jam session on December 4, 1956 which came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session at Phillips’s studio. When Elvis Presley walked in unexpectedly, Johnny Cash was called into the studio by Phillips, leading to an impromptu session featuring the four musicians.

Phillips challenged the four to achieve gold record sales, offering a free Cadillac to the first, which Carl Perkins won. The contest is commemorated in a song by the Drive-by Truckers.

Phillips launched radio station WHER on October 29, 1955. Each of the young women who auditioned for the station assumed there would only be one female announcer position, as was the case with other stations at that time. Only a few days before the first broadcast did they learn of the “All Girl Radio” format. It was the first all girl radio station in the nation, as almost every position at the station was held by a woman.

When Sam sold Elvis’s recording contract to RCA, he received $35,000.00 for it. Some of that money went to Elvis and Sam used some of his part to invest in a new business. That business was Holiday Inn hotels. Sam made a fortune.


(From CRRK) We think one of the most important things that Sam did was the ‘not looking for perfection’ idea. He understood that Rock and Roll music is more of a feeling, and directed his artists in that direction.

Sam passed away on July 30, 2003.

Happy Birthday Sam. Pure Genius. If there’s a Rock and Roll Heaven, Sam is recording it.

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