- THIS PAGE CONTAINS -
The Two Buildings
Called as ''a chicken coop with echo chamber'' or
''a hole in the wall completely surrounded by Cadillacs''
Memphis Recording Service
John Jay Parker
Plastic Products /
How Phonograph Records Are Made
Records Are Manufactured
The Plating Process
Every Record Has A Label
The Final Step
The Blues Years
Country Music In Memphis Before Sun Records
The Country Years
The Rocking Years
The Gospel Years
The Women Of Sun Records
The 706 Union Instrumental Years
Black Gospel Music In Memphis
Ampex 350 C Tape Recorder
The Control Room
- Click on the photos for a larger picture -
''THE TWO BUILDINGS OF THE MEMPHIS RECORDING SERVICE''
''AND THE SUN RECORD COMPANY''
The building at 706 Union Avenue, constructed in 1908, is a one-story brick row
building owned by Mr. Hanover and Mr. Vigland. (Although the building has a Union Avenue address, it actually fronts on
Marshall about 20 feet west of the intersection with Union). In 1949, the interior was
renovate and the building reopens as a studio for music recording in January 1950. The
building is narrow end relatively small in size, approximately 18 feet wide by 57 feet
Sun Studio, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1958/1959
Photo courtesy of Mike Freeman, 2012
The front facade is brick in variegated shades of brown, ranging in color from
cream to terra cotta to dark brown.
A decorative band of stone blocks defies the top
section of the front wall like an architrave.
There is another row of these blocks at the
top of the wall, which is a shallow parapet with stepped ends. Most of the brick was laid
in sketcher bond. Brickwork details include a vertical row like a lintel over the storefront
bay and a row of headed below the architrave band.
The storefront is the building's primary fenestration, with a central door, large glass
windows on both sides of the door, and a transom above. The transom windows have
been covered over on the exterior side, but are visible on the interior. There are three
neon signs on the front facade for the main businesses that operated here in the 1950s.
SUN, in yellow and orange, is affixed to the brick over the door. Each storefront window
has signs for the Memphis Recording Service.
''Memphis'' and ''Service'' are written in
''Recording'' is written in blue.
The Memphis Recording Service signs are
reproductions of the one original sign. When Sun Records was at this location, the
building did not display a sign for that company.
This small row building at 706 Union Avenue is adjacent to and shares a party wall with
a similar two-story building, 710 Union Avenue, on the corner of Union and Marshall
Avenues. During the 1950s, the two-story building housed a restaurant (Taylor's) on the first floor
and a rooming house on the second floor; the music recording business did not operate
at this location. The two-story corner building currently serves as a ''visitor center'' (see
below) for the historic recording studio, which is open daily to the public for tours.
The interior of the building is divided into three sections. The front door opens into a
small reception area/office of about 200 square feet. This room has an irregular shape
because the front wall follows Marshall Avenue, which runs into Union Avenue at an
angle. The office area has a pressed metal entablature and ceiling with a repeated pattern
of squares with textured surfaces. The recording studio is in the middle of the building.
A wall with a single door and a long, horizontal window separates the front room from
the studio in the middle. The studio is approximately 18 feet wide by 30 feet long.
Small reception and area/office of Marion Keisker
The control room for the recording studio is at the rear of the building. Another wall
with a single door and a long, horizontal window separates it from the studio.
control room is 17 feet 10 inches wide by 13 feet 7 inches long, and the floor in this
room is elevate about two feet above the studio floor. The window in the wall between
the studio and the consul room is further elevated on the wall than the window in the
reception area because of the raised floor height in to control room. Sam Phillips, owner
of the recoding studio, built the window at this height ''so that his eyes would be level
with the performer's when he was sitting at the control room console''. There is a single
door in the control room's rear wall, which is also the rear wall of the building. It opens
onto a parking lot behind be building. During the 1950s, there was a small addition at
the rear of the building that adjoined the control room, but is all longer extant.
The studio walls and ceiling are covered in acoustical tiles installed for soundproofing in
1949. Phillips custom-designed the tile installation for this room based on
his research on acoustical designs, and built ''the latest ad finest sonocoustic studios''. It
was one of the first music recording studios that took acoustics into consideration in its design. The acoustical tiles on the ceiling and on the front and rear walls were installed in patterns so that the room does not have any parallel surfaces. Beginning at the front wall of the studio, there are rows of tiles that angle down from the ceiling, then sharply back up for four rows to a section that is two rows deep and lays flat on the ceiling.
Four more rows angle down and sharply back up to another section laid flat. This pattern repeats down the length of the ceiling and gives the ceiling a kind of undulating appearance. In section it is similar to the design of jerkin-head rood, and in appearance somewhat like short, adjacent barrel vaults spanned between the building's side walls. Tiles on the front and rear walls also project out at intervals rather than lay flat on the surface. The tile was installed in this way to prevent standing waves of sound in the studio.
The neighborhood around 706 Union Avenue contains a number of automobile-related businesses that have been located in the area for many years. This building also housed an auto-related business circa 1940, the Magic Throttle Company, before Sam Phillips remodeled it for his recording studio. Marion Keisker was Phillips's only assistant and employee when he started his business here. She provided this account of the Memphis Recording Service's first days at 706 Union Avenue:
''Sam Phillips would talk about this idea he had, this dream, I suppose, to have a facility where black people could come and play their own music, a place where they would feel free and relaxed to do it. One day we were riding along, and he saw that spot on Union, and he said, 'That's the spot I want. 'With many difficulties we got the place, and we raised the money, and between us we did everything. We laid all the tile, we painted the acoustic boards, I put in the bathroom, Sam put in the control room, what little
equipment he had always had to be the best'', Marion Keisker recalled.
This building has a very high degree of integrity with minimal changes since the 1950s when the recording studio was located on Union. It is especially remarkable that the acoustical tiles on the ceiling and wails still exist because of their critical importance in the sound of the music recorded at this location. The building has been opened as a historic site under private ownership since 1987, and tours are conducted daily. The studio is still used occasionally for recording and contains a number of musical instruments and related equipment.
For more detailed information of Sun Records and his music see: The Sun History
- Established in January 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee by Samuel Cornelius
Phillips and Jim Bulleit and opened February 1952. Even in the 1950s Sun Records was
applauded as something special, both by fans and - more surprisingly - by the music
business. Sun was also recognised as one man's eccentric vision.
Even then, Sam Phillips'
role as a man who had made a difference was acknowledged. At that time, the major
labels employed grey interchangeable men; the independent labels were in the hands of
more flamboyant individuals, but it was rare in record companies great or small to find
someone of singular artistic vision.
Sun Records logo designed by John Parker
The music business has always been, first and last, a
business. The trend has been to follow trends.
Sun Records was Sam Phillips; Sam Phillips was Sun Records. Art and commerce came
together. The earth moved a little bit. The story of Sam Phillips' background in radio, has
often be told and his desire to open a recording studio that would bring his own talent to
fruition, as well as that of the men and women who entered his studio. It happened in
Memphis, Tennessee, perhaps the only place in which Phillips could have realised his
vision. It happened in the 1950s, perhaps the only decade in which it could have
happened. The Sun Records story is the confluence of the right man, the right time, and
the right place.
"Sam knew something different", was how one-time Sun artist Ray Harris put it, and that -
quite simply - is the best explanation of what happened. Here are the ultimate
documentation of the "something different" that Sam Phillips knew. They tell the Sun
Records story the way that it actually unfurled week-by-week, release-by-release. The
records that reshaped popular music are here together with the blind alleys that Sam Phillips
went down in his quest for that something different. The million-sellers are cheek-by-jowl
with the records that only sold to family and friends. There are alternate takes, this is the
way that Sun Records was meant to be experienced.
Talking to journalist David Halberstam, Sam Phillips explained his thinking. "I have my faults,
a lot of faults, I guess", he said, "but I have one real gift and that gift is to look another
person in the eye and be able to tell if he has anything to contribute, and if he does, I have
the additional gift to free him from whatever is restraining him". Its a self-description that
would sound pompous and self-aggrandising were it not demonstrably true. SUN 209 is
evidence, of course, but so - in its way - is SUN 175, the first Sun record. On it, a teenage
saxophonist with a raw, unmoulded style plays with the authority of a Charlie Parker or an
Earl Bostic. He is showcased in a dramatic way. You could probably find precedents for the
sound that Sam Phillips coaxed from his equipment for that recording, but the fact is that
Phillips himself wasn't aware of them. He was making it up as he went along. This sessions
enable you to trace the way that Phillips' ideas on production, songs and artists unfolded.
From the outset, Phillips had the intention that he and his artists were to go their own way.
As the sixties wore on, Sun releases increasingly referenced what was happening around
them, but at the beginning and for the most of the fifteen or so years that Sun operated
under Sam Phillips' direction, the criterion for releasing a record was whether it made Sam
Phillips feel good. It was tantamount to commercial autism. You need to spend a few years in
the record business to recognise just how unusual it is for someone to deliberately strike
their own course and succeed, and how doubly unusual for someone to juggle the creative
and business ends. John Hammond, the legendary Columbia Records A&R man who signed
Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan and many others, wasn't running his own company with all the
headaches that entails. Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records had partners, and then Time-
Warner's money behind him; Sam Phillips was to all intent and purpose a one man show, and
no-one would lend him any money until he didn't need it. The Chess brothers or King
Records' Syd Nathan can't really be said to have had a commanding artistic vision in the way
that Sam Phillips did. That Sun Records was both artistically and commercially successful was
truly an extraordinary achievement.
The indisputable fact is that the reputation of Sun Records is founded upon a series of
recordings made between 1952 and 1959 in Sam Phillips' little storefront studio at 706
Union Avenue. When Sam Phillips settled down to sketch out his corporate letterhead in
1952, he positioned his rooster crowing at the dawn's early rays. To the right of the rooster
he placed his first attempt at a corporate slogan, "Up Above Them All With Records That
Sell", which represented more wishful thinking than achievement. Beneath the address ran
the second slogan, "Consistently Better Records for Higher Profits". They weren't elegant
words, but they defined both Phillips' trademark and his credo.
Phillips initially stayed in business by recording weddings, funerals, and speeches. When he
recorded musicians' performances, he often leased the recordings to Jules and Saul Bihari,
who sold them on their Modern and RPM labels, or to Leonard Chess, who owned the Chess
label in Chicago. During this time, Phillips made the first recordings of B.B. King, Howlin'
Wolf, and other black singers that later became famous. He also recorded "Rocket 88", a
highly successful song that has been called the first rock-and-roll hit. By 1952, however,
legal disputes and competition from larger recording companies that lured his talented
musicians away frustrated Phillips and convinced him to start his own label.
On January 1952, the Memphis Recording Service became the Sun Record Company. It
released it's first record on March 1, 1952 but did not produce a hit until a year later when
Rufus Thomas recorded "Bear Cat" (SUN 181). The company's second hit was "Just Walkin'
In The Rain" (SUN 186) sung by the Prisonaires, a group of black inmates at the state
penitentiary in Nashville. During the label's first years, Phillips primarily recorded black
artists, but he sought to record black music performed by white singers, who would make
the music acceptable to a wider audience.
Sun Recording Studio, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, October 1997
Ultimately, Sun's combination of white country
music sung with a black rhythm-and-blues feel broadened the scope of American music
and brought Sun Records the sound for which it became world famous.
This "rockabilly" music was made most popular by Elvis Presley, whose first recordings
were two Ink Spots songs in 1953, Not pleased with the result, Phillips had Presley work
with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black and, in 1954, released Presley's first
professional record, which contained the songs "That's All Right" and "Blue Moon Of
Kentucky" (SUN 209). It was immediately successful, and Elvis Presley recorded eight more
songs for Sun before Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA in November 1955 for $ 35,000
plus $ 5,000 more for back royalties owed to the singer. The sum was an unprecedented
amount in the business and provided Sun the financial stability to work with and record
other white southern musicians, like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl
Perkins and many others.
Picture of Union Avenue traffic at Marshall shows the building of the future Sun studio (left) with a sign advertising Canova Coffee on the rooftop
A Wagner Electric Corp. brake service building at 689 Union across the street (right). Signs identifying Chip Barwick Co. Chevrolet and a Cadillac-LaSalle dealer are visible in the background, along with a billboard advertising Royal Crown Cola, circa mid-1940s
With a spontaneous feel, an echo effect, and a simple, crisp, aggressive sound, Sun's
recordings established several of its unknown artists as stars. Early in 1956 Carl Perkins'
"Blue Suede Shoes" (SUN 234) became a tremendous success, making the company solvent
for the first time. Johnny Cash's first hit was "I Walk The Line" (SUN 241) in the fall of
1956, and Sun produced Roy Orbison's early recordings during the same year. Then, during
1957 and 1958, Jerry Lee Lewis proved profitable to Sun with his hits "Whole Lotta Shakin'
Going On" (SUN 267), "Great Balls Of Fire" (SUN 281), and "Breathless" (SUN 288). Sun's
subsidiary, the Phillips International label produced major hits by Carl Mann and Charlie
In the early 1960s production was much less active and Sun's recordings appealed more to
a local audience than to a national one. Cash, Perkins, and Orbison had all moved to larger
recording companies, and Lewis left in 1962. Phillips retired in 1968 and, in the following
year on July 1, 1969, sold a controlling interest in Sun to Shelby S. Singleton of Nashville.
The sale brought about the formation of the Sun International Corporation, headquartered
in Nashville, and the transfer of the nearly 3,000 or7,000 master tapes and the original record
catalogs by Sun artists (excluding Elvis Presley, whose materials had previously been
transferred to RCA?).
The Sun era had ended, but not before rejuvenating American popular music. Under the
direction of Sam Phillips, Sun's artists established the rockabilly sound and the roots of
rock and roll. Phillips and his company made this possible by nurturing the talents of
southern artists; by marketing their music through 43 independent record distributors and
an overseas distribution affiliate in London and Germany, and, most importantly, by
concentrating on and developing a southern musical tradition.
The original Sun space was not restored to recording until Memphis musician Gary Hardy
took over in 1987. U2 cut a number of tracks for 1988s album "Rattle And Hum" at the son
of Sun, supervised by "Cowboy" Jack Clement, Sam Phillips' assistant from the old days.
Recording is now done at night for everybody!
TAYLOR'S RESTAURANT (NOW SUN STUDIO CAFE)
- Memphis restaurant located at 710 Union
Avenue across Marshall Avenue, next to Sun Records. Sun artists would meet at Taylor's to
eat and talk. In the mid-1950s, while recording with Sun, Roy Orbison lived in a two-room
apartment above the restaurant, which had been established in 1949. Producer Jack
Clement, an alumni of Sun Records and a talented Nashville producer, once said of Taylor's
Cafe, "That's where all the guys did their writing and talking, and that's where the Sun sound
was really born".
Taylor's Fine Food Restaurant, 710 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1958/1959
Photo courtesy of Mike Freeman, 2012
Sam Phillips, who boasted of not having a desk at his Memphis Recording Service, had his
own booth at Taylor's, and it was here that he would pore over paperwork with a fresh cup
of coffee at hand.
Musicians would often grab a bite to eat here, some while taking a
much-deserved session break.
If they were especially tired, they might spend the night in
one of Mrs. Dell Taylor's upstairs rooms. Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis all
rented rooms in her second-floor boarding house above the cafe.
Carlos and Dell Taylor at the entrance of the restaurant, circa 1948-49 (left). Dell owned and operated the restaurant from about 1948 to 1981.
Menu for May 31, 1957 (right).
Taylor's restaurant ashtray (below). (Photo's Carlos Holcomb)
With so many professionals congregating at the cafe, it became a popular hangout for
those who dreamed of a career in music, a place where they could eavesdrop on
conversations about the industry and occasionally even hear the muffled music being
created next door.
Many people recall that Elvis Presley often came into Taylor's before he
got his break at Sun Records. There, he could sit just a few feet from Sam Phillips, sip a
coke, and go over the many ways he might draw attention to himself. He could plan and he
could dream, all the while trying to find the courage to make his dreams come true.
Eventually Elvis Presley did find a way to introduce himself to Sam Phillips. Not long after
their introduction, Sam invited his friend Scotty Moore to sit down with him in his booth at
Over a cup of coffee, Sam Phillips told Scotty Moore about a young man who
had come in to record a song for his mother. It was at Taylor's Cafe that the idea of pairing
Scotty Moore and Bill Black with Elvis Presley was born.
Taylor's Cafe has been closed for many years, however, Sun Studio operates their cafe in the
same location. The restaurant tin ceiling and checkered-tiled floor are from the original
Mother Dell Taylor with her daughter Rosemary in their fine food restaurant adjacent to Sun's studio. (Photo
Rosemary Taylor Holcomb)
DELL TAYLOR - real name Dell M. Borgognoni Taylor, over the years, Mrs. Taylor saw to it that B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Rufus Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins and many many others musicians, along with the mechanics and other workers from the auto dealership row on Union Avenue, had the freshest greens and vegetables. Dell M. Taylor served up country fried steak and gentle mothering to the emerging stars of Sun Studio.
Many a song was written in the booths, as the musicians would come in to eat during a break in recording at the Sun Studio next door. When the performers were still trying to make it big, Mrs. Taylor would extend credit until they could pay. They had to struggle, and she understood. She was a mom to the musicians.
Born on November 7, 1911 and one of 11 children who came to Memphis from Lake Village, Arkansas, Mrs. Taylor worked long hours to make the restaurant a success. Quiet and petite, Mrs. Taylor rarely got angry or raised her voice. Jerry Lee Lewis used to roll into town from many tours and come to Taylor's Fine Food Restaurant for a country fried steak as soon as he hit town. Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips, credited with discovering Elvis Presley and others, often did his bookkeeping at the restaurant.
Married with Carlos Eugene Taylor, he started off with the highway patrol and then ran for sheriff and lost and went to being a travelling salesman in Louisiana. Dell would not let him do anything in the restaurant because he was too strict with the help and would fire them for breaking a dish or being late for even one minute.
Dell Taylor, 91, owner of Taylor's Restaurant at Union and Marshall from 1948 to 1981, died on February 23, 2003 of cancer on Sunday at Saint Francis Hospital located at 5959 Park Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.
- 78rpm standard single are mono. White label. The Phillips logo printed at top of the label. The catalog number is on the disc at the bottom. The singles had different numbers on A and B sides. The Phillips label issued one record 9001/9002.
- 78/45rpm standard singles are mono. Yellow label. They have a circle of
musical notes and staff around the entire label, with exception of the bar wherein
"Memphis, Tennessee" appears. The letters SUN with sun rays pressed in light brown on the (rooster on 78rpm) at
top of the label. The original Sun label issued
singles in a SUN 174 series to SUN 407.
- 78/45rpm standard singles are mono. Red label. Grey above with the horizon
between the two running through the spindle hole, and the grey upper half contained the company
name and is decorated with four records. Matrix number left from the spindle hole. Catalog number
of the disc at bottom. The original Flip label issued singles in a Flip 501 series up to Flip 504.
- 78/45rpm standard singles are mono. Blue label with geographic distortions,
a subdued blue map of the world (with most of Europe and all of Asia conspicuously missing).
Phillips International logo at the top of the label that reads: Sam C. Phillips International Corp. and
is printed between the red-white-blue pennant. The fine print on the bottom of the label restricted its
reach to New York, Memphis and Hollywood. The original Phillips International label issued
singles in a PI 3516 up to PI 3586 series.
- LABEL DESIGN –
Designer by John Gale ''Jay'' Parker from "Memphis Engraving",
North Second Street, Memphis, Tennessee
- PRESSING 78/45RPM RECORDS -
Plastic Products Incorporated,
Manufacturer Of Phonograph Records And Allied Products,
1746 Chelsea Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.
Founded in 1949 by Robert E. "Buster" Williams.
- DISTRIBUTION FOR MEMPHIS -
Music Sales, 1117 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee,
Established January 1946 by Robert E. "Buster" Williams
and Clarence Camp
Distribution by Bill Fitzgerald
- PERFORMING RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS -
A.S.C.A.P. - American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers
B.M.I. - Broadcast Music Incorporated
S.E.S.A.C. - Adapted
P.D. - Traditional Sacred Arranged
''Copyright Control'' means there is no
publisher known for the composition(s)
Robert Williams and Clarence Camp first opened Music Sales at 680 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, to
distribute Modern and other indie labels. In 1952, Music Sales moves to bigger premises at 1117 Union. It
will become Sun's principal distributor.
Note: Sam Phillips of Sun Records used three different record plants to press his records.
Plastic Product of
Memphis for states in the South and Midwest; Sam Hodge's Paramount Record Manufacturing and M.S.I.
Company in Philadelphia for the East Coast (M.S.I Company was a Philadelphia pressing plant which, along
with overflow orders from Sun, also pressed East Coast Imperial and Specialty label records. Sam Phillips
used M.S.I for many pressings in the later 1950's), and Monarch in Los Angeles for the West Coast.
MONARCH RECORD PRESSING PLANT
- Monarch was founded in 1945 by Nate Rothstein and Nate
DuRoff, the latter of whom remained with the company well into the late 1970's. Around 1948, the plant
moved its operations to 4852-54 West Jefferson Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, which would be its
home for the next three decades.
Monarch Records, started pressing vinyl 45rpm records in July 1954. To keep track of the orders, they put a
small triangle, the Greek letter delta, next to a unique number of each side of every record they pressed.
Amazingly, they stayed with their numbering system consistently for decades. They did a lot of business with
small, independent labels but they also did large quantities for the major labels when they had a hot 45 and
needed extra copies.
Monarch was one of the leading pressing and mastering plants, who, unlike say Rite or Starday, also pressed
records for other labels (major labels and others like Sun Records) for West Coast distribution. After all, it
was more cost effective for Sam Phillips to get Delta to press copies of the latest Sun Record and have them
distributed than Sam packing them all himself and posting them to distributors. Chess, Atlantic (to name a
few) also used this plant to get their wares more widely distributed.
In March 1961, Monarch was purchased from Rothstein and DuRoff by Cosnat Record Distributing, parent
company of Jay-Gee Record Corporation which owned Jubilee and Josie Records, though the two men
would continue to operate the plant. (Cosnat changed its name to Jubilee Industries, Incorporated. effective
August 1, 1966.)
In June 1970, Monarch and its parent, Jubilee Industries, were purchased by Viewlex, Incorporated;
thereafter, Viewlex made Monarch a wholly-owned subsidiary, incorporating the plant into its other pressing
operations including American Record Pressing Corporation., Allentown Record Co. Inc., and Sonic
Recording Products, Incorporated Viewlex went bankrupt in 1976 and would be reorganized two years later
as ElectroSound Group, Incorporated. Also in 1978, Monarch moved into a new pressing plant at 9545 San
Fernando Road in Sun Valley. Around this time, the stamped ''MR'' in a circle that had graced the deadwax of
many a Monarch pressing since 1960 (backwards at first, then forwards) disappeared, replaced by a
handwritten ''MR''. Within a few more years,
Monarch ceased pressing 45's in styrene and switched to pressing entirely in vinyl.
After ElectroSound merged with a graphic productions firm, IGC Incorporated, in January 1985, the
Monarch name was phased out and the plant officially renamed ElectroSound Los Angeles.
JOHN GALE ''JAY'' PARKER
- Was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on February 1, 1925, he grew
up in Florence, and graduated from Coffee High School where he and Sam Phillips both
played sousaphone in the band. After studying at the Harris Advertising Art School in
Nashville, Tennessee, Parker arrived in Memphis in 1946. He would serve as art director at
both the Memphis Engraving Company and Eastex Packaging Company during a distinguished
and award winning 40-plus year career.
His commercial work included designing notable packages for Alka-Seltzer and Super Bubble
gum, as well and creating the tiger stripe helmet for the Cincinnati Bengals football team.
John Gale Parker
Parker also taught graphic design courses at Memphis State University and was a well respected
But his lasting contribution to the cultures of rock and roll and
design came in 1952, when Parker crossed paths with his old friend Sam Phillips at a Krystal
restaurant downtown Memphis. Phillips, an erstwhile radio deejay, had opened his Memphis
Recording Service studio a couple years earlier, and was about to launch a blues and rhythm
and blues label called Sun Records.
"Sam was getting started in the record business, and he wanted to know what I did now,"
recalled Parker in a 2004 interview with the Commercial Appeal. "When I told him, he
wanted to know if we could do record labels. I had never done a record label, but I said,
'Sure'''. Phillips had drawn up a few rough ideas of his own and wanted a logo to convey his
optimistic outlook. As he told rock historians Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins in the late-
1980s, "the sun to me, even as a kid back on the farm, was a universal kind of thing. A new
day, a new opportunity''.
"I did several sketches for Sam, and he picked one with a rooster on it'', recalled Parker,
whose design featuring a crowing cock, the rays of a rising sun, and circling stanzas of music.
In effort to keep Phillips' costs low, he worked in one color, a rusty brown, and set it against
a bright yellow backdrop for contrast. He charged Phillips $50 for the job.
The first official release bearing the Sun logo was on a Johnny London record (Sun 175),
which appeared in stores in March of 1952. The label would become legend a few years later
as Sun shifted its focus to the burgeoning rockabilly and rock and roll markets, ironic, since
Parker himself wasn't a big fan of the music.
The success of Sun artists Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins would
make Parker's design familiar the world over, though the rooster would eventually be
dropped from the logo with the shift from 78s to 45s, which required a bigger hole in the
middle of the record. The logo would remain an indelible image even as Sun ceased
operation in the 1960s. Over the last few decades Sun has become arguably the most
reissued label in history and Parker's design can still be seen on T-shirts, mugs, and other
Sun Records logo designer John Parker dies on Monday, August 6, 2012 at the age of 87.
PLASTIC PRODUCTS AND MUSIC SALES
Buster Williams opened Plastic Products to manufacture records inside these Quonset huts in
1949 at a cost of about $40,000. In that same year the 45rpm format record was introduced to the market. The durable
and inexpensive 45 proved invaluable to the jukebox industry, which Williams already had a
business. Williams also owned Music Sales, a wholesale company that supplied records to
Buster Williams, owner of Music Sales and Plastic Products
Plastic Products was the second independently owned record manufacturer in the United
States. Other pressing plants were owned by the major entertainment companies.
Williams did business with a number of small independent recording companies who created
music outside the mainstream of popular entertainment of the time. He offered generous
credit terms to these under financed companies as long as they allowed Plastic Products to
manufacture what they created. Without his service perhaps Sun and Stax Records of
Memphis would not have survived to create their now famous songs.
Williams had as many at 40 clients, including Chess, Atlantic and Ace Records. The Bihari
Brothers moved part of their management and promotional office from Los Angeles to 1794
Chelsea to take advantage of his services.
In 1956, when rock and roll became popular, Plastic Products had the ability to manufacture
thirty thousand records a day. Williams designed his own equipment to manufacture every
step of the process. In one building the ingredients of the vinyl record are mixed and
cooked. The dough was then cut by machine into strips. In another building the actual
recorded song or songs were transferred from the original acetate by an electroplating
process into a metal cylinder. Two of the buildings were filled with pressing machines.
Workers inserted the master cylinder and label onto each pressing machine. Then they
placed the soft, warm “wax” into the press and clamped down on the wax.
MORE ABOUT... BUSTER..!
In 1959, Plastic Products it is bulging at the seams of four connected Quonsets, and Williams is building a branch plant in Coldwater, Mississippi, which will be twice the size of the present one. That last year, despite the recession, the company produced 15 million records for some 30 different companies, with a retail value of more than $20 million. Buster Williams, who lives with his family at 203 Lombardy, expects to press 25 million disks of all types - singles, LPs, EPs, and stereo. The growth of the recording business in Memphis has, of course, stimulated the growth of Plastic Products, but the Memphis labels account for only 10% of the company's volume.
Among the independent Eastern and Chicago the Memphis firm presses for are ABC Paramount, Cadence, Carleton, Chess, Checker, Argo, and Atlantic. Besides pressing for practically all the Memphis firms, it also produces records for labels in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Shreveport, Jackson, Mississippi (home of Ace Records, which has had a couple of recent hits), Houston, Dallas, and Nashville.
In 1959, the capacity of the Memphis plant is 80,000 records daily, and the Coldwater plant, altho unfinished, can already turn out an additional 50,000 a day. The Memphis plant employs about 100 persons. Plastic Products' records are distributed everywhere this side of the rocky Mountains and sometimes west of them, too. About 60% of its volume leaves the Memphis trade area.
Buster Williams, who started salting and selling peanuts at the age of 12 in his home town of Enterprise, Mississippi, and was the nation largest jukebox operator (18,000 machines) before going into record manufacture and distribution, also owns Music Sales in Memphis. It is the oldest independent record distributing firm in the country. Prior to that, the record business was dominated by the four ''major'' - RCA, Columbia, Decca and Capitol, which had their own distributors. There are a few other so-called ''majors'' in 1959, but most of the companies established since then are called independents.
Williams, of course, is a champion of the independent recording companies. It was they, he points out, who developed vinyl as a disk material. ''And don't let anybody tell you RCA found Elvis'', he says with a note of hometown pride. ''Elvis wasn't lost. Sam Phillips had already made him a big star when they bought him''.
Above is my proposed text for a historic marker about Plastic Products and Buster Williams.
With any luck we may have this marker verified by the Shelby County Historic Commission,
and set in place this summer. Funding for this marker was offered by a tour customer of
mine, who saw the Quonset Huts with Jimmy Ogle.
Front of the Quonset Huts of Plastic Products
1746 Chelsea Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, 1998
If things go as planned I will later write
about her and her gift.
A lot of people know about Sun Records, Stax, Elvis and many of the other talented
performers. But few know that Williams helped make their success possible.
Memphis once had a music industry that covered every part of the creation of recorded
music that we enjoyed.
From talented performers and songwriters, to recording studios, to
the labels that marketed the music, to the wholesale distribution of the label releases and
finally to the actual manufacture of the record itself. Buster Williams was responsible for the
manufacturing and a significant part of the wholesale business in Memphis.
Major entertainment companies created and sold most of the recorded music at the time,
and controlled much of the production of records. But these same companies did not invest
in recording or production in Memphis. Virtually all the recorded music that was created in
Memphis from World War II onward was done by start up, locally owned companies. Many
independent companies failed.
The best "on the scene" written source that I used for the marker text was a 1956 full page
newspaper story written by Ben S. Parker. It was completed by photos of Elvis on stage at
Russwood, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two recording at Sun, and two women employees
operating pressing machines at Plastic Products.
I was actually inside one of the Huts in 1983, and the pressing machines were all lined up
and ready to go. This was just before the compact disc replaced vinyl records. I worked for
Jake Schorr then, who owned Jefferson Square restaurant. We lost the restaurant in a fire.
Part of the 1956 story shows the women making records by Plastic Products
Photo courtesy of Mike Freeman, 2013
After that we salvaged some of the equipment and stored it in the Hut. Jake's childhood
friend was Robert Williams Jr, son of the founder of Plastic Products. On occasional visits
with Jake I have learned a lot about the Williams family businesses and of music history.
Williams also owned a company that serviced and operated jukeboxes, Williams Distributing
Inc, and Music Sales, 1117 Union, a company that supplied inventory of recordings to retail
stores and to jukebox companies.
Again Williams provided valuable service to independent
labels in Memphis and elsewhere. He sold their creative product to retail stores and to
jukebox suppliers throughout, according to the 1956 newspaper story, at least one third of
the United States.
All information and visual articles about Plastic Products written by Mike Freeman,
writer, publicist and Memphis Historian, Memphis, Tennessee, April 1, 2012.
RECORDS ARE MANUFACTURED
– as well as recorded, in Memphis, Plastic Products Co., 1746 Chelsea
Avenue, turns out more records than any other independent pressing plant in the country, first step in making
a record is shown (Photo 1). Sylvester Cowart drops a double handful of fine gray powder into a sheet of
vinyl plastic about a quarter of an inch thick. A conveyer takes the sheet thru cutters which stamp out the
''biscuits'' – rectangles about 3-by-8 inches – from which the records are stamped. The only step in the
recording and manufacture of phonograph records not done after 1958, in Memphis is the cutting of the
acetate master from the master tape.
Records are manufactured by Plastic Products (Photo 1, 2, 3, 4)
This too, will be done here within a month at Pepper studios and later in
1960 at the new Sun studio at Madison Avenue in Memphis.
THE PLATING PROCESS
– thru which the acetate master is converted into a stamper, is going on,
meanwhile in another section of the Plastic Products plant. (Photo 2) Joe Raberry puts acetate, coated with
silver nitrate, into an acid solution into which are also placed copper anodes. Thru an 18-hour electroplating
process, a copper surface is built up on the acetate. This metal master is peeled off, and from it, thru the very
same process, is made the stamper. The stamper is then chromium plated, to make it last longer, and placed
on the press. The metal master and stamper are in reverse, like newspaper type and page casts. The acetate
and ''mother'' are playable, just as a newspaper page mat are readable. The entire plating process – from
acetate to stamper – takes two and a half days, a stamper is good for only about 2000 records, but new
stampers can be made from 'mothers'' in just 18 hours.
EVERY RECORD HAS A LABEL
- and while the mastering process is going on elsewhere, the record labels
are being made, printed and cut in the print shop at Plastic Products. The varicolored blank labels are printed
from engravings on the firms color presses. Then type for specific recordings is set on the Linotype machine
in the same shop. The type goes on the press and the titles and artists' name are printed on the labels in sheets
of four. Next, the labels are cut into separate squares and stacked. The final step in manufacturing the labels
is the one shown (Photo 3). Here Mrs. Vergie Mae Wiley places the square labels under a cutting die and
presses a button which brings pressure on the die and cuts an entire stack of labels round in one motion.
Plastic Products presses records for 30 different companies all over the country, and ships to distributors
everywhere west of the Rockies. Most shipments are by air for speed.
THE FINAL STEP
– in making a record is actually several steps combined. (Photo 4) Here a press operator,
Mrs. Winnie Ragland, has a supply of ''biscuits'' (rectangles of vinyl made from the powder in first photo)
softening on steam table (1). Near them are two stacks of labels (2), one for each side of the record. Press
itself looks like a waffle iron. Operator puts a label face down on bottom stamper (3), and another face up on
top stamper, puts rolled-up biscuit on top of the bottom label and top stamper handle (3) down. Steam course
thru press, forming record, impressing it with grooves, and sealing labels on it, cold water follows steam
thru, hardening record. Operator removes record (5) and puts it on trimmer (6). Record is ready for
packaging, shipment. There are 20 presses in Memphis plant. A good operator turns out about 100 disks an
hour, there are also 6 injector-type presses which take two operators but have double the capacity of other t
SUN ORIGINAL COUNTERFEIT IDENTIFICATION
- All of the Sun 45s and 78s have been
counterfeited. Some of these reproductions were done for the collectibles market. No
attempt was made to dupe the buyer into believing he was purchasing an original, as some
were pressed on colored vinyl and one manufacturer even etched the pressing number
with the year it was made into the trail-off vinyl. But, there are "Suns" in collections that
are not authentic! This page is intended to assist and enlighten purchasers of Sun records
for future transactions.
First, note the deeper color of the yellow label and the brown print on the originals. The
counterfeit has a noticeably paler coloring. Also, though the clarity of the print on the
originals was not perfect, the lettering is still obviously cleaner and easier to read.
The most telling detail on the original pressings from Sun Records' owner Sam Phillips are
the "push-marks". These are three circular indentations in both the label and the vinyl
made by the old-fashioned machinery used in the Sun plant. These three marks form a
perfect triangle on the label around the hole. They are never found on the counterfeit.
Finally, evidence exists that Sam Phillips contracted the Monarch pressing plant in Los Angeles to
manufacture records for him. These do not have the "push-marks", but are recognized by
the manufacturer's imprint in the trail-off-vinyl, which consists of a triangle, followed by
four digits identifying the press run. Although these are not technically "Original Suns",
they are extremely rare and highly sought after.
THE SUN BLUES YEARS
- When Sam Phillips formally opened the Memphis Recording Service,
large numbers of local blues musicians walked through the company front door. In order to
understand Phillips' success, it is necessary to examine his relationship with Memphis
musicians and key figures in the music business.
At the time, the record business was dominated by corporate giants. The major record labels
- Decca, RCA, Columbia, and Capitol - soon found that they were challenged by three new
labels: MGM, Mercury, and London. To Phillips' surprise, none of these companies paid any
attention to the blues.
Several small labels - Chess, Atlantic, Imperial, and others - were competing for the artists
at the center of Sam Phillips' attention, however.
At first, the Memphis Recording Service
simply recorded master tapes for these other small labels to release. Leonard Chess or one
of the Bihari brothers would order a tape, and Sam Phillips would record the artist. While
there was no money in making these recordings for others, Phillips found it excellent
training for future success with his own label.
Initially, Phillips' plan was to sign and record some of the best local artists, and sell the
master tapes to the growing army of independent record labels. He began asking around
about music groups that he could record. If a band could be recorded effectively, Sam
Phillips reasoned, the master could be sold to a name record label by his recording
Bill McCall of 4-Star and Gilt-Edge Records became one of Sam Phillips' earliest customers.
4-star, a Los Angeles-based company, had discovered Cecil Gant, a black crossover piano
player with a boogie-woogie sound. McCall also bought songs from an Oakland-based
songwriter, Bob Geddins. Geddins was one of many black songwriters who convinced
McCall that black artists could record in a white vein. The ties that Phillips established
with McCall not only helped educate Sam about the record business, but McCall provided
an example of a slick record promoter whose astuteness interested him even more in the
commercial possibilities of black music.
When Bill McCall asked Sam Phillips to cut some demos for 4-Star, Sam jumped at the
chance. In May and June 1951, Sam Phillips recorded two blues artists, a piano player,
Lost John Hunter, and a blues guitarist, Charlie Burse. One song from this session "Cool
Down Mama" (4-Star 1942) by Lost John Hunter and the Blind Bats was registered with
B.M.I. in September 1951 and released to immediate obscurity. It is an important song,
because this was Sam Phillips, first blues release.
Sam Phillips also entered into an agreement with Modern Records magnates Jules and Saul
Bihari to produce tapes for their new RPM label. After recording Joe Hill Louis, Phineas
Newborn, and the Gospel Travelers, Sam Phillips once again was struck with the notion of
turning out his own records. The Joe Hill Louis tapes intrigued Phillips because he realized
that Louis' versatile musical talents could be used in the studio to back other artists.
The Biharis recognized Memphis' unique musical talent. In the summer of 1949, B.B. King
signed a contract with the RPM label and recorded songs that became Memphis hits. B.B.
King's "Woke Up This Morning", "B.B's Blues", and "B.B's Boogie" were songs that Sam
Phillips loved, and they influenced his decision to open his own record business. RPM had
not only released B.B. King's records, but regularly scouted local Memphis clubs for new
acts. When some of the artists that Sam Phillips recorded for the Biharis opted for other
labels, there were harsh words. By late 1951, the tension between Phillips and Bihari
brothers were obvious to most musicians hanging around the Memphis Recording Service;
Phillips, everyone also noticed, thought incessantly about turning out his own records.
Sam Phillips' reputation as an innovative producer was largely due to his recording of
"Rocket 88". The tune featured the lead vocal of Ike Turner's saxophonist, Jackie
Sam Phillips recorded Walter Horton's harmonica and jug band virtuoso Jack Kelly. Sam
recorded Jackie Boy, Little Walter and Johnny London.
Sam Phillips was a perfectionist with an ear for the right sound, and if the sound wasn't
exactly right he shelved plans for the record. The key to Sun Records reputation and
success was the quality of its product. From the beginning, Sun recordings had to be
commercial in order to be released. All of the early blues recording sessions, which took
place at night because Sam was selling his products during the day, were supervised by
Phillips' because he didn't trust the instincts of those around him.
One of the most obscure but significant Memphis musicians was an harmonica player
named James Cotton. In 1953, Cotton's band featured guitarist Pat Hare, and in December
of that year Sam Phillips brought Cotton and his band into Sun Records to record two
It was Les Bihari who made the deal with Sam Phillips to produce masters for Modern, and
they released some Howlin' Wolf tunes. Many of the Howlin' Wolf songs that Phillips
recorded were not released, because of arguments over songwriting credit.
Most Sun Records' artists have commented that Sam Phillips did pay his artists a fair
royalty. He was often late with the royalty payments, but this was due to the lack of
available cash. During recording sessions, Phillips paid a small, but fair, wage to his session
By 1952, however, Sun Records was established as a legitimate business. The first two
years were experimental ones as Phillips learned the ropes. It was necessary to turn a
profit with vanity records to guarantee that enough money could be generated to continue
the Sun Records operation. Once the company began, however, Phillips was confident that
he could turn out successful blues records.
From 1951 to 1953, Sam Phillips strongest efforts were in the blues field, where he turned
out some of the finest music in the South. He recorded or listened to B.B. King, Bobby
"Blue" Bland, Big Walter Horton, Little Junior Parker, Willie Nix, Big Ma Rainey, Howlin'
Wolf, Rosco Gordon, and Rufus Thomas among others. In Memphis, blues artists enabled
Sam Phillips to sell large quantities of records. Phillips paid the artist a fair price for the
music and didn't interfere with their recording style. It was this widespread confidence in
Phillips' production techniques that fostered a word-of-mouth reputation which brought
the South's best blues acts to the Sun studio.
By the oddest coincidence, the man who is ascribed as having written the first "Memphis
Blues", in 1912, W.C. Handy, was born - like Sam Phillips - in Florence, Alabama. Handy
became a bandleader, playing dances throughout the South, tunes like "Cotton Blossoms"
or "Sousa's Stars And Stripes Forever". However, Handy also heard the music of the field
hands and railroad workers as he travelled through the South, and one night in 1903 at
Tutwiler railroad station he heard a "lean, loose-jointed Negro" play a blues which featured
the line "Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog". It was a revelation to Handy, and he
gradually incorporated elements of blues into his work. Like Sam Phillips would some halfcentury
later, Handy too, worked in Memphis and in 1909 found himself hanging out at Pee
Wee's saloon and gambling joint, and working to elect. E.H. Crump as Mayor. The tune he
used gradually became the "Memphis Blues", with its 12-bar format. It was the first of
many blues, but the (relatively unsophisticated) musicians whom Handy had learned from
would have to wait their turn in the spotlight until he advent of the 78-rpm disc.
Black musicians had been recorded on wax cylinders as early as 1902, but what is widely
accepted as the first blues recording - Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" - wasn't made until
1920. Its subsequent success ensured that many more would follow, and after running the
gamut of vaudeville singers, Jazz bands and Choirs, the record companies gradually picket
up the courage to record country blues - and were frequently astonished at the resulting
From 1927 onwards, Memphis was often the target of field recording units, but after the
Depression this ceased - apart from one lone ARC session in 1939. Strangely enough, three
of the singers featured here in this publication - Charlie Burse, Jack Kelly, and Jimmy
DeBerry - got a chance to record then, their last sessions before recording for Sam Phillips
more than a decade later.
The outbreak of World War 2, allied to record company policy, the shellac shortage, and
the recording ban enforced by the AFM scotched any further local blues-oriented
recording dates in the short-term. Meanwhile, the major record companies had settled
into a formulaic rut (so what's new?) using session musicians, and generally ignoring
individual talent from the South. They continued in this vein after the war, and were
subsequently usurped by the burgeoning power of the Independent labels, who were quick
to exploit public demand for more exciting, up-to-date rhythm and blues, and soon swept
the majors out of the scene.
Sam Phillips was the forefront of this upsurge, and initially, he had Memphis - the natural
migration point for blacks from the Tri-State area (Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee) -
virtually to himself. He sought out local musicians via radio shows (notably his own spot on
WREC radio and his "blood brother" Dewey Phillips daily WHBQ radio show) and talents
scouts (e.g. Ike Turner) and quickly built up the roster of talent which earned him a
formidable reputation - and ultimately, the successes which led to the appearance of
serious competition locally via labels like Meteor Records.
After great blues came great rockabilly but after a decade of hectic recording Phillips
started to lose interest and eventually sold out, investing his money in the Holiday Inn
chain. But that's another story.
COUNTRY MUSIC IN MEMPHIS BEFORE SUN RECORDS
- When Sam Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service in 1950, he was literally taking a chance on a
new area of business in Memphis. There just had not been any successful attempts to set up a commercial
recording venture. There were no record labels currently operating in Memphis. Even a company called
Royal Recording, set up in 1948 to record private function and the like, had folded during 1949. ''It was
because of the closure of the Royal Studio downtown that my bosses at WREC warned me against trying to
start my own recording business'', recalled Sam Phillips.
Despite the legendary reputation the city now has for its recorded music, Sam Phillips could have stood in
his new studio and looked back over the short history of recorded sound seeing no local expertise upon
which to draw other than radio.
Thee local radio engineers sometimes recorded music or advertising material
onto did for subsequent radio broadcast. Occasionally radio studio would be used by an out of town
recording company. Other than this, and the booth in a local store where you could record a message for your
own private use, there were no recording facilities in Memphis.
Major national recording companies had occasionally made recordings in Memphis 'on location' as part of a
field trip to find regional music forms, but there had been no concerted effort to document or market
Memphis music, be it popular, jazz, blues, gospel or hillbilly. In other regional centres, it sometimes occurred
to local furniture stores to make recordings to sell in their shop along with the phonographs. Bullet Records
of Nashville and Trumpet of Jackson, Mississippi starts in this way, but there appears not to have been a
Memphis equivalent of these ventures. Similarly, there had been little interest shown by local radio engineer
or record distributors as sometimes occurred elsewhere. There were large record pressing and distribution
organizations in Memphis from the late 1940 - Plastic Products, and Music Sales - but they were geared to
the major labels and to west coast and north easter independents.
Sam Phillips was a radio man. At heart, he still is. It was through his friends and contacts at WREC in
Memphis that he acquired sufficient equipment to set up his studio in the first place. He bought his first
recording machines from WREC'S country disc jockey Buck Turner. Sam had come to Memphis in 1945,
from Florence, Alabama by way of Nashville, to work as a radio announcer and assistant to the transcriptions
manager, and subsequently as a dance-band promoter. As a further sideline, Sam did disc jockey work on
WREC'S country music show ''Songs of the West''. His association with country music in Memphis therefore
predated his better-known interest in blues and roll and roll by five and ten years respectively.
When he moved to Memphis, Sam Phillips would have been aware that in those immediate post-war years
there had been a sudden upsurge of 'independent' recording companies, largely in California and the northeast
but also in some regional cities. He was also aware that the Memphis area harboured a lot of untapped
talent in roots music; jazz, blues, gospel and hillbilly.
Back in 1903 another man from Florence, Alabama had come to a similar realization. He was W.C. Handy,
the black musician who composes and popularize the first copyrighted blues music. Handy put Memphis on
the map as far as the outside music world was concerned when he came out with his ''Memphis Blues'' in
As Handy was laying the seeds of the jazz and blues legend in Memphis, a young pianist named Bob Miller
was gaining his first jobs on Mississippi River steamboats. Working on the 'Idlewild' and taking in the
sounds and sights of river city life - a fusion of danceband jazz, folk and hillbilly tunes - Bob Miller was
inspired to develop a successful pop-country songwriting career. He had his songs published in Memphis as
early as 1923. Moving from Memphis to New York in 1928, Miller become known for tunes like ''Eleven
Cent Cotton'' and ''Forty Cent Meat'' and the wartime hillbilly favorite recorded by Elton Britt and others,
''There's A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere''.
All this, of course, told the world nothing about the real blues and hillbilly music of the mid-south. This only
came to light, gradually, during to late 1920s when the large northern recording companies recognized a
possible market for down to earth rural blues and folk music.
The man who first 'discovered' local Memphis music was Victor's Ralph Peer who brought portable
recording equipment to the city between February 24 and March 1, 1927. Using the McCall Building
downtown as a studio, he reorder 34 tunes, mostly blues, and came back during the three succeeding years
building up a strong roster of blues which include the Memphis Jug Band, Cannon's Jug Stampers and
Tommy Johnson. On the first trip in 1927 Peer recorded 26 titles by black blues or gospel artists, 4 by a jazz
band, and 4 by a white gospel septet. There was no white country music as such.
Victor's Ralph Peer and representatives from Hoke and Vocalion made repeated trips to Memphis in the years
before the Depression. In general, they recorded black music although country styles were increasingly
represented. Few of the artists saw their careers resurrected after the Depression but one of the survivors was
Rice Fleming. He recorded for Victor, ARC and Decca as part of a duet with Vespers Townsend. In the post
war years he reappeared at Sun Records in the company of Malcolm Wellington.
As the Depression hit the recording industry. there were to be no more field trips to Memphis until 1939
when Art Fatherly brought a Vocalion team to the city. In June and July that year Fatherly recorded 22 songs
by the Swift Jewel Cowboys and six by Gene Steele. Born Lloyd Bob in 1908, he had acquired the name
Gene Steele by the time he flit appeared on radio WMC in Memphis in 1937. Steele remained a WMC
regular until 1959. Known as the Singing Salesman on WMC, Steele recorded in a bluesy semi-western
swing style for Vocalion on songs like ''Ride 'Em Cowboy'' and ''Just A Little Of The Blues''. Later, in the
early 1950s, Steele appears to have also recorded for Sam billies on unissued titles which included ''Alimony
Blues'' and ''Daisy Bread Boogie''. When he retired from music Steele turned to dog racing in West Memphis
and apparently did very well in his new line of business until his death in 1984.
The Swift Jewel Cowboys had originated in Texas, working on radio for the Swift Company, manufacturers
of Jewel Salad Oil. Their manager, Frank Collins, moved them to Memphis in 1934 where, led by guitarist
Slim Hall, they played over WREC until 1936 and then over WREC until 1952. One member of the group,
cornettist Pee We Wamble, is still resident in Memphis. The Cowboys were a jazzy western swing outfit,
whose best tunes included ''Chuck Wagon Swing'' and ''Memphis Oomph''. After the band left Memphis, Pee
Wee Wamble continued to play in Memphis and he recorded in the 1941 as a member of Freddie Burns'
During the pre-War era, a few Memphis country artists who had been missed by the field trips nevertheless
appeared on records. One was Ramblin' Red Lowery who arrived in Memphis in 1933 from Kentucky. Able
to perform well in the then-popular style of Jimmie Rodgers, Lowery recorded several titles for Vocalion in
New York in January 1934, including ''Ramblin' Red's Memphis Yodel'', numbers 1. 2. 3 and 4.
Apart from the few recording sessions mentioned above, the main reflection of commercial country music in
Memphis in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s came via the local radio stations. Just as recording companies realize
during the 1920s that there was a market for real blues as hillbilly music rather than the popularised versions
first heard on cylinder and records, so the fledging radio industry soon turned to folk artists to sell certain
products over the air. Country musicians, and bluesmen, were particularly in demand for shows sponsored by
agricultural product companies and the like.
In the early days of radio, the 1920s, airtime was much more limited to country musicians than became the
case later on, particularly during to 1940s and early 1950s. Back in the 1920s, hillbilly music was likely to be
heard mainly in a barn-dance format pioneered by stations such as WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville.
Ironically, the founder of WSM'S hugely influential Grand OIe Opry programs: which started in Nashville in
1925, George D. Hay, had gains his first radio experience in Memphis.
George Hay was columnist with the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper when the company branched
out into radio as owned WMC as Memphis first radio station in 1923. Hay was drafted in as one of the first
announcers on the station. He left for Chicago the following year. Had he not, it is just conceivable that the
Opry might eventually have been spawned in Memphis rather than Nashville.
The second station appear in Memphis, in March 1925 was WHBQ. This was followed by WGBC in 1925
and WNBR in 1927, the latter owned by another newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar. These stations
combined to become WMPS in 1937 and developed into the largest station in town when taken over in 1947
by Plough Incorporated. The top news and information station in town was WREC which moved to
Memphis in 1929 from earlier locations in Goldwater, Mississippi and Whitehaven. Tennessee. Other
stations followed these into a regional market which, by the 1940s, was the eleventh largest in the USA. The
other stations included KWEM in West Memphis and WHHM.
During the 1940s, WMPS developed into the top country music programmer in Memphis. The station had
move heavily into a country format in 1939 but the tenure of Smiling ''Eddie'' Hill at the station between
1947 and 1950 pave new impetus to the station. Hill's show quickly became the leading country program in
the region. Hill and his band were supported by other top acts: including the Louvin Brothers, the Carlisles.
Dan Snyder and the Loden Family. Disc jockey Bob Neal became the top country disc jockey in the area.
WMC developed into the second most important country station. Its stars included Gene Steele, Bob
McKnight and his Ranch Boys with vocalist Freddie Burns, Curley Williams' Georgia Peachpickers, Curley
Fox, Harmonica Frank and, in 1945 and 1946, the Delmore ' Brothers with Wayne Raney and Lonnie
Glosson. Alton Delmore has recalled Memphis as, ''the best place we ever worked''.
The Brothers had an
early morning show on WMC during the heyday of their King Records career in the wake of hits like
''Hillbilly Boogie''. The longest running country program in Memphis was also on WMC. This was the Slim
Rhodes show, which ran from 1944 into the early 1961 and later expanded into TV.
From left: Gene Steele, Ray Phelps, Slim Rhodes, Dusty Rhodes, and Speck Rhodes
Slim Rhodes' competitor on WREC was Buck Turner with his Buckaroos. Turner, from French Camp,
Mississippi was probably not the same Buck Turner who recorded out of Dallas in the 1930s and had a
manor success with ''Sing Sing Blues'', although Turner's story has never been properly investigated. He died
sometime in the early 1970s without having been interviewed. Details of his Buckaroos are also scant, but
the croup included Curt Gilmer on guitar whose cousin Will Gilmer recorded before the war with the Leake
County Revelers. Before Buck Turner's days at WREC, during the 1930 and 1940s, Ramblin' Red Lowery
and the Swift Jewel Cowboys had appeared regularly on the station. Sam Phillips himself as a country disc
jockey when he came to WREC in June 1945. He was the host of the ''Songs of the West'' program, where he
was known as ''Pardner''. Sam's brother Jud was also on WREC as a member of the Jollyboys vocal quartet.
Across the river in Arkansas, KWEM was developing a restated for country music. In the 1950s, their to disc
jockeys were Bill Strength and Dick Stuart, supported by live acts including Clyde Leopard's band, Charlie
Feather and Jack Earls.
The competition for Bob Neal in the country disc jockey stakes came from Dick Stuart on KWEM and
Sleepy Eye John Lepley on WHHM. Other forms of specialized music programming included some blues
and gospel on stations, particulars KWEM and, of course, the black station WDIA.
Unlike WSM, Nashville, which obtained a nationally-networked slot for its country program, the Memphis
country shows remained localised products for a mainly rural regional audience in west Tennessee,
Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and Alabama. There were networked shows out of Memphis, though,
particularly on WMC, affiliated to CBS, and on WREC which broadcast live dance bands from the Skyway
Restaurant in the Peabody Hotel. These shows indeed to Ted Weems Band with Perry Como, and the Ozzie
Nelson show. One of the producers of the Skyway shows from 1946 to 1951 was Sam Phillips.
Just as a few Memphis-based artists were able to record in the 1930s by trammelling to major label studios,
so in the 1940s some of Memphis' top radio acts appeared on record. Again, though, they had to sign with
labels from outside the immediate area to achieve this.
The Delmore Brothers were contracted to King Record of Cincinnati at the time when they were appearing
on Memphis radio in the late 1940s. Similarly, Freddie Burns, based in Memphis, appeared on Start Talent
out of Dallas. Curley Williams, who wrote ''Half As Much'' and other songs for Hank Williams (no relation)
used Memphis as a radio and touring base but was recording for Columbia out of Nashville. Eddie Hill was
the leading light on Memphis country radio, but his records appeared in the 1940s on Apollo Records of New
York and on Decca and then in the 1950s Mercury out of their Nashville office. The Eddie Hill Decca session
in August 1949 was held at the same time as the session on Bob Price. Decca had a distribution office in
Memphis (from 1938 to 1952). Other labels with offices in Memphis included Capitol (from 1946 to 1955)
and King (from 1952 to 1956). Mostly these offices were for distribution and promotional staff and had no
connection with the recording side of the business, but it could be that there was some scouting of Memphis
talent through these offices.
As to recordings actually made in Memphis in the immediate post-War years, very little activity has been
uncovered before the establishment of Sun, Duke and Meteor in 1952 and Starmaker in 1953. Ike Turner
recorded some blues in makeshift studios for Modern Records of Hollywood in 1951 and 1952, and Rufus
Thomas and others recorded for Star Talent at Johnny Curry’s Club in Memphis. There were some very
short-lived labels operating in 1953, including one-issue blues labels like Wasco (Professor Longhair) and
Back Alley (Tippo Lite). The only vaguely substantial recording enterprise to predate Sun appears to have
been the Buster label formed in the late 1940s by Buster Williams as an offshoot of the Plastic Products
record manufacturing set-up which Williams started in 1949. However, the evidence suggest that the Buster
releases were in fact reissues of material from west coast record labels and that Buster was primarily a
manufacturing and sales exercise rather than a recording enterprise related to local musicians.
All the labels so far mentioned concentrated on blues. There were also some gospel recordings. The Spirit of
Memphis Quartet recorded for King on location at the Masonic Temple in Memphis in 1952. Earlier the
Reverent W.H. Brewster had recorded in 1950 for Gotham on titles which may have been made at WDIA
radio or another Memphis location. WDIA would have been to most likely place for the recording of black
music in 1949, and in fact the first two records made by B.B. King were recorded at WDIA for Nashville's
Further research may reveal other Memphis recordings and labels. There are still some puzzles to be
solved. Someone called dreamy Joe recorded ''Hardin's Bread Boogie'' on a promotional 78rpm for
Action Promotions. There will have been other promotional discs made, and possibly some of these
saw limited commercial release. Then again, it is clear that Sam Phillips' first professional job when
he opened his Memphis Recording Service in January 1950 was to make acetates of WREC
country singer Buck Turner for radio broadcast. Sam has long since forgotten whether there were
other similar deals, or whether any of these recordings also saw commercial release. For instance, it
is not clear whether the several vocal performances by a Buck Turner issued on Nashville's Bulleit
label between 1950 and 1952, issued under the name of Tani Allen and his Tennessee Pals, were in
fact recorded by Sam Phillips.
The four Slim Rhodes singles included here on this website therefore remain the earliest country
recordings known to have been made in Memphis since Gene Steele and the Swift Jewel Cowboys
recorded for Vocalion in 1939. Sun 190, ''Blues Waltz'' by the Ripley Cotton Choppers, remains the
first country record known to have been issued on a Memphis-based record label.
THE SUN COUNTRY YEARS
- Of all the musical styles associated with Sun Records, country music
is the least well recognised and the least well documented. This is surprising because
country music appeared on the magic yellow label from the first full year of operation
until the last. Moreover, most of the artists primarily associated with Sun Records began
their careers in country music or went on to carve out a career in country music.
However, when we came to compile the Sun Country Years we encountered some special
problems. Sam Phillips and his producers recorded a lot of country music.
Even before the
birth of Sun Records, Phillips was recording country music for Chess and 4-Star Records.
we included every country performance from those seventeen years the list of recordings
would be an unmanageable size.
As Sun's fame grew, hundreds of artists made the trek to Union and Marshall, hoping that
they would be discovered in the same way as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny
Cash. Hundreds more mailed in demo tapes, many of which remain unheard to this day.
Some of those tapes were shipped to Nashville with the Sun tape inventory and we have
included a few examples of them. Perhaps a couple were not recorded at 706 Union but
we judged them to be of sufficient interest that they warranted inclusion.
We started listening to this music many years ago and it seems as though each major
project, in particular the Sun Boxes series, deepens out appreciation of the music, the
environment which gave birth to it and the actual recording industry during those far off
years. Despite the plethora of Sun reissues it is really hard to believe that you are
scratching the bottom of the barrel when you uncover previously unknown Charlie
Feathers recordings or bring some of the previously unknown or little known artists into
The music scene has changed out of all recognition in the years since the first of these
performances was recorded. In technical terms alone, the changes have been dramatic.
The acetates that Sam Phillips used in 1950 were supplanted by tape which has now been
supplanted by computer scans of the audio signal. The 78rpm disc, the primary medium
for sound recordings in 1950, was supplanted by microgroove which is, in turn, being
supplanted by compact disc. It is now commonplace to fit one hour's worth of music onto a
disc that is several inches smaller and several ounces lighter than the old 78s that held the
fruits of Phillips' first efforts.
Yet, somehow, the music that Sam Phillips recorded in his tiny studio in an era so different
from the present has survived to sound better with each passing year. As country music
surrenders its soul in the quest for the Holy Grail of crossover, it becomes necessary to
look back over your shoulder. It will be a sad day when there is no place for Charlie
Feathers or Doug Poindexter singing their hearts out with a painfully simple, pure hillbilly
backing. This country music is very special and we're betting that much of it will be
around long after most of today's country music is forgotten.
It is probably fair to say that there was a classic period for country music on Sun Records.
It fell between 1954 and 1956 when most of the country music that emanated from Sam
Phillips' little studio was achingly pure and almost totally untouched by rhythm and blues.
Success, of course, came with the rockabilly boom that dawned in 1956 and most of the
classic country music recorded on Sun sold abysmally. When Sam Phillips calculated Earl
Peterson's royalty statement in May 1955, SUN 197 had sold five copies in the preceding
six months, bringing the total sales to 2868, but 196 copies had been returned. Total
royalties amounted to $94.17 but Peterson had already purchased $60 worth of records,
reducing the total amount owed to $34.17 peanuts - even in 1955.
It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for the dismal sales. Some artists such as Slim Rhodes had
strictly local appeal. Slim's radio and, later, television, appearances ensured that his
product would sell well in Memphis and the surrounding area. The Ripley Cotton Choppers,
only seemed to sell well in Ripley (population 450). Charlie Feathers briefly cracked the
Memphis charts with "Peepin' Eyes" thereby ensuring that he would at least see a follow-up
but, in general, it seems as though Phillips had a hard time selling his country titles.
Perhaps one reason lay in the nature of the country music industry. It was dominated by
the major labels. In April 1955, for example, Decca held five of the fifteen slots in the
country charts. The only smaller labels to get a look-in were Dot, Imperial and Fabor.
Initially, Phillips had geared his operation to the rhythm and blues market which was
dominated by independent labels with strong distribution channels to support them. By
the time Phillips cracked the country charts with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in the late
months of 1955, the entire picture was starting to chance; the boundaries were starting to
blur. Moreover, it is possible that Sam Phillips, with his limited resources, spent too much
time getting Elvis Presley and later Johnny Cash off the ground, and that Earl Peterson,
Doug Poindexter, Hardrock Gunter, Charlie Feathers, Jimmy Haggett and the Miller Sisters
suffered as a result.
Sam Phillips was also afflicted by a desperate lack of Cash flow in 1954-1955. Sun had seen
their main blues hits in 1953 and by 1955 distributors were still playing for new Presley
product with returned blues titles. Sam Phillips was also trying to buy back his brother
Jud's share of Sun (which Jud had probably bought from Jim Bulleit) and repay an
unrecouped advance from Chess Records. Little wonder therefore that he found neither
the time nor the money to promote his unknown country acts into a fiercely competitive
marketplace that was dominated by Decca, Columbia and RCA. He could not neglect Elvis
Presley and Johnny Cash but the inevitable result was that other artists suffered. Jud
Phillips was back in Alabama and Sun was reduced to a two-person operation during this
However, sales are not the only criteria by which music is measured. If that were the case
we'd be preparing the Four Lads or Hugo Winterhalter boxed sets. The country music that
Phillips produced was difficult music. It is not easy on the ears, nor does it have the
immediately appealing frenetic drive of rockabilly. It can take repeated exposure to see
the tormented and primitive beauty in Charlie Feathers "I've Been Deceived". However, it
is the same rawness that has enabled the music to survive these many years. When Charlie
Feathers was settling down to record "I've Been Deceived", the pop and country markets
were gripped by Davy Crockett mania. "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett" sold seven million
copies on 20 labels. Feathers' single barely crept into four figures. However, 30 years
later, Davy Crockett is a long forgotten crazy, and "I've Been Deceived" survives to sound
better than ever. Pure country soul counts for something after all.
The first country record on Sun was out-of-date before the cutting stylus left the lathe.
The Ripley Cotton Choppers represented a throwback to the pre War era. Their sound
owed more to the Carter Family than to prevailing trends in country music. The same
could be said of Howard Seratt. But then Phillips could never be accused of being
mainstream. But the left-field approach brought its rewards when Elvis Presley and
Johnny Cash cracked the country charts with smartingly original music.
Much of the music that Sam Phillips recorded, especially between 1954 and 1956,
betrayed some of the influence of country music's lately departed king, Hank Williams.
Unlike many labels, Phillips was not slavishly Williams' style. Artists such as Doug
Poindexter, Carl Perkins and Charlie Feathers used Williams' style as the basis of their own
but it was still very much the artist's personality that shone through.
Sam Phillips was also fortunate to have a country house band of stellar quality. Perhaps if
they had played together as long as their Nashville counterparts their music would have
become formula-ridden and humdrum. As it was, every performance seemed to be minted
afresh. The intensity of Stanley Kesler's steel guitar matched with Bill Cantrell's fiddle and
the deadened bass string sound of Quinton Claunch adds so much to these sessions.
In fact, Claunch and Cantrell offered Sam Phillips the major country hit to emerge from
Memphis before Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. The song was "Daydreamin'" by Bud
Deckelman. It was finally released on Meteor after it had been mastered in Sam Phillips'
studio which must have it doubly galling. Meteor's triumph was short-lived, however,
because Deckelman departed almost immediately for MGM, leaving both Sun and Meteor
with "Daydreamin'" sequels by other artists. Deckelman was closer to Hank Williams than
any of Phillips' artists which is probably the reason why MGM were so pleased to secure
him. Unfortunately, no-one had told MGM that there was only one Hank Williams.
Within a few months, the limited success of "Daydreamin'" was swept aside in the
rockabilly revolution. However, Sun never forsook country music even after the success of
"Blue Suede Shoes". Ernie Chaffin, Mack Self and others produced delightful country music
that was almost an anachronism as the trend towards crossover product gathered
momentum. Even beyond the scope of the recordings, Sun recorded country artists but
none could even come close outselling the long departed Johnny Cash. Finally, when it
seemed as though the bottom of the barrel has been reached for Cash repackages, Sun
signed Dane Stinit, an artist who modeled his style on Cash. Unfortunately, just as no-one
seemed to have told MGM that there was only Hank Williams, so it seemed that no-one told
Sun that there was only one Johnny Cash. Stinit reportedly lured Sam Phillips back into
the control room, but to no avail.
Sam Phillips recorded some truly excellent country music. It was original, it was
profoundly soulful and some of it crossed the fine line between uptempo hillbilly music
and rockabilly. Perhaps more than anything else, this highlights the fact that virtually all of
the rockabillies would have been singing hillbilly music if they had auditioned a few
months or a few years earlier. They all left something behind in little 7" tape boxes that
resembled country music. Only Sonny Burgess and Billy Riley veered towards rhythm and
blues and, of course, Roy Orbison always had his sights set filmly on the pop charts. Harold
Jenkins (Also known as Conway Twitty) left behind a pure and gentle country ballad.
Warren Smith left a large and hauntingly beautiful legacy of country music that presaged
his move to country with Liberty Records. Jack Clement, whose mind moved concurrently
in half a dozen directions, never forsook his country roots. Even Charlie Rich, the most
urbane and musically eclectic of them all, left some title in the can (as well as on record)
that predated his own monumental success with country music. Country music was the
common wellspring. When Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins
gathered together in Phillips' studio at the end of 1956 they came together musically on
common ground: country gospel and good old country music. It might not have paid for the
Cadillacs and the diamond rings but it was never too far beneath the surface.
THE SUN ROCKING YEARS
- Rock and Roll is the generic term used to describe the dominant strain of
American popular music from 1955 to 1965. In general, rock and roll was teenage-oriented dance
music that synthesized elements of black and white folk and popular music styles, specifically and
most conspicuously, rhythm and blues and country (or hillbilly) music, is superseded by Elvis Presley,
born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and reared in Memphis, Tennessee.
All of the other subsequent rock and
roll innovators, with the arguable exception of Chuck Berry (born, San Jose, California, 1926), were
Carl Perkins (born, Bermis, Tennessee, 1932), Jerry Lee Lewis (born, Ferriday,
Louisiana, 1935), Buddy Holly (born, Lubbock, Texas, 1936), Fats Domino (born, New Orleans,
Louisiana, 1928), Little Richard (born, Macon, Georgia, 1932).
From 1955 to 1958 rock and roll remained largely a southern phenomenon. Two principal regional
recording centers were Memphis and New Orleans, each of which produced a distinctive idiom of its
own. Memphis, long a cultural crossroads where various southern musical traditions flourished,
especially Mississippi Delta blues and hillbilly music, produced a dynamic hybrid known as
Rockabilly was firmly rooted in country music but drew heavily from black sources, most notably
gospel and rhythm and blues. It was characterized by small ensembles (often a trio), stringed
instrumentation, and a persistent yet light beat layered over frenzied vocalizing and an echo
produced in the recording studio. The classic rockabilly sound, engineered by Sam Phillips and
performed by Elvis Presley (vocal and acoustic rhythm guitar), Scotty Moore (electric lead guitar),
and Bill Black (acoustic upright bass) was first recorded at Phillips' Sun Records studio in Memphis
in July 5-6, 1954. Sun soon attracted dozens of aspiring young musicians from across the South who
performed in a style similar to Presley's. Important Sun artists after Elvis Presley were Carl
Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Billy Riley, Sonny Burgess, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and
Conway Twitty. A definitive rockabilly group from Memphis, which recorded for the New Yorkbased
Coral label, was the Rock And Roll Trio (Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette, and Paul
After 1955 the basic Memphis rockabilly sound underwent a gradual modification. Elvis Presley
moved toward a mainstream rock and roll sound after signing with RCA Victor in November 1955.
Jerry Lee Lewis introduced his own boogie-woogie-based piano style into rockabilly with his first
Sun releases in 1955. Beginning in 1957 Buddy Holly created an original pop-influenced variant of
rockabilly, exemplified by such recordings as "That'll Be The Day" (1957), "Peggy Sue" (1957), and
"Rave On" (1958). In Louisiana, Dale Hawkins recorded in a strong blues-influenced style, which
gained its greatest expression in the hit recording "Suzie Q" (1957). Numerous influential rockabilly
artists lived and recorded in Los Angeles after 1955, including Gene Vincent (originally from
Virginia), whose best-known song was "Be Bop A Lula" (1956), Wanda Jackson (originally from
Oklahoma), the most talented female rockabilly performer; Eddie Cochran, next to Carl Perkins,
the finest rockabilly songwriter, who recorded such definitive items as "Summertime Blues" (1958)
and "Something Else" (1959), and Ricky Nelson (born in New Jersey), who sold more rockabilly
recordings than anyone other than Elvis Presley. Nelson and the Nashville-based Everly Brothers
followed Presley and Holly in moving rockabilly in the direction of pop music by removing much of
the rawness and dynamism from the idiom. The Everly Brothers were especially significant for
introducing the traditional hillbilly duet style into rock and roll. Their best recordings such as
"Wake Up Little Susie" (1957), and "Bye, Bye Love" (1957), retained much of the potency of early
rockabilly. A few mainstream country performers also recorded in a rockabilly mode, most notably
Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton.
The New Orleans sound, which formed the second major component of southern rock and roll, was
infused with the blues. It was characterized by small ensembles (usually five or six pieces) whose
central instrument was the piano. Accompaniment usually consisted of saxophones, drums, electric
bass, and horns. It was noted for a heavy, rolling beat and Carribean-derived polyrhythms. New
Orleans vocalists, most of whom were black, sang with the thick inflections indigenous to the city.
Most of the songs identified with New Orleans rock and roll were exuberant, joyous, and urgent, yet
less frenzied than those from rockabilly music. Lyrics were seldom teen oriented.
Though no record label of comparable importance to Sun Records existed in New Orleans - most of
the city's recordings were released by West Coast companies such as Imperial and Specialty -
virtually every recording made in the city came from the studio of engineer and producer Cosimo
Matassa. Matassa and Dave Bartholomew, a musician, writer, and producer, were key figures in the
evolution of a distinctive New Orleans rock and roll style.
The quintessential New Orleans rock and roll performer was Fats Domino, a musical heir of the
great rhythm and blues pianist Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd). Domino was a popular
rhythm and blues recording artist in the early 1950s, and he made his entry onto the national pop
charts in 1955 with "Ain't That A Shame". In the 1955-60 period, Domino produced a remarkable
series of hit recordings, including "Blueberry Hill" (1956) and "I'm walking" (1957).
Other important contributors to the New Orleans sound included Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis, Huey
Smith, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Frankie Ford, Bobby Charles, and Jimmy Clanton. Clanton, a
white performer, accomplished the closest approximation of the New Orleans style to a mainstream
rock and roll sound with recordings like "Just A Dream" (1958). The only non-Louisiana artist to
play a significant role in the popularization of the New Orleans style was Little Richard (Penniman)
of Macon, Georgia. Little Richard became one of the most dynamic and controversial rock and roll
performers of the 1950s with such hits as "Tutti Frutti" (1955) and "Rip It Up" (1956).
By the early 1960s rockabilly music had largely been subsumed by the rock and roll mainstream.
The New Orleans sound remained a vital and distinctive regional rock and roll form, though it too
declined in popularity and experienced a certain degree of accommodation with the mainstream
approach. Both Memphis and New Orleans ceased to be important recording centers. Most southern
musicians left to work in Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville where, if successful, they tended to
produce recordings of minimal regional identity. Southern rock and roll, which, in the forms of
rockabilly and New Orleans music, had exerted a formative influence on the creation of a national
rock and roll style, now merely existed as one element within the broad form as evinced by such
representative recordings of the period as Johnny Tillotson's "Poetry In Motion" (1960), Johnny
Burnette's "You're Sixteen" (1960), and Elvis Presley's "Return To Sender" (1962).
After 1963 American rock and roll began to succumb to the so-called British Invasion, spearheaded
by the Beatles, who were soon followed by such groups as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and
Gerry and the Pacemakers. Ironically, the British invaders were themselves extremely indebted to
the southern-derived forms of early rock and roll and thus revived much of the southern character
and identity of the music. The most successful American rock and roll recording artist of the mid-
1960s was Johnny Rivers, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana (born 1940), who had begun his
musical career as a rockabilly stylist. Rivers's music combined many varied styles, from urban folk
music to rockabilly, but retained its essential southern character.
By 1966 the Beatles and Bob Dylan (another musician devoted to southern musical forms) led the
way toward "rock" as contrasted to rock and roll. Rock had a general, national (and even
international) identity. It was a form oriented more toward concerts than dance and was
linguistically and thematically sophisticated and complex. Only in the early 1970s, with the
emergence of the Allman Brothers Band and the attendant success of Capricorn records of Maco,
Georgia, did a specific, self conscious, and identifiable southern rock style evolve.
THE SUN GOSPEL YEARS
- It is easy to forget that many of our favorite musicians at Sun Records,
who recorded in fields as diverse as country, blues and rockabilly, were profoundly religious.
Their backgrounds predisposed them to sing gospel music, although the economics of their
careers often precluded it. Sun label-owner Sam Phillips was in much the same position.
Hardly was nevertheless in a poor position to sell gospel music. He tried early and, almost
without exception, he failed.
Ultimately, Phillips adopted a policy of dissuading his artists from recording too much
When LPs became part of Sun's release schedule, Phillips occasionally
included one gospel track as a concession to religious sensibilities - both the artists' and
There is also a look at the gospel music that Sun Records did record. Sadly, some of it -
perhaps some of the best of is - has been lost. There is no longer any trace of the sides
Phillips recorded in June 1950 with The Gospel Travelers, although we do know that
Modern Records rejected the samples Phillips sent them. Similarly, nothing remains of the
five sides featuring Cicero Lewis and The Gospel Tones that Sam Phillips recorded in
Presumably, there were no takes for that music as well. Of the tracks were are able to
present here, it is important to remember that the vast majority of them were never
originally released. Nevertheless, in many ways these recordings remains the forgotten
root of roots music.
THE WOMEN OF SUN RECORDS
- Sam Phillips has always had a complicated relationship with
women. Certainly, his personal life would not be fodder for a family-rated TV movie of the
week. During his - and Sun's - golden age, Sam was a ladies man. A charmer. Some would say
That same charisma played an undeniable role in the studio, even with his
male artists. He usually worked with the underdog - undereducated and poor-stricken whites
and blacks, alike.
They trusted him, often revered him. His power over them drew levels of
creativity that many of them never knew within themselves, and rarely achieved elsewhere
if their careers continued.
Women, too, were an underclass in the 1950s South. Sam's charisme, not to mention some
powerful biological forces, led to some predictable outcomes in and out of the studio.
an early discussion, Phillips commented that in deciding whether to record women he had
to "play with them on the side" in order to determine "if I could approach them in a way
that would give distinction to what they did". Phillips indicated that he had used the same
approach to decide which male artists he could work with in the studio.
Forget the sexual
connotation of his words. Its pretty clear that Phillips' meaning was nothing as crude as
saying "I had to sleep with every woman I recorded". For him, "playing with them on the
side" was likely an experience of the mind. Power. Control. Mind games. Disregard the
implications of these words in the Politically Correct 21st Century. Sam Phillips was
talking, purely and simply, about whatever it took to get the best work on tape.
In fact, Phillips went on to say that he never got to the point of "playing with them on the
side" to the extent that he originally anticipated in making decisions about which women
to record. Thus Sam Phillips fell back on Plan B. "I decided if I could find some
unbelievable harmonies, maybe that would be a way to go".
To be sure, no one knew better than Sam Phillips that woman were a saleable commodity.
Remember, it was Phillips who started the nation's first All Girl radio station in Memphis.
This was commercial savvy, not the act of a proto-feminist. Phillips knew a business
opportunity when he saw one and did not miss the chance to develop and sell WHER, when
the time was right.
How did all of this translate into the way Sam Phillips recorded women? It remains
anybody's guess. When he was still actively involved in the day-to-day decisions at Sun,
Phillips recorded and released sides by an ageless old-style blues shouter (Big Memphis
Marainey), a 13 year old hillbilly singer (Maggie Sue Wimberly), a teenager white singer
with a deep love of gutsy blues (Barbara Pittman), and two Mississippi sister-in-law (The
Miller Sisters) whose unerring sweet country harmonies can still evoke chills. If there's a
pattern here, it escapes us.
THE 706 UNION INSTRUMENTAL YEARS
- The Sun label of Memphis was renowned for its blues
and rockabilly, but instrumentals have not featured prominently in its annals.
There was of
course Bill Justis who hit the big time with "Raunchy", Brad Suggs who had a few
instrumental singles, and Ace Cannon was around, but his payday came on Hi Records in
Over the years of dipping into the Sun vaults, the odd instrumental has emerged here and
there. Some from a blues background, some from a rockabilly background, others plain
pop. As many of these assorted non vocal tracks, as time will allow, have been collected on
THE SUN DEMOS
- Sam Phillips did not record all the music. It is very important to him that we
emphasize that point. Much of it was recorded by men Phillips hired - musicians like Jack
Clement, Bill Justis and Ernie Barton and others. In addition, some of the music was
recorded outside of Sun and submitted in the hope that Sam or someone would be
Why include these demos? Sam Phillips expressed understandable concern. "These aren't
even Sun Records", he observed, presumably in the sense that "Blue Suede Shoes" is a Sun
Record. He's right, of course.
But it is the case that Sun fans and collectors have moved far
beyond wanting to acquire Carl Perkins' Greatest Hits. If that were the limit, the Sun
reissue industry would have closed up shop 25 years ago.
There is more to the picture.
There is a deeper understanding, not just of Sam and Sun, but
the surrounding music scene in general. We already know who was inside the walls of 706
Union, but we lack a clearer picture of who was outside, beating on the walls trying to get
in. We will provide a rare glimpse of those artists. Demos by male singers - the Elvis
wannabees - have long been released over the years as part of the Sun legacy, even though
they were not technically part of what Sam or Sun recorded. They did show us what was
going on outside while Sun went about its business creating legends. They also gave us a
notion of what Sam found waiting for him in the morning mail and an insight into how he
made his selection. To understand the genius of Sam Phillips, it is necessary to see only what
he chose, but also what he chose not to do.
Now, for the first time, we have a comparable look at the women who wanted to see their
names on a yellow Sun label. Like their male counterparts, they represented a variety of
styles and varying leve's of professionalism. They have one thing in common - other than
their desire to be a Sun recording artist: They were all rejected by Sam Phillips or by
someone who listened to anonymous submissions at 706 Union Avenue.
Sam worried that the release of these rough demos might make him or the artists look
bad. "I have a certain feeling about going into somebody's dressing room when they're
naked. That's how I consider a demo. Its an audition and an audition is like the dressing
Maybe so, but these naked auditions were submitted to a commercial recording company
by artists who hoped to share their music with the public. Their performances weren't
secretly recorded or stolen from the privacy of their homes. Moreover, they are plainly
packaged as what they are: demos. No one is suggesting that these efforts should be
compared to fully orchestrated, professionally recorded masters. Moreover, there are
those who believe that the sparsely recorded sound of a demo can be a more intimate
showcase for talent. Just listen to the unadorned Hank Williams demos that have become
a staple of his most recent collections. Or - closer to home - listen to Elvis Presley's first
halting steps on those primitive early demos. Would we want to be without them? Have
they in any way been a source of embarrassment?
Rather than undermining the reputation of Sam Phillips, we think the demos have the
opposite effect. To the extent that they reflect on Phillips at all (remember, he did not
actually record them) they enhance his reputation as a producer. Bear in mind that these
demos represent the best of what was found in the reject pile; the worst of them were
unimaginably bad. Nevertheless, many of them still reveal how far Phillips had to go to
make some of his records sound as good as they did. Here are samples of the raw clay from
which Sam Phillips chose and fashioned his masterpieces. They, too, are part of the Sun R
BLACK GOSPEL QUARTETS IN MEMPHIS
– It is widely known that Memphis was a crucible for the
blues. It attracted a procession of unique artists from the Delta, whose contributions shaped the face of both
pre-war and post-war blues styles. Surprisingly, fans and collectors of the blues often overlook the
importance of gospel music in Memphis.
As Sam Phillips knew, Memphis had a rich tradition in quartet
singing during the years the recordings were made.
The impact of gospel quartets was felt nearly everywhere
in the black community, from ''programs'' held in neighborhood storefront churches to the mega-watt radio
broadcast heard across the mid South.
The Jones Brothers, early 1950s
All over the country in the three decades before Sam Phillips started recording there was an increase in live
radio broadcasts and phonograph recordings by gospel quartets that helped disseminate and popularize this
unique musical form.
Gospel researcher Kip Lornell cites the case of the Southernaires who broadcast ''The
Little Weaather-Beaton White Washed Church Of the Air'' over NBC for 11 years beginning in the mid-
1930s. Lornell concludes, it was such national radio exposure, along with phonograph records, that ''began to
shift black gospel quartets from the realm of... spiritual guidance for a community of like minded Christians
to the level of popular entertainment whose boundaries seemed almost limitless''. Perhaps the group that best
embodies the transition from gospel to mass appeal is the Golden Gate Quartet. The impact of the group's
popularity, as well as their percussive ''Jubilee'' style, is felt implicity in every one of the quartet recordings
in the Sun collection. In one case (the Jones Brothers) a selection was directly copied from a 1937 recording
by the Gates.
Like virtually every southern centre with a size-able black population, Memphis enjoyed a thriving
community of gospel quartets from World War II to the end of the 1950s, the time that parallels the recording
on the Sun collection. During this period there were no fewer than fifty quartets calling Memphis their home.
A few, the Spirit of Memphis, the Southern Wonders and the Sunset Travelers, worked professionally
through the 1950s but a large proportion of them were non-professional, their members holding day-jobs and
practicing religiously (pun-intended) during every available moment. They were often quite good and some
like the Songbirds Of The South, Pilgrim Spirituals, and Campbellaires, made occasional trips north in
addition to singing locally. Many groups were helped by the involvement of local radio stations. Without
doubt, the most influential station in the gospel market was WDIA. Station personalities like Ford Nelson
and Brother Theo Wade advance the cause of gospel quartets and became community heroes in the process.
WDIA was not alone in its popularising of the quartet sound. Gospel was big business and competition
forced other stations in the Memphis market to broadcast their share of the quartet sound. Thus, while
driving through Memphis on a balmy summer evening in 1952, one might hear the sweet harmonies of four
or five black voices, both live or on record, singing the praises of the Lord over WDIA, WMC, WHBQ,
KWEM (where gospel personality Cousin Eugene held forth) or WNRB. All of this air time increased the
demand for gospel performances.
As Kip Lornell has discovered, this need was amply met. A survey of back issues of newspapers such as the
Memphis World and Tri-State Defender describes the popularity of live performances (programs) in these
words: ''Countless gospel extravaganzas were held in Mason's Temple throughout the 1950s. (it was)... a
seven thousand seat facility located just off Crump Boulevard in southwestern Memphis... The Temple was
frequently packed with fans coming to hear and applaud their favourite groups.... Every two or three months
Mason's Temple featured one of these programs... many of them were sponsored (booked and promoted) by
local quartets, and the Spirit Of Memphis was the most often featured one headline out-of-town group such
as the Pilgrim Travelers or Golden Gates... who were supported by three or four local or regional groups''.
There were also many large gospel programs held at the Civic Auditorium, known as Ellis Auditorium, some
of them promoted by the Spirit Of Memphis quartet.
The Spirit, as they were known locally, were the first quartet from Memphis to record after the War. In May
1949 they were in Birmingham, Alabama when they recorded ''Happy In The Service Of The Lord'' at the
studio of radio WJLD for release locally on a label called Hallelujah Spirituals owned by disc jockey Trumon
Puckett. This was reissued by DeLuxe Records and became a considerable hit, followed by a string of best
sellers on Syd Nathan's King label in Cincinnati. Their success encouraged other Memphis quartets to turn
professional and others out-of-town record labels with significant gospel merchandising skills to look to
Memphis for their artists. The Southern Wonders and the Sunset Travelers recorded for Don Robey's
Peacock/Duke labels in Houston, Texas.
Where was Sam Phillips during all of this activity? It was time when the direction his fledgling recording
service, and then his fledgling record label, was still to be determined. We know that King and Peacock label
owners Don Robey and Syd Nathan recorded and released what they could sell, and they could sell black
gospel music. But neither of these men was, to put it mildly, on the cusp of accepting Jesus Christ as their
personal savior. While he may not have attended church every Sunday, Sam Phillips was a lot closer to the
gospel tradition and values of the church. Yet he pointedly recorded little of the music. Phillips knew it and
has expressed his regret that he did not spent more time (or money) recording black gospel quartets. ''Gospel
music was an area where I didn't get to do anything near what I would have liked. Oh man, there's no telling
what I should and could have done in gospel music from the Memphis area. It was such an important force in
the city. I'm ashamed to say I just barely touched the surface with the potential of Memphis gospel''.
In fairness, Phillips was responding to the commercial realities of his profession. He was not, after all, the
Library of Congress, whose obligation it was to preserve local musical folkways. Rather, he was scuffling in
a cutthroat profession and, as we have seen elsewhere, barely making ends meet during the early 1950s. Like
other record company owners, Sam Phillips occasionally attempted to persuade his most talented artists (both
solo and quarter) to record secular rather than the religious music they preferred. Although he succeeded with
white artists like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, he did not succeed with any of the black quartets. It was
not for lack of trying, however. Men like Reverent Brewster, on whom Phillips practised his persuasive
wiles, held steadfast and did not allow their quartet singers to follow the path into worldly music trod by
such ex-gospel singers as Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Brook Benton and countless others. Phillips had a world
of respect for Brewster and described him as ''one of the greatest ministers I've ever heard speak''. Phillips
also lamented the musical potential that Reverent Brewster held for fledgling Sun Records. ''In his church he
had so many soloists, groups and choir, why you wouldn't even have to leave the church to get a whole roster
of unbelievable gospel sounds''.
Arguably, Memphis gospel music (like Memphis country music) had its own distinguishing. Percussive
vocal techniques, as well as highly stylised and emotional lead singing (e.g. melisma and falsetto) are
examples of these characteristics, as is ''pumping bass'' singing, but it may be the case that country music in
Memphis had a more identifiable sound.
What gospel may have lacked in ''uniqueness'', it certainly did not
lack in quality. Indeed, Memphis gospel quartets were easily equal to the national standard. Memphis gospel
followed the national trends in quartet singing, most notably the gradual addition of musical instruments to
augment what was once a cappella singing.
The Brewsteraires with Melvin Lee, guitar, Memphis, early 1950s
In addition, Memphis quartets were gradually restructured away
from deep harmony to emphasise the lead singer.
You can see both of these patterns here. Listen to Hunky
Dory for an example of deep harmony singing. It can be absolutely thrilling when four or five voices, and
one of which might carry the day alone, blend together in deep harmony.
On the other hand, listen to the Jones Brothers. While they mastered the harmony singing present in one of
their role models, the Golden Gate Quartet, they were also a prime example of one voice separating itself
from the rest and singing in a soulful (i.e. gospel-tinged) style to guitar backing with the remainder of the
quartet relegated to background singing. Listen to the Falcons; hit recording of ''You're So Fine'', released in
1959, for a prime example of how this guitar-led quartet style gained traction in the pop market within barely
five years of the Jones Brothers; recording of ''Every Night'' (Sun 213).
Sam Phillips' role in preserving the sound of black gospel quartets is admittedly small. In the first two years
of his recording studio, he recorded the Gospel Tones, the Gospel Travelers, The Five Voice Singers of
Memphis and several others either for possible release on Modern or Chess or for local radio or community
events. The Brewteraires tracks recorded at Sun, were released on Chess and there is some evidence that
Phillips may have recorded tracks by non-Memphis groups such as the Evangelist Gospel Singers of
Alabama and the Spiritual Stars and placed them with Chess too.
Phillips later reflected, ''I did record the Brewsteraires and several other quartets, but it was a whole different
area to merchandize and, there again, you run out of time after working eighteen hours a day''. By the time
Phillips was recording for his own label in 1953 he had a few gospel quartets in his sights and although he
recorded a number of groups for Sun, he released non that were truly representative of the Memphis quartet
tradition. In addition to the previously mentioned record by the Jones Brothers', Phillips released several
titles by the Prisonaires, who were not a Memphis-based aggregation, although they were occasionally
transported there from Nashville to record.
Extracting pop voices from the ranks of gospel quartets became a lucrative practice in the mid to late 1950s
and beyond. The most famous case is, of course, Sam Cooke who parted company with the Soul Stirrers in
the mid-1950s and forged a successful pop career until his death in 1964. Within Memphis gospel quartets, it
was Don Robey who weaned Joe Hinton away from the Spirit of Memphis Quartet.
Both the focus on a single voice and the addition of a guitar led to the erosion of ''classic'' a cappella quartet
singing. The late 1950s saw the demise of most professional gospel quartets. Many of them, still in their
prime, could no longer support themselves touring and were forced to come off the road and to sing locally
while their members held down day jobs. Kip Lornell observes: ''The situation in Memphis was no different.
The Southern Wonders, wracked by personal problems and conflicts, traveled for five years before giving up
in 1957. About 1960 the Sunset Travelers went off the road, while the Spirit Of Memphis managed to scrape
by until 1962''. As part of his doctoral research (published in ''Happy In The Service Of The Lord'',
University Of Tennessee Press, 1995) Kip Lornell captured some of the 1970s and 1980s work by groups
such as the Harps Of Melody, Gospel Writers, Harmonizers and the original Spirit Of Memphis and their
music appeared on an album titled ''Memphis Gospel Quartet Heritage – 1980'' (High Water 1002). This
work was continued by David Evans when Lornell moved on from Memphis. The recording of Memphis
quartets was not confined to record companies. Thankfully WDIA recorded a plethora of quartet music, some
of which has been lovingly resurrected with the attention to detail that one associates with projects anchored
by gospel historian Doug Serous (''Bless My Bones – Memphis Gospel Radio, The 1950s'' P-Vine (Japan)
90510). Still more acetates from this period came to the light in the 1980s and may eventually find their way
to commercial reissue as collection and gospel fans alike come to appreciate the contribution made by
Memphis quartets during the golden age of gospel singing.
AMPEX 350 C TAPE RECORDER
- The Ampex Model 350 C magnetic tape recorder is a twospeed
audio recorder designed for use with standard ¼ inch tape. The Model 350 is available
in console, two-case portable, and rack-mount styles, all with either full or half track heads.
Independent record and playback systems allow the tape to be monitored while recording.
phone jack is provided to monitor either the record input signal before or during recording,
or the output signal from the playback head while recording or during playback. An A-B
switch is incorporated in order that direct comparison can be made between the original
program and the recorded program.
The same switch transfers a 4 inch VU meter for level
comparison and monitoring. The VU meter is also used to read bias and erase current.
It was on this machine (serial number 54L-220) that Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee
Lewis end many more was first taped. Marion Keisker used the Ampex 350 C (made in
Redwood City, California) to tape the last third of "My Happiness" and all of "That's When
Your Heartaches Begin". The control panel connected to the tape recorders was made by
THE CONTROL ROOM
- had a equipped with a portable, five-input Presto mixing console and
amateur Crestwood and Bell tape recorders.
These were soon supplanted by a portable
Presto PT900 machine; yet, unsure about the quality and durability of tape, Phillips
recorded most of his earliest commercial efforts to 16-inch acetate discs, cutting them at
78rpm with a Presto 6N lathe that was hooked up to a Presto turntable.
Still, it was another
setup that subsequently helped endow both Phillips and Sun Records with legendary status.
Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore at Sun Studio, with Sam Phillips at the RCA Monaural Mixing Console 76-D and Presto 6N Lathe
during this time they recorded ''Baby Let's Play House''
The RCA 76-D Radio Console that replaced the Presto embellished the recordings with a
warmth that emanated from inputs and outputs coupled through transformers, while three
of Ampex 350 tape machines helped create the famous Sun sound, by bouncing the signal
from a console model to the rackmounted version with a split-second delay between the
two, Phillips achieved the slapback effect that generations of successors would strive to
imitate. The RCA 76-D console (serial number 1011) was previously used in a Florida radio
station. Sam Phillips used the monaural console to the end of 1959 at the old Sun studio at
706 Union Avenue.
Most of the recordings at Sun were literally made with five microphones, which included a RCA 77-DX, Shure 55-S, RCA 44-BX and an Altec Lancing pencil mic (more likely a 21B ''coke bottle''). The RCA 44-BX microphone and 77-DX (introduced in 1954) Poly-directional microphones are high-fidelity microphones of the ribbon type that are specially designed for broadcast studio use.
The Shure 55-S has all but become synonymous and easily identifiable as ''the Elvis mic''. Most of these microphones at the time were bought in abundance for the military and could be picked up used as surplus very cheaply.
The Shure 55-S Dynamic Microphone
Sam Phillips worked with how each different vocalist would work the microphone. Some he'd have directly in front, maybe six inches back, others he would have work across the mic. Sam never used EQ (equalization), which is adjustment of frequency response to obtain a desired quality of sound, until they got the mastering stage. He had a homemade compressor that he made in case something got out of hand but he had very little limiting and compression. Compression is used to control or smooth the volume peaks of an input signal to deliver a more even signal while a limiter reduces the volume or gain of a signal to prevent overload. Though he did his own mastering early on he eventually would have Bill Putman and his wife at Universal Recording in Chicago do most of the acetate mastering. He felt that the one deep-cutting head on the Presto lathe that he had just wasn't adequate to get the level that he needed.
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