RECORDING AT SUN STUDIO
The Sun "45s" #174 thru #407.
THE SUN STORY
Sam Phillips was born on January 5, 1923, the youngest of eight children. He was raised on a three-hundred-acre tenant farm on the Tennessee River, just outside Florence, Alabama. At first, Phillips grew up in comparative comfort. "Then came the Crash of 1929. One day my father had money. The next thing he knew, it was gone. A few hundred dollars left maybe. All gone. That kind of thing could break you, but my father had courage and determination and refused to give up."
Phillips cites his father as his first inspiration and credits him for much of his inner strength. "I was often a sick child. Other kids around me were rough and self-sufficient, and I learned from what I saw that you have to believe in yourself and what you can do."
In 1941 Phillips was forced to leave high school to help make ends meet at home. His father had died just after Pearl Harbor, and Phillips had to help support his mother and deaf-mute aunt. He worked at a grocery store and later a funeral parlor.
When Sam Phillips opened the doors of his Memphis Recording Service in January 1950, he was taking a chance on an area of business that remained unproven in Memphis. Just about the only similar venture anyone could remember was a short-lived company called Royal Recording, which had been founded in 1948 to record private functions and the like, only to become defunct a year later. "It was because of the closure of the Royal studio downtown that my bosses At WREC warned me against trying to start my own recording business," Phillips would recall years later.
In October 1949 Phillips signed the lease on a small storefront property at the junction of Union and Marshall Avenues, near the heart of downtown Memphis. The rent at 706 Union was $150 a month. He installed his recording and transcription equipment with the help of a two-year loan from Buck Turner, a regular performer on WREC. Working with the slogan "We Record Anything-Anywhere-Anytime," Phillips opened the doors of the Memphis Recording Service in January 1950. Becky Phillips took a photo of her husband standing outside the studio and pasted it into the scrapbook with the caption, "A Man's Dream Fulfilled-What Next?"
"I opened the Memphis Recording Service," recalls Phillips, "with the intention of recording singers and musicians from Memphis and the locality who I felt had something that people should be able to hear. I'm talking about blues-both the country style and the rhythm style-and also about gospel or spiritual music and about white country music. I always felt that the people who played this type of music had not been given the opportunity to reach an audience. I feel strongly that a lot of the blues was a real true story. Unadulterated life as it was.
March 5, 1951, was the night it all came together for Sam Phillips. Ike Turner, a DJ on WROX in Clarksdale, Mississippi, had driven up to Memphis with a band featuring a young singer named Jackie Brenston. A feature in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in June 1951 reported that "B. B. King of Memphis, one of the race artists Sam has been recording, passed the world along to Ike Turner, a negro bandleader of Clarksdale, Mississippi, that the market was open." Ike, Jackie, and the band had worked up a rollicking R&B number-called "Rocket 88," after the hot Oldsmobile coupe-and they decided to audition it for Phillips.
But during the drive from Clarksdale, guitarist Willie Kizart's amp fell off the top of the car, breaking the speaker cone. "We had no way of getting it fixed." Phillips told Robert Palmer, "so we started playing around with the damn thing, stuffed a little paper in there and it sounded good. It sounded like a saxophone."
Rather than submerge the distorted sound of Kizart's guitar, Phillips took a chance and over amplified it, making it the centerpiece of the rhythm track. Kizart played a simple boogie riff in unison with Ike Turner's piano. Raymond Hill contributed two screeching tenor sax solos, and Brenston rode over the top with a hugely confident vocal that belied his tender years. Phillips later characterized "Rocket 88" as the first rock 'n' roll record. Its raucous, unbridled energy certainly foreshadowed much that was to follow, although arguably it owed a greater debt to what had come before.
On February 25, 1952, Phillips recorded the duo of harmonica player Walter Horton and jug band veteran Jack Kelly, who together had worked up two tunes, "Blues in My Condition" and "Sellin' My Stuff." On March 5 Phillips sent dubs (acetates run off the master tape) of the tunes to Chess, inquiring whether they would be interested in releasing them. Chess said they would not. On March 8 Phillips made up a new set of dubs of "Blues in My condition" and sent one to Memphis station WHHM, asking that it be aired as the introduction to the Sun label. The response was good enough to persuade him to ship the masters for processing. "Sellin' My Stuff" was retitled "Sellin' My Whiskey" in anticipation of release, and the duo was dubbed Jackie Boy and Little Walter. By the time the stampers (the metal parts used in the manufacturer of records) were shipped back from Shaw Processing, however, Phillips had decided that Chess had been correct: the record wasn't strong enough for release. The first Sun record, number 174, was never issued.
Even on this first release, all the hallmarks of a Sam Phillips sun record were in place: the raw sound, the experimental origin, the dark texture, even the trademark echo. Phillips and London created the illusion of a sax heard down a long hallway on a humid night by rigging something like a telephone booth over London's head while he played. The record's appeal had more to do with feeling than virtuosity-in short, it offered everything music buyers could expect from Sun for the remainder of the decade. A copy of "Drivin' Slow," Sun #175, was mounted on the studio wall near the door after its release, where it remained until the old studio was closed.
The elemental twelve-bar blues "Hound-Dog" has been the subject of an inordinate number of lawsuits since Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller copyrighted it in early 1953. It was written for Big Mama Thornton (who also claimed to have written it while in the company of her favorite relative , Old Grandad). The latter-day interest, of course, results from the fact that Elvis Presley would make it into one of the most lucrative copyrights in popular music.
But back in March 1953 Elvis was sitting on the side of his bed trying to learn the song, while Sam Phillips was sitting in the studio rewriting it as "Bear Cat." On March 8, only a few weeks after Thornton's version had been released, Phillips called local DJ Rufus Thomas into the studio to cut the song. It entered the national R&B charts on April 18, only two weeks after Thornton's original version, sparking Billboard To call it "the fastest answer song to hit the market." It eventually climbed all the way to number 3 on the R&B charts, becoming Sun Records' first hit.
The blues releases on Sun tapered off during 1954. There were two singles (and reels and reels of unissued cuts) from the eccentric Dr. Ross, who epitomized all that Phillips loved about the blues. His approach was rhythmic, propulsive, and countrified. Ross had worked as a one-man band, but Phillips usually brought in some backup musicians when he recorded at Sun. By 1953 resonance to the primitive drive of Ross's music; yet even a superficial comparison of that music with the R&B hits of 1953 and 1954 shows how anachronistic Ross had become-a fact Ross may have recognized before Phillips. He soon left Memphis for Flint, Michigan, where he started work in the auto plants.
Popular wisdom, which has now taken on the power of a classical myth, has it that the first the world ever heard from Elvis Presley ws in the summer of 1953, when Elvis walked into the Sun studio to record a personal disc for his mother's birthday.
As some have pointed out, it is more likely, considering that Gladys Presley's birthday was in the spring, that Presley made the first record for himself, to hear how he sounded. That first disc soon ended up in the hands of Presley's schoolmate Ed Leek. They shared a homeroom in the twelfth grade at Humes High and hung out together for a year or two. By Leek's own account, he hung on to the disc, which coupled "My Happiness" with "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," because his grandparents owned a record player and the Presley family didn't.
Leaving aside the unresolvable question of how many appearances Presley had made at the studio, there is also some dispute over how much performing experience he had acquired when he arrived that afternoon. Sam Phillips told Peter Turalnick, "He didn't play with bands. He didn't go to this little club and pick and grin. All he did was set (sic) with his guitar on the side of his bed at home. I don't think he even played on the front porch."
With his cheap guitar and the grudging support of Black and Moore, Presley tried to sing "Without You." If Phillips ever got as far as committing any cuts to tape, they must have sounded as woeful as Presley's attempt at "Harbor Lights" recorded a little later in the sessions. Trying to croon, Presley could only manage an insecure whine-not a good astringent nasal howl like Hank Williams', but the immature sound of a voice that has yet to find itself.
Still working on his crooning, Presley tried "I Love You Because," which moved Phillips to hit the RECORD button on his Ampex. Then, apparently, the little group took a break for coffee and cokes. "All of a sudden," recalled Scotty Moore, "Elvis started singing a song, jumping around, acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass and started acting the fool too, and I started playing with 'em. Sam had the door to the control booth open . . . he was either editing some tape or something, and he stuck his head out and said, "What're you doing?" We said, 'We don't know.' 'Well, back up,' he said, 'try to find a place to start and do it again.'"
The song that Presley was fooling around with was "That's All Right (Mama)," a song that had been on his mind for possibly seven years. It had been that long since Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup had recorded a version for RCA Victor every bit as primitive and energized as Presley's own. Elvis made one telling change in the lyrics: the line, "The life you're living, son, women be the death of you, "became, "Son, that gal you're fooling with, she ain't no good for you." The truly surprising thing, though, is how perfectly Presley, Moore, and Black retained the loose-jointed swing of the original. This was the unmistakable black feel to which Phillips responded when he stuck his head around the door.
According to Sam Phillips' production log, "That's All Right," backed with "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was released as Sun #209 on July 19, 1954 He sent a review copy to Billboard magazine. To their credit, Bob Rolontz and the review staff at Billboard picked up on Presley immediately. In the issue dated August 7, reviewing Presley among the new country releases, they said, "Presley is a potent new chanter who can sock over a tune for either country or R&B markets . . . a strong new talent."
Although few could have perceived it at the time, July 1958 was a watershed in the history of Sun Records. Jerry Lee Lewis had returned from England with his career in tatters; Johnny Cash was just completing his divorce from the label. A few weeks later, Judd Phillips left to start his eponymous Judd label.
Despite the bad news, Sam Phillips pushed forward. Foremost in his mind was his concern over the recording conditions at 706 Union Avenue: his studio was creeping into obsolescence. The floor, while larger than many have supposed, was too small to accommodate the increasingly large groups Sun was recording. The control room was too small to install the crucial new multitrack recorders. And the office area, where Sam rambled around as always among other people's desks, was too cramped to house even his skelton staff. By 1958 he knew he would have to take his recording operations into new quarters - even if his own, very good, instincts warned him against it.
Phillips also wanted to diversify into custom recording (hiring out studio time), and developing Phillips International into an album label with diverse brands of music. All of this, requiring more space, more personnel, and updated technology, was impossible at 706 Union Avenue.
In the summer of 1958 Phillips bought a property on Madison Avenue in Memphis, just a few city blocks from the old studio. At various points in its history, 639 Madison had housed a Midas Muffler shop and Hart's Bakery. Phillips gutted the interior and installed two modern recording studios on the ground floor. On the second floor he laid out the new A&R and promotion offices, and set aside a vault for tape storage. On the third floor, adjacent to the accounting and publishing offices, Phillips finally gave himself his own office - complete with jukebox and nearby wet bar, ensuring that he was surrounded by a few of his favorite things. The final touches were administered by Decor by Denise, who favored early space age motifs: door handles were housed in miniature sputniks, and the offices soon took on the look of a late '50s Buick.
Although it had been in use, on and off, since January 1960, the new studio was launched in a promotional whirl on September 17. The complex was everything that 706 Union was not: spacious, state-of-the-art, and soulless.
Shortly after opening the new studio on Madison Avenue, Phillips decided to branch out with a studio in Nashville. After years of refusing to rent out his studio to anyone, Phillips made a complete turnabout, deciding to enter the custom recording business in a grandiose way. The success of Bradley's Barn in Nashville showed that there was money aplenty to be made in that city by catering to the smaller labels and the overflow business from the larger studios. "I thought Nashville could be a good center not only for country music but for the range of music we were recording," recalled Phillips. "I was also trying to bring a new kind of influence into the business there."
Phillips had leased office space in the old Cumberland Lodge building in Nashville for his publishing companies, which were run locally by Kelso Herston. In the same building, Billy Sherrill and Bill Cooner had built a small studio, which was on the point of going bankrupt. Herston told Phillips that it was available, and Phillips came to look it over. Newly conscious of the importance of room ambience after the disappointments back in Memphis, Phillips was impressed with the Seventh Avenue studio. Its high ceiling and wooden floors and walls gave a warm, focused sound. After attending a session, Phillips decided to buy it and hired Billy Sherrill as his engineer. The multitrack installation was by Ray Butts, who had earlier built the Echoplex amplifier that had enabled Scotty Moore to re-create the studio reverb on stage.
After the previews at the end of 1960, the studio finally opened in February 1961. Jerry Lee Lewis breezed into town for the inaugural session and cut "What'd I say," the hit that took him back into the charts after four years in the commercial wilderness. Two days later, Charlie Rich came to Nashville and recorded "Who Will the Next Fool Be"; the portents were excellent.
The decline that affected Phillips' labels through the early '60s had even deeper causes than his diminishing interest or the audio characteristics of the new studio. The character of the entire industry was changing.
Sun had swept to prominence with some of the most starkly underproduced music ever recorded. "Blue Suede Shoes," "I Walk the Line," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" featured just three or four instruments and a vocalist, but such productions were swiftly going out of vogue. If Phillips had followed his nose back toward rhythm and blues, he would have been well placed to capitalize upon the soul music boom a few years later. Instead, he and his staff followed the trend toward a fuller pop sound. As a result, a Sun record produced in the early '60s was less likely to be distinguishable from the fifty or one hundred other records released during the same week.
By the time Sun neared the end of its course, Memphis was making its mark on the music business once again. Stax, Hi, and Goldwax Records were the new focus of activity, the new bearers of the "Memphis Sound" banner. Sun played a minor role as a custom studio, but when Knox Phillips tried to capitalize on the new wave of black music emerging from the city, the results were mixed. One of his signings, the Climates, fronted the stellar rhythm section of Reggie Young, Mike Leech, Tommy Cogbill, and Gene Chrisman, but never rose above mediocrity. The final Sun record, issued with little fanfare in January 1968, was by a group dubbed Load of Mischief. One side featured riffs copped from the Stax catalog and the other from Motown. It was a lamentable finale.
Sam Phillips has admitted that Sun Records perished because of his diminishing commitment to the record business. "The basic reason that Sun did not become a major label," he has said, "was that I preferred to invest my time in other things. I didn't want to hook up with a major corporation because I knew I couldn't do the job the way I wanted to do it as part of a big company - even though I had several offers.
Phillips also saw that the days when you could get some cuts on tape, mastered, pressed, and promoted for a few hundred dollars were long gone. Modern sessions called for more musicians, most of whom demanded union scale. In fact, every facet of the industry, from the technical to the promotional, was becoming more expensive.
In the changing climate, albums were a necessity, and singles were increasingly seen as trailers or loss leaders for LPs. Phillips never truly believed in the album market; in fact, Shelby Singleton issued more albums of Sun product in the first year after he bought the catalog than Phillips had issued in fifteen years. Some have seen Phillips' lack of interest in the album market as evidence of his parsimony, but for him it was a much more complex issue: "Albums weren't selling that much, but beyond that, I was always very cautious about not putting out a lot of product on my artists simply to ensure a certain level of income.
Under his direction, Sun was true to the slogans on that letterhead. It was no mere coincidence that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and so many others gave their finest performances in the Sun studio. The excitement they generated, along with Phillips' almost messianic ability to bring out the rawest emotion in their art, qualifies the man as probably the first modern record producer, and possibly the greatest. It also ensures that his legacy is among the most important in popular music.
SUN STUDIO TOUR GROUP INFORMATION
Tour group information on touring Sun Studio, the birthplace of Rock 'N' Roll! We offer group tours of the recording studio and gallery at a reduced admission rate if the group is booked in advance. Group tours can be booked for groups of 15 or more at $9.00 per person. (regular rate is $12 ($10 if you have AAA). Group tours can be scheduled on the hour for up to 30 people per tour. We are open from 10am to 6pm daily, 7 days a week, year round.
There are 2 parts of Sun Studio that are included in the tour. The first part is the studio itself, where all of the music was recorded. The second part is the museum gallery, which has pictures, records, memorabilia, and information about the studio and the artists who recorded here. Studio tours take approximately 30 minutes. The self-guided tour of the gallery can be done at each individual's own pace. We estimate 15-30 minutes for the gallery tour. We have a gift shop with plenty of Sun Studio related souvenirs, as well as a record shop with sun recordings on cassette, CD, and vinyl. We also have drinks and snacks available for sale while people are waiting for the tour.
If you have a group of more than 30 people and are pressed for time we can arrange for part of your group to tour the studio first on the hour while the rest of the group tours the gallery. When the first group is finished with the studio tour, the rest of the group can go into the studio immediately on the following half-hour, and the first group can tour the gallery. If you have any questions call Kristen at 1-800-441-6249.
We recommend that you schedule at least 45 minutes for the entire tour per group of 30 people. This allows enough time for the visitors to enjoy everything without feeling rushed. However; if you and your group are very pressed for time, it is possible for us to take up to 45 people into the studio at a time, and therefore an entire busload of 45 people can see the entire tour in 45 minutes. Once again, we do not recommend scheduling this short amount of time, rather making enough time for your clients to enjoy every part of Sun Studio!
RECORDING AT SUN STUDIO:
THE BIRTHPLACE OF ROCK'N'ROLL
Radio Engineer Sam Phillips opened Sun Studio as the Memphis Recording Service in January, 1950 to record the blues greats from the region who had no place else to record in the south. Legendary bluesmen like B.B. King, Howlin Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, Rufus Thomas and Junior Parker recorded their first records here.
In March, 1951 Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, with Ike Turner on piano recorded, ROCKET 88 at Sun Studio. ROCKET 88 is considered by most music historians and by Sam Phillips himself to be the first Rock 'N' Roll song. The success of ROCKET 88 led Phillips to start his own record label in 1952; the Sun Label.
Sam shared the tiny office with Marion Keisker, who took care of most of the non-music end of the business. She also greeted the teenaged Elvis Presley when he came here in 1953 to make a personal recording, noting in the studio log that he was a "good ballad singer". In less than two years Sam Phillips took Elvis from a complete unknown who had never played in public to the most sought after singer in the country. The five records that Elvis recorded at Sun Studio fused country, blues and gospel music into a new sound that would literally change music forever.
Soon the studio would be filled with musicians hoping that Phillips could work the same magic for them. Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" became Rock 'N' Roll's first major hit, topping the pop, country and blues charts. Johnny Cash became Sun's most consistent hitmaker. Roy Orbison, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, Charlie rich and dozens more carried on the Rockabilly tradition Elvis had begun. And Jerry Lee Lewis and his pumpin' piano set the music world on fire, recording Sun's biggest hits; "Whole Lot of Shakin'" and "Great Balls of Fire."
In 1960, needing bigger quarters, Phillips closed the studio and for the next 25 years barbers and businessmen replaced the Rock 'N' Rollers. Then in 1985 Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis returned to the then empty studio to record the Class of '55 album and Sun Studio's second era of greatness began.
The studio was restored with Sam Phillips' help and in 1987 opened its doors as both a tourist attraction and a working recording studio. Known for its relaxed and creative atmosphere, Sun Studio has also played host to the diverse talents of artists like Ringo Starr, Def Leppard, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, U2, The Spin Doctors, Def Leppard, The Tractors, Malcolm Yelvington, Michelle Shocked, Gatemouth Brown, The Indigo Girls, Keith Sykes, Dennis Quaid, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Swan, and The Gibson Brothers are only some of the music greats who have come to record at Sun Studio since it reopened.
Today, as home to 706 records, Sun Studio carries on the Rock 'N' Roll Revolution begun here in 1950, where a kid with a guitarcase full of dreams can stand in the footsteps of giants and carve out a legend.
Cost: By-the-hour, includes an engineer, drum kit and "some" vintage amplifiers. Does not include cost of tape. No discount for bringing own engineer, but they are more than welcome to come. For further information regarding the recording studio, equipment, or booking, please contact James Lott at 901-521-0664.
Part of the above information, with permission from the Sun Studio, was taken from the book "Good Rockin' Tonight," by Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins, St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., NYC 10010.
© Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®