Sam Phillips once said, “If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything.” And he certainly lived his life that way.
Phillips, among many other accomplishments, founded the famous Sun Records, discovered artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and is often credited with the invention of rock ’n’ roll.
Beyond his staggering list of achievements and the gold records mounted on his wall, Phillips was deeply complex man with an intoxicating life story, one that instantly draws you in, as it did Chad Michael Murray.
We chatted with Murray just before the launch of the CMT series Sun Records, in which he portrays Phillips at the start of his career in Memphis.
CMT.com: To start, what drew you to Sun Records?
Chad Michael Murray: There was a bunch of factors for me in particular. First, I love working with Leslie Greif and Roland Joffe. When Leslie, the executive producer, and Fern Champion, the casting director, brought this to my attention, I immediately knew that the project would be well done. Once I found out that Roland was directing it, I was really excited about what he could do with this world. I was actually not privy to knowing much about Sam Phillips before that, I’m embarrassed to say, which is why I spent about 20 hours over the course of 48 hours investing in just getting to know this man, and I ended up finding him to be incredible in every way.
He was such a pioneer in so many ways, from founding the first all-women’s radio station, to creating the sound of rock ’n’ roll and finding Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, the list goes on and on. The man had an ear and a vision that no one else at the time had. He was so cutting edge, and everyone else was basically out trying to copy what he did. Once I found all that information, I fell in love with it. I said “I’m in, let’s do this.” It’s such a cool world and there’s so much story to tell.
Is Sam similar to any characters you have played in the past? Or did you find that you relate to him at all on a personal level?
Sam is very different from anything that I’ve ever dabbled in whatsoever, but the one aspect that Sam and I have in common would be, I think, that he’s a good coach. Growing up in a football home, I coached little league when I was younger, and just being surrounded by sports, I feel I embodied the coaching aspect in my own life.
Sam had a really good coaching aspect to him. That’s what’s so great about him. How does one man have the ears for an Elvis Presley or a Johnny Cash or a Jerry Lee Lewis? These are such giant personas, these legends, they were huge personalities. How are they gonna listen to one man? What is it about Sam that they listen to? It must have been that he had an incredible talent that they respected. He was a good coach. He was able to harness their talent and bring it out of them and make them great. There’s a great line in the show, “You got talent, I’ll pull it out of your ass.” That’s Sam in a nutshell. He was really good at it, and everyone respected him for it.
Speaking of coaching, how was it working with Drake Milligan (who plays young Elvis), as this was his first starring role? Did you have any advice for him on set?
It was kind of life imitating art. You see these young guys come in, these young men who have all the talent in the world, but they’ve never been on a film set. And I’m the big brother. A lot of times the coach is the big brother, and that’s kind of how the relationship works. I’m not there to step on anyone’s toes, I’m not there to tell anyone how to do their job, but I think you lead by example, and you guide and you help people out as much as you can by just being the big brother.
Sam Phillips speaks with a very distinctive tone and cadence, how did you study and perfect it to play the role?
It was a lot of work. I used my wife as a sounding board, and she’s really good at taking in information and helping me shape things. So the month before shooting, it was a lot of Sam Phillips in her ear. If I wasn’t watching him doing an interview or watching his biography, I was speaking and trying to learn his cadence. It was a month of trying this and trying that and showing up on set and hoping to God that they’d let me give it a try.
I remember our showrunner Gil said, “I don’t know if its gonna work.” And at the end of the show he finally, thank God, he came over to me and said, “Chad, I’m not going to lie, I was really worried about the voice when you first came in, but holy crap man, it’s perfect.” I really hope that everybody understands I was doing my best to portray a man that I have so much respect for, and I knew that everything starts with this man’s voice. He had a voice that the stars would listen to, so it had to start there.
Sam had two prominent women in his life, Becky and Marion, and they always seem to be pulling in him different directions. Becky wants him to focus on the family and his health, while Marion is always reminding him about his passion for music. How would you say those conflicting influences effected Sam?
In my personal opinion, Sam was not somebody who could be entertained very easily. His mind was always running, and he was so ahead of his time. He was a pioneer, and if he wasn’t out trying to find new acts, he was in the studio recording. He’d get a couple hours of sleep, and then he’d go back to work. I think he spent the majority of his time with Marion, so that’s hard on any family environment, obviously. So for him, I think that it had to be difficult to be pulled in those directions. He was trying to do the best he could with what he’d been given, and I think that’s why we don’t really judge him too much in the show. When you watch the show, I don’t think that you’re sitting there going “Ah, Sam, no.” You get it. You get where he’s coming from.
Sam has some pretty iconic lines in the show, do any of them stand out for you as a favorite?
Oh man, there’s so many. I’d say I just love every time he says the word “music,” because there’s a soulfulness and a tone in his voice when he says it. The word music is so weighted to him, it’s not just a flippant word, it’s beautiful, heavy and soulful. There was so much baritone in his voice when he said it.
Do you have a favorite scene from the series?
There are so many great scenes, I couldn’t pick one, I couldn’t pick 10! Truly, this is one of the greatest joys I’ve had making a television show, because I really truly felt like a fly on the wall, time traveling back to the 1950s, sitting in Sun Studios, and getting to record these great acts, it was really special.
Speaking of special moments, we heard that you got to meet Jerry Phillips, Sam’s son, at a screening of the show. Can you tell us about that?
Oh, my gosh. We did an eight-episode screening of the show, and we’re feeling pretty good about it, thinking we don’t need to be nervous we’re just going to go enjoy the show, and then I see Jerry is there. I’m thinking, “Holy cow, man, I hope he appreciates the portrayal of his father we created.” Not only is he there, he’s right across the aisle from me. Even my wife was squeezing my hand going, “Oh, my god! This is so nerve wracking!” And it was, because this is real life. Sam led an extraordinary life, and he did so many things that gave us an opportunity to tell this story. He changed the world, and now here I am, doing the largest portrayal of his father to date, on screen, and he’s there to either rip it apart or shake my hand. And in the end, I’m not going to tell you exactly what he said because that’s for us, but you know, I got the hug. The show meant a lot to him, so after that I said, “Boom, I’m good, I’m happy. Now let’s let the world see it.” Because if I can get the appreciation from his son, who loves his father very much and has all the respect in the world for him, then I think we did well.
What was it like filming on location in Memphis? Did you have any favorite local spots?
The show couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. Memphis is a living, breathing character in the story. It is everything. When you walk down Beale Street, you can feel the history. You can feel the ghosts walking up and down the street of times before, and the musicians that may have been discovered and the ones that weren’t, the ones that died without ever having their music heard. And I love the people, they really embraced us, and we’re forever grateful.
Do you have a favorite Sun Records’ artist song?
Oh, goodness, I couldn’t say a favorite! They’re all incredible artists, and I love all of them in different ways. You know, it depends on your mood, but I actually made a playlist with a whole bunch of Elvis on it for my running. Some were Sun Records hits, some were later RCA hits, but without a doubt, it just kept my mind going. It kept my mind in that space for what we were creating. I’m a big runner, so when you’re on a four-mile run in the morning in Memphis and you’re listening to Elvis, you realize you’re doing something very special. It just made me feel blessed to be there.
What’s next for your career? Do you have any upcoming projects the fans can look out for?
So Sun Records premieres on Thursday, and then my new novel American Drifter comes out this November, which I’m really excited about. It came to me in a dream, and it just created this really cool world. It’s about an American soldier who is backpacking through South America, and he ends up in Rio de Janeiro and meets this woman and has this beautiful, high adventure romance with her, but he ends up having to make some tough decisions. So that comes out, and then I’m just working on daddyhood right now. I’m going to be a father for the second time here in the next few weeks, and I’m super excited.
Catch Chad on the premiere of Sun Records tonight (Feb. 23) at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Follow the conversation with #SunRecords and on Facebook.