NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Sam Phillips: Music Equals Power

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The late Sam Phillips did so much in his 80-year life span that he will be eulogized and appreciated for many years to come. From his tiny little Sun Records recording studio at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis, he sent out to the world the exquisite blues of B.B. King, the raw power of Howling Wolf and the haunting harmonies of the penitentiary group, the Prisonaires. He showed that the black blues and the country blues were flip sides of the same expressions of a shared life. He captured the raw emotion of Southern music — whether it was white or black. He was often criticized by whites for recording blacks and by blacks for recording whites. With Elvis Presley, he invented rock ‘n’ roll. And then — just to sweeten the mix — he threw in Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. It’s still an understatement to say that he changed the world.

Along the way, he permanently changed country music and Nashville when the fledgling producer Billy Sherrill was installed in Phillips’ Nashville studio, where Sherrill went on to produce monumental hits by George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker and many others. In many ways, Sam set the agenda for rock and country. And that’s a pretty good legacy to take into eternity with you.

Interviewing Sam was like sitting at the feet of Moses, with lightning bolts striking all around you. He would warm to a particular subject and start to swell up a little bit like the best preachers do, and then he’d have to rise to his feet and start to pace as he orated and preached. His eyes would widen and the pupils would go black as he fixed you in his mesmerizing gaze. He may suddenly drop to one knee, as a preacher would, to command your full attention. Music is power, he thundered. He could preach that message a hundred different ways from Sunday, and the sermons always ran to a really long time but always made perfect sense — once you thought it out — and always were right.

Phillips’ most lasting lesson was that music really was empowerment — before that politically correct word came into fashion. Sam said music was power, and he was dead on right with that one. His stable of Memphis horses changed popular music and American society and forever changed the way popular music would be viewed, or performed or recorded.

One of the most interesting things Phillips ever did will undoubtedly remain a historical footnote. But I find it fascinating. Sam, who was fascinated with radio since childhood, decided that he wanted to launch an all-female station. Radio then, much more than it is now, was a male bastion, a genuine boys’ club. But Sam wanted to try something different.

And he did. Acknowledging publicly that radio was a male-dominated industry, Phillips launched Memphis station WHER in 1955 as “the first all-girl radio station in the world.” All the employees were women — announcers, sales, news staff, managers, music librarians, everyone. Many of the employees had no radio experience because entry jobs for women in radio were scarce indeed. But they learned very quickly.

“One thousand beautiful watts” was the station’s slogan, and many critics initially dismissed the station as a novelty. But Phillips was dead serious and WHER became a serious station, as well as a thorough training ground for women in radio.

The station lasted into the early ‘70s. By that time, enough doors had been broken down that an all-women station was no longer necessary. As Phillips predicted, WHER’s legacy was in breaking down barriers against women in radio. Just as Sun Records wrought a major revolution in music, WHER wrought a smaller — but just as valid — revolution in radio.