- RECORDING THE BLUES -
Sam Phillips recorded artists and sold or leased his masters to various record companies. His first deal, with 4 Star/Gilt Edge Records, was a song by a blind pianist from south Memphis.
Lost John Hunter's ''Cool Down Mama'' and Boogie For Me Baby'' was ''a crude boogie blues that could pick up some southern juke coin'', according to the review in Billboard, a record business trade publication.
In late summer 1950, Phillips launched his own record company with partner Dewey Phillips (the hot Memphis radio announcer, no relation) in order to issue and promote his own products. They called their label Phillips, but it only lasted a few weeks, issuing three hundred copies of Joe Hill Louis' ''Boogie In The Park'' in August 1950. Phillips soon began working with Modern Records of Los Angeles, owned and operated by the Bihari brothers. Their new subsidiary, RPM Records, was looking for ''new music with a downhome feel''. Jules
Bihari sent a guitar player from Indianola, Mississippi, to Sam Phillips to record. Riley King was already popular locally and known as B.B. King (for Blues Boy, or more likely,
Black Boy). Phillips recorded King, one of the first artists on the new RPM label, from mid-1950 until mid-1951.
Even at this early stage in his career,
Sam Phillips used recording techniques that were soon recognized as hallmarks of his records. He put up-tempo boogies on the front sides of records, slow numbers on back sides, and
overamplified on faster songs to get a primitive fuzzy sound. One of King’s songs had the guitar, piano, and bass playing a boogie riff in unison, creating a bottom-heavy sound that challenged ''established precepts
of how recordings should be balanced''. These early recording sessions with King also document Phillips' skill as a record producer. King’s version of a Tampa Red song
had an explosiveness missing from the original record, and ''it was that blistering energy and willingness to experiment that pointed unerringly into the future''. Sam Phillips did
not record King after June 1951 because of a dispute over a song that Phillips recorded and leased to Chess Records in Chicago, rather than the Biharis' RPM label.
''Rocket 88'', a song about a hot Oldsmobile, is one of the contenders for the title ''first rock and roll record.” It featured Jackie Brenston, the singer, and Ike Turner, the bandleader, on
piano. ''Rocket 88'' was released in April 1951. It hit number 1 on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart in June and eventually became the second biggest rhythm and blues
hit of the year. According to Sam Phillips, ''Rocket 88'' was the record that really kicked it off for me as far as broadening the base of music and opening up wider markets for our local music''. Phillips resigned from WREC in June 1951 after ''Rocket 88'' became a hit. The combination of his regular jobs and work for the Memphis Recording Service had required 18-20 hour work days, and Phillips was
The following excerpt is from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which ran its first story on Sam Phillips after the success
of ''Rocket 88''.
''He has agreements with two recording companies to locate and record hillbilly and race music. Race numbers are
those tailored for the Negro trade. Sam auditions musicians with original songs. When he finds something he's sure will sell, he gets it on acetate and sends it to one of the companies. He doesn’t charge the
musicians anything... Sam may branch out one day, so he says if anyone wants to bring him a pop song, he'll be glad to look it over''.
Sam Phillips first recorded Chester Burnett (The Howlin’ Wolf) in the spring of 1951. Born near Aberdeen, Mississippi, Howlin' Wolf was a singer who gave the traditional
Delta blues another dimension. They recorded ''Moanin' at Midnight'' and ''How Many More Years'' in August 1951, and Phillips leased these recordings to Chess Records. ''Moanin''
went to number 10 on the national Rhythm & Blues chart and ''How Many More Years'' reached number 4. ''The bizarre, haunting images that populated Wolf's songs, the quality of his voice, and his frightening energy were marks of a true original. His music ran the gamut, from purest evil to heartbreaking tenderness. There was an emotional greatness to Howlin' Wolf, a greatness that
Phillips was the first to capture''. Phillips did not record the Wolf after October 1952 because he left Memphis for Chicago where he eventually became ''one of the seminal
figures in postwar blues''. In Phillips' estimation, the Wolf was his greatest discovery.
Even though he preferred the creative
side of the business, Phillips started his own record company early in 1952 because new record companies had come to town, and also because many local artists were leaving Memphis. With
his own label, Phillips could run the business like he wanted and release records that other labels rejected.
''When I was leasing to other labels, they wanted me to compromise.
They wanted a fuller blues sound than I did. They were selling excitement. I was recording the feel I found in the blues. I wanted to get that gut feel onto record. I realized
that it was going to be much more difficult to merchandise than what Atlantic or Specialty, for example, were doing, but I was willing to go with it'', recalled Sam Phillips.
He named his new company Sun Records and selected an eye-catching record label of primary yellow, highlighted in brown. At the center of the label stood a crowing rooster in
profile before a rising sun motif, with stylized sun rays fanned from one horizon to the other. SUN was written in large block letters over the rooster, and musical notes on
a staff ringed the outside edge of the label. Phillips thoughtfully chose the name Sun and its distinctive label design: ''The sun to me, even as a kid back on the farm, was a universal kind of thing. A new day, a new opportunity''.
The first record issued on the new Sun label (March 27, 1952), Sun number 175, was an original instrumental, ''Drivin' Slow'', by alto saxophonist Johnny London.
Even on this first release, all the hallmarks of a Sam Phillips Sun record were in place: the raw sound, the experimental origin, the dark texture, even the trademark echo. Phillips and London created the illusion of a sax heard down a long hallway on a humid night by rigging something like a telephone booth
over London's head while he played. The record’s appeal had more to do with feeling than virtuosity, in short, it offered everything music buyers could expect from Sun
for the remainder of the decade''.
The first recording on the Sun label considered to be a classic was ''Easy'', an instrumental released in March 1953 by Walter Horton (Little Walter, and later, Big Walter).
Horton played the same theme five times, with mounting intensity. By the fourth chorus, he was playing with such intensity that his harmonica sounded like a tenor saxophone. Phillips' virtuosity with tape delay echo was rarely used to better advantage: he made three instruments (harmonica, guitar,
drums) sound as full as an orchestra. Any other instrument would have been redundant.
Sun Records had its first national
hit in the spring of 1953 with ''Bear Cat'', which went to number 3 on the national rhythm and blues chart. It was an ''answer song'' to ''Hound Dog'' by Big Mama Thornton (Willie Mae Thornton),
sung by local radio announcer Rufus Thomas. ''Bear Cat'' was the first record to make money for Sun Records and it put the company on the map. ''Feelin' Good'', by Little Junior's Blue Flames (released in July 1953), was also commercially successful, reaching number 5 on the national rhythm and blues chart. Sun's next hit was ''Just Walkin' In The Rain'' by The Prisonaires, a black vocal group of five inmates
from the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. They sang close-harmony gospel style and came under armed guard to record at 706 Union on June 1, 1953. As part of the warden’s
rehabilitation program, they were allowed to perform on radio, in concerts, and at the Governor’s mansion, but ''Just Walkin' In The Rain'' was their only hit. Phillips recorded
a number of important blues artists in the early 1950s, including Sleepy John Estes, Little Milton Campbell, Rosco Gordon, Dr. Ross, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Willie Nix, Billy ''The Kid'' Emerson, and Bobby ''Blue'' Bland.
It’s safe to say that the blues ha s never sounded as mean, raw, or intense as it did on countless days and nights at 706 Union Avenue. Amplifiers were cranked way past the point of distortion, guitars slashed like straight razors, rickety drum kits were pounded with fury and abandon, and the stories both
sung and shouted spanned the gamut of the black Southern experience. Even if he'd never issued a record on the shining yellow Sun label, even if Elvis Presley had never entered
his small recording studio..., Phillips would rank as one of the most visionary record producers of our time on the basis of his early fifties blues work.
In February 1954, Phillips and his brother Jud started a music publishing company, Hi Lo Music, to avoid placing their copyrights with other companies. In May 1954, Phillips recorded ''Cotton Crop
Blues'' with James Cotton on vocals and Auburn Pat Hare on guitar. This was ''one of the truly great blues recordings'', but recording of traditional blues at 706 Union fell
off in 1954 with the growing popularity of rhythm and blues music. Sun Records soon became synonymous with rock and roll, overshadowing Phillips' role in blues recording ''and
the insight that (he) brought to recording the blues. He worked hard to get the best from his artists. Phillips would sit behind his tape deck until sunup if he thought the musicians on the studio floor might capture the sound that he heard in his head''.
Phillips struggled to make money in the record business for almost six years. Eventually he saw that the market at that time was too small for the kind of music he was recording.
The base wasn’t broad enough because of racial prejudice. It wasn’t broad enough to get the amount of commercial play and general acceptance overall, not just in
the South. Now these were basically good people, but conceptually they did not understand the kinship between black and white people in the South. So I knew what I had to do to broaden the base of acceptance.