- THIS PAGE CONTAINS -

The Two Buildings
Memphis Recording Service
The Acoustics
Sun Records
Taylor's Restaurant
The Labels
John Jay Parker
Plastic Products /  Music Sales

How Phonograph Records Are Made
Records Are Manufactured
The Plating Process
Every Record Has A Label
The Final Step

Sun Counterteit
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
The Demos
Black Gospel Music In Memphis
Ampex 350 C Tape Recorder
The Control Room
Microphones

- 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. (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  long. 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  red, ''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.   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.


The  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.


SUN RECORDS - 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. 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. 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.


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  Rich.

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".

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 Miss Taylor's upstairs rooms. Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis all  rented rooms in her second-floor boarding house above the cafe.


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   Taylor's Cafe.

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   restaurant.


THE LABELS




The Phillips - 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.





Sun Records - 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 pressed in light brown on the rooster at the  top of the label. On 78rpm, Cock on the label above the hole. The original Sun label issued  singles in a SUN 174 series to SUN 407.





Flip Records - 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.




Phillips International - 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.


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.  Parker also taught graphic design courses at Memphis State University and was a wellrespected  watercolor artist. 


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  merchandise.  Sun Records logo designer John Parker dies on Monday, August 6, 2012 at the age of 87.


Plastic Products and Music Sales
Plastic Products
1746 Chelsea

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  retail businesses.  Plastic Products was the second independently owned record manufacturer in the United  States. Other pressing plants were owned by the major entertainment companies.


Buster  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. 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.   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. 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 ype.



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 a 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  company.

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  Brenston.  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  songs.

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  men.

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  sales figures.

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 Mempgis 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  1912.

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'  Ranch Boys.

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.


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   Bullet label.

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 openeed his Memphis Recording Service in January 1950 was to make acetates of WREC   country singer Buck Turner for radio broadcast. Sam has long sonce 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 Vowboys   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.  If  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 spotlight.

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  critical period.

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  native southerners: 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.

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  Burlison).

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  gospel music.

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  his own.


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  December 1951.

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  a womanizer.

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.  In  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  Memphis.

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  this site.



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  interested.

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  room".

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 promitive 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 ecords story.



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.


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. 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 Bresteraires 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  RCA.



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.


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. 



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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