Florence, Alabama, U.S..... Musician, Music Producer, Record Executive, Disc Jockey disc jockey
Genres..... Southern Rock - Rockabilly - Country - Blues - Rhythm & Blues
Labels..... Founder of Sun Studio & Sun Records
January 5, 1923 – July 30, 2003 - Played an important role in the emergence and development of southern rock & rockabilly as the major form of popular music in the 1950s. He was a producer, label owner, and talent scout throughout the 1940s and 1950s.,
He was the founder of both Sun Studio and Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Through Sun, Phillips discovered such recording talent as Howlin' Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. The height of his success culminated in his launching of Elvis Presley's career in 1954. He is also associated with several other noteworthy rhythm and blues, country, and rock and roll musicians of the period. Phillips sold Sun in 1969 to Shelby Singleton. He was an early investor in the Holiday Inn chain of hotels. He also advocated racial equality and helped break down racial barriers in the music industry.
Phillips was the youngest of eight children, born on a farm near Florence, Alabama, to poor tenant farmers. As a child he picked cotton in the fields with his parents alongside black laborers. The experience of hearing workers singing in the fields left a big impression on the young Phillips. Traveling through Memphis with his family in 1939 on the way to see a preacher in Dallas, he slipped off to look at Beale Street, at the time the heart of the city's music scene. "I just fell totally in love," he later recalled.
Phillips attended the former Coffee High School in Florence. He conducted the school band and had ambitions to be a criminal defense attorney. However, his father was bankrupted by the Great Depression and died in 1941, forcing Phillips to leave high school to look after his mother and aunt. To support the family Phillips worked in a grocery store and then a funeral parlor.
Phillips worked as a DJ and radio engineer for Muscle Shoals radio station WLAY (AM). According to Phillips, this radio station's "open format" (of broadcasting music from both white and black musicians) would later inspire his work in Memphis. Beginning in 1945, he worked for four years as an announcer and sound engineer for WREC.
On January 3, 1950, Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. The Memphis Recording Service let amateurs perform, which drew performers such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Howlin' Wolf. Phillips then would sell their performances to larger record labels. In addition to musical performances, Phillips recorded events such as weddings and funerals, selling the recordings. The Memphis Recording Service also served as the studio for Phillips's own label, which he launched in 1952.
Phillips combined different styles of music. He was interested in the blues and said: "The blues, it got people—black and white—to think about life, how difficult, yet also how good it can be. They would sing about it; they would pray about it; they would preach about it. This is how they relieved the burden of what existed day in and day out."
Phillips recorded what some—notably music historian Peter Guralnick—consider the first rock and roll record: "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band led by 19-year-old Ike Turner, who also wrote the song. The recording was released on the Chess/Checker record label in Chicago, in 1951. From 1950 to 1954 Phillips recorded the music of James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon, Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland, and others. B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, among others, made their first recordings at his studio. In fact, Phillips deemed Howlin' Wolf his greatest discovery, and Elvis Presley his second greatest.
Sun Records produced more Rock and Roll records than any other record label of its time during its 16-year run, producing 226 singles.
Phillips and Elvis Presley opened a new form of music. Phillips said of Elvis: "Elvis cut a ballad, which was just excellent. I could tell you, both Elvis and Roy Orbison could tear a ballad to pieces. But I said to myself, 'You can't do that, Sam.' If I had released a ballad I don't think you would have heard of Elvis Presley."
Although much has been written about Phillips' goals, he can be seen stating the following: "Everyone knew that I was just a struggling cat down here trying to develop new and different artists, and get some freedom in music, and tap some resources and people that weren't being tapped." He didn't care about mistakes, he cared about the feel.
Phillips met Elvis through the mediation of his long-time collaborator at the Memphis Recording Service, Marion Keisker, who was already a well-known Memphis radio personality. On 18 July 1953, eighteen-year old Elvis dropped into the studio to record an acetate for his mother's birthday; Keisker thought she heard some talent in the young truck driver's voice, and so she turned on the tape recorder. Later, she played it for Phillips, who gradually, through Keisker's encouragements, warmed to the idea of recording Elvis.
Elvis Presley, who recorded his version of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right" at Phillips's studio, became highly successful, first in Memphis, then throughout the southern United States. He auditioned for Phillips in 1954, but it was not until he sang "That's Alright (Mama)" that Phillips was impressed. For the first six months, the flip side, "Blue Moon of Kentucky", his upbeat version of a Bill Monroe bluegrass song, was slightly more popular than "That's All Right (Mama)." While still not known outside the South, Presley's singles and regional success became a drawing card for Sun Records, as singing hopefuls soon arrived from all over the region. Singers such as Sonny Burgess ("My Bucket's Got a Hole in It"), Charlie Rich, Junior Parker, and Billy Lee Riley recorded for Sun with some success, while others such as Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins would become superstars.
Phillips's pivotal role in the early days of rock and roll was exemplified by a celebrated jam session on December 4, 1956, which came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano for a Carl Perkins recording session at Phillips's studio. When Elvis Presley walked in unexpectedly, Johnny Cash was called into the studio by Phillips, leading to an impromptu session featuring the four musicians. Phillips challenged the four to achieve gold record sales, offering a free Cadillac to the first, which Carl Perkins won. The contest is commemorated in a song by the Drive-by Truckers.
By the mid-1960s, Phillips rarely recorded. He built a satellite studio and opened radio stations, but the studio declined and he sold Sun Records to Shelby Singleton in 1969.
Phillips launched radio station WHER on October 29, 1955. Each of the young women who auditioned for the station assumed there would only be one female announcer position, as was the case with other stations at that time. Only a few days before the first broadcast did they learn of the "All Girl Radio" format. It was the first all girl radio station in the US, as almost every position at the station was held by a woman.
Through savvy investments, Phillips soon amassed a fortune. He was one of the first investors with Roy Scott in Holiday Inn, a new motel chain that was about to go national; he became involved with the chain shortly after selling the rights to Elvis Presley to RCA for $35,000 which he multiplied many times over the years with Holiday Inn. He would also create two different subsidiary recording labels—Phillips International and Holiday Inn Records.
He also owned the Sun Studio Café in Memphis. One location was in the Mall of Memphis.
Phillips and his family founded Big River Broadcasting Corporation which owns and operates several radio stations in the Florence, Alabama, area, including WQLT-FM, WSBM, and WXFL.
In 1986 Sam Phillips was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was the first non-performer inducted. In 1987, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He received a Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement in 1991. In 1998, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in October 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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