SAM PHILLIPS (1923 – 2003)
The man who invented rock'n'roll.
Early in 1953, an 18-year-old Elvis Presley came to the tiny 9x6 metre Sun recording studio in Memphis to make a private recording for his mother. The studio's owner was Sam Phillips, who has died of respiratory failure aged 80. A champion of blues music, the Phillips of that era was convinced that "if I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars". He had been frustrated that white teenagers liked the music "but were not sure whether they ought to. So I got to thinking how many records you could sell if you could find white performers who could play and sing in this same exciting, alive way." That day he found the answer. He and his colleague Marion Keisker were impressed by the teenager's singing. They made a note, "Good ballad singer. Hold."
The following year Sun issued the first Presley record, a frantic blues song, 'That's Alright Mama', with the bluegrass 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky'. The recording session had been fruitless until Presley, bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore began fooling around with the blues song. When Phillips heard this, he ordered the trio to begin the song again so he could record a proper version. Presley's debut caused confusion among disc jockeys, many of whom thought the singer must be black. The singer's reputation grew as he toured the south with his uninhibited stage act, and later through Sun records, including 'Good Rockin' Tonight' and 'Mystery Train'. But Sun had only a rudimentary distribution system and could not easily compete with the large national record corporations. It was one of these, RCA, that bought Presley's contract in late 1956 from Phillips for an unprecedented $35,000.
Phillips always denied that he regretted the RCA deal, and Scotty Moore said that "the only reason he sold Elvis was to get the capital to produce the others. He figured that with the money he could have four or five Elvises instead of one. It didn't quite work out that way but he came pretty close." The others included the rock 'n' roll singers Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. They had made informal recordings with Presley that were later dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet", but Phillips also guided each of them to hits, again utilising the Sun sound. Perkins sang 'Blue Suede Shoes', Cash recorded 'I Walk The Line' and Lewis and his pumping piano pounded out 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On'.
Phillips was born in Florence, Alabama, the youngest of eight children of tenant farmers. As a child he was entranced by the songs of the black labourers who worked alongside his parents, an experience that would shape his career in music. His first ambition was to become a criminal defence lawyer, but he was forced to leave high school to support his mother and deaf-mute aunt after his father died. He worked as a radio station engineer and announcer in Muscle Shoals and Decatur, Alabama, before moving to Memphis in 1945 to work at station WREC.
Beale Street in Memphis was a centre of black music where "there was a guitar on every corner or someone playing a lard can with a broomstick," Phillips later said. He became a talent scout for Los Angeles and Chicago record labels, locating and recording black blues singers and guitarists such as future stars BB King and Howlin' Wolf. To provide further opportunities for southern black musicians he set up his own Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in 1950 with the slogan "we record anything - anywhere - any time". Here he worked with guitarist and bandleader Ike Turner and in 1951 they collaborated on 'Rocket 88' by the singer Jackie Brenston, regarded by many as the first genuine rock 'n' roll record.
The Sun record label followed in 1952. The first Sun hits were Rufus Thomas's 'Bear Cat' and 'Just Walkin' In The Rain' by The Prisonaires, a vocal quintet allowed a day's parole from Nashville State Penitentiary to make the recording. Then along came Elvis. By 1958 both Cash and Perkins had left Sun for the larger Columbia label and, despite Lewis's continuing popularity, Phillips was not able to recapture the glory days of the late 1950s. Sun continued to record local rockabilly and rock 'n' roll artists including Charlie Feathers and Charlie Rich, whose 'Lonely Weekends' was a national hit.
A new label, Phillips International, was started with Sam's two sons, and new studios were built in Memphis and Nashville. But by 1969, Phillips had tired of the music business, and he sold Sun to record producer and entrepreneur Shelby Singleton. At this stage he was a millionaire, not only through his music business activities, but through the success of an investment he had made in a small hotel chain that grew to become the Holiday Inns group. In the early 1970s Phillips even set up a Holiday Inn record label. He also invested in the radio industry and owned station WLVS in Memphis and four more in his native Alabama.
He received many music industry honours. In 1986 he was one of the first inductees of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame alongside Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He was also the first person to be a member of the rock, country music and rhythm 'n' blues halls of fame. The original Sun studio is now a Memphis tourist attraction.
He is survived by sons Knox and Jerry.
Dave Laing -The Guardian
Samuel Cornelius Phillips, record producer: born January 5, 1923 - died July 30, 2003.