Inside the Music | Country Meets Sun Records | Rockabilly | Country

The legend of Sun Records seems to expand and shine brighter with every passing year, as successive generations discover the almost unbelievable array of musical gems that were created at that modest little studio at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis.

Sun was the brainchild of one man and it is no exaggeration to say that without his contribution, not just country music but indeed all facets of popular music would have been very different during the second half of the twentieth century.

A Music Legend

Sam Phillips (1923–2003) was the man who changed the world. Raised on a farm just outside Florence, Alabama, his early ambition to practise law was abandoned through economic necessity, so he drifted into radio and by 1945 was working as an announcer for Radio WREC in Memphis. In January 1950 he opened the Memphis Recording Service, an ambitious and highly risky attempt to establish a studio with the specific intention of recording singers from the Memphis area.

Initially Phillips recorded local blues and gospel musicians and leased the tapes to leading independent labels like Chess and Modern. In March 1951, he cut Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm on a frantic R&B stomper ‘Rocket 88’, which featured vocals by Turner’s sax player Jackie Brenston. Issued on Chess it became a No. 1 R&B hit and is considered by some to have been the first rock’n’roll record. Other successes followed with Howlin’ Wolf and Rosco Gordon until, perhaps inevitably, in April 1952 Phillips elected to start issuing his own recordings and Sun Records was born.

Through 1953 Sun’s earliest releases continued the same policy and proved an outlet for local black musicians, including Little Milton, Rufus Thomas and The Prisonaires – all of whom benefited from Phillips’ unorthodox and innovative approach to recording. By 1954, however, Sun started to record hillbilly acts and although releases by performers such as Hardrock Gunter and Doug Poindexter failed to sell, there was a noticeable blurring of the musical boundaries as Sam started his quest for a white boy with the ability to cross the strict demarcation lines that separated R&B, pop and country music.

In July 1954 Sun’s recording of ‘That’s All Right’ by Elvis Presley commenced their golden period and within 18 months both Johnny Cash (1932–2003) and Carl Perkins were also creating some of their finest work for Sun. That three such important artists should all emerge from such an unlikely source speaks volumes for Sam Phillips’ perceptiveness and understanding of this new style of music, and his ability to create classic recordings that remain timeless and unsurpassed in their brilliance.

The Rockabilly Craze

By early 1956 Sun had forsaken its blues artists and was now at the forefront of the rockabilly craze that was sweeping the USA. Financial pressures had forced Sam to sell Presley’s contract to RCA but Perkins gave Phillips his first international hit with ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (1956). The quality of the recordings made at Sun over the next couple...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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