SAM PHILLIPS AND THE INDEPENDENT RECORD INDUSTRY -
A few months after opening the Memphis Recording Service, Sam Phillips was recording blues, gospel, and
country music with the intention of selling the masters to the independent labels that had proliferated after
the War. After selling several titles to Bill McCall's 4-Star Records, Phillips began working with the Bihari
brothers who owned Modern and RPM Records. Nine months later, Phillips switched abruptly to the Chess
brothers, giving them a major hit, ''Rocket 88''. By late 1952, Chess Records and Sam Phillips were falling
Phillips had already made two faltering attempts to break into the manufacturing end of the business. In
August 1950 he had started It's ''The Phillips'' in partnership with Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips, but
the sales on the first and only release weren't encouraging.
In the spring of 1952 he launched Sun Records
with the one record that fared little better, but, as Phillips' disenchantment with Chess grew, he saw he had no
option but to go it alone. He took on some new partners: his brother Jud and Nashville record man Jim
Bulleit. Sun was relaunched in January 1953 with recordings originally intended for Chess.
Between Sun's false dawn in March 1952 and its relaunch nine months later, Meteor and Duke Records
started in Memphis, as did a label of uncertain ownership, Wasco Records. Although incorporated separately
from Modern-RPM, Meteor was owned by Lester Bihari and scored a sizeable hit with Elmore James' ''I
Believe'' when Sun was on hiatus. Duke was owned by WDIA's David James Mattis and Music Sales' Bill
Fitzgerald. It, too, got off to a strong start between Sun's launch and relaunch with Johnny Ace. It was clear
that Meteor and Duke would attract all the best artists if Phillips did not act quickly. After Duke was acquired
by Peacock Records in 1953, The Phillips, Meteor, Duke, Sun, Starmaker, and Wasco all recorded blues and
rhythm and blues.
''I don't know what made me take that very brave step which, from a strictly business standpoint. I'm not sure
anyone in their right mind would have taken. I was at radio WREC and I had worked hard to get there. A
little country boy that wasn't too good of an announcer, I guarantee you that'', recalled Sam Phillips.
In the statistics left to us on fading issues of trade papers are to be believed only a fool would have entered
the rhythm and blues record industry in the early 1950s. An increasing number of companies were chasing an
impossibly small market, reportedly less that half the size of the kiddie record market. Those with their ears
closer to the ground must have known differently. The market must have been bigger than reported. Wartime
shellac rationing had forced the major labels to let go of artists in every genre who didn't have a national
profile. As shellac restrictions eased, the majors slowly rebuilt their rosters, and independent labels sprang
up. The indies saw that the majors were slow to move back into blues/rhythm and blues swiftly cornered the
market. The bottom line was that 30,000 was a good sale in rhythm and blues compared with 300,000 in pop,
but indies could make money on 30,000 sales. The artists rarely had agents or lawyers and weren't contract
savvy; the musicians union had only a marginal presence at sessions; sales could be made in places where
regular record distributors didn't go. In every way, blues/rhythm and blues suited nimble, cost-conscious
''The guys who owned these little labels were great people. They were funny people. These were family
businesses. It was very casual. If you came up with a song the Biharis liked, they'd say, 'Well, let's get a
session together, call so-and-so, get a rhythm section and make a record'', recalled Jerry Leiber.
Indie label owners were unafraid to pay kickbacks, or payola, to disc jockeys. ''R&B Flapjack Turners Get
Malodorous Moola Aplenty'' ran a Billboard headline in January 1951. Sam Phillips was entering a cutthroat
market: too many records in search of too few dollars. When Jud Phillips revamped Sun's distributor network
in November-December 1953, undoing some of the initial setup arranged by Sam's first partner, Jim Bulleit,
he found that disc jockeys liked yellow Sun records but were, as Ray Charles put it, looking for ''Lincoln and
Jackson to start shaking hands''. Phillips' check register for 1953 logs quite a few payments to disc jockeys,
from as much as $200 to Gene Nobles on Nashville's powerhouse WLAC down to $4.74 in cigarettes to
Eddie Teamer on Memphis's WHHM.
''This distributor in New York showed me what they were paying disc jockeys. They had four disc jockeys on
the payroll and said they could feel the difference in volume since they started paying them'', wrote Jud
Phillips in a letter to Sam.
Sam Phillips was a man apart in the independent record business. He was as personally involved in
production and sound engineering as in the business. Some of his artists say he cheated them: Phillips
insisted vehemently that he didn't. Very infrequently, his name appears in the composer credits when there's
reason to suspect that he had little to do with the composition of a song, but his files show a scrupulous
concern for logging session fees, advances and royalties. ''My honestly and integrity are everything to me. I
know what it is to be cheated... There were just very few people in the business who were as honest in their
accountings as I was'', Sam Phillips told. It's not for loaning Joe Hill Louis five dollars that Sam Phillips is
remembered, though; it's for the music he made with Louis and the others who passed through his studio.
Phillips brought genuine insight to his dealings with musicians. He worked hard to get the best out of them.
He usually knew when they were trying to play something just to please the white guy behind the glass. He
wouldn't yell at them if they arrived late. When other labels might do two takes and call it a day, Phillips
would sit behind the recording equipment until dawn if he thought that the musicians on the studio floor
would capture the sound he heard in his head. This music isn't special by accident.