Sun Records Founder Sam Phillips Dies

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips died Wednesday (July 30) in Memphis at the age of 80. The Country Music Hall of Fame member had been ill for several months.

As the record producer and label executive who launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich, his independent spirit altered the course of country and rock ‘n’ roll. But as the visionary who first recognized the talent of Elvis Presley, Phillips literally changed the world.

Born Jan. 5, 1923, on a tenant farm in Florence, Ala., Phillips worked at radio stations in Alabama and Tennessee, becoming an announcer at WREC in Memphis in 1945. By 1950, he had established his Memphis Recording Service studio at 706 Union Ave., where he recorded future blues legends Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and James Cotton. A year later, he used Ike Turner’s band to produce singer Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” — considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

Having previously served as a talent scout for other record labels, Phillips founded Sun Records in 1952 to specialize in rhythm & blues. Sun’s initial catalog included hits by acts such as Rufus Thomas and Little Junior Parker’s Blue Flames.

With a strong understanding and appreciation of the blues, Phillips had a long-standing desire to mix the music with the country sounds he’d grown up listening to on radio stations such as Nashville’s WSM. Lightning flashed and the planets aligned in 1953 when 19-year-old truck driver Elvis Presley wandered into the studio to record two songs as a gift for his mother. Phillips was about to make history.

With musical backing from guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley’s first commercial recording more than fulfilled Phillips’ dream. Released in the summer of 1954, it was a two-sided hit — a cover of rhythm & blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” with a revved-up arrangement of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

In a deal created by Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, Phillips sold Presley’s recording contract to RCA Records in 1955. Sun Records continued to thrive with hits including Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Hey Porter,” Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Honey Don’t,” Rich’s “Lonely Weekends” and Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby.”

“In no way was I attempting to chastise or corrupt or do anything that would be adverse to the great basis of country music and its experiences,” the flamboyant Phillips told CMT.com before his 2001 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Many things were being done in Nashville at the time that I thought were good. I really didn’t have a desire to outdo Nashville — or New York or Los Angeles. I just had my own feelings about the blues and, especially, Southern white and black gospel.”
Referring to Sun Records’ heyday, Phillips once noted, “We’re all crazy. But it’s a type of insanity that borders on genius. I really feel that. To be as free as you have to be for any kind of music, you almost have to be in another dimension. And to do the broad expanse of rock ‘n’ roll takes an element of mind expansion that people less creative would term insanity.”
While historians would later question why he sold Presley’s contract to RCA for a mere $35,000, Phillips used part of the money to become an investor in a burgeoning hotel chain in the early ‘50s — a company named Holiday Inn. Having accrued a fortune from his investments, Phillips sold Sun Records and its catalog to music industry veteran Shelby Singleton in 1969.

In later years, Phillips and sons Knox and Jerry operated the Sam Phillips Recording Service and a music publishing company. Phillips came out of retirement briefly to join his sons in co-producing John Prine’s 1979 rockabilly-influenced album, Pink Cadillac.

Phillips joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the first year of inductions. It took another 15 years for him to become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. When the induction took place during a private dinner in Nashville, Phillips seized the moment to embark on a lengthy monolog that rambled through several tangents involving the music industry. With the fire and vocal delivery of an evangelist at a tent revival, Phillips preached the gospel as he knew it — about how great music has the power to improve all mankind.

Sam Phillips knew great music. And he understood that great music often defies simple categorization.

“For years they had a hard time deciding whether I deserved to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Phillips told CMT.com. “I quite understand that. I really do. … Deserved or not, thank God I made it.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.