Dawn Of An Era With The Rise Of Sun
Alright folks, we’ve been travelling all week and it’s time to get off this bus for our second stop on the road of rockabilly history: the famous Sun Studio!
Sun Studio was a small-time recording house based in Memphis Tennessee and run by rockabilly pioneer Sam C. Phillips. Phillips had dreamed of opening up his own recording studio since he was a child, and so in 1950 he did. This studio was The Memphis Recording Service, and was the precursor of the great things to come.
Now that he had achieved his dreams I would say that Mr. Phillips was one of the happiest men in the world, but there were some issues with his plan so far; namely that he had no real idea about how to run a recording studio, operate recording sessions, or make any money from a business like this. So, to get around the issue of not having enough money to keep afloat Sun Studio opened its doors to anyone and everyone who might sing or play an instrument and happened to be in Memphis at the time. Anyone could just rock up to the door and, for a small fee, they could cut themselves a single. This was all well and good, but Phillips wanted more and decided to band together with friend and local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation whatsoever) to move beyond just running a recording studio and so they started their own record label, Phillips Records.
The purpose of this newly founded record label was to record and promote black artists throughout the South. This was a laudable goal to be sure, but once again the little studio had some problems and the whole thing folded after their first and only release sold less than four hundred copies.
Boogie In The Park – Joe Hill Lewis
The first and only single ever to released through Phillips Records.
This blazing failure didn’t deter Phillips though. Quite the contrary; he got up, dusted off his jacket, and got back to work, this time collaborating with other labels like Chess Records and Modern Records which mainly worked with black blues artists. It was during this period that Sam C. Phillips recorded what is considered by some rock historians as the first rock and roll song ever performed. This is of course open to debate, but I can say that is was definitely one of the earliest rock and roll tracks even if it wasn’t exactly the first.
Rocket 88 – Jackie Brenston
The main significance of this track for Phillips (and for rock and roll in general) was the distinct sound he managed to get from the recording. Here historians tend to vary slightly on their version of events: some put it down to the fact that Sam Phillips was a creative genius and he single-handedly got Jackie Brenston to play in a specific was in order to create rock music, but others (probably more believably) put it down to the fact that the amplifier they were using to record the track was broken slightly and turned up a little bit too loud which gave the whole record a fuzzy, distorted quality – a quality which was quickly to become one of the signifiers of rock and roll music.
His ego bolstered by these successful collaborations, Phillips in 1952 once again decided to launch his own label and this time it was Sun Records which was soon to become legend. To begin with, however, he mainly stuck to recording black artists like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. Great musicians surely, but still Phillips hadn’t hit on the magic milestone that was going to make him renowned throughout the world. No, that particular event came about in August of 1953 when an eighteen year old Elvis Presley walked into the office of Sun Studio and put his money down to record an acetate single of him singing My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartache Begins to give to his mother as a gift.
My Happiness/ That’s When Your Heartache Begins – Elvis Presley
Now, the story goes that the receptionist at Sun was pressing Elvis on the issue of what other singers he sounded like when Elvis responded with the immortal line, “I don’t sound like nobody,” and that’s when Sam Phillips pricked up his ears and started paying attention to this young man who he just knew would go far. What is more likely, however, is that Elvis sang his tracks and his voice and demeanour was what got Phillips interested. Elvis wasn’t an instant success though, in fact Phillips asked his receptionist to keep a note of the young man and then forgot about it until Elvis came back later in the year to record another two tracks (this time they were I’ll Never Stand In Your Way and It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You), but even Phillips didn’t offer the young Presley any kind of record deal.
I’ll Never Stand In Your Way – Elvis Presley
It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You – Elvis Presley
As a matter of fact Phillips didn’t really think much of Presley until he acquired a demo recording of a song called Without You which he thought might work with Elvis’s voice and so called him in to the studio to do a few takes. On that fateful fifth of July evening, however, Elvis just couldn’t do the song justice and Phillips was pretty much ready to send him home until, towards the end of the session, Elvis picked up his acoustic guitar and launched into his own version of That’s Alright (an old Arthur Cruddup blues tune from 1949). It was at this point when Elvis finally came into his element and Phillips finally found the white man who could bring his much beloved black music to a wider audience, and a single was recorded instantly.
That’s Alright – Elvis Presley
Elvis’s version of That’s Alright quickly became a huge success, and Sam Phillips started got the young lad back into the studio within days to record Blue Moon Of Kentucky, and suddenly Sun Studio had become what we all know it to be.
Of course, all of the credit can’t be given just to Elvis’s playing and Sam Phillips for discovering him. No, some credit has to be given to the distinct sound that Sun had managed to come up with for recording their rockabilly artists. The most distinctive aspect of which was the ‘slapback’ reverb devised by engineer and producer Jack Clement that so many bands since have latched onto and tried to recreate. Here are a couple of examples of later bands emulating the distinctive echo sound:
Rock This Town – Stray Cats
Garbageman – The Cramps
King Of The Surf – The Trashmen
It is also pertinent that I mention the other rockabilly acts that helped make Sun Studio so famous. Acts like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison all signed to Sun Records where they defined their sound, grew in fame, and eventually left the small label to go on to national acclaim and success.
This, it seems, was the way of things with Sun, and probably helped to facilitate its decline. Many artists cycled through the legendary roster, but most of them eventually left in search of a larger market, but nevertheless the name ‘Sun’ still lives on in the memory of rockabilly fans as the place where it all started. The place where Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash all stood in the same room as one another and recording songs together. The place where dreams were realized and magic happened.
But maybe it’s all for the best that the glory days are over. Maybe it’s better that the building now stands proud as an historical attraction for all of those who love rockabilly music and want to stand in the place where heroes were made.
I will leave you now with an amazing little clip of a group who were termed ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’. This clip, I think, really goes to show what kind of magic happened right there in the Sun recording rooms as this quartet is made up of none other than such legends as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Enjoy!
Don’t Be Cruel – The Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash)
Well, that’s it for today and for Sun Studios, but once again this bus is going to get loaded up and set off across history until it sets down next week in all the other parts of the U.S.A where rockabilly music was starting to take its hold.
So stay tuned for next week’s stop on The Rockabilly Roadtrip: There Was Sun and Then There Was The Rest.
- Vintage and Rarely Seen Photographs of Elvis Presley (vintag.es)
- Elvis Presley: 20 essential songs (telegraph.co.uk)
- First Stop On The Rockabilly Roadtrip (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- From Elvis In Memphis (rockojerome.com)
- The Elvis Presley Recording That Elvis Himself Never Heard (theatlantic.com)
- History on Film: Elvis Presley Records First Record (1954) (davidmixner.com)
- Sun Records veteran, country music visionary ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement dead at 82 (hispanicbusiness.com)