1923 - 2003
The Man Who
Invented Rock 'N' Roll
Recorded June 8, 2000
Our coverage of this event was
Producer and record company owner Sam Phillips will always be best known for the discovery of Elvis Presley. Yet prior to Presley and the birth of rock & roll, Phillips played an important role in Memphis blues.
In his Sun Studio, he recorded future blues greats B. B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Rosco Gordon, and others.As a talent scout, record producer, and record company owner, Phillips was to Memphis blues what Leonard and Phil Chess were to Chicago blues.
Phillips hoped to study law but instead settled for a career in radio broadcasting and engineering. His first disc jockey job was in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
By 1945, he was in Memphis on WREC. Five years later, Phillips opened up the Memphis Recording Service, a small recording studio on Union Avenue, and the short-lived Phillips' Records with disc jockey friend Dewey Phillips (no relation).
After one release, bluesman Joe Hill Louis's "Gotta Let You Go" backed with "Boogie in the Park," the label folded. Phillips then cultivated a relationship with the Bihari Brothers, who were about to launch RPM, a subsidiary of Modern, their Los Angeles-based label.
The Biharis hoped to build the new label's roster with down-home blues talent and forged an agreement with Phillips to record Memphis artists for RPM. One of the first blues men Phillips sent to RPM was B. B. King. Phillips also set up an agreement with Chess Records similar to the one he had with RPM.
In 1951, Phillips recorded "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and leased it to Chess. Often called the first rock & roll record, "Rocket 88" went to the top of the R & B charts and forced Chess, RPM, and other labels take a serious interest in Memphis music.
Squabbles over talent acquisition with Chess and RPM led Phillips to rethink the idea of starting his own record company. In late 1951, he quit his disc jockey job at WREC. In 1952, he began Sun Records. Until the arrival of Elvis Presley and rock & roll two years later, Sun Records was largely a blues label.
Although Phillips continued to make some blues records after Elvis had changed the course of popular music in 1954 and 1955, he mostly recorded country and rockabilly artists. Sun scored with records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison in the mid- and late 1950s.
Phillips sold Sun Records in 1969.
He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Robert Santelli -- The Big Book of Blues - A Biographical Encyclopedia
NPR: Sam Phillips, The Legacy of Sun Records - 2001 interview and profile
News of the death of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who died Wednesday at 80, was met internationally with sadness and a great deal of respect for his achievements. By Bill Ellis - The Commercial Appeal - Full Story
Sun Studio - official site of the historic recording studio started by Sam Phillips.
Sun Records - official site of the historic record label started by Sam Phillips.