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Sam Phillips

For other people of the same name, see Sam Phillips (disambiguation).
Sam Phillips
Background information
Birth name Samuel Cornelius Phillips
Born (1923-01-05)January 5, 1923
Florence, Alabama, U.S.
Died July 30, 2003(2003-07-30) (aged 80)
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
Genres Rockabilly, country, rock and roll, R&B, blues
Occupation(s) Record producer

Samuel Cornelius Phillips (January 5, 1923 – July 30, 2003), better known as Sam Phillips, was an American musician, businessman, record executive, music producer, and disc-jockey, who played an important role in the emergence and development of rock and roll and 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. He was an early investor in the Holiday Inn chain of hotels. He also advocated racial equality and helped break down racial music industry barriers.

Early life

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 the workers singing in the fields left a big impression on the young Phillips.[1] 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.[this quote needs a citation]

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.[2][3] To support the family Phillips worked in a grocery store and then a funeral parlor.[4]

The "Memphis Recording Service" and Sun Records

Sun Studio, at junction of Sam Phillips Avenue, Memphis

In the 1940s, 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."[5]

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. Others such as B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf made their first recordings at his studio. In fact, Phillips deemed Howlin' Wolf his greatest discovery and he deemed Elvis Presley his second greatest discovery.

Sun Records produced more Rock and Roll records than any other record label of its time during its 16-year run, producing 226 singles.[6]

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison

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."[7]

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."[8]

Elvis Presley, who recorded his version of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right" at Phillips's studio, met that goal, and 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.[citation needed]

Despite this popular regional acclaim, by mid 1955 Sam Phillips's studio experienced financial difficulties, and he sold Presley's contract in November of that year; RCA Records' offer of $35,000 beat out Atlantic Records' offer of $25,000. Through the sale of Presley's contract, he was able to boost the distribution of Perkins' song "Blue Suede Shoes", and it became Sun Records' first national hit.[citation needed]

He lost many of his talents in the late 1950s after he sold Elvis' contract and was unable to regain his once prominent position in the Memphis music community.[citation needed]

Phillips is credited with teaching production to Presley who used this knowledge into his career with RCA Victor. Although Steve Sholes was credited as the official producer of Elvis after his move to RCA, it was Elvis who in reality, produced most of the music, using what he had learned from Sam Phillips.[citation needed]

Phillips had an open style and insightful guidance that seemed to allow musicians, especially Presley, to search and feel their way to a point to where they would perform beyond Phillips's and their own expectations.[citation needed] He also seemed to have a sense for when the artist was about to reach the point of their best performance. Phillips recorded looking for a feel, not technical perfection. Phillips told Elvis that the worst thing he could go for was perfection. Phillips was always seeking what he called the perfect/imperfect cut.[citation needed] This meant that it was not technically perfect, but perfectly conveyed the feeling and emotion of the song to the listener and gave the song a living personality, partially due to it being technically imperfect.[citation needed]

Phillips innovated while recording Elvis. Most recordings at the time gave substantially more volume to the vocals. Phillips pulled back the Elvis vocals, blending it more with the instrumental performances.[citation needed] Phillips also used tape delay to get an echo into the Elvis recordings by running the tape through a second recorder head. RCA, not knowing the method that Phillips had used, was unable to recreate the Elvis echo when recording "Heartbreak Hotel". In an attempt to duplicate the Sun Records sound, RCA used a large empty hallway at the studio to create an echo, but it sounded nothing like the echo that Phillips had created at Sun Records.[citation needed]

Elvis did not have a band when he arrived at Sun Records. It was Sam Phillips who decided that little was needed to augment Elvis' vocals and rhythm guitar. Phillips chose two musicians, lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black to perform with Elvis. This choice of musicians proved to be inspired as this group along with drummer D.J. Fontana produced some of the biggest hits in rock 'n' roll history, even after Phillips had sold the Presley contract to RCA Victor. These included "Heartbreak Hotel", "Hound Dog", and "Don't Be Cruel".[citation needed]

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 1968.


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.[9]

Other business interests

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. Neither would match the success or influence of Sun, which Phillips ultimately sold to Shelby Singleton in the 1960s.

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.[10]

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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 ever non-performer inducted. In 1987, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.[citation needed] He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements 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.[citation needed]

Later years and death

Phillips died of respiratory failure at St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on July 30, 2003, only one day before the original Sun Studio was designated a National Historic Landmark, and just weeks before the death of his former colleague, Johnny Cash, on September 12, 2003. He is interred in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis.


  1. ^ "Sam Phillips Obituary". The Times. 1 August 2003. Retrieved 6 October 2011. 
  2. ^ Laing, David (1 August 2003). "Obituary: Sam Philips". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 October 2011. 
  3. ^ "Sam Philips". Daily Telegraph. 1 August 2003. Retrieved 6 October 2011. 
  4. ^ De-Witt, Howard A. (1994). Elvis: The Sun Years: The Story of Elvis Presley in the Fifties (Rock & Roll Reference). USA: Popular Culture Ink. ISBN 1-56075-020-0. 
  5. ^ Eric P. Olsen. "Founding Father: Sam Philips and the Birth of Rock and Roll." The World and I. Washington, May 2001. P. 76.
  6. ^ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-
  7. ^ Eric P. Olsen. "Founding Father: Sam Phillips and the Birth of Rock and Roll." The World and I. Washington, May 2001. P. 76.
  8. ^ The Rockabilly Legends; They Called It Rockabilly Long Before they Called It Rock and Roll by Jerry Naylor and Steve Halliday DVD, 22:00 ISBN ;: 978-I-4234-2042-2
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcast Stations (BOA-19991130ABY)". Federal Communications Commission. December 10, 1999. 


  • Guterman, Jimmy (1998). "Sam Phillips". In Paul Kingsbury, editor. The Encyclopedia of Country Music. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 414. 
  • Olsen, Eric P. "Founding Father: Sam Phillips and the Birth of Rock and Roll." The World and I May 2001: 79. ProQuest. Web. 22 Oct. 2009.
  • "Sam Phillips." Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc., 2007. 22 Oct. 2009. <[1]>.

External links

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